Review: ‘Light/See + Dark/Hear’ Raises Questions About Separating the Senses

Violinist Ariana Kim performed the world premiere of composer Steve Heitzeg’s intersensory work at Great Northern Festival

Great Northern Festival

During the first weekend of the Great Northern Festival, violinist Ariana Kim performed the world premiere of composer Steve Heitzeg’s intersensory work, inspired in part by the sounds of a Minnesota winter’s night as well as the Minneapolis Institute of Art’s Black Box Theater. The 90-minute experience of “light/see + dark/hear” unfolded over two distinct acts; first, guests were invited to don earplugs and explore an adjoining gallery where “American Gothic,” an exhibition of Gordon Parks’ photographs of Ella Watson, was on view. After about 45 minutes of quiet contemplation, we were asked to remove our earplugs and ushered into the theater.

Inside, the theater was jarringly dark. A single spotlight illuminated a central cushion surrounded by objects, among them an electric candle and miscellaneous chimes. I took my seat on an open cushion. Shortly thereafter, Kim entered and took her seat in the middle of the room, the lights were cut, and we were immersed in (almost) total darkness. Kim proceeded to perform a dazzling, atmospheric seven movement piece for solo violin bookended by 15 minutes of improvisation inspired by “American Gothic.” Dissonant moments of extended technique—taps on the violin’s body, rumbling scratch notes, and airy whistling arpeggios played on the fingerboard (I think, I couldn’t see her)—punctuated beautiful and haunting passages of melodic bliss. A birdsong whistle from Kim echoed by high-pitched, swooping bow strokes here, a brief interpolation of an American hymn there, and then back to Heitzeg and Kim’s impressionistic estimations of a Minnesota winter’s night. The performance itself was a triumph.

I will admit, “light/see + dark/hear as a total experience was puzzling in unexpected ways. The artists seemed determined to confine art and music to their “respective” senses: art to the purely optical (through earplugs) and music to the purely aural (by turning out the lights). Of course, the idea was to heighten one sense by impairing another. But for me, neither sensorial block totally succeeded, yet this was certainly to the works’ benefit. Ironically, the instruments implemented to synthesize quiet and darkness caused me to focus on my partially impaired senses almost compulsively. As I wandered the gallery, attempting to prime myself for the performance with blue plugs squished into my ears, I became very aware of the loud, low hum of the museum’s heater. I felt almost indignant at the muffled smartphone camera clicks and children squealing down the hall. My own breaths behind my facemask were dramatically amplified, and though I couldn’t hear my footsteps, I walked gingerly so as not to disturb the “quiet.” In this way, my silent art viewing became a profoundly embodied experience, and certainly not a primarily optical one. Later, in the dark of the black box, I was fixated on the ways in which light leaked into the room; indeed, in the absence of light, I became preoccupied by my own optical experience. In the center of the black ceiling, a small, green dot of light guided me, as an LED North Star, through the performance. Near the convergence of the wall and ceiling, a pair of orange lights periodically blinked as a red-eye flight towards the glow emanating from the theater’s curtained entrance. About halfway through the performance, I noticed that in some positions, I could see Kim’s bow glinting as she played, reflecting light from the entrance. To my surprise, by the end I was determined, in spite of my eye’s own prohibitive wall of psychedelic phosphenes, to see.

The title of the performance, “light/see + dark/hear,” with its specific movements provides necessary fuel for my ramble on perception. “Dark Sky Sanctuaries (dance)”, the title of movement V, refers to a designation of land that has exceptional night sky visibility and is free from light pollution due to its extreme remoteness. The following movement, titled “Light Pollution (ancient song of migrating birds)”, calls attention to the ways in which infrastructures that underpin human life, our constantly illuminated cities and roads, pollute not only our ecosystems, but also some of our most precious and fundamental aesthetic (and in many cases, spiritual) experiences, such as stargazing. “Light/see + dark/hear”’s multiple failures to simulate pure sense acted as a microcosm of this; in an institutional setting, human-produced seepage was unavoidable. Any attempt to muffle or darken stimuli instead highlighted the seeming inevitability of sense-pollution. A project that seeks to divide the senses into discrete spheres inevitably fails. In the gap of this failure, “light/see + dark/hear” raised questions about primordial aesthetic experience; for whom (if anyone), where (if anywhere), when (if ever), are these pockets of pure sense available? Are senses exhaustible resources? Are we running out of night skies? And is our time to save them also running low?