How Soundpainting Came to ‘PoP Up’ in Fort Greene, Brooklyn

"If we can inspire a sense of connection, wonder and whimsy in a fractured world, then I think we have done our job."

Leese Walker, producing artistic director of Strike Anywhere Performance Ensemble. Photo: Brian Offidini.

Our production, PoP Up: An Artistic Treasure Hunt, grew out of a collaboration between the Strike Anywhere Performance Ensemble, and France’s Tours Soundpainting Orchestra (TSO). I’m the Producing Artistic Director of Strike Anywhere. I’d met the TSO’s Artistic Director, Angélique Cormier, in 2005 at a soundpainting “think tank” in Woodstock, NY. Angélique and I got to know one another through a series of projects over the next decade as our organizations became the preeminent soundpainting groups in our respective countries.

Soundpainting is the universal sign-language for live-composition. The language is comprised of more than 1,500 signs, and it allows a conductor-composer to sculpt a performance in real-time with improvising actors, musicians, dancers and visual artists. The technique was created by composer Walter Thompson in 1974 for use with jazz musicians. It has since evolved into a multidisciplinary language practiced worldwide.

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In 2015, the TSO invited Strike Anywhere to France, to co-create a piece called Des Rues Colbert in celebration of the TSO’s 10th anniversary. For that project, the TSO interviewed residents and merchants of a local street, Rue Colbert, collecting anecdotes, impressions and stories. Together our ensembles created 21 short performances that took place in shops, windows and plazas along Rue Colbert. The piece was so popular that the city of Tours asked us to perform the project in a different neighborhood. That set the wheels in motion for further collaboration and a challenge: How do you create a tourable version of a show that, by definition, is about something hyper-local? With the help of a grant from Société des Auteurs et Compositeurs Dramatiques — the French writer’s guild — and through three developmental residencies at Lieux Publics in Marseille (the national arts center for the development of site-specific performance) and three additional residencies at the Pôle des Arts Urbains (pOlau), an arts center devoted to developing art for public space, we constructed the framework of an interview-based touring show inspired by local stories.

At the very top of our first residency, we articulated the aim of the piece. For Angélique, it was about infusing poetry into the everyday. For me, it was to inspire connection within a neighborhood. We’d also both experienced site-specific work in the past where we’d felt a subtle or even profound shift in our perspective. For example, Angélique took me to see a piece in France where there was no clear division between the end of the show and where real life began again; I recall looking at everything around me differently as a result. The weathervane, the shape of the clouds, the color of the barn — all seemed to hold the kind of significance that one might read into a set design in order to decode the message of the playwright.

Part of what we aim to do is to alter the familiar, to shift perspective, and then drop into the present. We gather rumors, dreams, impressions, anecdotes. We talk to a broad range of locals and use their responses to inspire music, movement, installations and scenes. We improvise off this material and shape it in performance through the language of soundpainting.

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When we were deep into our third residency together, Angélique and I hit upon the idea of a treasure hunt. It was her idea to involve a cartographer. Our hosts at the pOlau introduced us to Julien Rodriguez and it was a match!

Walker in action. Photo: Guillaume Le Baube.

And now we’re bringing this project to Brooklyn! Over the course of three days — Oct. 4 to Oct. 6 — audiences will engage in various treasure hunts and discover 15 site-specific performances via clues on a hand-painted map of Fort Greene, Brooklyn. Inspired by interviews with local residents and business owners, PoP Up will be performed by a collective of multidisciplinary performers in public spaces scattered around the neighborhood of inspiration. Each PoP Up treasure hunt is unique and leads to a different set of improvised and soundpainted performances, resulting in a new experience for every audience member.

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PoP Up is designed to spark community connection, to highlight the extraordinary within the ordinary, and, again, to shift perceptions. Performances will pop-up on the street, in windows, in parks, and in plazas throughout Fort Greene. These short apparitions of music, dance, theater and visual art inject a series of playful, poetic or poignant performances into familiar spaces.

It has been an incredible journey putting this piece together over the past four years. Some of the greatest challenges have come from miscommunication, whether due to translation issues, the vagaries of email, cultural differences, or different marketing needs in each country. Soundpainting, however, transcends those linguistic hiccups and allows us to create together in a beautiful way. Part of the aesthetic of PoP Up is that art appears suddenly, in unexpected everyday places, and vanishes in a flash. When we premiered the show in France, I remember something that one onlooker said: “Usually it is a hurricane that brings strangers together on the street, talking to one another. How wonderful that in this case it is art.” If we can inspire a sense of connection, wonder and whimsy in a fractured world, then I think we have done our job.

PoP Up: An Artistic Treasure Hunt, which is also produced in association with Irondale Center, runs Oct. 4 to 6 in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. RSVP for free tickets here.