VISUAL ARTIST AND SONGWRITER TERRY ALLEN
Visual artist and songwriter Terry Allen
When Terry Allen sits down to write a song, as often as not, he’s sitting behind the wheel of a car. The hum of tires on pavement, the rush of changing scenery as he rolls through a dusty landscape or glides along at night under a canopy of stars, soothes the mind and lets it wander, and the memories begin to flow. And inside the head of Terry Allen, it’s often a short reach from memories to stories to music and lyrics.
“I’ve written a lot of songs in motion, in cars, driving, and I think that rhythm, that particular kind of mindlessness happens when you’re driving,” Allen told Pasatiempo. He was on the phone from Austin, where his unreconstructed Texas twang sounds as at home as fleas on a dog. “I think the motion and looking out a windshield, like a traveling movie when you’re going through space, has something to do with it. But it’s always a mystery. Mystery in motion.”
Allen, the legendary outlaw musician and multimedia artist with a trail of four decades of acclaimed work to his credit, has created a video installation that’s currently on display at SITE Santa Fe. It’s a sequence of stories born out of memories, each tied into the making of a song. Two video images travel back and forth on tracks on opposite walls the length of a gallery. On one wall Allen, in a full-face close-up, tells stories, and on the other wall his wife, the actress Jo Harvey Allen, does the same. When those images stop, a wide-screen video appears on the back wall. The singer-songwriter sits at a keyboard with his back to us, playing and singing the songs that probably emerged from these stories, as relevant images unfold in front of him.
“I’ve always thought of memory being in motion,” Allen said. “Jo Harvey’s telling the stories with me, because she, of all people, knows where they come from and in most cases, lived right through these stories with me. Memory is never static, always moving and always changing. I think that’s because you hear stories when you’re a kid, and retell them over the years, and each time some new embellishment happens with the story. Stories and memory become synonymous. Even though they’re locked into the video, by putting them in motion, you get a different part of a story each time you see it, and actually become a part of it.”
Allen began developing this project with something very different in mind. “It came out of a piece I’ve had in mind for quite a while, called Futurism in Reverse. I’ve worked on it off and on, in between projects, for years. It came out of reading some old Futurist plays, little two- or three-minute acts with elaborate sets where a very brief mundane act takes place, then the curtain closes. They’re called sintesi. I’ve always been intrigued by the absurdity of this.”
Futurism is an artistic movement that began in Italy in the early 20th century, with a mission, in part, “to compress into a few minutes, into a few words and gestures, innumerable situations, sensibilities, ideas, sensations, facts, and symbols,” to quote from 1915’s
The Futurist Synthetic Theatre manifesto. “I started writing some short plays. Little stabs. But the more I worked on those, for some reason the more I began thinking about more personal stories — friends of mine, events, things that happened in my life, songs that came out of it. I began putting down memories — not really about myself, but of events and people that affected my life. Then I realized, when I started writing it, that nearly everything happened during wartime. All these stories happened either during a war, or war was moving in the air around the story. I got curious about the connection of those things together, memories inside wartimes, exploring that, and that’s where the title came from, MemWars. But it’s all still very much in progress. “
MemWars started life as a performance piece, before the video elements were added, and the concept morphed into a kinetic electronic museum installation. On Tuesday, May 17, it returns to its roots, when SITE presents the live performance, offsite, at the Armory for the Arts Theater. It will be an Allen family affair, the way it was when it began, with Terry and Jo Harvey joined onstage by their son Bukka.
“It will be different when we do it here live. The piece originally came out of a live performance we did in Maine. Jo Harvey and I took turns reading, I sang, and Bukka and I played songs. There’s a whole other kind of intimacy that happens when it’s done on a stage. But I’m also changing it here — there will be new stories and songs that aren’t in the installation. Jo Harvey and I will read and I’ll be singing songs. Bukka, our son, is coming in to play accordion. He’s going to pad some of the stories and accompany me on the songs. MemWars — it’s appropriate it will happen in an armory.”
Terry Allen and Jo Harvey Allen; opposite page, stills from Terry Allen’s video installation MemWars, 2016, courtesy the artist and David Aubrey/ Lightningwood Pictures