The Caravan Project: When Nights Were Dark

Eiko & Koma

at Water Tower Park, September 9 and 10, and Wicker Park, September 11

By Terry Brennan

Performers on occasion try to make critics irrelevant. At worst they’re trying to protect their work from attack. But at best they’re trying to change the relationship with their audience. Some performers are populists who want to bring art to the people, unmediated by concert halls, ticket purchases, and critics–all the mechanisms of elitism in the arts.

The latest project of butoh artists Eiko & Koma may have succeeded in making me irrelevant. In The Caravan Project: When Nights Were Dark, they drive a small trailer into a busy park in an urban area, swing open the trailer doors, and begin performing inside. When I saw them last Friday, they were surrounded by an attentive crowd at Water Tower Park. Bored or rowdy passersby made crude jokes, but not too loudly. And Eiko & Koma got a lot more attention than nearby street performers, some of whom were much louder, like a pair of African drummers.

The visual image they present is quite startling. The inside of the trailer is molded and womblike, with strips of yellow and orange gauze hanging from the ceiling and draped across steps on the floor. Concealed lights (operated by a nearby technician) ensure the even distribution of light throughout the two-and-a-half-hour performance. Eiko & Koma–a slender middle-aged Japanese-American couple–are dressed in orange-and-yellow-gauze costumes; white makeup covers all of their exposed skin. You can hardly see them at first, since they blend in with the set and because they move so slowly. Overall the effect is rather morbid; one girl about eight whispered to her mother that it looked like a Halloween graveyard.

Children generally seemed to think the performance was a live horror movie. As Eiko moved her arm, a boy of about nine holding his mother’s hand started, and his mother reassured him that they weren’t going to come out of the trailer. A girl around 14 kept covering and uncovering her eyes, murmuring dramatically to her friends, “It’s scary.” They started to tease her, and when she’d seen enough to realize that there weren’t any disjointed limbs in the trailer, she blushed and left with her friends.

Because Eiko & Koma intend The Caravan Project to be viewed in snatches, not from beginning to end, the piece doesn’t have any plot or other devices to give it momentum. Moving slowly, they almost touch, then move away from each other. That’s about it.

There were lots of different reactions. A two-year-old in her father’s arms called out, “What’s that?” Her father, who kept walking, commented, “That’s what everyone is asking.” Others also glanced at the performance and kept going. One older couple came to the edge of the crowd. He said, “What’s that?” She answered, “It’s performance art.” He said, “I saw that in Pilsen.” After about ten seconds of watching, she said, “The funny thing is…” He took it as a cue to move on.

Another older couple had this exchange:

He: It’s kind of mesmerizing…. OK, let’s go.

She: No, wait.

He: I’ve got an attention span of 30 seconds.

She: Wait two seconds.

He: OK, I’ve got an attention span of 32 seconds.

Two young men with crew cuts watched for a while even as they smirked. And a few people really loved it. I heard this exchange:

Man One: Is it Christmas here?… Those are people in there. I checked it out–they’re not mechanical. What is it?

Man Two: It’s like a picture, but with people in it.

Man One: It’s pretty impressive.

Man Two: What’s really impressive is that the performance goes on for three and a half hours. No, two and a half hours.

Man One: What’s it about?

Man Two: I’m not sure there’s, like, a meaning to it. But they’ve done this in a river. They got right in the river and moved really slowly through it, playing with pieces of driftwood and stuff. I’ve seen them before but I didn’t know they were going to be here. It’s like the natural movement of things. They’re connected to the natural flow, moving slowly like a river.

Man One: Yeah.

Man Three: Hey, let’s go.

Man One: OK.

An Asian woman stood at the front of the crowd for an hour. She was dressed in a wildly gaudy way, and her black hair was streaked with magenta, including a magenta braid at her temple. She wore a crown of magenta foil stars strung on magenta twine with a yellow plastic lily stuck in it. She wore glitter eye makeup and black lipstick. During a three-minute break in the middle–when the technician closed the doors to the trailer–I heard her raving that the performance was the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen. She spent the second half taking snapshots from every angle. Eiko & Koma’s refined sensory world had clearly struck a deep chord with her.

Their approach does create constraints, however, some of which cannot be overcome. Performances exist in time, and since people here come and go at their own whim and there’s no real beginning, middle, or end to the piece, Eiko & Koma have in effect abandoned their ability to structure time. The piece’s main effects are visual and can be gathered in just a few minutes of watching.

The Caravan Project still provides grist for this critic’s mill. It’s hard to keep us quiet. Of course most viewers seize wholeheartedly the right to express their opinions. The difference is that critics have the temerity to publish theirs. The question of whether this was a good project and whether its populist approach is worthwhile is a matter of opinion. Mine comes from watching the woman with magenta hair: if nothing else, Eiko & Koma showed her a new kind of beauty, and gave many people what Quakers call an experience of otherness.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Koma Otake.