Lou Watson’s Suite Sandy Boulevard
Watson's thesis performance--an experimental concert which takes NE Sandy Boulevard as its theme--returned to the site of its subject
In a return to the site that is the subject of the work, Lou Watson’s multimedia piece Suite Sandy Boulevard was performed at Portland’s Hollywood Theatre on Sandy Boulevard on June 7, 2015 after having been developed and performed as her Intermedia BFA thesis project at PNCA. In her own words, Watson describes the suite as “an experimental concert which takes NE Sandy Boulevard (specifically between 57th and 82nd Avenues) as its theme.” Comprised of eight movements, Suite Sandy Boulevard incorporates video, music, and live performance. The detailed program notes for Suite Sandy Boulevard served as the written component of Watson’s thesis.
Modeled upon the structure of a musical suite, Suite Sandy Boulevard brings to life Watson’s idiosyncratic relationship to dwelling adjacent to Sandy. Fascinated by the effects of side-looking, or viewing objects and concepts along oblique sightlines, Watson drew inspiration from the everyday as well as a presiding interest in local history. In 2014, as part of a fellowship with the Oregon Heritage Society, she created the project Roadside Attraction: Situational Aesthetics and Place-Identity of NE Sandy Boulevard (57th to 82nd). Sandy has also featured in several videos made by Watson, including “Commute” (2014), which reimagines Sandy’s road markings as a musical staff and its traffic patterns as notes in order to play the sounds of the boulevard.
Watson was inspired to develop the suite during an extended period spent in close proximity to Sandy whilst staying at home to take care of her son who had broken his leg in a bike accident on the same road. During this time, Watson became more attuned to her neighborhood, noting her irked reaction to early morning disturbances (hence the title of one movement in the suite, “7am Blows,” referencing a neighbor’s predilection for leaf blowing in the wee hours), and many other particulars of the mixed-use NE Portland road. She would later translate her observations and multidisciplinary research into humorous vignettes, such as operatic recitations of billboard slogans and spot-the-difference games using photographs of Sandy storefronts, for the different suite movements.
For the performances of Suite Sandy Boulevard, both at her thesis presentation and subsequently at the Hollywood Theatre, Watson conducted a thirteen-member ensemble. Although most of Watsons’s choreography is highly specific, components of some pieces were intentionally left open for improvisation. This element of spontaneity and the fact that the score itself is designed to reflect the present state of Sandy—for example, the lyrics of “The Billboard Duet” reflect the content of specific billboards at the time that the piece is performed—reflect Watson’s attention to the ever-changing status of place. Watson draws heavily on humor, which elevates Suite Sandy Boulevard far beyond twee observation or irony Watson’s project of finding creative and intellectual stimulus in daily life. “I use humor in all of my work,” she says. “I can’t help it. It’s just the way that I communicate . . . There’s something really magical about wordplay. People groan about puns, they’re missing something wonderful.”
Watson objects to didactic interpretations of Suite Sandy Boulevard. Rather than commenting upon specific local politics or gentrification, the suite, Watson explains, the piece “is about the present.” Her goal of capturing a slice of Sandy’s identity is connected, she explains, to a broader interest in reinvigorating individuals’ sense of wonder in the everyday. Watson clarifies, “I’m interested in the universal place of feeling bored or unenchanted, whether you’re a homeless person or a mayor, and my work is about trying to pull yourself out of that grey place.” Suite Sandy Boulevard reflects this attitude and offers the audience a myriad of playful entry points for considering the intersections of individual perspective, urban layout, and local history. Diagonal streets, Watson notes, are rare. Through her research, she’s learned that streets that run slantwise through gridded city layouts are typically older roads that have been incorporated, often somewhat awkwardly, into later city planning. Suite Sandy Boulevard uses wit and side-looking to identify wonder in the quotidian and Sandy itself thus becomes a vehicle for Watson and her audience to muse upon the specifics of a given location, playfully engaging Sandy in the present and thereby learning about its past. As for the future, Watson is interested in revising the score so that the suite can reflect the goings-on of other diagonal streets.