From the time she steps into Colwell Playhouse when she arrives at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts early this week until the world premiere of her new show, “Data Not Found,” at 7:30 Friday evening at Ellnora: The Guitar Festival, Kaki King doesn’t expect to see much, if any, of the light of day.
“Nothing like spending the end of summer in a dark, black theater for like 12 hours a day,” the guitarist joked. “I mean, God, there’s nothing like it.”
After all, for King, this time is invaluable. For a show like “Data Not Found,” which includes spoken text, visual artistry, and, of course, guitar playing, finding theater space to work on a show is difficult, especially for an artist based in New York.
As other world-renowned guitarists gather for the three-day festival, convening for each other’s shows, jam sessions, and late-night hangs, King said she owes it to herself and the crew she’s working with to put her head down and work this week. So when she comes to Krannert, the week will be spent hashing out the many moving parts of a show that’s unlike anything she’s ever done.
“This has been a slog because so much of what needs to be done needs to be done in a theater,” she said. “It’s not theoretical; it’s not conceptual; it’s really just getting the people who are building it in the room for as long as it takes.”
The goal of the show is to “(explore) a broad range of contemporary issues, including artificial intelligence, the natural world, ‘big data,’ and personal empowerment.” And while she’s keeping many details of the show close to the vest, a show she performed last year called “Bruises” gives a glimpse of how data aggregation and guitar playing can mesh.
In the show, King explained that her daughter, Cooper, had a rare auto-immune disease, wherein the body attacks its platelets, causing bruising and burst blood vessels all over her body. During treatment, a friend named Giorgia Lupi, a designer and data researcher, suggested collecting Cooper’s data — including the number of bruises, bleeding incidents, medications, days King was away from home, and King’s feelings among other things — and putting them into a visual design. King then attached music to the data, which rises and falls throughout the piece as the artistry connected to the data is shown on-screen.
While the show won’t all be personal and won’t necessarily have a narrative through-line, some of it will.
“Some of it is personal, yeah,” said King, whose daughter has since recovered from the disorder. “And I was surprised by how it became that. But they say, ‘Write what you know.’ I think in fact we will be experimenting at Ellnora with incorporating that piece into the show. Because that really was the genesis of wanting to do something, not just based around the data and the concept of data, but also something that, for the first time, really was very personal, very real. It happened to me in that kind of sense. So some of these scenarios, they will be talking about things that are very true to me.”
King did perform a very early iteration of her show during a residency at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in February. That show was put together, King said, the first week any of the crew were in a room together.
Ellnora artistic director David Spelman was in the audience at the sneak peek of “Data Not Found,” on which Krannert is a commissioning partner.
“This is not a play, like going to see Shakespeare. This is not a musical, like going to see Hamilton,” Spelman said. “But this is a multimedia experience that will involve speaking and playing the guitar and possibly some other interests and exploring some personal and societal questions that revolve around what it means to be a human and how data collection has an impact on current contemporary life and things like that. I think it’ll be compelling.
“But one of the things about presenting a world premiere of a piece is it’s always unpredictable. I think one phrase that comes to mind when you’re commissioning a work is, ‘Hey, no risk, no reward.’ But I think we have a relationship with Kaki at the festival and we trust her as an artist. I, for one, along with the entire Ellnora team, wouldn’t bet against her presenting a fascinating and difficult to describe kind of work.”
Commissioning work can be a tricky proposition, especially for an experimental project like King’s. It requires an institution like Krannert to put resources behind a project without exactly knowing what to expect. Krannert Center director Mike Ross relates commissioning work to research in other fields at the university, and it can take the form of supporting a work financially or with resources like theater space, as in King’s case.
“Until the work is created, it’s a work in progress, and creativity is one of those things that unfolds in very unpredictable ways at times,” Ross said. “If an institution is serious about nurturing creativity, you have to embrace some of the core tenets that attach to the nature and needs of creativity, and one of those is having the opportunity to fail.”
Ross and Spelman don’t know exactly what’s coming, and, to a degree, neither does King.
“I don’t know what to expect,” she said. “Obviously I want people to feel something and I want people to enjoy what they see, and I don’t want to be too heavy-handed. But I do want to try new things, and you know, you just have to try. This will be a collection of new things, some of which I feel very cool about. And again, this is the first time. I’m grateful that I’ll hopefully have a very generous and patient audience. So there’s kind of a lot of feelings swirling about, what I want people to get out of it. I want people to be entertained, and I want people to have a cathartic moment.”
King has never strayed from experimental work in the realm of the guitar. Her last major project, “The Neck is a Bridge to the Body,” revolved around images that were projected onto her guitar as she played.
But even for her, “Data Not Found” is a step into the unknown.
“It’s not just the expansion of the guitar, it’s also a bit of an expansion of me, and I’m still, to be honest and to be a little vulnerable here, I’m still questioning what happens when I don’t have a guitar in front of me,” said King, who has performed at Ellnora twice before. “There are only a couple of moments in the show where I’m speaking, and it’s interesting. And it’s very much like, ‘Do I even exist if there’s no guitar?’ I’m so drawn to the instrument and it’s shaped my entire life, but there will be a bit of that.”
That’s why she’ll be holed up in a dark theater all week, focusing on a show that goes far beyond the guitar.