By Jamie Larson
On paper, the event coming up on Friday, April 5 at Hudson Hall sounds like a complicated avant-garde poetry exercise. But be not afraid. Flow Chart Cabaret Cinema: A Night of Neo-Benshi is a celebration of collaboration, and of poet John Ashbery’s love of the inspirational and often whimsical interrelationship between different fields of art. Throughout the evening poets will perform over, and enhance, movie clips with the sound removed. Think a poetry reading that’s not stuffy or intimidating crossed with What’s Up, Tiger Lily?
Ashbery, a longtime Hudsonian, started The Flow Chart Foundation in life to support these types of interdisciplinary conversations and was a champion of “Ekphrastic” poetry (a ten-cent word for poetry in descriptive dialogue with other artwork).
Since Ashbery's passing, Flow Chart’s new executive director, Jeffrey Lependorf, aims with organization's first inaugural event, to share Ashbery’s love of mixing art forms in order to make poetry feel more accessible.
“We’re excited to present this night of Ashberian creativity and mischief with Hudson Hall,” said Lependorf. “There’s no doubt John would have loved it, and I like to think this might be the perfect ‘gateway drug’ for future fans to explore his work.”
Inspired by historic Japanese “Benshi” — performers who provided live narration and cultural translation for audiences during the silent film era — Neo-Benshi artists take scenes from popular modern films and television and replace the sound with their own live spoken works. The result is a new kind of multimedia happening that Lependorf says has taken the experimental performance art world by storm. Sharing the stage will be performers Anselm Berrigan, Shanekia McIntosh, Joan Retallack and Jasmine Dreame Wagner.
The event will also present an opportunity to pay tribute to Carolee Schneemann, who was scheduled to perform at the event before her recent passing. One of the most influential artists of the second part of the 20th century, Schneemann’s pioneering investigations into subjectivity, the social construction of the female body, and the cultural biases of art history had significant influence on subsequent generations of artists.
“Carolee’s presence will be deeply missed by all who had the privilege to know her or experience her work,” said Hudson Hall Executive Director Tambra Dillon. “Like her work, which will carry on, she was witty, wise and wonderful.”
As an homage, Schneemann’s short film, Body Collage, will be screened, in addition to a fitting Neo-Benshi performance by Lependorf, incorporating both Schneemann and Ashbery’s work.
A Night of Neo-Benshi is offered as a “love letter” to John Ashbery and the new, more public direction of The Flow Chart Foundation, which initially focused on providing academic materials. The participating artists will be taking a variety of approaches, and the film clips run the gamut from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey to Robocop to the Bogart and Bacall classic To Have And Have Not.
“For our first event we wanted to present something we know Ashbery would have loved,” said Lependorf, who hopes the event can engage nontraditional poetry audiences. “People who are not poetry lovers have been trained to hate it and a reading can feel daunting. We want people to feel engaged in a poetry experience that is really fun.”
Lependorf said Ashbery was a great fan of Mad Movies with the L.A. Connection, a TV show in which the comedy troupe would spoof classic films by overdubbing new dialogue. He was so fond of one of them, based on a Vincent Price movie, that he memorized lines to quote for friends. In his early years, he loved the 1930s and '40s radio shows such as Vic and Sade, which featured fast-paced linguistic fireworks.
“Hopefully an event like this gives people the permission they’re looking for to just find poetry fun,” said Lependorf. “We are putting different things together and seeing how wonderful the results can be. In a way it’s a different way of expressing diversity.”
Flow Chart Cabaret Cinema: A Night of Neo-Benshi
Friday, April 5, 7 p.m.
Hudson Hall, 327 Warren St., Hudson, NY