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The Arthropologist

What's the scariest thing in the world for an artist? Exploring something new

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"Blender Love," a work by Hillerbrand + Magsamen and playwright Kirk Lynn Photo by Mary Magsamen
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Brian Byrnes, right, directing "La Boheme" at Opera in the Heights with actors Gerardo Antonio Ramos and Crystallia Spilianaki Photo by Gwen Turner-Juarez
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Allison Hunter, still from "Zoosphere," an installation with sound, dimensions variable, 2010 Courtesy of the artist

When Juliette Binoche enthused on NPR about her sudden turn to modern dance in a collaboration with Akram Khan at Brooklyn Academy of Music, claiming to be just a highly creative person with the ability to enter any art form without training, I thought to myself, Ms. Binoche, that's entitlement, not creativity. The New York Times agreed. How many rock stars do you know who also consider themselves to be visual artists? I am more interested in artists taking calculated risks outside of their comfort zone. Next-step moves build careers.

Consider these smart pioneers, venturing out in ways that make sense to their individual aesthetics. These are necessary adventures.

Fight director Brian Byrnes discovers opera

Art form hopping can be a natural move. While hanging out with Brian Byrnes during Big Love rehearsals at University of Houston a while back, he announced,"You know, I am directing La Boheme at Opera in the Heights."

Byrnes, an associate professor at UH, is known as Houston's leading fight director, but he's also a playwright and a busy director. Yet the sword stuff penetrates his thinking; he's an intensely physical guy. In addition to directing his first opera, he's also designing the set with Clinton Hopper's assistance. I popped in to see what kind of mayhem Byrnes was stirring up at OH's cozy headquarters. I stepped through lumber, sawdust and other signs of a vision-in-the-making to get to my seat to watch the long-haired director at his new gig. Insiders tell me it's the most elaborate set so far in an OH production.

"Why is it always a danger zone around you?" I him.

"I know, I am sort of a mad scientist," he replied.

For Byrnes, opera isn't such a stretch. Rather than looking at other versions of La Boheme, he immersed himself into the heart of the Puccini's epic tragedy. "This is such a tightly written opera, Puccini worked closely with his librettist, down to a every detail and word choice. Nothing in this text is random," he said. 

The lack of depth in the space, a short amount of rehearsal time and double casts have presented greater challenges than the fact that everyone is singing.  "Good lyrics are not that different than traditional text," he said.

Blocking has also presented Byrnes some challenges. "Move two feet to the left," he said to soprano Daniela Carvalho. "In this space it will make a huge difference."

Judging from Byrnes' swagger, he's at home in his new role. Next, he directs the non-stop romp, The Complete History of America at Stages Repertory Theatre and Lone Star College is mounting his children's play, Aesop's Fables.

Allison Hunter's photographed animals morph into video

Often artists needs to enlarge their vision, which is what happened when Allison Hunter's mystical photographs of animals morphed into video as part of her first large-scale installation, Zoosphere, DiverseWorks' contribution to Fotofest. Maybe you noticed, but there's a fish tank in the middle of DiverseWorks.

Hunter spent months collecting footage at the Houston Zoo and the Cockrell Butterfly Center. A fruit bat licks his paws, a lone elephant flaps his papery ears in the corner and a Panamanian Golden frog stares straight at us. Hunter places us in an animal world where the backgrounds have either been removed or altered so that her subjects gain center stage and a sharp poignancy. "I virtually relocate animals in a different kind of captivity: the gallery space. Rather than viewers coming upon enclosed animals, the animals come upon the viewer," Hunter writes in her artist statement. And she's right: You feel as if you are guest of these roaming creatures.

Hunter has a degree in video art from Renssalaer, although this is her first venture into the format in quite some time, and the all-encompassing scale of the DiverseWorks show posed a new level of exhibit planning. "Early on, I would do slide shows, so I was experimenting with time-based work," she said. "I like to marry the media that best fits with the message of my work."

Video artists Magsamen and Hillerbrand get theatrical 

Pushing the envelope often takes courage. At the upcoming Fuse Box Festival, Mary Magsamen and Stephan Hillerbrand team up with playwright Kirk Lynn of the legendary Austin-based  Rude Mechanicals for Blender Love, their first adventure in interactive theater and second collaboration with Lynn. Head to the glowing green carnival tent with your dead cellphones, blackberries and other communication gadgets for a seance to unearth their hidden messages.

If you have stopped by the couple's Fotofest show, Four Place Setting, at Spacetaker, you would know immediately that this husband and wife video art team possess wide-open imaginations. Watching these witty videos that feature Magsamen and Hillerbrand and sometimes their two children, it seems logical that the artists have a natural affinity for performance. "Our show, Transcendental Smoothie at Lawndale, leaned towards getting off the wall," adds Hillerbrand, an assistant professor in the photo/digital media program at University of Houston.

Moving into a more theatrical territory first came at the suggestion of Fuse Box Festival founder Ron Berry, when he put the three artists together for a previous Fuse Box event. "The first few days were rough," said Magsamen, who is also curator for the Aurora Picture Show.  "We spent a lot of time just defining what we do."

The result, Let's Get Married, will make you think about eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in a whole new way. Read the Glasstire review here.

Unlike most of their work, the pair will not be performing in Blender Love. Instead, they have hired an actor to play the psychic, who will be gently prepped by Lynn. Blender Love, ripe with unknowns, will come together in real time, a first for these two. I expect the piece will be rich with the visual wit so characteristic of their work thus far. 

"I still wake up at 4 a.m. worrying how it will all work," admits Hillerbrand.

Magasmen looks relaxed. "It will be what it will be." she said, smiling confidently.

I've been inspired by these artists' savvy forays into new territory. We should all be so smartly bold. Oh, and not a single one of them wants to try modern dance.

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