Performance art duo Princess (Michael O’ Neill, left; Alexis Gideon, right) will be at Alabama Contemporary Art Center on April 20.
Photo | Princess
Need to get away? You can leave the planet, the solar system and this reality at Alabama Contemporary Art Center (ACAC) thanks to the performance art duo Princess. The twosome’s interstellar vessel is “Out There,” a multi-disciplinary performance piece boarding passengers at 301 Conti St., April 20 at 7 p.m. as part of a 40-plus city tour.
“We’ll be in the home stretch. We just filled in a show, so we’re going to be playing Baton Rouge in between Austin and Mobile,” Princess member Michael O’Neill said.
That’s far shorter than the two-decade march to “Out There.” O’Neill and colleague Alexis Gideon formed Princess in 2004 in the Chicago DIY performance space Texas Ballroom. A self-titled LP followed, but they parted ways in 2006 seeking other projects.
Fast-forward a decade where musical ideas shared long distance—Gideon in Pittsburgh and O’Neill in Brooklyn—piled up quickly. Then their participation in the 2017 Women’s March had a deeper impact.
“We wanted to make this music into something related to those issues as a way for us, as men, to process our feelings about what was going on,” O’Neill said.
Gideon’s background “making video narrative operas in an animated style” called to them. They discussed themes and drew up storyboards. Suddenly, the six-month production cycle of “Out There” was underway. Princess was renewed and their divergent yet productive paths coalesced.
Gideon’s work has taken him into art museums and showplaces in Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, Sweden, Spain and Italy among other locales. O’Neill has a similar international track record, playing musical gigs in Mexico, Australia and across the U.S.
“Out There” is a direct offshoot of both routes. Its live form features the costumed men performing 16 musical pieces as the visual tale plays on a large screen between them.
“You know it’s an interesting piece and it’s visually very stunning,” O’Neill said. “I think people are moved by the amount and quality of the work they’re seeing.”
What they see is animation blending both personal and archival photography with video footage and stop-motion techniques into a Technicolor quest for identity and cooperation. A fictional version of the duo leave Earth, seeking refuge from “toxic masculinity and misogyny.”
“There’s this foolishness and hubris as you realize we’re set up for failure,” O’Neill said. “Our own egos get in the way but in the end we realize we can’t actively change the world. To solve these problems we need to look inside ourselves.”
Into the cosmos, they find one new world long on nihilism that becomes a trap. Another planetary excursion reveals warnings about institutions, technology and social media.
The vision calls to mind early MTV and Ziggy Stardust. This viewer perceived the slightest lyrical nod to John Lennon in one tiny section, either subconscious or imagined.
O’Neill estimated the cost of the production was $10,000, an efficiency created by the digital revolution. They enlisted friends to act. Costumes were easy to come by.
“We’re a queer band, expressing our fluidity through costumes and playing with gender, almost to exemplify our music since we’re not tied to just one genre, sonically,” O’Neill said.
This space oddity’s soundtrack is rich with hooks, raps and rhythms. The last trio of songs in collaboration with the female group TEEN and musician JD Samson not only enhanced its sonic landscape, but also forced philosophy into realization.
“We composed these parts, demoed them and were attached to them. Then when women came into the studio to lay down vocals, they wanted to do some different things. Letting go of our own creation was a difficult process, but we had to; we asked them to come in and represent women, so we let them do that,” O’Neill said.
O’Neill said reaction has been positive, sparking plentiful conversation and healthy dialogue. There has also been confusion and ruffled feathers, such as when women left a show during a particularly hyper-phallic scene.
“I wish they had stayed, but I get it. As women, they wanted to see what we had to say, but if they don’t want to deal with that particular imagery, I get that. I respect it,” O’Neill said.
He’s eager to reach Mobile for the first time. It’s another frontier for him.
“I’ve been a touring musician for a long time. [I’ve been] to 49 states, and one of the benefits of that is you get to understand the full spectrum of people and what’s going on with everybody,” O’Neill said.
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