A multimedia "Titanic"
Sounds and sights of the deep
The mania never ceases.
After nearly a century in extremely deep water, a half-dozen
movie portrayals, touring exhibits of broken artifacts, and
serenades by Celine Dion, RMS Titanic fascinates the public
almost as if it sank yesterday, the latest manifestation
being a multimedia concert mounted by the cutting-edge
Tonight and tomorrow night, The Sinking of the Titanic, a
once avant-garde work by British composer Gavin Bryars, will
be performed in conjunction with a newly created video
element by Bill Morrison utilizing poetically decaying
archival footage. Yet another layer is a memorial of sorts
for Harry Elkins Widener, the wealthy Philadelphia book
collector who died on nautical history's most famous night
to remember, having been in Europe to acquire a rare edition
of Francis Bacon's essays.
The performances will be in a venue where the fringy
Peregrine audience never thought to tread: the fortresslike
Union League on Broad Street, whose rooms look like
something out of, well, the Titanic. In what might be called
an immersion experience, tomorrow's performance and gala
will reconstruct the menu served the night the ship sank.
The artists involved are as surprised as any to witness
their involvement in a project that has turned out to
involve the oddest of bedfellows. Peregrine Arts founder
Thaddeus Squire has long sought out Philadelphia venues that
are taken for granted, if not overlooked, and discovered
that the Union League, with its air of exclusivity, was
interested in hosting a larger, less-conventional public.
James Cameron's 1997 film Titanic, with its spectacular
photography but painfully naive dialogue, was enough to turn
off key parties in New York's Ridge Theater, among them
video artist Morrison. However, Peregrine is looking into an
ongoing relationship with Bryars, and The Sinking of the
Titanic, one of his best-known pieces, looked like a good
place to start. Before long, Morrison hopelessly
"The Titanic rightly deserves its place in popular culture,"
he said from his downtown Manhattan studio. "The fact that
it's a commonplace tale had deadened me to it. But when I
started to get inside of what happened, reading accounts by
survivors, and ultimately going back to the Cameron movie,
it's an incredible story of unimaginable hubris on the scale
of Greek mythology. And over the last few months, I've
become quite obsessed with it."
Veteran composer Bryars, who first devised the piece in
1969, has seen far worse in the world's various Titanic
societies. "They're the scary people," he says. "You'll
start a conversation about something and they'll turn it to
Luckily, The Sinking of the Titanic is one Bryars score
open-ended enough to accommodate many kinds of presentation.
Critic Paul Cook described it as "a ghostly tapestry of
eerie echoes, distant sounds almost like whale songs, and
interjected rifts representing the band that was playing
even as the boat sank."
Similar descriptions could be applied to Morrison's art,
which is best known in the mesmerizing 2002 cult film
Decasia: The State of Decay. The narrative-free film
presents a succession of black-and-white movie images shot
on archaic decaying nitrate, creating disarmingly poetic
refractions of the people and places shot on film.
Expect a similar aesthetic - "the more decayed [the footage]
the better; it fits with the theme" - on 72-foot screens
being set up at the Union League. "I found icebergs shot in
the wake of the Titanic disaster. As a result of the Titanic
disaster, there were ice patrols to keep shipping lanes
safer," Morrison said. "I found a collection of other
steamers that resembled the Titanic. Lots of footage of that
stuff is spliced together. Part of the whole Philadelphia
angle is the Widener book collection - and we have a video
montage [drawn from the Widener archives at Rosenbach Museum
and Library] dealing with that."
The weekend production and gala is, like most Peregrine
endeavors, a testing ground for other venues, even tours. As
gargantuan as the Titanic was, Morrison's visual portrayal
fits in three boxes that don't even require so much as a
Much more troublesome is the proper mode of Union League
attire: Even "business casual dress code" is, for Morrison,
"dressed up beyond my wildest dreams."