Lisa Bielawa — Ephemerality


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Lisa Bielawa

Lisa Bielawa is a singer and composer whose work centers on community partnerships, artistic collaborations, and literary sources.

The root of ephemera—a plural of ephemeron—is a Greek term denoting something (usually a plant or insect) that lasts only one day. The Oxford Dictionary of English traces an expansion of its use from the specific to the metaphoric, denoting something (a thing, person, style, or idea) that has value for only a short time. I was surprised to learn this! The connotation is slightly derogatory, as if value is otherwise expected to last more than just one day. (The example Oxford gives is “Mickey Mouse ephemera”; I found that particularly rich as it triggered in me a kind of nostalgic desire to own some, thereby helping assure its lasting value.)

My understanding of the use of the term in current artistic practice—and my use of the term in talking about my own practice—entails a different and even contrasting notion of value: rather than something having value for “only” a day, the notion of ephemerality suggests to me that something has value precisely because it lasts for only a day. Such art is precious because when it is over, it is gone. The anticipated goneness defines its value, and hence such art must be experienced to its fullest when it is actually happening.

Moreover, when something ephemeral is happening and we are aware that we are open to experiencing it fully, that openness creates in us a uniquely valuable experience. I would even suggest that one of the things that gives an artistic experience value is the degree to which it provides this kind of awareness of the ephemerality of all experience—not just the experience at hand.

I do seek to create artworks that invite and engage people to experience them with an awareness of life’s ephemerality. As a composer I am working in a form that is particularly well suited to this goal: it is necessarily time-based and can detach itself quite nimbly from symbolic interpretation and from overt references to ideas outside the artistic moment itself. I often try to heighten these qualities of the musical encounter by creating site-specific compositions. When placed outside a traditional concert hall and in transient public spaces, music can come from all different sources around and within a space. My listeners—many unwitting, who simply happen by—are given no guidance as to how to encounter the work (no chairs, no prescribed listening area). I believe that such conditions can further heighten the listener’s awareness that what she or he is experiencing is unique to him/herself in that very moment, an event that cannot be replicated or sustained.

I began exploring this kind of individualized listening by moving instruments around concert halls that had fixed seating. Later I took the work outside in my piece Chance Encounter (2007–), co-conceived with the soprano Susan Narucki). The piece begins with a single musician (a cellist) playing in a public space and gradually grows as an entire chamber orchestra and a soprano soloist join in two groups, forming a dialogue across a distance of a short city block, then dissipates again as the musicians leave the site one or a few at a time. I greatly expanded on the enhancement of individualized listening through the placement of musical instruments in public space in my recent large-scale works for hundreds of musicians in airfields that are now public parks, Tempelhof Broadcast in Berlin and Crissy Broadcast in San Francisco (both 2013). In these works multiple orchestras, bands, and choruses gradually dispersed outward across vast spaces, such that they can no longer all be heard by any one person, stationary or in motion.

As an artist I find that our field’s strong emphasis on access (widened through online portals) and documentation (always needed in order to disseminate the work) is sometimes at odds with the artistic impulse to emphasize ephemerality. The challenge becomes how to enhance access, not only on-site but also through technological media. How can we create access in ways that multiply the number of unique experiences of the artwork without flattening the experience or filtering it through one lens? If the value of an artistic experience is that it is truly gone once it has been achieved, how (and even why) does one adequately document such work? Should one try? My directive to my own videographers is always to focus on documenting the feeling and the community that the work is creating. I believe that it is most important to capture the arc of this unfolding—among audiences, unwitting listeners, and participants—rather than to try to document some elusive notion of the “work itself.”

My inquiry into public-space work began in 2006, with Chance Encounter, and I found myself in company with the phenomenon of flash mobs. Groups like Improv Everywhere (responsible for Frozen Grand Central, for example) were at the forefront, and now the organizers of flash mobs are too numerous to mention. The most elegantly designed of these works can indeed bring a heightened sense of ephemerality to people in the midst of their daily lives. I can see why this kind of impulse in art making and event making is in the air. Our wired lives exist in a state of saturation—surplus mediated access and documentation, one might say—and there seems to be an increased need for us to have experiences that truly are ephemeral, to bring our awareness into sharp contact with the moment.

Even when we are working in a format designed to be a permanent document, as in my opera created expressly for broadcast and online media, Vireo: The Spiritual Biography of a Witch’s Accuser (2015), director Charles Otte and I are committed to capturing actual performances on camera, eschewing the usual media tools one uses to “cheat” (over-dubbing, lip- or bow-syncing) and testifying to that fidelity to the moment by training the camera closely on the hands of Kronos Quartet violinist David Harrington, for example, while he plays passagework impossible to feign for a camera.

Some other exemplary artists whose work I feel heightens our awareness of ephemerality are working not in music but in sister time-based mediums. I find the film work of Adam Magyar—captured by extremely high-speed cameras mounted on subway trains in New York, Tokyo, and Berlin—especially beautiful. We Players in the San Francisco Bay Area mounts site-specific productions of classic plays (like the five-hour Odyssey in Angel Island State Park in 2012, in which the audience was shepherded around the island, within the narrative); the group creates memorable experiences in a deeply physical way that is impossible to document. Other composers whose work makes the ephemeral act of listening more personal include John Luther Adams, based in Alaska, and Alvin Curran, an American based in Rome. And of course musical virtuosity itself, especially when it is in an improvised form (including jazz), often brings one a heightened sense of being in the presence of something that is truly alive only in its native moment.

For Further Reference

Chance Encounter, 2007–. Composed by Lisa Bielawa; co-conceived by Bielawa and Susan Narucki. and

Airfield Broadcasts, 2013 (Tempelhof Broadcast in Berlin; Crissy Broadcast in San Francisco). Composed by Lisa Bielawa.

Improv Everywhere.

Vireo: The Spiritual Biography of a Witch’s Accuser, 2015, a project of Grand Central Art Center, CSUF, and KCET. Composed by Lisa Bielawa; libretto by Erik Ehn; directed by Charles Otte, featuring 16-year-old soprano Rowen Sabala.

Adam Magyar, Stainless, 2010–11.

We Players,

John Luther Adams, Inuksuit, 2009.

Alvin Curran, composer and sound artist.

See Also

Participation — Lisa Bielawa

Spectator — Miguel Gutierrez

Experience Economy — Elisabeth Sussman

Lisa Bielawa, Chance Encounter, premiered 2007. Co-conceived with Susan Narucki. Photo: Corey Brennan, 2010, Rome.

Improv Everywhere, Ballroom Crosswalk, 2015. Photo: Arin Sang-urai / Improv Everywhere.

Lisa Bielawa in Vireo: The Spiritual Biography of a Witch’s Accuser, 2015. Photo: Remsen Allard.

Paul Chan, Waiting for Godot in New Orleans, 2007. Photo: Frank Aymami. Courtesy of Creative Time.

Andrea Fraser, Projection, 2008. Still from a 2-channel HD video projection installation. © Andrea Fraser. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Nagel Draxler.

David Levine, Bystanders, 2015. Installation view, Gallery TPW, Toronto. Performer: William Ellis. Photo: Guntar Kravis.

VALIE EXPORT, TAPP und TASTKINO (Tap and touch cinema), 1968. © 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / Bildrecht, Vienna. Photo © Werner Schulz.

My Barbarian (Malik Gaines, Jade Gordon, and Alexandro Segade), Broke People’s Baroque Peoples’ Theater, 2010. Courtesy of Alexandro Segade.

Richard Maxwell, Neutral Hero, 2012. The Kitchen, New York. From left: Janet Coleman, Bob Feldman, Lakpa Bhutia, Andie Springer, Jean Ann Garrish. Photo © Paula Court.

Miguel Gutierrez and Tarek Halaby in Gutierrez's Last Meadow, 2009. Dance Theater Workshop, New York, September 2009. Photo © Ian Douglas.

Mac Wellman, Muazzez, 2014. Performer: Steve Mellor. Chocolate Factory Theater, Queens, New York (a co-presentation with PS 122). Photo: Brian Rogers.

Janine Antoni, Yours Truly, 2010. Ink on paper, 5 7/8 x 8 1/2”. © Janine Antoni. Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York.

Yvonne Rainer, score for “Trio B: Running,” from The Mind Is a Muscle, 1966–68. Graphite and ink on paper, 8 5/16 x 7 5/16". The Getty Research Institute. © Yvonne Rainer.

Susan Leigh Foster, The Ballerina’s Phallic Pointe, 2011, a performed lecture in the series Susan Foster! Susan Foster! Three Performed Lectures, produced by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage and performed at the Philadelphia Live Arts Studio, 2011. Photo: Jorge Cousineau.

Opening performance of the exhibition “Trisha Brown: So That the Audience Does Not Know Whether I Have Stopped Dancing,” Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 2008. Brown improvises movements across a large piece of paper on the Medtronic Gallery floor, holding charcoal and pastel between her fingers and toes, drawing extemporarily. Photo: Gene Pittman for Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.

Allora & Calzadilla, Sediments Sentiments (Figures of Speech), 2007. Mixed-media installation with live performance and pre-recorded sound track, dimensions variable. © Allora & Calzadilla. Courtesy of Lisson Gallery.

Martha Rosler, Meta-Monumental Garage Sale, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2012. Courtesy of the artist.

Lucinda Childs, Pastime (1963), 2012, performed by Childs at Danspace as part of Platform 2012: "Judson Now." Photo © Ian Douglas.

Siobhan Davies and Helka Kaski, Manual, 2013. Photo © Alan Dimmick. Courtesy of Glasgow Life.

“Performance Now,” curated by RoseLee Goldberg. Installation view, Kraków Theatrical Reminiscences, Poland, 2014. Photo: Michal Ramus. Courtesy of Independent Curators International (ICI).

Steve Paxton, Intravenous Lecture (1970), 2012. Performed by Stephen Petronio with Nicholas Sciscione. Part of Platform 2012: “Judson Now,” curated by Judy Hussie-Taylor, Danspace, New York. Photo © Ian Douglas.

Installation view, “Dance Works I: Merce Cunningham—Robert Raschenberg,” curated by Darsie Alexander at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 2011. Photo: Gene Pittman for Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.

Chief Dalcour and the Serenity Peace Birds in “Public Practice: An Anti-Violence Community Ceremony,” curated by Delaney Martin and Claire Tancons for New Orleans Airlift, October 25, 2014. Photo: Josh Brasted.

Ain Gordon and David Gordon, The Family Business, premiered 1993. Performers: David Gordon, Ain Gordon, Valda Setterfield. Photo: Andrew Lichtenstein. Courtesy of the photographer and Pick Up Performance Co(s).

Hotel Modern, Kamp, 2005. Photo: Herman Helle.

Janine Antoni, Anna Halprin, and Stephen Petronio, Rope Dance, 2015. Photo © Hugo Glendinning. Courtesy of the artists and The Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia.

Sarah Michelson, Devotion Study #1—The American Dancer, 2012 Whitney Biennial, February 26, 2012. Photo © Paula Court. Performers: Eleanor Hullihan and Nicole Mannarino.

Ralph Lemon, How Can You Stay in the House All Day and Not Go Anywhere?, 2009. Archival print from original film. © Ralph Lemon.

Pope.L, The Great White Way, 22 miles, 9 years, 1 street (Whitney version), 2001. © Pope.L. Courtesy of the artist and Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York. Photo: Lydia Grey.

Iannis Xenakis, Terretektorh, Distribution of Musicians, 1965. Collection famille Xenakis. Courtesy of the Iannis Xenakis Archives. © Iannis Xenakis.

Lisa Bielawa, Chance Encounter, premiered 2007. Co-conceived with Susan Narucki. Photo: Corey Brennan, 2010, Rome.

Claudia La Rocco, 173-177 [or, Facebook Is Inescapable], 2013. Headlands Center for the Arts. Courtesy of José Carlos Teixeira.

Pina Bausch and the Tanztheater Wuppertal, Palermo, Palermo, Brooklyn Academy of Music, 1991. Photo: Maarten Vanden Abeele.

Tomás Saraceno, Observatory, Air-Port-City, 2008. In “Psycho Buildings: Artists Take on Architecture,” curated by Ralph Rugoff, Hayward Gallery, London. Courtesy of the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York.

Christian Marclay, Chalkboard, 2010, paint and chalk, 210 x 1,045 inches. Installation view, “Christian Marclay: Festival,” 2010, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Collection of the artist; courtesy of Paula Cooper Gallery, New York. Photo: Christian Marclay.

Steven Schick at the “Peacock” in the Paul Dresher Ensemble Production of Schick Machine, 2009, by Paul Dresher, Steven Schick, and Rinde Eckert. Mondavi Center, UC Davis, Davis, CA. Photo: Cheung Chi Wai.

Ralph Lemon in An All Day Event: The End, part of Platform 2012: “Parallels.” Danspace, New York. Photo © Ian Douglas.

Installation view, “Allison Smith: Rudiments of Fife & Drum,” The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, Ridgefield, CT. Photo: Chad Kleitsch. Courtesy of The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum.

David Levine, Habit, 2012. Installation view, Luminato Festival, Toronto, 2011. Photo: David Levine.

Meredith Monk, Shards (1969–73), 2012. Part of Platform 2012: “Judson Now,” curated by Judy Hussie-Taylor, Danspace, New York. Photo © Ian Douglas.

Berlin, Bonanza, 2006. A documentary project focusing on Bonanza, Colorado, population 7. © Berlin.

Gob Squad, Kitchen (You’ve Never Had It So Good), 2007. Photo © David Baltzer / / Agentur Zenit Berlin.

Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz, Hole in Space, 1980. On screens in front of Lincoln Center and The Broadway department store in Los Angeles, passersby could see and talk to their counterparts on the opposite coast, and many “reunions” were quickly set up, in this early example of video conferencing. Courtesy of the Sherrie Rabinowitz and Kit Galloway Archives.

Hans Haacke, News, 1969/2005. Installation view, “State of the Union,” Paula Cooper Gallery, New York, 2005. © Hans Haacke / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn. Courtesy of the artist and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York.

Pauline Oliveros, circa 1967. Courtesy of the CCM Archive, Mills College, Oakland, CA.

The Builders Association, Elements of Oz, 2015. Photo: Gennadi Novash. Courtesy of Peak Performances @ Montclair State University.

Ain Gordon, A Disaster Begins, 2009. Veanne Cox. Here Arts Center, New York. Photo: Jason Gardner. Courtesy of the photographer and Pick Up Performance Co(s).

Hopscotch, 2015. Directed by Yuval Sharon. Produced by The Industry, Los Angeles. Photo: Dana Ross.

The Wooster Group, BRACE UP!, 1991. Directed by Elizabeth LeCompte. Anna Köhler (on monitor) and Willem Dafoe. Photo © Mary Gearhart.

Tania El Khoury, Jarideh, 2010.

Joanna Haigood and Charles Trapolin, The Monkey and the Devil, performance installation, 2011. Performers: Matthew Wickett, Sean Grimm, Jodi Lomask. Photo: Walter Kitundu.

Jarbas Lopes, Demolition Now, in “SPRING,” curated by Claire Tancons for the 7th Gwangju Biennale, Gwangju, 2008. Photo: Akiko Ota.

Lisa Bielawa, Crissy Broadcast (part of Airfield Broadcasts), San Francisco, 2013. Photo: James Block.

Erwin Wurm, One Minute Sculpture, 1997/2005. © Erwin Wurm. Courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong.

Ethyl Eichelberger as Minnie the Maid, 1981. Photo: Peter Hujar. The Peter Hujar Archive. Courtesy of Pace MacGill and Fraenkel Galleries.

Wu Tsang with Alexandro Segade, Mishima in Mexico, 2012. Color HD video, 14:32 minutes. Courtesy of the artists, Clifton Benevento (New York), Michael Benevento (Los Angeles), and Isabella Bortolozzi (Berlin).

Young Jean Lee, Untitled Feminist Show, 2012. Baryshnikov Arts Center, New York, 2012. Hilary Clark, Regina Rocke, and Katy Pyle. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.

Romeo Castellucci, On the Concept of the Face Regarding the Son of God, 2010. Philadelphia Live Arts Festival, 2013. Photo: Kevin Monko.

Jérôme Bel, Le dernier spectacle (The last performance), 1998. Photo: Herman Sorgeloos.

Troubleyn / Jan Fabre, Mount Olympus, 2015. Performance lasts 24 hours. Photo © Wonge Bergmann for Troubleyn / Jan Fabre.

Siobhan Davies Studios, Roof Studio, London. Photo: Peter Cook.

Emily Roysdon, Sense and Sense (a project with MPA), Sergels torg, Stockholm, Sweden, 2010. Courtesy of the artist.

David Lang’s home studio. Photo © Jorge Colombo.

Marcel Duchamp, Bicycle Wheel, 1964 (replica of 1913 original). Wheel and painted wood. Philadelphia Museum of Art. Gift of the Galleria Schwarz d’Arte, Milan, 1964. © Succession Marcel Duchamp / ADAGP, Paris / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, 2016.

Historical interpreters from Freetown Living History Museum, as part of Allison Smith’s 2008 project The Donkey, The Jackass, and The Mule, with the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Photo: Allison Smith and Michelle Pemberton.

Rimini Protokoll, Situation Rooms, 2013. Photo © Ruhrtriennale / Jörg Baumann.

Jeanine Oleson and Ellen Lesperance, We Like New York and New York Likes Us, 2004. A “wry look back” at Joseph Beuys’s performance with a coyote, I Like America and America Likes Me, René Block Gallery, New York, 1974. Courtesy of the artists.

Christine Hill, Volksboutique Organizational Ventures, 2001. Mixed-media installation, Kunstverein Wolfsburg, Germany. Courtesy of Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York.

Andrea Fraser, Museum Highlights: A Gallery Talk, 1989. Performance. Performance documentation: Kelly & Massa Photography. Courtesy of the artist. © Andrea Fraser.

Theaster Gates, Dorchester Projects, Chicago, 2012. © Theaster Gates. Photo © Sara Pooley. Courtesy of White Cube.

John Cage, two pages from 4'33" (original version, in proportional notation), 1952/1953. Ink on paper, 11 x 8 1/2" each sheet. Acquired by The Museum of Modern Art through the generosity of Henry Kravis in honor of Marie-Josée Kravis. © 1993 Henmar Press Inc. All rights reserved. Used by permission of C. F. Peters Corporation. Photo © The Museum of Modern Art / Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY.

Yoko Ono, Painting For The Wind, summer 1961. First published in Yoko Ono: Grapefruit (Tokyo: Wunternaum Press, July 4, 1964). © Yoko Ono.

Rosemary Lee, Square Dances, 2011, commissioned by Dance Umbrella. Square Dances took place in four central London squares throughout a day, with different casts in each: 10 children in Woburn Square, 100 women in Gordon Square, 35 men in Brunswick Gardens, 25 dance students in Queen Square. Each performance involved bells, ranging from a huge church bell that struck every minute; to a handmade musical instrument using bells within its barrel structure, created and composed by Terry Mann; to tiny hand bells for the dancers. Photo: Hugo Glendinning.

Dictaphone Group, This Sea is Mine, 2012.

Joanna Haigood and Wayne Campbell, Ghost Architecture, 2004. An aerial dance installation centering on the architectural and social history of the site. Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco.

Ann Hamilton, the event of a thread, 2012–13. Park Avenue Armory, New York. Curated by Kristy Edmunds. Photo © Ian Douglas.

Robert Wilson and Marina Abramović, The Life and Death of Marina Abramović, premiered 2011. Park Avenue Armory, New York, 2013. Foreground: Willem Dafoe. Photo: Joan Marcus. Courtesy of Park Avenue Armory.

Richard Maxwell, Neutral Hero, 2012. The Kitchen, New York. From left: Janet Coleman, Bob Feldman, Lakpa Bhutia, Andie Springer, Jean Ann Garrish. Photo © Paula Court.

Ann Liv Young, The Bagwell in Me, 2008. Photo: Scott Newman, Revel in New York.

Xavier Le Roy, “Retrospective,” 2012–. Fundació Antoni Tàpies, Barcelona, 2012. Photo: Lluís Bover. © Fundació Antoni Tàpies.

Ethyl Eichelberger as Minnie the Maid, 1981. Photo: Peter Hujar. The Peter Hujar Archive. Courtesy of Pace MacGill and Fraenkel Galleries.

David Levine, Habit, 2012. Installation view, Luminato Festival, Toronto, 2011. Photo: David Levine.

Rimini Protokoll, 100% Yogyakarta, 2015. Teater Garasi, Yogyakarta, Java, Indonesia. © Goethe-Institut Indonesien / KDIP Viscom.

Bebe Miller Company, A History, 2012. Angie Hauser and Darrell Jones. Photo: Michael Mazzola.