Volume 6, Number 3, 1997

Art, life, humor combine with Flash

What does the speed of light have to do with daily life? The speed of light has never affected me. Oh sure, Einstein got a lot of mileage out of it. What I want to know is the length of matter. When someone breaks up with you and it hurts, how long will it matter?"

This mental permutation on science and life is featured on a mouse pad-a souvenir of a visit with Flash (née Susan Jean) Rosenberg, AS '76, multimedia performance artist, writer, cartoonist, photographer and filmmaker.

This spring, the Solo Arts Group in New York City showed Rosenberg's 70-minute comic slide show, called "Camping in the Bewilderment: Urban Survival Tips, Field Observations and Emotional Hikes." In it, Rosenberg shared off-the-wall photographs, avant-garde props and a humorously philosophical monolog.

Last May, the Joseph Papp Public Theatre, the premier patron of innovation in performing arts, featured her show in the 199 New Work Now! festival in New York.

Rosenberg's career as a performance artist has moved steadily toward the big league. During the early 1980s, when she was trying to figure out how to do more of what she loves, she was invited to photograph big parties in Philadelphia. Using a Polaroid camera to capture the moment, Rosenberg provided each person with an instant souvenir. The demand for these quick takes became so popular that "Flash" was born. For the next 10 years, until 1993, she ran a troupe of Flash Artists-outrageously costumed, visual art clowns using photography and drawing to entertain. From this business, she invented Flash Moments, audio snapshots that aired on public radio in Philadelphia and New York City (where she now is based).

Since 1979, Rosenberg's drawings have appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and the Jewish Forward. Her 1986 film, Pulse of Desire, a surrealistic venture into the mind of a woman falling in love, has received awards from the Chicago International Film Festival, Three Rivers Arts Festival and Movies on a Shoestring International Festival. In 1995, she was included in an anthology of women comics, called Revolutionary Laughter.

A prime source of her material is a remarkable ability to recall minute details from infancy to puberty to adulthood. "I was an intense kid," she says. "I remember standing in my crib, looking out the window and thinking, 'What am I doing in bed while everyone else is up?' I didn't want to miss anything. That's why I love reading because I knew there were secrets people were not telling me."

Typically, Rosenberg's microscopic humor builds as she takes a small piece of daily life beyond its obvious meaning, creating a universal truth. Her personal history serves as the main source of this sophisticated genre that seeks to enlighten about "all things that conspire to bewilder us."

"As a performer, I'm always scared," Rosenberg says. "I think that means you respect your audience. You care deeply about their response. If you really don't care, you can hang your work up on the wall and leave. I love bringing what I love about the visual arts to the performance."

Rosenberg's journey to Manhattan also was given a lift by her unique education at the University of Delaware.

In college, she recalls, "I wanted to know about other cultures because that affects the visual. I wanted to study something that I was calling 'visual communications.'" When her proposal of study was submitted to the College of Arts and Science, it was received with enthusiasm. The dean not only accepted the unconventional concept, but also invited her to be a Dean's Scholar and to custom-design her own curriculum.

Her University experience framed the structure Rosenberg needed to understand the real world. Her senior design course, for example, simulated the pressures and demands of business: All assignments had to be completed or you did not graduate. For her final project, Rosenberg had a 10 a.m. deadline to make an 8-inch, white cube that would stay together on its own, and, when taken apart, become two pieces that would be mirror images of each other.

"I didn't have that kind of an engineering mind and stayed in the studio all night," she says. By 6 a.m., still groping for an answer, she visited the local grocery store. There, she bought two half-gallons of vanilla ice cream and carved them into an 8-inch cube. When separated, the halves were symmetrical. She told herself, "I'm either going to fail or get an A."

"I took the cube and a bunch of spoons, and, afterward, everyone ate the ice cream. I've always solved problems with humor," Rosenberg says. She got an A for the project. Her ability to push the limits of observation and resolution are innate, but, she says, the University played a key role in nurturing these abilities.

Her adviser and mentor, Byron Shurtleff, now professor emeritus of art, was the first person who believed she was "a contender," Rosenberg says. "I took teachers, not courses, and I always tease that I went to the University of Byron."

Rosenberg sometimes collaborates with her brother Ken, AS '78, a computer consultant for Proactive Performance Solution Inc. in Newark, who played in the rock band Whale during his years on campus. As Rosenberg was developing ideas for her film, Pulse of Desire, she asked him to create the sound track for her visuals. When she told him, "I need the sound of ants marching on terry cloth eating a cracker," their connection as siblings and friends enabled him to synthesize just the right sound.

Today, she continues to go the extra mile, taking images and translating them into visual frames to capture the memory or observation. Rosenberg uses the same material for an audio snapshot on radio, a cartoon in a national publication, a performance piece on stage and a photograph in an exhibition. Through her artistry, she changes the meaning as she changes the form, and each frame of the performance is a new Flash Moment. She is scheduled to appear Nov. 7 at the Painted Bride Arts Center in Philadelphia.

Currently, Rosenberg is reworking more than 1,000 Flash Moments for inclusion in a book. She says, playfully, "I live on the Spanish moss of almost. Having a literary agent is really not an indication that a book will get published."

"In my mind, she's already been successful," her brother says. "If there was such a thing as an emotional stock market, I'd invest in her. She's going to make it big. She's like Edison's 1,000-filament light bulb. She's already lit up to 998!" *

-Sally W. Donatello

The Instant Family

Marooned in Penn Station, Far From Hometown
by Flash Rosenberg

Instead of being with my family in Delaware as planned, I was spending a miserable Thanksgiving Day stuck in Penn Station.

Trains weren't departing but people kept arriving until the place was packed with squalling kids and weary parents... and me, strangely envious: Where's MY husband? Where's MY kids?

Going home is unsettling. It's like a visit to the hole where I was supposed to be. Here among my peers in New York City, we're so busy pursuing our grand ambitions, I hardly pay attention to any latent rumbles about putting together a household. But my trips back to the suburbs are so overwhelmingly about "Family," I'm forced to question my single life and wonder, How DOES a family happen? Then suddenly, in the voice of the station's public address system, I discovered the secret: "Will Doris Johnson please come and meet her husband and children at the Information Booth?" Ahh-haa! So I waited all day in Penn Station listening for: "Will Flash Rosenberg please come and meet her husband and children at the Information Booth?" So I could rush over and introduce myself. I always knew I had a family here somewhere. We just haven't been paged to meet yet.

Reprinted from The New York Times, Sunday, Nov. 24, 1996