Royal Osiris Karaoke Ensemble Provide a Space to Reflect on Digital Connectivity

The artists behind Royal Osiris Karaoke Ensemble, Sean McElroy and Tei Blow, describe their collective as a musical priesthood that explores mythologies of love, desire, and courtship in the digital age. The latest in their iterative Creative Capital Project, The Art of Luv, premieres at Abrons Art Center in New York June 7-24, 2018. As a starting point, the artists created work around a little-viewed “haul” video on YouTube uploaded by an anonymous woman in Georgia. The resulting work, The Art of Luv: Awesome Grotto, provides a site for reflection on the potential of digital connectivity.

We spoke to the Sean McElroy and Tei Blow ahead of the premiere of their project.
Alex—Can you give me the background of The Art of Luv?

Sean—The origin story for this show is that on Labor Day 2013 a woman that we don’t know went out to Starbucks and Kohl’s in Georgia, where she lives, and bought some stuff. She came home and turned on her phone and recorded a “haul” video—a genre of video where people describe what they bought that day. About nine months later, Tei fell down a YouTube wormhole looking at haul videos and found this one. He became fascinated by it, and sent it to me, and I became fascinated by it. We’ve been fascinated by it ever since. At one point the woman took down the video, which eliminated our way of knowing who she is or getting in touch with her, but we had transcribed and recreated it already.

We’ve remade it five times now, I think, with different actresses and we posted those back on the internet so that the video isn’t lost. The show is based on this video and our relationship with it. At the end of the run we’re going to delete the original video we downloaded, so that all that’s left is our remakes and our memories of it.

Alex—What did you find so interesting about this video?

Tei—Our work in general, especially in this series, is about the way we evaluate people based on what their forward-facing identity is. Our first work in this series was about Elliott Roger, a Santa Barbara college student who went to a sorority and tried to shoot everybody. We analyzed his YouTube channel and creative output.

This particular “haul” video tends to elicit a reaction from people: depending on who you are, your identity, what gender you identify with, any of your personal parameters, you will have a reaction to this video. It’s not inflammatory or anything; it’s a normative person in the middle of America buying some very boring clothing.

Sean—Part of the reason I think it elicits these reactions is there’s something genuine, or unvarnished, weirdly unaffected about her delivery and performance. The video has a certain power to elicit reaction. One person said it made his skin crawl.

Tei—We could talk about this video forever!

Alex—So, going into the show at Abrons, what should we expect?

Sean—There are two parts of the installation. The first is in the gallery in Abrons. There will be a plastered, geodesic dome that has a video station inside with multiple monitors, and plants, and a water fountain where you can watch all the various interpretations of this video.

What we’ve found with this video is that the first time you watch it, you’re like, this is a stupid video about a woman having a dumb experience in consumerist America. The next time you watch it, you wonder, what is this woman like? And the next time you watch it, you develop a very strong affinity for her because her performance is so sincere. If you watch a lot of “haul” videos like we have, there’s a fakeness to them or a knowingness to them that is protective. There’s something about her video where she doesn’t know how to do it right. You can hear her think through a performance of this genre of “haul” video that’s specific to consumerism.

Alex—There are other genres of videos out there, like ones of people unwrapping Christmas presents, people receiving college acceptance or rejection letters, and makeup tutorials. These are performances, but rawer than artistic performance, so it’s interesting that you have watched these videos over and over again. Do they become performance art for you, in a way that they aren’t intended to be?

There’s some kind of parallel that the internet is this place where we think we can see everything, but actually there’s this other edge of total oblivion. You can make a video and no one will watch it. Does that mean that you don’t exist?

Sean—Right. I think the motives for the videos are different for different people, but there’s this idea that you could get a million followers. Everyone says the same thing at the end of the video: “like, comment, subscribe.” There’s this idea that you want to meme yourself, or have your image reproduced, but at the same time it’s also this private moment. This particular video had 49 views, and she probably watched it 30 times. So, it’s this private thing.

One of the things we’re really fascinated by is these moments. There’s a certain danger to putting yourself out there… like someone might make a performative theater piece about it [laughs]. The actresses we talk to all had this really interesting experience where they started by thinking this is a dumb video, and then connected to this woman in all these different ways depending on who they were. So, when you walk into the exhibition, you’ll see all these actresses performing the video, and they each bring out something different.

Alex—With digital media now, there’s all these ways to record yourself. I see videos like this and I think it’s really stupid. But you encourage this way to empathize with the people in these videos. Doesn’t that tie back into your idea of courtship in the age of the app?

Tei—Yeah, so the piece is titled “Awesome Grotto.” We look at the grotto as a place for contemplation, whether it’s an architectural feature that wealthy people use.

Alex—What is a grotto actually?

Tei—It was a small picturesque cave repurposed or built for the purpose of contemplation. Grottos were built, used or repurposed throughout history, by the ancient Greeks and Romans, throughout the Middle Ages, and other civilizations throughout history. It’s actually kind of vague. If you Google “grotto,” you’ll see some spaces that don’t even look like caves.

We’re working with a few ideas: Contemplating this initially laughable or off-putting video requires a love act. The act that she has performed is mirrored in our assemblage of objects and performance items. We’ve created a womb-like structure, as you pass through it you enter what we’re thinking of as a cave. And here we’re also making references to “Plato’s Cave.”

Sean—One of the things that happened when we were trying to remake this video was we tried to buy all the stuff that the woman bought in the video from mail order and stuff. We got everything except for the black and white peplum dress, and also the blouse that she’s wearing. So we made them. It’s uncovered this interesting idea that, there’s this paradox about the internet that it’s everyone’s collective memory. But there are these weird voids that show up in it. For instance, we thought we lost the Bobby Flay Pizza Cutter (we ended up finding it), so we had tried to buy another one. Not only could we not buy it, there’s no record of it ever having existed on the internet. So, if you search “Bobby Flay Pizza Cutter,” there’s nothing. If we didn’t have one, and we didn’t have this video, then probably nobody on earth would remember the Bobby Flay Pizza Cutter.

I did actually meet someone who was part of the product development of the Bobby Flay Pizza Cutter, so I got some confirmation that the product existed. There’s some kind of parallel that the internet is this place where we think we can see everything, but actually there’s this other edge of total oblivion. You can make a video and no one will watch it. Does that mean that you don’t exist?
There are these characters now, like these “incel” guys, like Elliott Rodger, who feel invisible, and post on the internet saying they feel invisible. One of the things we’re interested in doing is taking this moment of speaking into a lens and sort of capture it in its real essence, without the technology, to slow down the whole process and be able to say, there’s an actual person on the other end. Or maybe not. Maybe they’re dead. Or in a parallel existence, I am her? These technologies of connection and memory serve to do the opposite of what they were intended.

Alex—You guys have been obsessing over this video since 2014, so we’re coming up on five years almost. Does this woman have any idea you’ve made a whole performance out of it?

Sean—We have no way of finding her. If you enter the URL for her video, an error page comes up.

Tei—The URL itself is not a subfolder of her personal account. It’s just a coded URL, so there’s no information from it that we can find who she is. I don’t think I was able to subscribe to her channel—we’ve tried using her face to reverse image google search her.

Sean—And the only thing that came up was “beauty,” which I thought was interesting. We thought about a private investigator. We know she’s from Georgia, so I made a spreadsheet of every town in Georgia where there is a Kohl’s, a Starbucks, and a college.
She was a student, so I tried to cross reference every town that could fulfill those three things. We came up with fifteen towns, but there’s no way to continue that search without hiring a private investigator or something really creepy.

Alex—How did you guys start working together?

Sean—We started working together because we were Craigslist roommates. I moved into a loft where Tei was living, about twelve years ago. We started writing songs for a musical about ancient Egypt. It comes out of playing music together and being stoned and having stoned ideas, I guess. Maybe that’s still what we do a little bit.

Tei—Our creative process involves finding source material, selecting it to a high degree of hoarding, whether it be a pile of Google documents, spreadsheets, or folders of downloaded YouTube videos, and music and speeches. The process so far has been culling that material, putting it in a giant video timeline, editing it, then sending it via radio receiver into an actor’s ear and seeing what that sounds like coming out of one person as one linear idea. Then we edit that down either with or without its original source video to create a performance text. In this case we changed a lot where the performance that we’re looking at in the video is on an actual monitor, and inside the performance area, we’re not abandoning it. It’s going to have a different feel but the process is the same.

Sean—We’re working with a choreographer with this one for the first time.

Alex—How was Creative Capital helpful in your project and careers?

Sean—Well, there’s like this treadmill you get on when you’re an artist. You get a $6,000 commission and all of a sudden you have to have a show, you have a budget, and you get a little lost because you need the money. So, there’s something about knowing that you have $50,000 to do your next project, so that you can get off that treadmill and start wondering, “Am I just doing this next show because I needed something to do?” There’s this empowering pause that the Award gives you. $50,000 is just enough to actually do your own thing. It allows you to think with grown up shoes on for a second. It makes you a foot taller.

I’ve met some amazing people through the Creative Capital community too and have formed some lasting relationships.

Alex—I’m always trying to figure out how to make these interviews possibly helpful for other artists reading them, like if someone is part of an artist collective, that’s just like two stoned dudes making performances from found YouTube clips. What would you say to the other Royal Osiris Karaoke Ensembles who are looking to receive Awards like the Creative Capital one?

Tei—Some advice that Hasan Elahi gave us—he’s a very generous awardee, individual, in general—he was telling us about applying for the Guggenheim Fellowship. He said, the most important thing you can do is to assess yourself as objectively as possible and apply for grants that are going to give you exactly the right boost for the next step in your career. Frame your application as if it’s the absolute logical next step. For the Creative Capital application, it asks that you have five years of professional experience to apply. Use that to get to that point. If people can recognize your name in some way then you can be eligible, and if you can stick it out for that long, then you’re on the right path.

Buy tickets for The Art of Luv: Awesome Grotto by Royal Osiris Karaoke Ensemble at Abrons Art Center June 7-24.