Oracle 3 at Rooms Productions

by Jeriah Hildwine

Oracle 3

Oracle 3

Rooms Productions is a performance space run by Todd and Marrakesh Frugia, principally for the presentation of their own performance productions.  Located in Pilsen, at 645 West 18th St., Rooms is one of the strongest and most experimental of the art spaces in the self-proclaimed Chicago Arts District.  Basically to get there from almost anywhere, you take the Blue Line to UIC Halsted, get on the Halsted bus, get off at 18th St., and walk up 18th, past Mambo Marilyn’s, under the freeway, and you’re there.  Performances at Rooms are often scheduled to coincide with Pilsen’s Second Fridays Gallery Night.

I can say honestly that Rooms is the primary reason we make the trek down to Pilsen as often as we do.  Of course, as those who read my Snack Time Report know well, I also look forward each Friday to grazing on snacks, beer, and wine, and Pilsen has enough art spaces open on Second Fridays for me to get my delicious on and cop a good buzz.

There’s some good art in Pilsen, and for the young (read:  not rich) collector, the prices can be more affordable than in the West Loop or River North.  You can get photographs in the $30 to $50 range directly out of a photographer’s studio, or an adorable Drone figurine for $10 from Logsdon 1909.  These are small in scale and presumably unlimited editions, not something we’re going to flip for half a mil at an auction house, but they’re nice objects that are a joy to live with.  Steph and I like ours.

What Pilsen isn’t so strong on, however, is difficult, challenging, risky work.  The types of spaces in the (again, self-proclaimed) Chicago Arts District tend to run about three ways:  commercial boutiques, which show work that is relatively safe and marketable, artist’s studios, which show work without any curatorial filtration, and pay-to-play spaces and vanity galleries, in which an artist rents an exhibition space in which to show his or her own work.  There are exceptions (the Chicago Art Department doesn’t fit neatly into this model), and even in the relatively tame galleries, studios, and pay-to-play spaces, some of the work is quite worth looking at.  Nevertheless, despite the best efforts of the Podmajersky, Inc. property development company to bill the neighborhood of Pilsen East as the “Chicago Arts District,” it still trails a distant third behind the West Loop and River North in terms of the average quality of the art on display.

The makeup of the neighborhood must in some part be attributed to the policies and politics of Podmajersky, who are not without some controversy.  These issues are beyond the scope of a review of Rooms Productions, but it would be intellectually dishonest not to mention them; a Google search of “Podmajersky” will quickly fill you in.

Rooms Productions would fall under some definitions of a vanity gallery, in that it is a space rented by a pair of artists solely for the presentation of their own work.  (The phrase is more commonly used to describe a pay-to-play space, in which an artist pays a fee to a gallery in exchange for having their work shown.)  The negative associations of the phrase “vanity gallery,” however, are totally inappropriate in regard to what goes on at Rooms.  Rooms presents an engaging brand of performance, and is generally the highlight of any trip I take to Pilsen.  Marrakesh and Todd are dedicated to their work, running a consistently varied performance schedule.  It’s hard to find a space willing to show work that cannot, by its nature, be sold; Rooms’ solution of renting an apartment and operating the ground floor as an exhibition space is a pragmatic solution for a pair of artists who are generous enough to front the expense of putting on their own work for the public’s viewing.

On Friday, November 13, from 8pm to 10pm, Rooms Productions presented Oracle 3, the third iteration of a performance concept in which one or more performers, blindfolded and immobile, speak in a stream-of-consciousness free-association.  In this version, it’s three performers, seated and blindfolded, with microphones in front of their mouths; the microphones were connected to a mixing station where various audio effects were applied.  Steph and I try to make it to as many of Rooms’ performances as we can, and we made it to this one.  On their website, Rooms describes the production as follows:

ROOMS Productions presents ORACLE 3 a new twist on a  live performance installation by Todd and Marrakesh Frugia. For this incarnation ROOMS multiples the “mouths” by inviting two more participants to take part in the “ORACLE” experiments.

In a stripped down, more ritualistic approach to last year’s popular performance – three actors [Jim Dee, Todd Frugia, and Veronica Bruce] will be deprived of sight and sound for two solid hours while they attempt to express the strongest thoughts of the present moment, heightened by the live recording, playback, and manipulation of their voices’ unscripted stream of consciousness by Audio Collage Artist Vince McClelland.   It’s an unpredictable evening of mind-bending meditations.

Like everything I’ve been able to attend at Rooms, Oracle 3 was an engaging production, relatively simple in concept and elegant in its execution.  Without a script, the performers spoke (and in some cases wordlessly vocalized) whatever was on their minds; much of what they were saying felt like a regression into very specific (but unspecified) memories.  There was no apparent connection between the performers’ memories, although they did seem to accommodate one another at times by allowing their voices to recede or at times fall silent altogether, to add emphasis to another performer.  This effect was probably enhanced by the mixing and “audio collage.”

Typically, when I write about an exhibition, my motivation is to compel my readers to get out there and see some art.  In this case, the ship has sailed:  Oracle 3 was performed for one night only, and you either saw it, or you didn’t.  But fear not, Rooms Productions presents performances on a regular basis, and I’ve never seen a bad one.  Next up is Meddle & Cue on December 13th and 14th.  The description is tantalizing:

A woman sits, quietly knitting in her chair.  The only thing that can disturb her, is you – the audience.   ROOMS productions invites you to manipulate performance by pressing buttons that provide motivation, subtext, and circumstance. Watch the actress respond to the stimulus of each button, or explore how different combinations of buttons provide new interpretations of action and dialogue.   Don’t miss this unique and innovative performance installation.

If you possibly can, get down to Pilsen on one of those dates and check it out; every single performance I’ve seen at Rooms has been well worth the trip.  Check frequently with Rooms Productions’ website to stay abreast of upcoming performances.