Suzanne Bocanegra’s performance piece-cum-film, When a Priest Married a Witch, is a kind of creative origin story, the portrait of the artist as a young woman. She writes on her website it is “part artist’s talk, part performance, part cultural history, part sound installation.” Showing a rough cut of the film, Bocanegra kicked off CAST’s Spring Sound Series as the first in a series of lecture/demonstrations by prominent sound and multimedia artists. Part of the MIT course, Music and Technology, the lecture/demonstrations are open to both students and the general public alike.
Her work, in a Cage-like fashion, involves an interesting calibration between aesthetic intention and chance operation. In Rerememberer, she had instructions for a weaving pattern converted into a musical score, which was then played on the violin by an orchestra of people who had never played the instrument before. In Color Chart, she worked with a mathematician to formulate an equation that described a box of different colored yarn, which he then sang using the color names as his libretto. In Little Dot, ballerinas “danced” each dotted hue of Bocanegra’s favorite Seurat painting on a specially designed amplified stage.
Narrated by the actor Paul Lazar, When a Priest Married a Witch documents a church scandal in Bocanegra’s native Pasadena, Texas during the 1960s. Space Age mania had overtaken the town, while the modernizing reforms of Vatican II induced no small amount of discomfort in the conservative parishioners. Central to the story also is the risque, psychedelic painting commissioned by the priest which shocked the church’s devout — and would inspire the young Bocanegra. It was then she “realized that painting was a feeling,” as she recalls through Lazar. Against the backdrop of folk masses and loosening social mores — along with the other tumults of the era — Bocanegra tells the story, in a roundabout way, “of how I became an artist.”
And yet the piece is no straightforward autobiography. Bocanegra practices a kind of ventriloquism as she feeds Lazar his lines; in the live performance, her voice and his overlap and entwine in a duet of sorts, both harmonious and dissonant at once. Lazar filters Bocanegra’s memories through his own narrative voice, sometimes even ad-libbing parts. In the film version, as Bocanegra noted in the Q & A, “I could control [Lazar] in a way I couldn’t live.” This feeling of instability, a loss of control, is integral to her work as Bocanegra shifts and translates between different voices, mediums, and systems of notation; each iteration is transformed from the one before. In “When a Priest Married a Witch,” Bocanegra said she was interested in the “different forms its taken and how it re-adjusts over time.” In her work, the unexpected prevails; hers is a generative art that draws upon slippages in translation to create works of astonishing mutability and complexity.
Image: Suzanne Bocanegra. Credit: Tracy Strain