A Return to “Performance”

Claude Wampler’s “N’a pas un gramme de charisme”

A couple weeks ago, I was at the Invisible Dog for Arturo Vidich’s The Daedalus Effect, and was struck by the contrast to most of the work I’d been seeing in preceding weeks at the January festivals. Notwithstanding the relative merits of individual shows at COIL or Under the Radar, over that two-week period, I found myself more and more cognizant of the fact the work being presented was so digestible and palatable to broad audiences—it’s by and large eminently tourable work that can play about as well in New York or London as Sao Paulo or Madrid or Tokyo. While the individual artists’ and companies’ practices are diverse, the work broadly shared the hallmarks of more conventional forms: broad humor, reliance on text and narrative, and nothing particularly shocking or offensive except to the most conservative-minded potential audiences.

That’s partly why Ben Pryor’s American Realness continues to generate so much buzz and energy: Dance artists, given a higher-profile platform, continually demonstrate a sophisticated approach to creating works while proving less willing to offer up easy entertainments. But I continue to digress.

The point is that after seeing so much work framed as highly contemporary and challenging that nevertheless rested so often within the comfortable idiom of conventional theater, the past few weeks have offered a series of shows that remind me of how engaging and enjoyable it actually is to see work that rejects easy solutions to dramaturgical questions.

Arturo’s a friend—he was one of the artists I brought into Culturebot’s show at Exit Art back in April—and it’s been fascinating to watch his process developing his work. He may be known primarily as a dance artist, but that doesn’t begin to capture the full scope of his investigations or practice. His studio showing at NYLA last year achieved a fair bit of notoriety for his inclusion of two professional dominatrixes with whom he’d been playing as an exercise in ceding control and agency, the same inspiration behind him getting a pilot’s license. (He recently received funding through a Creative Capital grant for his upcoming project You Are It, set to be performed by some 3,000 people on a disused runway in Queens and an aircraft.)

For The Daedalus Effect, the audience was invited in to the main gallery space to wander freely about a series of Rube Goldberg-esque mechanical contraptions Vidich had constructed for the piece that expanded the sorts of vocabularies he could employ. Arturo has previously used nonsense speech (developed through purely phonetic research into Serbian, if I recall correctly), and he expanded that fascination with purely sonic textures by moving from vocal to electro-mechanical means by “playing” an amplified aerial wand with diverse objects. As a movement artist, Arturo seems to tend towards the improvisational, and here he explored and challenged that by subjecting himself to a pair of wood-frame boxes which he moved with as a systematic but (I can only assume) largely unchoreographed exercise for one long sequence.

The end result was an hour-some-long spectacle centered on the performer’s physical presence. It did develop and unfold as a work, but it didn’t present an easily discernible narrative nor did it aim for any clear affect. It was a spectacle to which the audience could choose to subject themselves to…or not. And watching it, I found myself more and more compelled by the space Arturo had created, as an artist, in which we were permitted to engage, and how much more satisfying and challenging that was than the theater I’d been seeing.

That sense of urgency was only expanded by Claude Wampler’s N’a pas un gramme de charisme, which played last weekend at the Kitchen. This was sadly my first exposure to Wampler’s work, which comes a half-dozen years since her last (and it was presented as her final) performance piece, Performance Career Ender (2006). Critically acclaimed upon its debut at the Kitchen, Performance Career Ender went on to tour to the Walker and TBA Festival, and was framed as Wampler’s last expressly performance work. Moving comfortable between the performance and visual arts worlds, Wampler’s work in the interim has been primarily sculptural, though as Gia Kourlas made clear in her New York Times interview, much of Wampler’s visual art work relies on the same sorts of devices she employed in performance: absence and mediation of experience “staged” with audience plants and other devices. A show of imaginary sculptures in a gallery is as much a performance as something that happens on a stage, and suggests that Wampler’s definition of “performance” is more contextual than anything.

N’a pas un gramme de charisme sounds like a natural extension of the sort of ideas she was exploring in previous pieces like Performance Career Ender. The typical audience-spectacle relationship was reversed in the Kitchen: the audience was seated in chairs on what is normally the stage, while the raked audience seating has been transformed into a series of platforms with a Hammond organist at the top. Like Performance Career Ender, the piece unfolded as primarily a musical composition, with a series of classic rock songs performed as electric organ covers. The setting of the piece cascaded down the steps below the organist. To the left, a large irregular geometric screen was used for projections (mainly of Seventies and Eighties multi-racial dance videosthink Soul Train); to the center, an arrangement of smaller screens in the same shape but no more than a foot tall were arranged like a waterfall down the steps. The performance, such as it was, was mainly staged (at the beginning) to the left.

Wampler stages herself in the role of the director, physically manipulating performer Amelia Saul in a scene reminiscent of Beckett’s Catastrophe. Saul performs in a multi-layered inflatable costume. Layer by layer, Wampler strips off one color after another while Mary Davis films on a camera which, occasionally, is projected as a live-feed on the screen to the right. Through simple green-screen trickery, Saul often is transformed—on video—into a screen herself. It’s clever—a mediated mediation in which two layers of video exist in live discourse.

From the long introductory section a series of transformations occur. Wampler’s daughter, maybe eight or ten, sings the lyrics to Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” sitting on Saul’s shoulders. A fake intermission starts during which the audience has copies of the “script” rain down on them, except that the only thing “scripted” according to the script is everything the collaborators went through that doesn’t happen onstage. Then an audience plant and Wampler’s daughter perform a running dance around the seated audience.

Throughout the piece, Wampler toys with varying means of rejecting presence in realizing the performance, hence the title (“charisma” being a fair description of “presence” realized in the performer). The most concrete presentations of bodies occur through mediation: Wampler appears naked in a video performing the “White Rabbit” sequence with her daughter, while in the physical space, both her daughter and Saul dematerialized through their costuming. The fact the most physically present performance comes from audience plants—Kaneza Schaal moving and Michael Evans drumming, the physicality of the drum existing in sharp contrast to Mitch Margold’s anachronistic electric organ—continues to push the initial sense, achieved through the always problematic transposition of audience- and spectacle-space, that the focus of the event is actually the audience, the experience of spectatorship. The pronoun-less French title (third person singular) suggests that the subject of the statement could equally serve as an accusation leveled not at the performers but rather the individual audience members, who, within the typical configuration of a performance, are a sort of weightless non-entity.

It was sadly predictable that Alastair Macaulay would detest the show, which he took down with a snarky review (“During the course of more than 36 years of intensive theatergoing, I must have seen drearier shows, but they do not stay in the memory, and it is likely that this too will pass into the oblivion it so richly deserves”). Macaulay loves presence—subject to his individual tastes of who’s present and how, of course—and I hope he had a chance to see Harrison Atelier’s Veal, which took me back to the Invisible Dog this weekend.

This was my first taste of HAt, the “design collective” that helped realize Jonah Bokaer’s lauded 2010 piece Anchises. That’s another one of those shows I should have seen but didn’t. However, to judge by Veal—which is supposed to be about the ecology of industrial production of livestock, or something—Bokaer may have been the artist who made Anchises so successful.

Veal is a combination musical installation and dance performance which unfolds twice over the course of a “performance” evening. Half the audience makes their way to the back room of the main gallery space to watch a dance—choreographed by Silas Riener and performed by Riener, Rashaun Mitchell and Cori Kresge. The dance unfolds to music performed live in the other room, and after about 30 minutes the audiences switch. Conducted by Joshua Kohl, a Seattle-based composer with the company Degenerate Art Ensemble, a group of musicians play HAt’s interactive sculptures. A group of abstracted fowl (non-free-range to judge by their proximity within an imaginary pen) serve as de facto air bags for bagpipers. Metal vitrine frames serve as the neck for electronic harp strings, alternatively bowed (like a cello) or hammered (like a dulcimer). A soprano (Julie Haagensen) and countertenor (Biraj Barkakaty), moving through the space, perform an operatic vocal score.

My qualms about the piece began as soon as I saw the dance begin (I saw the dance first, then the music). My snarky comment about Macaulay enjoying the piece stems from the fact that nary an ounce of cellulite was to be detected on the dancers’ lithe bodies (his notorious preference), lovingly framed by peekaboo plastic butcher’s smocks (the musicians had much more demure black rubber smocks). There’s nothing wrong with aestheticizing dancers’ bodies, of course–provided there’s a justification for the choice. Here, it quickly became apparent to me that the “dance” existed mainly as an excuse for readable imagery—here were the youthful living bodies, the “veal” to be explored in an aesthetic presentation (the work ultimately goes no deeper than presenting) of industrial livestock production. The vocabulary of the dance wasn’t exactly academic, but it was comfortably within an abstract physical argot that doesn’t much question why someone would do an extension, for instance. (We’re dancers; dancers do extensions, right?) And the final image—of Riener suspended upside down, abstractly aping a carcass in a meatpacker’s freezer—worked well enough in context, I suppose, even as it struck me as little more than a gimmicky appropriation of aerial-circus technique to make a blunt point.

Moving into the musical component of the piece, I was briefly compelled, wandering around the gallery and watching the musicians make use of the techno-gizmos. But after no more than ten minutes or so—really, with the first section involving the bagpipers—I started to become cognizant of the timbral quality of the composition. While visually it looks cool and clever and creative, in the end, taken as instrumentation, it actually sounds highly conventional: operatic voice over a contemporary composition heavy on droning strings and wood-winds with an added percussive/melodic component. In other words, the piece is strongest for its visual imagery, but doesn’t seem to have much to offer besides cool looking stuff.

I include it in this essay not to slag it down per se, but to reiterate how it played into the initial sense of performance—abstracted, urgent, non-linear, non-representational—as something that I began to see with new excitement. HAt’s Veal, despite the initial similarities, is often painfully literal; it emerges more from a visual art and design perspective, but compared to either Vidich or Wampler, it was incredibly readable. It has its points and allusions, its abstractions and symbols and iconographic appropriations of imagery of industrial organic production. HAt offers a piece that, no matter how weird and challenging it initially appears, both wants you to “get it” and lets you “get it.” Its engagement with sound and movement fails to go much deeper than toying with appearance and employing coded, referential visual devices. Call it the “Performa Syndrome”: visual artists arriving at bad theater.

I don’t mean to sound too dismissive. HAt offers plenty of evidence of sophisticated engagement with their material. But the visual elements of the work completely overwhelm the sonic and movement components, leaving it feeling shallow and lacking in depth. I got a sense of how Riener tried to realize certain elements of physical, animal extremity in his choreography, but it didn’t go half far enough and fell back too often on traditional dance idiom of received vocabularies or pedestrian-movement exhaustion and stress positions (stress positions being as hard to pull off well as having a dancer drag themselves dramatically across the floor). And compositionally, the sound score was realized with a seemingly dramatic lack of interest in the potential sonic qualities of the materials. A sound-installation this was not.

Compared to Wampler and Vidich, in their own distinctive ways, Veal was weak. Stronger, perhaps, in visual composition, but without the sort of deep interest in its materials and choices that performing artists, venturing well beyond the traditional vocabularies of their form, brought to the realization of their works.

By coincidence, I recently started reading Cynthia Carr’s On Edge: Performance at the End of the Twentieth Century. I’d gotten it in my head to check out the book–a selection of articles from Carr’s nearly two decades covering performance for the Village Voice–from the Chocolate Factory’s Brian Rogers, who mentioned Carr’s legacy at one of Culturebot’s “Scanning the Landscape” discussions during Under the Radar. Originally the idea was to look to Carr as a potential guide to how to write about contemporary performance, but not only has the book proven to be an extremely valuable history of the community I find myself working in (or perhaps more accurately, the community that inherited part of the traditions she chronicled in the East Village performance clubs of the Eighties and Nineties), but it also helped re-focus me on the essential issues of performance. Reading her accounts of live performances occurring well outside the bounds of anything approaching a traditional theater, I find myself returning again and again to the sense that contemporary performance has evolved in distressing ways, proving itself far too willing to play to popular tastes and avoid risks. Vidich and Wampler are at least a generation apart, but both in their own ways point toward that undefinable thing that keeps me invested in non-conventional performance forms, something that January can all too easily make you forget.

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