Spring 2008, Degree Critical

Friday 02/15/2008

Tris Vonna Michell. Tall Tales and Short Stories (2007); performance and installation view, Performa 07, Dispatch, New York. Courtesy of Metro Pictures.

Tall Tales and Short Stories

by Christine Licata (Class of 2008)

British artist Tris Vonna-Michell’s co-conspiratorial and dynamic performance Tall Tales and Short Stories took place in Dispatch’s compact storefront on Henry Street. Over a period of four days he told each visitor that stopped by a customized tale, redefining the tradition of storytelling with a Fluxus-inspired lexicon of deconstructivist semiotics and discontinuous, fragmented images.

Vonna-Michell sat at a small narrow desk with a nostalgic, pre-digital slide projector that incorporated its own 9-inch-square viewing screen, a table scattered with unpopulated still-life and location snapshots and an egg-shaped egg timer. He invited one listener at a time to take a chair across from him and then choose the duration of a story and type of visual support imagery—either by the individual photographs or slide show. Suggesting the average story length of 10-12 minutes, a final time and method was agreed upon, the egg timer set and the story begun. Forced intimacy is usually disagreeable and often clichéd, but with Tall Tales and Short Stories there was a matter-of-fact accessibility about Vonna-Michell’s initial process and presentation that avoided these dangers.

His low voice encouraging one to lean in close, the suddenly and startlingly rapid-fire speaker Vonna-Michell barraged the listener with an uninterrupted stream of words and images that formed a non-linear narrative. Filled with themes of war, conspiracy, identity and aesthetics, Tall Tales and Short Stories wove together Vonna-Michell’s other performance-driven allegories that constitute chapters of his overall continuous work. Hahn/Huhn (2004) derives its content from the conspiratory-laden investigation of underground tunnels of the Anhalter Bahnhof that run between East and West Berlin and the shrouded and eventually shredded truths by the Stasi in postwar Germany. Down the Rabbit Hole/Finding Chopin: In Search of Holy Quail (2006) is loosely based on Vonna-Michell’s quest for his own identity through finding the concrete sound poet Henri Chopin, who according to Vonna-Michell’s father, holds the answers—and seemingly the inspiration for Vonna-Michell’s process of voice as medium.

Vonna-Michell entwined the past and present with a mix of oral history and Fluxus concepts. Historical facts and fiction about the places and protagonists in Tall Tales and Short Stories are spliced in with current events, the canon of art and Vonna-Michell’s biography. Layered into the improvisational, variable components, the content in each telling also subtly changes direction in response to the individual’s reactions to the story.

At first disorienting and frustrating, Tall Tales and Short Stories eventually led to unexpected connections with Vonna-Michell and his work. After the initial attempt of mental resistance and literal deciphering (Slow down! Wait! What?) the brain surrenders to his pace and process. The sound of his voice merges with the silent one in the listener’s head and the visual experience of slides and photographs becomes integrated with that of the mind’s eye—a fluid stream of (un)consciousness projections and transference fill in the gaps. Vonna-Michell’s descriptions become part of one’s own perceptions. At that moment, his story becomes, in part, your story.

In Tall Tales and Short Stories, Vonna-Michell defies a single interpretation of his work or the creation of an over arching meta-narrative to his performance. He integrates post-structuralism’s distortion and dissolution through finding alternative meanings and connections of existing “historical facts.” And yet this experience, splintered as it was, still felt strangely unified and inclusive in the end. No matter how fragile the connections or ambiguous the plot there was an irresistible desire to partake in the journey.