This Friday, Sam Stephenson and Chris McElroen’s Chaos Manor premieres at The Invisible Dog, just down the street from A Public Space. Sam arrived from Raleigh-Durham over the weekend, his 138th trip to New York City in the fifteen years he’s been researching the photographer W. Eugene Smith. Chaos Manor culls material—audio recording and images—from Smith's archives, and is based on Sam's book The Jazz Loft Project: Photographs and Tapes of W. Eugene Smith from 821 Sixth Avenue, 1957-1965. Sam's 136 th and 137th trips were for Chaos Manor workshops this summer at A Public Space.
He sent an update over the weekend from the final rehearsals: Levon's saxophone from the third floor window reverberates up and down Bergen Street without amplification and the image of him through the window is impressive. The images are projected onto fabric hanging from the ceiling inside Invisible Dog's windows. With the figures moving between the projector and the fabric, it’s not unlike Smith's portrait of 821 Sixth Avenue with the silhouette cutouts. Pedestrians were stopped by curiosity and looked up at the building. A few lingered. A few people across the street closed their windows. When you add MLK giving a speech, Mr. Magoo commercials, Cuban Missile news, the drip of water, the typewriter typing, not to mention imagery...
What is it like to immerse oneself in another person's life? Sam bought Eugene Smith's darkroom sink from his son. He traveled to Japan in March to see the places Smith saw and, what seems as, if not more, important to him for understanding Smith, met the people who knew Smith when he worked there. Everyone from his photography assistants to the owners of the deli where Smith bought his milk and whiskey.
Smith said he was trying to tell the story of a building. That's why he wired the building, why he took all those photographs. Thousands of hours and thousands of images. Sam, in turn has spent thousands of hours eavesdropping on that moment in Smith’s life. It's a very intimate way of knowing a person, and yet not knowing him at all. You aren't looking at him, for the most part. You're looking as him. Seeing what he looked at (or at least what he decided it was important to record, to acknowledge that he saw). Listening to what he would have heard (both things he chose to listen to, the radio and recordings, etc) and to the unexpected things that happened in that building—the musician overdosing, the pianist practicing, the policeman stopping by, etc. And the radio shows he listened to: a roundtable with Tennessee Williams and Yukio Mishima on Edward R. Murrow’s show, Dorothy Parker criticizing the Beats. He listened to the Caedmon poetry recordings. All of these things that are the world, or the atmosphere, or the something in which a person wanders that makes him who he is. Chaos Manor will be a reincarnation of that space, a glimpse at that life.