Introducing the Petri Dish, our new series featuring 1-1 artist interviews about the incredible works featured in the TEAM’s Petri Projects Program. In episode 1, artist Marika Kent interviews James Harrison Monaco about his new multi-disciplinary work, Travels.
To turn on video captions, click the button marked “CC.” For the full interview transcript please read below.
Marika: All right, so we will begin. So hi James.
James: Hi Marika.
Marika: How’s it going?
James: It’s going, I’d say well, all things considered. How is it going with you?
Marika: You know, good. It’s a sunny day.
James: It’s so beautiful today.
Marika: So I thought a great place to start would just be to introduce yourself to the world who may or may not know you and require an introduction or reintroduction. So who are you and how are you connected to the TEAM?
James: I’m James Harrison Monaco. I’m a writer, composer, storyteller, musician, performer, translator, and with the TEAM, I’ve been a fan for a long time and a friend and a collaborator with various TEAM members on non-TEAM projects. And then came on the same time you did, well offer the same project RECONSTRUCTION. Maybe we entered at different times. I don’t recall.
Marika: Yeah, maybe.
James: Wait, I have a formal question about all of this, which I should have asked before this interview started. Are we interviewing each other or are you interviewing me?
Marika: I’m interviewing you.
James: Oh, okay. Well, all the questions that I prepared for you, I’ll ask you some other time then.
Marika: You might be interviewing someone else.
James: Oh, okay. Great, good information. We can hold for edit.
Marika: Oh we can do that.
James: Sorry, go ahead.
Marika: No, but that was my first question. And you answered it and then sort of rolling off of that. If you will introduce your project and what it’s called and maybe just the elevator pitch.
James: The project right now is called TRAVELS, though maybe it’ll be called TRAVELERS or maybe it’ll be called something else. It’s in the early stages. The idea it’s for live performance combines music and storytelling, as my work pretty much always does. And the idea is it’s kind of a collection of short stories and in that kind of format, but one evening lengths work, a character based largely on me is the narrator of these stories and is a first-person narrator. And there’s stories that involve travel, either that narrator based largely on my stories that that narrator has picked up or heard from other people while traveling, or just stories that he has learned or researched that involve travel or heard from other people about their travels, all combined with dance, music and synthesizers and drum machines. Yeah. That’s the elevator pitch.
Marika: That’s a good one. And that makes me want to ask you, are you drawing from places like personal experience where you’ve traveled or, is a lot drawn from the imagination?
James: I feel like a lot of it is drawn from personal experience and from research. Some projects, like the PIANO TALES, project that you, me, JJJJJerome and, Andrew Scoville made. There’s some elements that come from personal experience, but it’s a lot of stories pulled from history or just kind of made up. These I think are a little bit more rooted in contemporary research and current events. Yeah, and I would say a lot of the stories have kind of a surface-level element and then a deeper kind of darker is maybe too simplistic of a word and not a word I love like a raw element.
For instance, one story is about that I’m working on right now is kind of based on a trip `I took to Guanajuato in Mexico. And on the surface of it, it’s kind of a bar crawl with these friends that I made there, but underneath it discussion of narco-trafficking violence, kind of kept coming up. But in these subtle ways that I think the people I was traveling with didn’t really want to talk to me about in a performative way. Didn’t want it to be oh, the American comes here and hears about the greedy reality of central Mexico. But at the same time, it was there. So I think that story is kind of interrogating what is my role in these things that are seemingly distant from me. But in fact, a very present part of all of our realities. That’s how I would try to phrase it.
Marika: Yeah. Fascinating. I realize I don’t know, are you working with a collaborator or are you doing your own compositions in music?
James: Right now, the composing is mostly me and the arranging of it is all me or pretty much all me. Some of the music is right now that I’ve been using is music that JJJJJerome and I, JJJJJerome Ellis and I made together. And that I’m now kind of rearranging or shifting around or bringing in experimenting with other musicians to see what happens. But for sure his compositions are alive in it. And then other sections are a 100% composed by me.
Marika: I just imagined this version of reality, which you can confirm or deny wherein you guys just have this sort of world of music and sound ideas that…
James: Hours and hours and hours and hours and hours.
Marika: In and out Of whatever you make
James: Many, many, many, many gigabytes of Dropbox orders. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Marika: So you’re not necessarily always, composing for that piece? There’s sort of maybe a…
James: Yeah. I’m careful not to speak for JJJJJerome. So I’ll make that caveat, but were just talking the other day, maybe yesterday or something we’re in residency at BAM right now making and recording music for who knows what for kind of this purpose. But we were joking about how, as long as we don’t tell directors that we didn’t make this music explicitly for them, they won’t know. But that many directors need to believe that you started with a blank page and you were like, this is for that director. So by that, I mean, I hate starting from scratch, the blank page in any form really terrifies me.
So often I’ll just have on my iTunes, a playlist of music I’ve made during the pandemic and then some, it includes also some music JJJJJerome and I made together during the pandemic. And it’s 30 hours long maybe. And I’ll just have it on shuffle so that if I hear something and I’m like, oh, a story could go with this or, I want to dig at this. I can open it up or I can make note of it or improvise over it, but I kind of just have it going in my house semi-regularly.
Marika: I love knowing this. Is that sort of scratching and mining, is that how this piece started?
James: Yeah, exactly. So during COVID, there was nothing to do for so long of it. So I bought a bunch of music equipment and I just started experimenting and recording a bunch of just total improvisations with drum machines and synthesizers and samples. And then that for a while, JJJJJerome and I got together at The Brick in Williamsburg, and we recorded a bunch of stuff that ideas we’d both been working on jams, just from scratch. And yeah, I guess it was, I think it was like listening to those things and when not being able to travel, I was thinking a lot about these travel stories. And so then I think I would just hear a musical idea and I would be like, this sounds like the emotional reality of that night in Guanajuato or this sounds like the emotional reality of that story my friend from Shiraz and Tehran told me about his coming here or, yeah.
Marika: Nice. You also mentioned earlier that some of your stories come from, or some of the material working with comes from research. Is there any research that you’re particularly obsessed with for this piece or on this day or?
James: Maybe One big one is there in the 13 hundreds, there was this Moroccan traveler named Ibn Battuta from, I think Tangier. And he was sort of just a normal with the equivalent, I think of a middle-class guy or slightly upper-middle-class guy. Would’ve been at that time. And he spent 27 years just traveling all over the world and he didn’t intend to, he started traveling and he just couldn’t stop and was in Indonesia and China and debated how many of these places he actually went to. But he certainly traveled a lot was in India, was in Spain. And then he ended up dictating his memories of this to somebody else. And it made this five-volume book, the travels of Ibn Battuta and unlike the writings of Marco Polo from a similar time, which feel kind of beautiful, but dated and medieval, these are very human they’re kind of funny, they’re interesting, they feel not that different from travel writing now.
And I’ve been researching them just to think about what is travel writing, and what are the responsibilities of it, what are the missteps of it. So that’s one piece of research and then I’m also researching, I’ve been researching the history of Guanojuato City in that region as well, or kind of the two right now, because that’s where my head is.
Marika: As you’re talking about it, I’m realizing that I haven’t read a whole lot of travel writing. It’s a whole genre of… I started and didn’t finish ON THE ROAD probably.
James: Sure. I mean…
Marika: Yeah. And INVISIBLE CITIES, I think.
James: If you count, I mean that’s like imaginary travel writing. But based on the writings of Marco Polo, so riffing on that genre.
Marika: Yeah. That was another one. I’m not sure if we finished.
James: Totally. That one, I mean it’s a favorite of mine, but I also think honestly to me, a lot of these travel books, what I’m interested in is I don’t know that you need to finish them or I don’t, I think a lot of them aren’t written now.
Marika: Are they like recipe book where you aren’t…
James: Kind of think they’re made to dive in. Who would ever want to sit down with someone and be like, tell me about every trip you’ve ever taken right now would be a nightmare. And yet, here a little bit of a time. Yeah, I don’t know. There’s something about that. And maybe it’s where the dance music element and this piece comes in, as I’m curious also about permission for the audience to disengage mentally and just bounce with it or dance with it or go on a corner or you need your own traveling when reading about it or hearing about it.
Marika: Fascinating. Well, maybe a good final question would be as someone who maybe has read more travel writing than me, do you have a top two or three that you could recommend it?
James: This Ibn Battuta guy. I know it’s insane to be well this 14th-century Moroccan travel writer, but he’s…
Marika: No, it’s not a thing. Also, say that after PIANO TALES, I bought a copy of RUBAIYAT
James: Yeah. Oh, so good. Well, that’s been a big one for me, for sure. They’re not travel writings, but in that strict sense, but Roberto Bolaño’s short stories, which is in a collection called LAST EVENINGS ON EARTH, translated by Chris Andrews. There’s something about those stories that have a lot of them have kind of a shared narrator. Who’s sort of just seemingly, supposed to be a fictional version of Bolaño and some of them take place in Chile or his time in Mexico or his time in Spain or in Germany or in Belgium or in France. There’s something interesting to me about those two. They’re pretty problematic and kind of thorny and interesting as all his writing is. Joan Didion’s just I don’t know that you would call them travel writings, but just all her writings about California to me would be another big inspiration to me.
Marika: Solid. Well, all right. Thank you for hanging out with me and answering.
James: Thanks so much. Thanks for asking and prepping them.