Posted by: Anya Martin | October 14, 2008

A Guided Tour, But Not a Shared Journey

Peter Reder's Guided Tour

Peter Reder’s Guided Tour of the Carnegie Art and History Museums begins with ironic commentary about the structure of the “guided tour.” Reder explains that recently he’s read a book about giving guided tours, so no need to worry he knows what he’s doing. With the tell tale mark of a practiced guide, he gently explains, “Now I can’t talk very loud, so you’ll all have to gather round me.” The polite and seasoned performing arts crowd follows his commands eagerly, yet politely maintaining the proper amount of personal space at all times.

 

 

On our first stop, Reder tells us immediately what the show is about. “That way you won’t have to all ask me at the end,” he explains. He then proceeds to muse on the peculiarity of historical landmarks or “heritage sites” as he calls them. Often at these locations performers dressed in period costumes pretend to “work” for audiences of visitors. In this way perhaps we have made “real work” into “play work” almost as Marie Antoinette did with her personal farm, where she could dress as a commoner and pretend to be milkmaid for a day without doing any of the real labor.

We continue to the Hall of Architecture, where Reder refers to an insignificant angel adorning a molded pillar. He tells the story of the “Angel of History” who travels into the future backwards as she looks to the past behind her, guarding the “huge endless pile of ruins” that is history. He ponders the employment of this angel in today’s society, which is full of live media broadcasts. As every current event seems to instantly be made into history under media scrutiny and reporting, is the angel confused about what is the past and what is the present? Does she know which way to look? Of course coverage of the presidential campaign springs immediately to mind.

The highlight of the tour arrives when we enter a decorated hall corridor covered with paintings of the coronation of Pittsburgh into a steel city. Healthy and athletic young white men work shirtless as they labor over their furnaces. The smog transcends above them into beautiful white and pink clouds where bare breasted angles reside. They carry wreaths of flowers and banners of silk ribbon, which they use to adorn a gleaming armor-clad Andrew Carnegie as he ascends into heaven. According to Reder, Carnegie commissioned the work for his museum. We could talk about the social ramifications of such a work, like did Carnegie just do this to silence his critics and make his own version of history? But, Reder relents that it’s hard to talk bad about him, since standing in his museum, we are in a way in his “home” or perhaps his “mausoleum.” Was this all a part of Carnegie’s plan to silence even his future critics?

At this point, Reder opens a small notebook and takes out what he describes as very rare pictures of Carnegie. He claims to have acquired them from a museum in Carnegie’s home country of Scotland. The pictures appear authentic only in that they look like original early twentieth century theatrical photos of actors and sets. In my mind it’s clear that the photos are purposefully staged on Reder’s part. One photo he displays for only a brief second because of its incredible “delicacy to light.” (And yet the museum allows him to borrow such photographs and handle them inexpertly with bare hands?) Amazingly however, a few audience members buy into the obvious sham. One person volunteering something to the effect of, “at that time homes of men like that were made to look like that, like opulent theatrical sets.” This may be true, but honey, did you see that picture? However, in this way individual and varied versions of history have just evolved based on presumed “factual” and “witnessed” evidence.

The tour concludes with two media presentations. First a slide show is presented in a back staff room of sorts. The place reminds me of my high-school biology classroom. There is a large table for note-taking, random pseudo-scientific clutter about, and a large, used, white sink in the back. The slide-show features pictures assumedly from Reder’s childhood, though he presents them as gathered historical evidence from which we may presume certain conclusions. He says things like, “You could perhaps guess from the age of the child in the photo that this could possibly be a cousin…” or “From their evident age difference and displayed affection, perhaps this is her father…” It feels even more like a high school scientific lecture as members of the audience begin to yawn or nod off despite their best intentions.

After a short ride on the museum’s freight elevator we arrive at the basement where we watch a short film Reder has made starring his elderly mother. In the opening sequence she drinks tea and reads Proust. This is an evident reference to an earlier comment in which Reder brings up Proust’s observations on sense memory. His mother sports white feathery wings throughout the film even as she strolls through town, swings on a swing set, and finally does a kind of meditative dance with her back to the camera. All of this seems to be an obvious tie-in to the Angel of History.

Reder is clearly investigating many deep questions regarding cultural and personal histories, but in the end the performance feels shallow. The humor of his somewhat clever gig of commenting on the tour within a tour dries up quickly. The rest of the performance is a lot of interesting thoughts and insightful observations that you might discuss with a friend over coffee one night. Yet, Reder’s performance is not a conversation with the audience, but rather a lecture. In the end, I had more questions regarding the theatrical presentation than the content.

Reder did not really engage the audience. There was no real time for questions or comments, as there often is on guided tours. In this way, my flashback of sitting in a high school biology lab experiencing a slide show and lecture seems like an accurate metaphor of the performance experience. While Reder talks about memory senses, we don’t experience anything sensory. The entire show is of intellectual substance only. Like a good high school student, I appreciated the information and for the most part found the ideas interesting. Yet the sometimes intriguing stories, metaphors, and observations were only strung weakly together without being woven into any substantial fabric of shared theatrical experience.

In the end though we had traveled through the museum as a group with no shared journey. We ended the tour as we had begun it, the unchanged audience quietly and politely going their separate ways.

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