~ Chris Tonelli ~

The Art of Poetry Film with Cheryl Gross: “Affects of Gravity”

Poet Chris Tonelli sent me this article regarding his collaboration with Boston-based performance artist/activist Andi Sutton.

A brief explanation of the video poem: Tonelli and Sutton collaborated on a piece that involved replacing a voiceover on a ride in an amusement park. They substituted Chris’ poem for music that is ordinarily played over loudspeakers. The ride chosen was the Gravitron, which is based on centrifugal force. “The Sculpture In The Memory” is the name of the poem.

Chris recorded the voiceover, which substituted for the music normally used to attract customers and sell tickets. This was a three-day event.

Affects Of Gravity allows the masses to experience high art without the stigma or fear of appearing ignorant. The fact that music is usually played on rides in amusement parks is indeed part of the attraction to the ride, but when replaced by Chris’ poetry, a third aspect is created. This reaches a population that would ordinarily shy away from anything highbrow such as installation art, therefore allowing the average person to gain an elite cultural understanding at least for a brief moment. I’m sure if people were listening, they would realize that the poem is about the Gravitron experience. But for most people the original intent was to enjoy the actual ride. This is the reason why people frequent amusement parks. The sound continues to remain a backdrop.

Sutton’s video in my opinion is perfect. It captures the gritty atmosphere of a seedy amusement park. There is an air of sleaze and perversion that is amplified, which personally leads me to a place my parents warned me about. For me it is nostalgia at its creepiest. I suppose some people would equate this to a fear of clowns.

This is a wonderful performance piece and I love it when artists think outside of the box. By incorporating the two genres, poetry and installation, they have created a fresh experience and perhaps gained a new audience as well.

I emailed Chris and asked him to further explain the project. These are his words:

I was giving a reading at the Plough & Stars (I think) in Cambridge and Andi was in the audience. And she approached me after the reading wondering if I wanted to collaborate on something based on the poems that I had read…13 weird poems (a chapbook called FOR PEOPLE WHO LIKE GRAVITY AND OTHER PEOPLE, Rope-A-Dope Press) told in the voice of Gravitron, the carnival ride. The bizarre thing about that is, the poems were based on an art installation I’d experienced at MASSMoCA, not an experience I had at a carnival.

Anyway, what we settled on was replacing the typical pop music that would be played inside the Gravitron with a recording of me reading the poems. This was at the Topsfield Fair…Massachusetts’ big state fair. So we asked the operators how much we’d need to pay them to do this (how much they thought it might cost them in ticket sales), we priced the cost of a bus to get people we knew out to the fair (in case NO ONE at the fair wanted to ride it), and applied for a grant from MIT for like 3K and got it! So I had the poems recorded, we went to the fair and made the switcheroo, and Andi filmed it…capturing the responses of the riders, etc. Her thing as an artist is confronting people with art, not in a typical art setting, but when they aren’t necessarily expecting it, out in public.

Here’s a review of the project. An excerpt:

[W]e were prepared to pay more attention to the poetry than the kids around us. And they were all kids, talking loudly, full of sugar and giddy with a day at the fair. They could not have cared less about the poetry and sound recordings, and Colin even noted how they seemed to be trying to drown out the sounds by stamping their feet.

Yet, when the ride started to spin and there was nothing but the whir of the motors, the sound of the recordings and the pull of gravity, something seemed to change. Tonelli’s voice, the voice of the Gravitron, spoke with authority. The machine demanded our attention, pulled at us and spoke to us at the same time. For that brief period, the length of one midway ride, our small group of artists and children understood the Gravitron in a way that I doubt any of us will understand any other carnival ride.