Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
Alexandre Singh’s “The Alkahest,” Omer Fast’s “Talk Show,” Shana Moulton’s “Erratic Anthropologies,” and Tan Lin’s “Chalk Playground”/”LitTwitChalk”
For Thom Donovan’s Performa09 Week 1 Round-up, click here.
On Monday, November 9th, I attended the first of four performances by Alexandre Singh at White Columns gallery in the West Village. When I arrived chairs were arranged in a circle in the gallery, facing an overhead projector. As the performance began the lights went off and the audience could hear a voice starting to tell a story. The disembodied voice seemed to be stumbling, faltering, or, rather like a camera coming into focus. The voice made reference to cinematic lighting and camera work making one feel as though they were at the movies only without the projection.
What unfolded after this were two sets of stories—the first taking no more than a half an hour (the length of a film short?), the second approximately one and a half hours (a feature length film?). In the first story, Singh wove different characters and incidents together from modern art history. Yves Klein finds himself among a band of thieves in the woods; Kurt Schwitter’s meets his “double.” I don’t remember many details of the story now, but that is because I did not follow the story entirely while Singh was telling it. I was too busy paying attention to his techniques as a storyteller as well as my own cognitive reflections as I listened to the story being spun.
Singh, it seems, is a kind of phenomenologist. An artist cum phenomenologist or phenomenologist cum artist principally concerned with storytelling as a constructive cognitive process. Lurking behind Singh’s stories, I felt, was some kind of procedure or constraint by which the artist was allowing himself to weave his tale, or, more appropriately, fit all of the pieces of it together more or less seamlessly. Did Singh write down different parts of the story in advance and memorize them? Did he practice making-up stories based on preexisting materials—plotlines, characters, descriptions? The night I attended Singh at White Columns Singh told stories, however the three subsequent nights of performance were advertised as “lectures.” My intuition is that Singh would have revealed his “sleight of hand” during this series of lectures which had titles like “assembly instructions” and “strategic magik.”
While I think Singh went on a bit long during the second story, what he accomplished was nevertheless quite impressive. His performance cleverly composed a series of cliché/formulaic story elements deriving from various cosmologies and storytelling traditions. During the second tale, the audience encountered a council of elders comprised entirely of parrots, a Golem, an alchemist, a “Chinaman,” Arthurian knights and many other exoticized and mythical beings. As in Boccaccio’s Decameron or The Arabian Nights, the structure of Singh’s story was both nested (discrete stories receding within larger ones), and digressive (the narrative often swerving suddenly).
The overplayed critical term pastiche came to mind listening to Singh’s stories, a pastiche being a hodge-podge, or anything that tends to be cobbled together. It is as if a world literature had provided Singh with a wealth of tropes and Singh only had to reassemble them, stitching them together through the most basic patchwork. The trick seems to be in keeping the various materials in play, and wending one’s way through them—as though through a kind of cognitive labyrinth. And this is the genius of any storyteller—that they not only remember, but more so tunnel through a set of memories taking what they need as they go.
Throughout the performance, Singh illustrated his story via colored acetate sheets that he placed on the overhead. With each colored sheet, Singe could change the mood of the room, and have it match better with his story. At one moment Singh was describing a fire, and placed his hands over the projector, flicking his fingers. I appreciated Singh’s use of low-fi effects and gestures which were clever and added an element of wonder to the performance.
Had Singh’s performance been shorter, I think it would have been more palatable. However, I also understand that time was a crucial aspect of the piece. How long can one sustain telling a story? (Scheherazade of The Arabian Nights, the archetypal storyteller, did so for a thousand and one nights in order to save her neck.) How can one pleat the discrete elements of a story in such a way that narrative strands and characters return after long tropes, detours, and hiatuses? How does storytelling embody an act of mind—both of remembering and imagining—that gets an audience to think about how they are processing something being heard and made-up in their own minds separate from the storyteller?
These are some questions I think may be important to ask after Singh’s performance, but also after a performance I saw later in the week, Omer Fast’s Performa commissioned “Talk Show.” “Talk Show,” like Singh’s stories, takes up storytelling as a practice, and as a problem of cognitive-phenomenological investigation. Only while Singh was more concerned to investigate storytelling as an art of construction—of assembling disparate elements and making them hang together in one’s attention—Fast’s piece was concerned with storytelling as an art of transmissibility—handing-down and bearing across cultural information.
The first thing I noticed when I sat down to Fast’s performance was a set of plush, white armchairs. Next to the armchairs were bouquets of flowers containing skulls at their center. The stage resembled something between a talk show set and a funeral parlor. When Omer Fast’s “guest” sat down—Fast had invited non-actors to tell their stories of the Iraq War/Middle Eastern geopolitical conflict—she did so with Rosie Perez, one of two actors I recognized in the performance (the other being Lili Taylor). Perez listened while Fast’s guest told her story. Occasionally Perez would interrupt the actor to ask questions.
In the course of her story, Fast’s guest described watching a PBS news broadcast one night and recognizing the woman who would become her husband’s “second wife.” She continued, relaying how her husband went to Iraq as a non-imbedded journalist at the beginning of the 2003 invasion. When the husband was finally leaving Iraq, he realized that to leave his translator behind would put her life at great risk, and that the only way to ensure her safety would be to marry her and travel with her out of the country (the translator’s family would not allow her to leave the country with a man unless she and the man were married).
The journalist and his wife hatched a plot that he should convert to Islam and bring the translator to England where polygamy is tolerated for Islamic British citizens. But before the husband was able to follow-through with their plan, he and the translator were shot, the husband fatally. After the death of her husband, Fast’s guest fought successfully to bring the translator to New York City where she currently lives.
When the guest finished telling her story, it was Perez’s turn to tell the story based on the guest’s iteration. Following Perez’s rendition, six other actors each told their own versions of the story having only heard the story’s previous iteration. As in Singh’s performance, with Fast’s ”Talk Show” I became acutely aware that what I was witnessing was an investigation of storytelling itself as a feat of memory blending selective recall with the concocted. While some of the actors (especially the ones that went first) struggled to remain faithful to the facts of the story, others seemed to struggle to recall anything at all of what they had just heard. When one of the actors seemed to completely blank on almost every detail of the previous iteration, the actor who followed him started making things up. At this point in the performance, the performances became more about individual acting styles, and a performer’s ability to improvise virtuosically. Much of this was quite entertaining—the audience was in a more or less constant guffaw from Lili Taylor’s brilliant improvisation throughout the last actor’s iteration of the story.
The audience’s response got me thinking about what Fast may be getting at through “Talk Show.” Is he critiquing the diffusion of information by mass media, the fact that noise forms a ground for any signal? Is he, like Singh, offering a phenomenological investigation of storytelling as a site of cultural exchange? Is he getting his actors to perform the difficulties of conveying a story properly—of making wisdom transmissible? Is he critiquing the talk show as a theatrical format wherein what’s at stake is emotional identification (pathos) and the need to convey moral lessons—to discipline and evaluate in other words?
Following Fast’s guest, it was interesting to me how Perez and the other actors appropriated cliché tropes from talk show and entertainment news formats to tell their stories. Pressurized by Fast’s own “telephone game”-like constraint, all of the actors fell back upon what they knew, and in the process reproduced many of the dominant “messages” and techniques of the popular media.
The performances which took places at Art In General on Wednesday, November 11th as part of the art organization’s “Erratic Anthropologies” show had to do with questions of storytelling and cultural transmission in a much different sense than Singh’s and Fast’s works. Shana Moulton, one of the artists featured in “Erratic Anthropologies,” mines her late-‘70s/early-’80s suburban Californian childhood to produce her work. In her performance piece The Undiscovered Antique, on Wednesday, Moulton performed with an interactive video involving animated objects that would respond to her movements and adapt to the contours of her figure.
The declared theme of the performance was “health education.” Throughout the performance, Moulton walked upon a short stage in front of a projection screen dressed in a white leotard. In the video accompanying the performance, images of women’s faces from Renaissance paintings morphed into one another. A separate video projection showed Moulton plunging a pronged, metal object into a piece of amorphous foam. When Moulton took the stage, she fit her head into this object. A pinkish-red line appeared and ran down through her body.
Among the many images that appeared in the video included footage from Todd Haynes’ 1995 film Safe, in which an upper middle-class woman (played by Julianne Moore) becomes sick with an undiagnosed illness. Throughout Haynes’ film, Moore’s character takes solace in self-help groups, and eventually takes refuge in a community for people suffering from “environmental” illnesses—illnesses caused by autoimmune reactions to toxins in the environment. At another point in the performance, Moulton gave a speech in the style of an award recipient. While she said all of the things a reward recipient typically says, what stuck out to me was her histrionic mention of AIDS.
The eruption of the AIDS pandemic into Moulton’s performance reminded me that Moulton and I both came of age during a time when HIV/AIDS was just starting to enter a wider public awareness, and as a result public education was finally starting to respond to the health crisis which had plagued gay communities and ethnic minorities since the late-’70s. Moulton’s work, for me, performs a desublimation of cultural materials from a past that is not entirely mythical, but not altogether factual either.
The realities Moulton channels are that of our mutually hyper-mediated ‘70s/early-’80s childhoods, and of a California which never really got over the various fallout from ‘60s countercultural excesses (Moulton grew up in Oakhurst, California, and myself in Menlo Park until I was eight). Without saying anything too specific about CA culture, Moulton’s performance evoked for me the eeriness of health enthusiasts and new age cults, of Hollywood simulacrum and erstwhile deadly wilderness such as those encountered by the Donner party in the 1840s. It is as though Moulton is organizing California/the West of ’70s/’80s as personal myth—encrypting this myth, but also performing it through a politics of embodiment and ironic self-transformation, exorcizing through performance that which one might other repress or abject.
Like Mike Kelley or Matt Mullican before her, in Moulton’s work a personal cosmology becomes metonymic with the mythos of a culture both ruled by health regimes and haunted by liberal economic specters simultaneously. Following Haynes’ Safe, Moulton holds a mirror up to groups like the Scientologists and other American religious cults. Throughout the performance, Moulton would retire to a room in back of the projection screen, as though she were being punished. Thus does Moulton remind us of the disciplinary regimes which regulate religious cults and cults of capitalism alike—the two phenomena being of course inextricable.
While Tan Lin’s “Chalk Playground” performance, “LitTwitChalk,” was also not concerned with storytelling per se, Lin and other participants in the performance—among them Christopher Alexander, Bruce Andrews, Anselm Berrigan, Robert Fitterman, Kristen Gallagher, Paolo Javier, Maya Lin, Dan Machlin, Frances Richard, and myself—did address the question of transmissiability in terms of the speed of information (a problem shared by the Italian Futurists who are being celebrated and reconsidered during this year’s biennial).
Arriving at the playground, I feared that the event would be rained out (it was sprinkling throughout the day). But around twenty people showed up, and more came off the street to participate. As with Arto Lindsay’s ”procession” in Times Square, I was reminded that public art is necessary during our current cultural moment, if only because it assembles groups of people who may not otherwise come together and provokes embodied interactions thoroughly limited by virtuality. Had the weather been better and the location less remote (the event took place at the playground of the P.S. 2 school near the Manhattan Bridge in Chinatown) I think many more people would have been attracted to the event and ended up participating.
Among the poets participating, many were poets whose work I’ve been reading for years, and whose practices I both appreciate and admire. Given my interest in the various poets assembled, I was very curious what people would do together. My sense, for the most part, was that the poets were writing poems they may write for the page on the surface of the playground, although Lin had called for poets to generate their poems using live Twitter feeds.
Some exceptions to this general trend were Kristen Gallagher’s piece, which transcribed feeds from the current demonstrations by University of California students, faculty, and staff. Similarly, many of the participants seemed to address Twitter and other social networking technologies in terms of problems of idiolect such as in Bruce Andrews’ text where the poet stutters “‘an’ an’ an’ an’ ’bout an’ an’ git aint nigh an’ aint’” and writes “ye rale purty” rather than “you’re real pretty,” thus drawing attention to the noisy phoneticism of web 2.0. Any number of chalk “feeds” also responded to the speed of information by evoking a luddite response to social networking platforms such as in the following: “When I see you I don’t think of Kilowatt hours.”
At Lin’s prompting, other feeds recopied the Futurist Manifesto itself, a particular group of writers transcribing the manifesto from a Chinese translation. This recopying was site-specific insofar as the event took place in Chinatown. It was also appropriate since later that afternoon Lin would participate in a poetry reading at MOCA (Museum of Chinese in America) featuring Charles Bernstein and John Yau.
Despite the rain and lack of critical mass, I could discern many possibilities in Lin’s “chalk playground”—both in concept and in actuality. Though the rain would wash away the chalk, therefore mirroring in extremis the frequent disappearance and erosion of messages by such popular web 2.0 applications as Twitter and Facebook, it got people to write together and thus score a collective and collaborative text. Looking out among the group of chalkers, I was struck by how much people seemed withdrawn while they were chalking—absorbed in their personal message/poem. Yet, as soon as you finished chalking you could walk around and see what others had written.
The event was an occasion for conversation and physical, “face-to-face” interaction—I take this to be the meaning and importance of Lin’s piece. As the dominant world continues in its ceaseless pursuit of virtual “connectness,” Twitter chalking can provide a necessary space—both physical and cognitive—to reflect on what we as an information-driven society are doing, and the extent to which we are determined by our technological advances. In lieu of these advances the rain-soaked chalk became an etherization I could actually feel.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.