Third things: a conversation with Nancy Tam


What was the most recent dream you remember? was the question that last week’s artists, Zahra and Rianne, put to Nancy. Nancy described this nightmare:


“As an ornithophobic, and a nervous jaywalker, I had my ultimate nightmare sometime last year. In my nightmare, I was in Hong Kong with my husband Ira, and the other two members of A Wake of Vultures, Conor Wylie and Daniel O’Shea. For some reason, we needed to jaywalk and I couldn’t. The next thing I know, I am separated from the rest of the gang by fast moving cars between us. They were yelling for me to “JUST CROSS THE STREET, NAN!” That didn’t help. So, I looked to my right and there it was… an ostrich… and it was curious about me so it came to investigate. Slowly turning my head to face the three guys on the other side, the ostrich does, what seems like, a classic Jurassic Park move putting its head under mine and looking around. Scared to hell and back, I slowly turn my head to the left looking for a way out but then! … … … … … there were two copulating ducks!!!! … … … … … blocking my exit! HAHA, you think? Well, it’s all fun and games until you’re caught between an ostrich and two copulating ducks. I hope this doesn’t happen when we’re touring Walking at Night by Myself in Hong Kong in April.”


Nancy’s work for Shooting Gallery is a new segment of an existing piece called Walking at Night By Myself. The first version was presented last year at Music on Main, and she has been thinking about the ideas she is working with since long before then. Nancy told me that for her, things often start as just small, sometimes incomplete snippets of ideas, and she will think to herself, “I don’t know what that’s about but it intrigues me” — then just wait, and think on it, keeping it in her thoughts until the right moment arises to develop it. The room that that process allows for very thorough consideration is apparent in this piece, which is both complex and extremely specific.

Walking at Night By Myself uses the optical phenomenon of moiré, which Nancy explained as “an interference pattern that happens within the human brain when you observe two or more misaligned grids or repetitive patterns. The points of intersection form a third pattern that doesn’t exist in either one of them, but only in putting them together.”


I find the visual representations amazing, but I was even more fascinated by the principle of this phenomenon: the emergence of things “not existing, but existing only under a certain relation,” as Nancy put it. There seemed to me to be a lot of potential for this idea to translate into different contexts. In what other ways could the interaction of two things give way to a third thing that does not and can not exist outside the relationship between two constituent elements?

Nancy told me that the phenomenon can also exist aurally, when “two sound waves are played simultaneously in close proximity, and they’re slightly de-tuned from each other…some of the partials get excited in a much more exaggerated way than others, and so you start to hear things that are not existing in the room or in each one of the tones, it’s just when they’re together.”

Sound itself is another example, because it is the result of the friction between agitated air particles, and so it exists only by virtue of the relationship between those particles in motion. And there is a further element of relationship because something, or someone, has to cause the air to move in order to create that friction.

But Nancy’s central interest in moiré is in the confusion inherent in the illusion. Moiré works because the eye cannot distinguish two separate patterns simultaneously, and so in this confusion it conflates the two — but that conflation, rather than being reductive, leads to the emergence of a new, third thing. In Walking at Night by Myself, the two performers are made to look so alike that it becomes difficult to tell them apart. Nancy uses this confusion as a vehicle to question the ways we see people:

“When do we recognize that people are different and when do they look the same? And why do they look the same and how do they look the same? Where and what are the third patterns that exist and emerge when two very similar people are standing together and being together and acting the same? And also how do we categorize these similarities?”

Nancy told me that she loves to use confusion as a device because she believes that “confusion is where curiosity is birthed.” Hearing her talk about the piece I can say that I was definitely curious. But she admitted that inciting curiosity is only half of the work:

“I really want the audience to then in the confusion be realizing the questions that I’m asking — like who am I looking at? — and to think more deeply about that. That’s the hard part: [for] a very formally driven show to engage with those questions in a nuanced way.”

She made very intentional choices to this end. It is deliberate that the performers are in skirts, that they are two asian women, that their faces — but not their heads entirely — are obscured. A clear groundwork is laid to lead audience members to those questions, but whether or not each person takes the further step of asking them, they are in for a spectacular show. Nancy was unabashed about this being one of the aims of the piece, and her approach to this is systematic.

To start with, the piece is built specifically for a proscenium audience perspective — the patterns only function when they are looked at straight on, the performers’ movements are all lateral — and it takes advantage of the controlled environment to construct a precise experience for the audience. Nancy compared it to standing in a gallery looking at a large painting, and the way that from that position (below, looking up), “you’re just awestruck, like the scale is amazing. It does crazy things to your body.” And so by capitalizing on what is inherent to the proscenium setup, showing something very confusing, and having the projection fill the entire space, Nancy said she is “conditioning [the audience] to be awestruck. That’s what this piece is about, it’s a spectacle. It’s about an effect and the embodied responses that are included in that.”

Walking at Night By Myself uses the mediums of projection, performance, and sound to create this experience for the audience. The piece began with the visuals, but Nancy told me that with each piece she creates, she starts first with a concept and then determines the medium she will work in based on that. Though she does work most frequently in sound and performance, and speaking about these mediums specifically led us to the subject of ephemerality. Nancy said something I really liked regarding the difficulty of documenting/recreating sound and performance work. She pointed out that it is not merely that certain things don’t translate onto film or audio recording — part of the difficulty is also due to the fact that listening to or watching a recording of something is so vastly different from experiencing a show in a theatre, where there is a whole audience present, and where one has dedicated the time to go and do only that. This made me think that the experience of seeing work live could also be considered a “third thing” that emerges through the relationship of the performance and the audience. I can’t wait to experience that “third thing” at Shooting Gallery in just a few weeks.

Tickets are on sale now for our shows on November 23 and 24!

Third things: a conversation with Nancy Tam

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s