MSHR, Earthly Door.
Appendix Project Space
by Daniel J Glendening
MSHR, a collaborative project by Brenna Murphy and Birch Cooper, presented “Earthly Door” at Appendix Project Space in Portland, Oregon. The work consists of an interactive installation and a performance. As an installation, “Earthly Door” resembles a found-object architectural model of a disco-rustic beach house, complete with conversation pit. The surfaces are all wood and mirror, with carefully arranged seashells and rocks, and a black vase holding one sprig of dried sage.
Electrical wire is intermixed with chunks of subtly carved driftwood—wire wrapped around branches and stones, buried in loose sand. A glass bowl bubbles, brewing fog, and a low drone emanates from a pair of speakers against the back wall of the gallery. The room lowly vibrates.
Preceding the June 28 performance, the artists spent time with the audience, inviting them to interact with the installation. Murphy, smiling, served as a guide: she picked up a pair of cycling gloves wired into a mirrored box and helped a visitor put them on. He began moving his hands in the air and high-pitched tones emanated from the machine. Murphy guided two women to a pair of metal trays joined by a wire. She advised them to remove their shoes, stand on each tray, and hold hands. The machine squealed; lights flickered.
Murphy and Cooper left the room as the sun set, and “Earthly Door” shifted from a space of collaborative interaction to a site of ritualized performance.
The duo returned moments later in black sunglasses, Murphy having changed into a costume of black body suit and a custom leather utility belt. At the rear of the gallery, Murphy and Cooper executed a set of mirrored movements clutching a conch shell between them. Cooper blew a series of notes on the shell and relayed them through an echoing set of effects. Murphy, executing a series of slow, awkward movements, made her way to the recessed space at the center of the installation. She donned the pair of sonic cycling gloves, coaxing sound out of a series of poses somewhere between tai chi and voguing.
The performance concluded with a mirroring of its introductory movement: Murphy and Cooper took up position at the front of the installation, standing barefooted on the metal trays. They touched hands to faces, hand to hands. The sound and light faded as their touches lightened, and the performers took their leave.
“Earthly Door” contains a multitude of binary relationships, and is strongest when those relationships begin to break down: the duality of gendered bodies, of audience and performer, the technological and organic, hard and soft surfaces and the nostalgia that is embedded in the aesthetic of retro-futurism. Allowing audience interaction and play, the artists invite users to incorporate themselves into the work and complete a circuit with their bodies. Everyone, here, is a conduit: the artists a conduit of information, the audience members as conduits of energy.
However, as Murphy and Cooper transition from roles as guides to those of techno-tronic performers, eyes hidden behind black sunglasses, the audience is from the work. The sequence of movements executed by MSHR hovers between dance and ritual, and remains enigmatic and opaque—it is a fledgling ritual, not yet fully imbued with meaning. While an intimacy lingers in their movements—hands on faces, hands on hands—audience access is largely predicated on having experienced the work through earlier bodily interaction.
MSHR’s “Earthly Door” may have too many edges, too many facets competing with each other for attention. The retro-futurist aesthetic, for instance, serves as a lure while simultaneously recalling a cultural history that never was. The physical installation’s function as performance set potentially trumps its role as an interactive environment, as the audience ceases interaction and shifts into spectatorship. Stepping in as performers, MSHR resets the power dynamic to a hierarchical state.
This shift undermines what seems to be the aim of the work, and evidences that maybe one can’t have some things both ways. In our screen-bound era, it’s refreshing for the audience to suddenly become, of its own accord and with only minimal guidance, performer, entwining their own bodies with this techno-organic musical cyborg machine.