Now Playing: Spontaneous Art

The idea that art is a bronze sculpture, paintings hanging in a gallery, or live theater playing to a passive audience, is an incomplete picture. Take interactive performance group Spontaneous Art, a trio which casts the audience in skits that can take place anywhere and everywhere, from sidewalks to the Smithsonian.

Spontaneous Art celebrates impermanence – those "slipping moments" as co-founder Trevor Stone puts it.

"We give people permission to cut loose, enjoy, engage, and really embrace moments. In one sense, that's really all we have," he says.

The trio and its audience troupe perform locally – they're fixtures of the Krampus Ball held at the Corner Brewery in December – and nationwide: the Dumbo Arts Festival in Brooklyn, the Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh, and so on. And you never know what they (and you) will turn into: video game space cadets, voice-activated remote control primates, quaking dental patients.

Most recently, they won a $1,000 grant from the A2Awesome Foundation. Concentrate's Tanya Muzumdar talks past, present, and future with Spontaneous Art's permanent cast line-up: Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti residents Trevor Stone, Natalie Berry, and Chris Sandon.

How did you all come together, and when?

STONE:  We were separated triplets, born together at birth. But then we re-met in Ann Arbor about three years ago, maybe more. Three years ago we formed Spontaneous Art.

SANDON:   We started to do some shows at the First Fridays at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. Trevor and I had worked together for a while before that and then Natalie started to help out...We started to work with other people like Mark Tucker at FestiFools and then to get involved with other projects.

What are your backgrounds?

BERRY:  I am a yoga teacher in town, and I run A2 Yoga. I've been practicing art for a long time. I was mostly based in two-dimensional art but Trevor dragged me into making some things, and I have the sewing background and then that year we started performing.

STONE:  I used to make art in a lot of different mediums but then found that interactive performance is just a super exciting fun way to exchange ideas with people at a good speed...I oversee the art department at the Neutral Zone teen center.

SANDON:  I'm involved in a lot of different projects and media from film to painting to this performance-type work. I work with VG Kids, the printing company in Spur Studios. I'm one of the managers...I'm part of Shadow Art Fair as well.

What is Spontaneous Art about?

BERRY: We're really about making good moments and making sure that other people are not just going about their every day. Not that every day is boring but just sometimes we get stuck in boxes, and it's OK to be playful and have fun and be silly. And sometimes those are the best times and the most memorable times.

STONE:  Also one of our goals is to get people involved in our skits, interacting in our skits, and sometimes helping to author our skits...Another word we use is permission...We grant people permission, in a lot of senses, to be crazy. We've given them costumes to wear and help lose it with us.

As for your name, Spontaneous Art, where is the spontaneity in your performances? You're going out to these specific venues and such. Is it the timing of your performances, or the subject matter?

BERRY: Since we started on the streets, it was a spontaneous action that we would just throw on a costume and jump out, either in Ann Arbor or Ypsi, and try to mess with people in positive ways...We usually go out with a general outline of what we're going to do with each character and each skit, but really since the narrative is in the hands of the participants, that really allows our performance to be unlike having lines and getting on a stage like a regular play...Their dropping of the permission allows for so many more magical moments than we could ever think of if we were writing out a very particular skit. Even though we're now more in museums, and it's less spontaneous in that it's not Tuesday afternoon and we're not jumping out on the streets – we're going to the Smithsonian or a festival or whatever, it's still the same concept.

STONE:  We don't know exactly what's going to happen, and we like it like that. We just make some costumes and jump off the high dive, you know? And I don't think people end up play games and to be running and jumping and dodging and wearing costumes and sneaking around with us or being improv comedians themselves, but we tend to pull that out of people.

How do you draw that shyness out of strangers and get them out of the corner, so to speak?

SANDON:  A lot of times people want to do things and be open...I think just being open and positive and reassuring people that it's going to be fine, it's going to be fun, is all people really need. We don't play it cool at all, we're dorks in costumes, so that's disarming in and of itself.

Right, it's not like you're facing an imposing figure at a job interview, wearing a suit. Your costumes are really cool, but I didn't find them imposing.

SANDON (laughs): Yeah, most of them.

STONE:  We've been doing this for so many years, that we really try to watch. We're watching carefully and seeing people's reactions before we get close. If someone's a little standoffish, then we might shift and form-fit to figure out how to connect to them and start at a more mild level of interaction and build passageways and bridges for them to get involved with. People who see us coming and smile, we can run up full-speed and those people will just chill with us for the evening and they're just down. And then it's another thing with how far they want to take it.

BERRY: We're doing this spies kind of action now where we all dress up as spies and get people to play spies with us as well. It doesn't take long. We were just in Brooklyn running up to people and asking them if the eagle has landed, and with no hesitation people are like, 'Oh yeah, it's landing at 8 p.m. See you there.' It doesn't take a lot to get people's imaginations rolling.

STONE:  We dressed up as insect shamans and used faux tarot cards and sat down with people and really started talking about their lives and their relationships and their goals and I think we can switch on this gentle calm mode – even if we're in a costume – that lets people know we're not going to go and make fun of them. We're not going to invade their space in a bad way. They can see we're sensitive, caring people.

Do you get any rowdy folks?

SANDON:  A lot of times it's just a matter of walking away from it. A lot of times the things that we do there may be a party-ish type situation or drinks. People can be rowdy. We're well-versed in dissolving situations and just making them silly and not taking them seriously.

BERRY: And we often have people either photographing, and, [for instance], when we're dressed as primates there's also scientists explaining what we're doing or protecting us in a certain way.

SANDON:  It doesn't mean that people don't walk up and grab your crotch.

STONE:  That happens a lot.

SANDON:  That does happen.

STONE:  Especially in the monkey suits.

You've always got these props and costumes, such as voice activated remote control gorillas and kitty poop. Do you make them yourselves?

BERRY: We usually mastermind them together and brainstorm as a trio.

What's your most unusual get-up?

SANDON:  The question should be which is the least dangerous. Early on they started very rough. We've gradually embraced things like foam and fabric and soft materials. Early on that wasn't necessarily the case. It was chicken wire and duct tape and zip ties that holds you in.

Sometimes you just started performing on museum steps, and if the outside crowd was receptive, you might get an in. Share an instance of that?

SANDON:  We were doing Art Parade in Chicago and this was very early on...Trevor said to me, 'Let's just go to the MCA (Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago) and look dressed up and go out there.' I was like 'You're crazy man, they're just not gonna go for it.'

I walked in and they were kind of by the outside window and goofing off in gorilla suits, and I said to the guy, is it OK if we perform outside of your museum. And he said 'No it's not, but there's a person who books that and I'll pass along your information'...Two weeks later they contacted Trevor and that's how we started at the MCA.

How much of your personal time are you spending on Spontaneous Art? Is this a part-time job equivalent?

SANDON:  Right before an event, we work really hard, upwards of 40-60 hours probably, just to get everything prepared. There are times when it's a little less busy.

BERRY: And that time is filled with talking to museums and working on a new website or whatever it is. We are looking towards making this more of a career.

You just received the A2Awesome grant. Now that you have a paper bag of cash, what will you do with your riches?

STONE:  I was going to get a bunch of plastic bags and invest in baby carriers. What's a good way to get a baby on an airplane? A big Ziploc. But we didn't have the money before today...It's going to pay for some of the costumes we already built. Some of it's going to pay for gas and upkeep of some of our current projects...

We're going to do a tour of guerilla performances locally just to have fun and show people fakeries.

SANDON:  Guerilla with a "u". Not our gorilla costumes, necessarily.

STONE:  It might be both.

Tanya Muzumdar is a freelance writer and the Assistant Editor of Concentrate and Metromode. Her last feature column was "Breaking Bread With Pop-up Chef Brad Greenhill".

All photos by Doug Coombe
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