Weekend note: This Friday night June 29, I’m off to Trash Bar in Williamsburg for a midnight performance by the Dublin-based electronic/experimental band Everything Shook, which apparently (I vaguely recall this a few years ago…) I may have helped name in conversation with their bassist Aine Stapleton. Anyway, feel free to join. They’ve just released their debut EP Argento Nights, and my personal favorite track is “Misericord.” There’s also a music video.
NB: This essay was originally commissioned as part of READING, collected writings about the artists presented as part of the 2014 American Realness festival in New York. This version is slightly corrected and updated.
This is a moment I won’t easily forget in the theatre: [Annie] Sprinkle’s smiling face and robust, cooing voice, her very white and soft body largely exposed, encouraging a spectator to scrutinize and describe her labia. I shrink back from the spectacle in my seat, filled with rage at [Richard] Schechner, who is submitting me and other women to this assault on our bodies via this alien medium, this . . . who is she? Is she a woman like me? Does she smile because she enjoys this or smile because she is encoded by pornography to convince men she “enjoys” this? The act becomes more threatening still when Sprinkle offers to “give a little demonstration of cock sucking.” By now blind to objective critical judgment, whatever that might be in such a case, I feel violated and furious at my entrapment here.—Elinor Fuchs, “Staging the Obscene Body,” TDR, 1989
Any discussion of contemporary art that asserts it is, or is framed as, transgressive or obscene is problematized by the fact that, often, art that includes obscene or transgressive acts doesn’t actually seem obscene or transgressive in the anything-goes world of contemporary art. When I tell someone that there’s an artist named Rebecca Patek, who, in one of her performances, invites audience members onstage to physically humiliate her (one of whom is actually a “plant” she hired off Craigslist to masturbate over her before she gives him a blowjob), and then does a head stand with a lit candle inserted in her vagina…well, actually in my world, I’m likely to get told, “That’s sort of passé.”
It’s been a long time since Stravinsky and Diaghalev could incite the masses to riot through the shock of the new, an event that’s, anyway, long since been exaggerated from scandalous fact to outright mythology. The old avant-garde imperative épater la bourgeoisie has gone from de rigueur for artists to the tedious practice of college students who still imagine that nudity and sex or scatology will piss off the folks back in the ‘burbs, and there makes for good art. Unfortunately, the folks back in the ‘burbs aren’t likely to care very much about what artists do, unless conservatives want to make a culture war redux fuss over some exhibition or another. In other words, the artist who attempts to transgress is doing so only in in their own imagination.
The thing we miss though—and that I’ve often been at pains to explain when describing the work of Rebecca Patek—is that actual transgressive shock value lies not in taking aim at the largely imagined mores of the mass culture but rather by challenging the presumptions and values of the arts community itself. Patek aims—and succeeds enough for her to warrant serious attention—at challenging the art world audiences that do show up, attacking the pretensions, hypocrisy, and ridiculousness of the very milieu in which she operates. Continue reading
Back in March 2012, a bizarre media spectacle unfolded over Clifford Owens’ solo show at MoMA PS1. As part of the exhibition, Owens had commissioned 26 performance scores from other African-American artists, including Kara Walker. Dubbed “art rape” by the art blogosphere, Walker’s score called for Owens to “force” a “sex act” on a member of the audience. He was to continue forcing the act on them (to points left vague) unless the audience member acquiesced, at which point he was to flip the tables, accuse them of sexual assault on him, and beg for help from others.
What made the entire thing so strange was how lackadaisical it seemed, all the juicy pseudo-controversy notwithstanding. By the time the story made the media rounds, Owens had been performing the score to one degree or another for some weeks, but without going all the way (see the above photo); in fact, his failure to take it sufficiently far enough led him to announce that it would be fully realized the last Sunday of March, turning the completion of the score into a sort of spectacle. Adding to this entire muddled sense of purpose was the fact that the artists seemed somewhat ambivalent about actually doing it–Owens called it “problematic on so many levels,” and Walked dubbed it “evil.”
In the end, far from aggressive sexual assault (to say nothing of flipping the dynamic as the original score called for), Owens enacted a mild form of invasion, kissing two audience members with his hands behind his back, Walker herself in tow as though to minimize the aggressiveness of the act, and making it a female transgression rather than a male one (which seems to subvert the entire purpose of staging black male sexual aggression), and the entire thing felt like a let-down. The press had been primed for sexual assault as art, and what was delivered was a timid pantomime that called into question the entire, already questionably-premised, affair. Continue reading
The life of a writer is a miserable, solitary one. Or something. Actually, I tend to find life to be exciting and interpersonal interaction filled, which is perhaps why I’m not quite the writer I sometimes wish I was. But trust me–I’ll take friendship and human interaction over suicidal loneliness and depression any day. That said, there are some things I’m writing about, or have recently written about, or that you should know about, and this is a blog post that just slaps it all down. Welcome to the confusion of my mind.
- What does the 1955 New American Machinist Handbook have to do with Susan Sontag, James Agee, and the ever-present tension in socially or politically engaged art between call-to-action and aesthetic seduction? I have no idea, personally, but these seem to be the questions Sibyl Kempson is grappling with in Let Us Now Praise Susan Sontag, which opens this coming week at Abrons Arts Center, and constitutes the debut of her new theater company.
- David Herskovits of Target Margin Theater is one of those people whose positivity and relentless optimism always blow me away. Not many directors think like him anymore: His TMT Lab series, an ongoing laboratory and incubator for exploring dramaturgical strategies for grappling with concepts, aesthetics, and ideas, has provoked me many times in the past, particularly with his last round dealing with the legacy of LES Yiddish theater from the early 2oth century. The next round is still in progress, tackling the work of Gertrude Stein. Whose work I’ve only seen staged once, by Heiner Goebbels. Who liked the bizarre interview I wrote up enough to have it republished in program notes for the show around Europe.
- Jim Neu’s The Floatones. Which will be staged this May, by Catherine Galasso, at La Mama (where it premiered in 1995), with Jess Barbagallo, Greg Zuccolo, Joshua William Gelb, and Larissa Velez-Jackson. Someone pitched it to me as a series of “performance crushes,” which made me jealous because my performance crushes!
- Raja Feather Kelly. Tonight and tomorrow are your last chances to catch Andy Warhol’s 15 (Color Me, Warhol) at Dixon Place. This is what I thought. Other people thought different things. Decide for yourself. And be impressed.
- Catch at the Invisible Dog. If I haven’t seen you for a while, say hi at the Invisible Dog tomorrow where I will be a Catch. Which I haven’t been to for a while. NYC is playing host to Philly artists for iteration no. 67, so let’s give them a friendly Brooklyn welcome. I love Philly.
It was, if I recall correctly, sometime back around March 2013 that I had a late dinner with Zoe Scofield in the East Village where she proposed I do a project with her. We had no money and no practical way to do it at the time, but Scofield liked whatever it was I meant when I was talking about “embedded criticism,” and she was intent on shaking up how she made her work, so this thing called “No Ideas But In Things” happened. Sort of. It was tricky. I wrote a lot online but embedded criticism proved tricky. That said, this past winter I finished a 12,000-word essay which got whittled down to a mere 7,000 that will…well, more on that shortly! In any event, I was super-stoked when Zoe texted me this afternoon with the news that this afternoon she was announced as one of 175 John Simon Guggenheim Foundation 2015 Fellows. That’s hell of company she’s in, and I am absolutely honored to have been invited by her to spend a year and a half watched her create BeginAgain, and am excited to see what she does next. Congratulations! Continue reading
Yesterday, I finally punched out some very quick thoughts on the controversial move by Actors’ Equity Association to make radical changes to LA’s 99-seat showcase code, and I felt like I should come back to it to more fully address what strike me as the most important issues raised by what’s going on there.
To briefly recap, Equity has proposed changes which essentially make it impossible for members to take part in small indie productions by requiring those producers to pay at least minimum wage for Equity members’ labor. This radically increases production costs and presents an existential threat to the health of a vibrant small theater community. On the other hand, it appears that LA’s more flexible existing showcase code has permitted some small theaters (particularly those most critically recognized) to grow much larger and robustly funded than, say, their New York counterparts.
While it seems clear that Equity’s move is overkill–throwing the baby out with the bathwater–the controversy nevertheless reveals the pernicious degree to which the devaluation of performers’ labor has become endemic in American theater. This is hardly limited to LA. Continue reading
I’ve been trying to figure out how to write about the imbroglio in the Los Angeles theater community over the past few weeks–since Actors’ Equity, the stage actors’ union, announced plans to change the city’s local 99-seat showcase code–and I keep coming back to a conversation I had with the artistic director of an arts center that presents independently produced theater productions (the sort of experimental contemporary performance I write about). He’d been involved in several projects and initiatives that sought to figure out how to better compensate these artists for their work, and among other recommendations, one such panel had simply suggested that artists make less art, on the dubious grounds it could increase demand for the remaining pieces.
To which I suggested that if the purpose was to pay artists some sort of minimum for their work, perhaps they should just form a union to require institutions such as the one he ran to ensure that artists made such a minimum while they were working there, and preventing his institution from presenting works that violated such wage minimums. To which he responded with some version of: “A union? Are you kidding me?”
The point isn’t to throw stones at some anonymous figure (who, for the record, has instituted several initiatives to ensure better compensation for artists). Rather, it’s to get at one of the core problems we in the arts face whenever we try to deal with these sorts of issues. Even the best meaning people, confronted with the practical reality that our behavior would have to change in order to achieve the ends we want, tend to retreat from the positions they hold so dear. It’s easy to say, “We value paying artists a living wage for their work,” but much harder to change our own institutional behavior to make that happen. And this is the problem which lies at the heart of the controversy playing out in Los Angeles in increasingly vitriolic terms. Continue reading
Note: Upon re-reading this, I’m irritated by how rant-y it is, and have added what I hope is a fairly succinct post-script at the end.
For the past two days, the theater Internet has been blowing up in response to a pair of reviews—published in the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times respectively—harshly criticizing Steppenwolf’s production of Idris Goodwin and Kevin Coval’s This Is Modern Art (based on a true story). A number of issues are in play at once: the role of the critic in responding to art, the obligation of art to uphold the moral good when oriented to children, racial privilege and bias, and, somewhere in there, the merits of street art.
Unfortunately all of this has proven quite difficult to unpack, mainly because Hedy Weiss’s review in the Sun-Times is not only blatantly racist but easily one of the dumbest reviews anyone’s read in a major newspaper in recent memory. This is unfortunate in that it distracts from the more pertinent issues at play across both. The Tribune’s Chris Jones is not overtly racist in his review, giving it the gloss of relative acceptability despite its dubious (at best) moral argument against the play, so it becomes hard if not actually unfair to treat him as on the same side of a debate as the wholly objectionable Weiss.
What the whole thing adds up to, though, is the single greatest indictment of the sorry state of American theater criticism I can imagine. This may not be the most important point (the racial dynamics at play are just plain ugly and ignorant) but the fact these reviews exist demonstrates the complete lack of fucks everyone involved in their publication–from author to editor to publisher–don’t have to give for theater criticism. Continue reading