hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires





From voices of the aged, works of art

Exhibits draw from artist’s conversations with seniors



Contributing writer


David Greenberger has made a national reputation by listening attentively to a collection of voices that are often ignored – those of the elderly.


Greenberger’s original plans for a career as a fi ne arts painter were pleasantly derailed in 1979, the day he took a post-art-school job as activities director at a Boston-area nursing home called The Duplex.


The 25-year-old who’d just earned a bachelor of fi ne arts degree found himself fascinated by the conversations he was having with the nursing home’s residents.


“The conversations became my art,” explained Greenberger, who now lives in the Washington County village of Greenwich.


In his unusual medium, the artist discovered there was a surprising depth and satisfaction to be found in engaging in conversations about ordinary things.


In his first year at the nursing home, Greenberger started a magazine, “The Duplex Planet,” that became a clearinghouse for his conversations with the elderly. The magazine has grown in popularity over the decades, and Greenberger’s conversations have been praised for revealing his subjects’ individuality with integrity and humanity.


Greenberger has been dubbed a “stand-up sociologist” by Rolling Stone magazine, and his essays have aired regularly on NPR’s “All Things Considered.” In 2007, he was featured in a PBS special on aging titled “Life Part 2: Language of Aging.”


Beginning this month, the Tang Teaching Museum at Skidmore College will explore 30 years of Greenberger’s conversations and insights in two installations designed to be listening experiences for the visitor.


“David Greenberger: One Upon” opens Saturday, Feb. 15, and runs through April 13. A companion piece, “Elevator Music 26— David Greenberger: one updown,” also runs through April 13.


By working with a group of musicians, the artist has combined fragments of conversations with music, resulting in short sound pieces that give listeners a window into the minds of older people.


Artist with a rare medium

Rachel Seligman, the Tang’s assistant director of curatorial affairs, said Greenberger’s work challenges some common attitudes toward the elderly.


“David realized almost immediately that there was something really important going on there in the conversations he was having,” said Seligman, the curator for both exhibitions. “His whole career has been thinking about questions of aging and identity and relationships and the way that, as people get older, we tend to set them aside, and we tend to mourn the loss of who they were instead of celebrating and engaging with who they are now.”


Greenberger said he prefers focusing on his subjects as they are, rather than looking back nostalgically to their past.


“The differences between the young and the elderly are obvious, but it’s the things that we have in common that are the most fulfilling to me,” he said in an interview from his Greenwich home. “That’s where you find the surprise and the mystery and the truth.”


He added that it’s the element of the unknown that continues to propel his exploration of his unusual medium.


“When conversations are read, they can be just data,” Greenberger said. “But when you hear them, it stays with you in a more meaningful way.”


Through art, he added, “we have all sorts of opportunities to celebrate what we already know, or return to the familiar with nostalgia. I think it’s a useful experience to explore, heading into your final years of life and not knowing.”


At a talk organized by the nonprofit group TED in Albany in 2011, Greenberger estimated he had engaged in a quarter-million conversations with the elderly.


“I’ve always viewed myself as an artist trying to explain how I saw the world,” he said. “I’d been doing that as a painter, but after my nursing home experience, it fit me like a better suit. Somehow within this was my voice as an artist, and I purposely stopped painting after doing ‘Duplex Planet.’ I needed to feel like this was my outlet and my voice. If I had another outlet like painting, I wouldn’t have explored the conversations as much.”


Live performances

“One Upon” will convert the Tang’s mezzanine into an intimate theater space where one audience member at a time can listen to a two-minute live performance by the musical group A Strong Dog. While the music is played by members Kevin Maul on lap steel, dobro, and guitar, and Mitch Throop on guitar, bass, and drums, Greenberger will recite monologues that explore facets of his conversations with older people.

Live “two-minute performances in a oneseat theater” are scheduled at the following times and dates:
• 3-6 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 15
• 4-7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 19
• 2-5 p.m. Sunday, March 9
• 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday, March 18
• 6-9 p.m. Thursday, April 3


“As audience members, we don’t get to hear the complete conversations,” Seligman explained. “What we hear is the artwork that David has created by taking the content of the conversations and abstracting portions of it into monologues that are set to music.”


Greenberger’s monologues based on conversations with the elderly have attracted attention and national praise. The New York Times wrote that his stories “resonate with a wry humor and a startling insight,” while the author and performer Penn Jillette described Greenberger’s approach as “never condescending, never mean, never ironic, and sometimes really funny.”


Seligman said many reviewers have noted that Greenberger’s humor is never at the expense of his subjects.


“The questions that he asks people to get conversations started are whimsical and offbeat, designed to allow the other person to be who they are in the present moment, as opposed to asking them something that brings out what they no longer are -- or what they have lost as a result of aging,” Seligman explained. “Instead, David’s conversations try to bring out the person they are now.


“His subjects really respond to David’s often-quirky questions and become fully present in the moment,” she added. “When we reflect on what we are hearing, they’re really telling us about ourselves and what it means to be human.”


Overheard in an elevator

The companion exhibition, “Elevator Music 26—David Greenberger: one updown,” takes place in the museum’s elevator and features more than 100 short recorded pieces, ranging from the funny to the practical to the profound. The recordings all feature Greenberger as well as a variety of celebrated musical collaborators, including Terry Adams of NRBQ, Paul Cebar, and the Shaking Ray Levis.


The exhibition is the latest in a series of “elevator music” installations organized by the Tang.


“The pieces play continuously, in alphabetical order because I didn’t want to impose a dramatic shape to them,” Greenberger said. “That’s not the nature of an elevator; you just get on and whatever’s playing is playing.”


Seligman said the two experiences are designed to complement each other, contrasting the chance hearing of recorded snippets in the elevator with purposeful listening at a live theater performance.


Although the exhibition had only been in place for a few days as of late January, she said the feedback so far had been enthusiastic.


“Even members of our staff are deliberately taking the elevator instead of stairs, because they don’t want to miss an opportunity,” Seligman said. “Some are grumbling that it’s causing them to gain weight. And visitors are enjoying the playful, quirky group of pieces, and people really respond to the narratives -- each piece is like a little story.”


“David Greenberger: One Upon” opens Saturday, Feb. 15, and runs through Sunday, April 13. A companion piece, “Elevator Music 26—David Greenberger: one updown,” is already under way and also runs through April 13. For more information, visit www.skidmore.edu/tang or call (518) 580-8080.

The Tang will host an opening reception for its winter-spring exhibitions from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 15. In addition to the Greenberger exhibitions, the museum will be exhibiting “Graphic Jews: Negotiating Identity in Sequential Art” through April 13, and “One Work” through June 1.

The Tang Teaching Museum is open noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, with extended hours through 9 p.m. Thursdays. The museum is closed Mondays and major holidays.