Examining The Life And Work Of Joseph Cornell In Hotel Cassiopeia
Joseph Cornell made boxes. This idiosyncratic visual artist (1903-1972) assembled boxed collages of maps, photographs, and an assortment of everyday objects found in nature as well as thrift stores and bookstores in his native New York City. He placed his assemblages in frames behind glass. This month, as part of BAM's 25th annual Next Wave Festival, New York City has the chance to see a highly visual interpretation of Cornell's work in Hotel Cassiopeia, written by Charles L. Mee and directed by Anne Bogart for the New York City-based SITI Company, which is celebrating its 15th anniversary this year.
“Cornell was such an intriguing visual character in the way he saw the world. There are so many interesting nuggets to pick up on,” says lighting designer Brian H. Scott, who collaborated with Neil Patel (sets), James Schuette (costumes), Darron L. West (sound), and Greg King (projections) on the design of Hotel Cassiopeia, which premiered at the Humana Festival in Louisville, KY in 2006. “It was clear what the piece was asking for visually,” Scott adds.
The name Cassiopeia relates to a constellation named after the women Andromeda and Cassiopeia in Greek mythology and is referred to in Cornell's work. In designing the set for Hotel Cassiopeia, Patel used the box concept as a metaphor, as if the audience were looking into one of Cornell's boxes. The back wall and floor are covered with a blue and white celestial map — inspired by Cornell's use of maps and orbs — that features the constellation Cassiopeia and creates the first layer of visual texture for the piece.
“I found the image in a book,” says Patel. “We printed it as one continuous image with the backdrop section printed on heavyweight coated canvas that has a deeper color than raw canvas.” In order to make the floor more durable for touring, a section of the image was printed onto self- adhesive vinyl, “so we could clean it,” notes Patel. The vinyl was applied in 4'×8' sheets (the floor is roughly 24'×26') and laminated to Arboron®, a composite material that looks like plastic and is often used for Broadway decks. “We use double stick tape or screw the panels into the floor, depending where we are,” Patel explains. “I never tried this process before, but it has been pretty durable. We looked at painting it by hand, but that was prohibitive.” The design intention was to project additional images on top of the celestial map, adding to the visual texture.
“In a small space, the theatre is the box,” says Patel, referring to Cornell's constructions. “At BAM, which is a bigger space, we try and frame it with a square lighting grid to create an enclosure.” The set is filled with objects based on Cornell's boxes — such as copper balls and glass marbles — or his ideas, and the actor playing Cornell sits at a desk, making a box from his collection of objects, as if off in his own universe. “Some of the objects are more related to the text of the piece,” Patel notes, pointing out that tree branches and a ballet barre, for example, were added in response to the needs of the play rather than a specific reference to Cornell.
On the other hand, a library ladder was inspired by the use of metal rods for marbles to roll down in several of Cornell's boxes (his intent was that people could play with them). “We used a library ladder instead of the rods with a large 36“ “copper” ball floating by on a wire. It's meant to look like a giant marble or ball bearing,” says Patel. “We used a Pilates ball with seams when the piece premiered, but for BAM, we painted a seamless ball I used in a different production.” Jeanne Donovan, a great supporter of Mee's work, owns a few Cornell boxes, and Patel reports that the designers had a meeting at her apartment so they were able to see them and play with them, just as Cornell intended.
Projecting The Heavens
“We wanted the video to contribute to the world of Cornell's mind and creativity,” says King. “He made films himself, and we wanted to honor him on that level as well.” The video, while adding another layer of visual texture, also served as a fast-motion version of Cornell creating a box. “You can add an element of quick change and montage through the images, as if he were placing and removing objects in real time. We wanted to create a world where things come in and out of the space,” King notes, using phrases like “stream of consciousness” and “free association” to describe the flow of images.
“I was keen on creating something not too divergent from Cornell's own artistic sensibility,” says King. “It would be like asking, ‘What if he had had access to video cameras? What would he have done?’” In the end, the images are sometimes minimal, almost subliminal, providing a visual rhythm to the piece, rather than a cascade of in-your-face content. To create his video landscape, King lifted some images — such as butterflies, moons, and owls — directly from Cornell, an artist whose work he knew, and loved, from art school. “Some of the projections are very subtle,” King says. “If you catch it, you catch it. I kind of like that. There are things happening on the edge of your perception, projected mostly on the back wall, which is a contemplative, darker palette.”
Given the darkness of the constellation pattern on the back wall, King needed a high level of projector power for the images to be seen. “We need it to be as bright as possible yet strike a delicate balance. You are meant to be going to watch a movie. The images are part of the overall experience.” In the small space at the Actors Theatre of Louisville, two 5,000-lumen projectors were used, while BAM uses one 12,000-lumen Barco projector. King used Adobe Photoshop to fine-tune his choice of still photos and Final Cut Pro to edit the video, some of which he shot himself. “For the image of the moon, I poured a glass of milk into a globe,” he notes. He also added archival images from films made in Cornell's era. Playback is via TroikaTronix Isadora software, in conjunction with PowerPoint or Keynote for images projected onto Cornell's desk.
“We are creating very delicate, surreal worlds,” says King. “The midnight blue surface of the walls offers some beautiful opportunities.” One of these beautiful moments is at the end of the show, when an image of the constellation on the back wall is projected onto itself. “It glows,” says King, explaining that Patel had made the projected image from the same file used to create the back wall. “At other moments, we riffed on the constellation, adding others for dense layers of constellations, in the spirit of being experimental and trying to do things that might work.”
“Greg King and I were responding to the same thing in Cornell's way of working. We had both done the same looking,” says Scott, about the integration of projection and lighting. One of the things they responded to is the use of bubbles, a circular theme seen in Cornell's work. Scott's use of radiating, graduated circles of light came from that visual cue. Additionally, Scott's use of color comes from Cornell's own use of colored glass — sometimes pink, blue, or yellow — in front of his collages. “I looked at his work, saying these are more possible as stage images than others.” Scott's palette includes Roscolux R88, Lee 201, R18, and Lee 200 in the PARs used for backlight, a lot of frost, and Lee 716. “It's a blue that's deep but not too cold and the closest I could find to Cornell's blue glass,” he says.
Scott made the conscious choice not to use moving lights in this production (visually, they would have been anachronistic). “I looked at the artist's toolbox and wanted to create in the same vein or spirit as he did and look at how the artist saw the world, as we did in bobrauschenbergamerica, the SITI Company's earlier look at a contemporary artist. Cornell was collecting yesterday's goods to make tomorrow's art.” In keeping with this, Scott wanted the lighting to be as organic as possible, using the movement of the video images in conjunction with his static instrumentation. “There were also financial considerations as well as noise issues concerning the use of moving lights, as we often play in small spaces,” Scott admits.
With limited time to tech the show at BAM's Harvey Theatre, Scott kept his original plot, making a few equipment changes but not adding anything automated. “With only eight hours to pull it all together, I didn't want to have to program moving lights,” he says. Two 2kW Fresnels were replaced at BAM with 5kW Fresnels. “These are good single source lamps that can make stronger strokes inside the images.”
The light plot has four layers: first a series of 38 ETC Source Four ellipsoidals with irises for the graduated circles, starting large then reduced to 18“ across. Low front light comes from 10° and 19° Source Fours on the balcony rail to help pick out specific areas and shape the space. Clear frosted light acts as crosslight on the star map, and 5kW Fresnels are used as diagonal backlight. To create the idea of a frame for Cornell's box, Scott used horizontal strip lights in Louisville but at BAM opted to replace them with 5kW Fresnels. “We would have much more power and control if we shifted to a full lighting idea,” he says. “In Louisville, it was more of an architectural idea.”
In keeping with the concept of a Cornell box, Scott looked for ways to shift the framing for visual interest. “The whole piece is a box; each scene is a box,” he says. “I felt like there were some scenes where it was clear we should not actively focus the room. Each audience member has to find a way through it, as we did in making it. Other scenes are more controlled, but you never lose the sense of the box.”
Sounds Like Cornell
“Some of Cornell's boxes made sounds — beautiful, delicate sounds or rolling balls — and lots of music,” says West, who attended rehearsals from day one and built a score that runs under most of the action. “I did not use the actual sounds from the boxes but might sample the sound of a steel ball rolling across the floor.” Other sound cues were written into the text, such as a ballerina who sings (using a vintage RCA microphone) and a woman singing on the radio. “Chuck Mee gives me a lot of lateral space to design but includes some markers in the text for specific reasons,” West adds.
Some of the sound effects propel the story, such as multi-channel birdcalls. West also used a mix of realistic sounds and memory sounds as Cornell shifts into reverie. The loudspeakers are by EAW, and West admits to being “a Meyer and EAW guy. It's usually just a fidelity question; it's about the full-frequency response for me.” The reinforcement of the actor's voices at BAM includes just a few area mics to bounce the sound up to the balcony. West likes Metric Halo's SpectraFoo or EAW's Smaart software, but, as he says, “My assistants take care of that. I get to come in the room with my ideas. Matt Hobbs does the room tuning.”
The SITI Company shows generally tour, which influences the design. “We know we'll pull them out of the box again,” says West. “Brian Scott and I talk about where the speakers and the lights go long before the plots are drawn. That's one advantage of being part of a company.”
HOTEL CASSIOPEIA GEAR LIST FOR BAM
1 ETC Obsession 600 Console
462 ETC Sensor Dimmer
169 ETC Source Four Ellipsoidal 575W Various Lens Configurations.
38 Drop In Iris for ETC Source Four
17 Ianiro 5kW Fresnel w/Barndoors
6 Strand 2kW Fresnels w/Barndoors
34 1kw PAR64 with Medium Flood
11 L&E MR16 6'-3" 3-Color Striplights Wide Lamps
9 Single Cell Asymmetrical Cyclights
2 Lycian 1275 SuperStar 1.2kW HMI
1 Crest Century Vx Console
8 Channels of SFX Playback
1 Lexicon MPX-1 Effects Processor
4 Klark Teknik -DN 360 Stereo Graphic EQs
3 Klark Teknik -DN 504 Quad Comp Limiters
2 Klark Teknik -DN 514 Quad Auto Gates
6 EAW JF 260e (proscenium, over balcony)
2 EAW JF 200e (proscenium)
4 EAW SB 180 (subs)
2 EAW KF 300e (cluster)
1 EAW SB 330e (cluster)
7 EAW JF 80y (sidefill, under balcony)
6 Apogee AE-2 (surround)
Custom Close and Play Turntable with 8“ Driver
1 RCA 44BX Vintage Ribbon Microphone
1 Shure SM57 (Sound Engineer's Foley mic)
2 Shure UR1-H4 Bodypack Transmitters
1 Shure UR4D-H4 Dual Receiver
2 Countryman E-6 Nude Headset
1 Eiki LC-XT1 5000 lumen projector
1 Barco SLM-R12 12,000 lumen projector