Automobile orchestra’s return is a unique and memorable ride

Photo courtesy of Tori Waschek.

On March 21, Ramapo professor John Peffer organized a Fluxus-style performance. There were about 20 participants from the college community that showed. Those in attendance had cars, some with more than one person, and joined in to be a part of the artwork. This used to be an annual event, but because of Covid this is the first time in two years it has been performed. 

“It has been good this semester for people to gather together and be creative without having to be ‘on TV’ all the time,” Peffer said. “Folks are still timid, though. They have not been interacting much outside their immediate families or very small groups for the past two years."

"People are still not sure as they start stepping out into the world, if the earth is solid or not. I think this kind of activity is a healthy way to re-enter the world.”

The work of art that was performed was George Brecht’s Fluxus event score, “Motor Vehicle Sundown” (1960), which is a sound and light work for an “orchestra” of automobiles, performed by the audience. It is a work dedicated to the late American composer, John Cage, who was known for performing avant-garde works and coining the term “experimental music.” 

The score sheets on how the performance was to be executed were handed out in Ramapo College parking lot D to those participating. The instructions, or more-so rules, were clear, as anybody could follow what was on the paper without needing any musical background or knowledge going into it. All that was needed was any number of motor vehicles arranged outdoors, at least as many sets of instruction sets as vehicles, all instruction sets are shuffled collectively, and the 22 listed actions are distributed to the single performer per vehicle.

At 6:15 p.m. after being directed, the performers simultaneously sat themselves in their vehicle. Each performer started the engine of their vehicle and subsequently acted according to the directions on their instruction card.

Everybody had the same variety of tasks, but listed in different orders. If an act could not be done then an equivalent pause was substituted for an instruction referring to non-available equipment. Once completing all instructions, each performer turned off the engine of their vehicle and remained seated until all vehicles had ceased running. 

The variety of tasks included changing the setting of the car headlights, turning on and off parking lights, foot-brake lights, glove compartment lights, spot-lamp lights or special lights.  Some were turning wind-shield wipers on and off, accelerating the motor, sounding the car horn, turning the radio all the way up or down, opening and closing doors, windows, trunks, or hoods all at different speeds, or simply just takings a pause.

“It was a really interesting experience getting to take part in a Fluxus-style performance, especially after learning and discussing such a wide variety of performance artworks throughout the semester,” said Kaitlin Balasaygun, a participant and student of Peffer’s. 

“I was nervous about having to do some of the odd instructions given to us for the performance, but once we all got started and everyone was doing their own thing, I felt much more comfortable,” she said. “It was honestly a lot of fun and I'm looking forward to the upcoming works that my class will be learning about and performing.” 

“We had a good size group this year. President Jebb came and played along, too,” Peffer said. “But even if it is just one vehicle it is always good fun. It never fails to amuse.” 

The performance went on for about a total of 15 minutes and went smoothly with all the unpredictable possibilities that could have occurred. It was quite literally a once-in-a-lifetime performance, because when it comes to this avant-garde style of music, no single performance will ever be executed the exact same way.