Theatre as a Universal Translator 

Zack Calhoon 

Kevin Cunningham is an award-winning New York based artist, designer, writer, director, producer and entrepreneur. He is the founder and Executive Artistic Director of 3-Legged Dog Media and Theater Group and 3LD Art & Technology Center, 3-Legged Dog’s multi venue high tech development studio in Lower Manhattan.  He has been an adjunct professor of Interdisciplinary Arts at Columbia University and has lectured at Carnegie Mellon and New York University. He is known for artistic and technological innovation as well as business innovation in the not for profit arts.

His artistic focus over the last 30 years has been on the creation of large-scale interdisciplinary artwork of all kinds and on the creation of artists’ tools that enable intuitive manipulation of time-based and sensory elements.  In recent years he has worked to create a self-sufficient platform for artistic experimentation in the face of declining philanthropic support for the arts. The business model leverages his international pool of talented associates and his knowledge and connections in technology and the arts to create custom teams that build one of a kind large-scale artworks and experiences for clients as diverse as the American Express Foundation and Lady Gaga. Proceeds from these works finance purely artistic projects where he in turn develops the tools and methods that drive innovation in the next commission or artwork.

He is the recipient of many awards and has received major grants from most major private foundations and has raised significant funding from social and traditional venture capital funds in the U.S. and Europe. Awards and honors include two Rockefeller Foundation Residencies in Bellagio Italy, Edward F. Albee Foundation Residency, selection for the Venice Biennale 2004 and 2008 for interactive media design, 2007 American Theater Wing Hewes Design Award and a Hewes Nomination in 2008. Two of his works have been selected for the prestigious Prague Quadrennial of Performance Design 2011 and Official Selection for the 2013 Sundance, American Film Institute, New York and Hamptons Film Festivals.  He has twice been awarded the Rockefeller Foundation Cultural Innovation Fund Grant.

Cunningham is an avid martial artist and holds Nidan (second degree black belt) rank in Aikido. He is also proficient in Muso Shinden Ryu Iaido, kendo, iaijitsu, juijitsu, jodo, tantojitsu and karate and recently began to study the kobudo martial arts system, Katori Shinto Ryu.

How did you get involved in theatre? When did you start writing and directing?

I got involved in the theater by accident in the 1980s. I was in Houston Texas studying sculpture with the sculptor James Searls and the conceptual artist Mel Chin.
I was taking a sophomore lit class about short stories. I had to write a piece of short fiction and in desperation began writing down descriptions of the individual pieces of junk in my studio as if I were an alien paleoanthropologist. I turned in this idiosyncratic list as the short story.
The next day my favorite author at the time Donald Barthelme (looking vaguely like a bad boy version of God) came into my studio waving the story around and said “Did you write this?” I said “Yes.”  He said “Come with me. “ and took me to his graduate creative writing workshop and enrolled me in the program. So I accidentally became a writer.
The program had a cross disciplinary requirement. Don was pushing me to take  Poetry from a professor who began every poetry workshop by saying, “You know I’ve had writers’ block for the last eight years.” Desperately trying to avoid this class (because I don’t believe in writers’ block), I sent in a short story as an audition piece for Edward Albee’s new playwriting class.
One day I was shocked when I got a call from Edward himself,  inviting me to be in his first playwriting seminar class. Edward knew my work as a sculptor. His class was very practical, basically involving writing a play and getting it up on its feet.
I had been incorporating audio and video into my sculptures and so my first play Automatic Earth which was ultimately produced at the Signature Theater in New York, contained large format projection onstage in 1989.

What compelled you to start working on large-scale multimedia performance projects?

I think of my artistic compulsion almost as more a mental illness than a vocation. I have always had a sort of tip of the tongue feeling--a feeling that compels me to try to express something that is just beyond the reach of my capability to express it.  These kind of expressive impulses are innately beyond the reach of one form of language alone. So I drifted toward a variety of modes of expression, toward lateral research and toward at interdisciplinary artistic approach. Naturally I was also attracted to digital tools which can serve as integrators between expressive processes.
Technology is a prosthetic neurological amplifier.
One of the main tools I use in my work, the software program Isadora, for example is built specifically to coordinate video, audio and machine and device control with human bodies allowing me to create smoothly and intuitively in an interdisciplinary frame.  It works as a sort of universal translator between different digital and analog protocols (digital video and audio and MIDI, RS232 or Open Sound Control for example) allowing a smooth and intuitive interactivity between lighting, video, sound, and devices like winches, motors, fans and special effects units. In addition the software can take basic human expressive modes like movement or sound and turn them into control impulses that trigger or even feedback between the stage tech complex and the body. The audience can even become a controller or interactor in the complex stage machine.
I have always been dissatisfied with the failings of presentational artwork and more interested in experiential artwork.  A lot of theater is about sitting in a chair in the dark watching someone strain to formulate the simulacra of a revelation.  Growing out of the Modernist tradition of the artist as latter day Shaman or the myth of the lone genius artist, I find much of this deterministic often formulaic work to be fatuous and self congratulatory.

Tell me about 3LD What inspired you to create the company? Where would you like to see 3LD in five years?

I started 3-legged Dog because as an experimental artists working across genres and disciplines I couldn’t find an existing structure that supported finished ambitious large scale experimental work. The main venues for the work were just that: roadhouse venues, under-resourced and allowing very little time for the creation of new work. Most of these roadhouse style venues offered small grants or stipends (usually in the hundreds of dollars) and under 10 days of restricted time in inadequately staffed and equipped space for the artists they selected.

In the same vein, these venues had a restricted curatorial standard that limited selected work to small casts and very little technical innovation. These practices are still in place and have resulted in a decline in basic production value and professional standard for so-called cutting edge work often rationalized as a “poor theater” ethic.

Some artworks should be held together with spit and and tape but some ideas require extended development time, adequate resources and large spaces or casts to be properly realized.

The problem then was that philanthropic support was only available at about 15% of need for independent production. Now it is nearly non-existent on an institutional level. We knew we couldn’t do anything about the relentless decline in philanthropic support for the arts but because we were a group of working class artists adept at both imagining, and building and managing our ideas; with a growing network of likeminded people we decided to put aside what we couldn’t change and focus on what we could. We decided after our first production, my play, House of Bugs at the Ontological Hysteric Theater that we could do something about how resources were gathered and distributed. After 18 years of honing and experimentation we have a system that produced 12 finished ambitious experimental performance works over two years and four feature length films funded directly by our earned revenue to the tune of $500,000 a year.

How do you feel theatrical performance will be influenced by technology, multimedia platforms and social media in the next few years?

Digital technology is profoundly changing the way artists create new work and the way they interact with audiences and audiences interact with the work. For the live performance field the influence of technology has created a blended form that mixes the methods and experiential nature of live performance and theater and that creates a more informal and pervasive experience of the work by the audience. Some people refer to this as “immersive” theater but we think of it as experiential art in which the audience is in the work rather than watching the work.

What kind of writing inspires you?

Haruki Murakami, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Donald Barthelme, Thomas Pynchon, Kenzaburo Oe David Foster Wallace, Samuel Beckett, Jim Strahs, William Vollman, Richard Foreman, Don Winslow, Denis Johnson

Who or what has been the biggest influence on your work as a theatre artist thus far?

As an artist I have been lucky to have mentors like Mel Chin, Edward Albee and Donald Barthelme (the author of a great essay entitled “ Not-Knowing”) who base their artistic practice  on the act of asking questions, not posing answers.
For me there is no reason to engage in the stimulating and complex ordeal of creating a piece of large-scale media/performance work if I already know what I am trying to express. My creative impulse especially in a team context is driven by curiosity. There are some questions that cannot be addressed by scientific method and these are the questions that artistic exploration can address if not answer.
Other artists working in this mode who have influenced me are Thomas Pynchon, Samuel Beckett, Patrick Clancy, Stelarc, Richard Foreman and Elizabeth LeCompte.

What else are you working on right now?

Currently I am working on a large scale experiential media and performance work with the playwright Chuck Mee called Paris Orgy. The work will also be produced as a piece of experimental cinema.


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