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.

3 Comments

on “A Return to “Performance”
3 Comments on “A Return to “Performance”
  1. I mostly agree with the statements above (less so about the Wampler piece).

    HOWEVER… the bigger questions!

    WHY do you think we are experiencing this trend toward greater conventionality: broad humor, narrative, “nothing particularly shocking?”

    AND…

    Is this an actual movement that is happening with the work, (i.e. is it actually “going” in that direction)?

    OR

    Is there a DESIRE for something not being seen that is being PROJECTED onto the seen work?

    Similar complaints about COIL/ UTR were raised, in a much more bombastic fashion, in the “anonymous” rant published on Culturebot last year. In that essay, the complaints were about APAP 2012. Here we are again with APAP 2013. CONVENTIONALITY.

    What is happening?
    Is the work being marketed wrong?
    Is the wrong stuff being programmed?
    Are these artists in January actually interested in being radical?
    Is APAP/COIL/UTR making the whole situation worse?

    CONTEMPORARY PERFORMANCE

    I really hate this label “Contemporary Performance.” Because, at the end of the day, what the fuck are we talking about? Like most of the work it describes, the term is too polite, too forgiving, too inclusive, and too absolutely flaccid.

    “Contemporary Performance”… in opposition to what? Historical Performance? It is certainly not defined by any notion of the radical, since the history of avant-garde theatre is far more radical than the Contemporary Performance I witness on a regular basis.

    PERFORMANCE ART

    While I agree with the complaints in this essay, I don’t think we can look at the artists written about in Carr’s book and then pose a narrative concerning how “contemporary performance has evolved in distressing ways.” There is no evolutionary path from Chris Burden to Young Jean Lee. It doesn’t exist. Convince me of it and you can shoot ME in the arm.

    Now… work that has evolved from Burden can be found at Grace Exhibition Space (Bushwick), 1:1 (Lower East Side), or Third Streaming (SoHo). But not at The Public Theater.

    The artists in Carr’s book are largely from RoseLee Goldberg’s “Visual Art Performance” camp: Linda Montano, Tehching Hsieh, Marina Abramovic, Chris Burden, Guillermo Gomez-Pena, David Wojnarowicz and Ron Athey.

    But most people I know are unconcerned with the work of artists currently identified with that lineage. In the last year alone, I’ve watched people practically break a hand while punching a wall, cut themselves, get naked, bleed across a gallery, and pour sand on my shoes. I must admit: I’m not that interested either.

    And yet… I join the chorus in being incredibly dissatisfied by the degree of conventionality found in Contemporary Performance.

    WHAT IS NEW?

    I recognize a deep and growing desire in (part of) our community for work that straddles the gap between what is found in the “Visual Art Performance” scene (the likes of Performa) and what is found in NYC’s “Contemporary Performance” scene (the likes of APAP).

    But I find myself asking: to fill that gap, is some kind of a schism with both groups necessary?

  2. As always Kenneth, you raise great points. I’ll try to respond to them in an organized fashion not necessarily in order:

    1. “Contemporary performance.” When I try to explain my interest in this term, I usually say something to the effect that I use it because it’s meaningless and relatively non-specific. Psychological realism/mainstream theater should technically fall under this category as a contemporary practice, because that’s what I mean: The broad spectrum of practices of creating live performance. The divisions have always been fluid between things like “theater” and “dance” but they’re getting even more fluid, and I reject narrow divisions between them. For instance, I thought “Untitled Feminist Show” was bad dance; theater people tended to respond more positively than people from the dance world, who felt it was old-hat. Also, I like referring to performance because it reinforces the immediacy of the live act. This isn’t an entirely unproblematic assertion but as someone who rejects the literary qualities of theater, for instance, I think it’s important. A “performance” is something people go to see in a place at a time and experience as a live act, not a realization of a text.

    2. With regard to the broad sense that the work presented at festivals in January is…well, let’s call a spade a spade: It’s billed as edgy but it’s not really edgy unless you happen to think what Signature Theater presents (to employ a synecdoche) is what should constitute “theater” properly. In which case it’s just “different.” At a certain point I’m not the person who can answer questions like this; that’s more properly the role of the people who decide to present it. But looking at the work I’m seeing, yes, I see a bit of herd mentality and possibly issues of saleability. And genuine interest I’m sure. And yes, definitely marketing/optics: This field is way too defined by the marketing frameworks that often court self-ghettoization by portraying long-standing high-evolved practices as “experimental.”

    3. As to whether there’s a desire for something that gets projected onto work. That’s always a risk, sure. It’s a complex navigation. I don’t want to come across like I hate everything I saw, but I did feel like there wasn’t an expansive sort of diversity. And I find it distressing, I suppose, that this field can wind up becoming so narrow and professionalized that it becomes self-regulating. If the idea of these institutions and this ecology is to be artist-centric–to be a space and a system that supports artists in their investigations and divergences–then the narrower presentation of works in a marketplace focused environment is troublesome because it reveals the preferences.

    4. I disagree with your assessment of C Carr’s work. It’s not exclusively performance art which is a complicated term. When we use it at Culturebot, I think, we’ve largely settled on it as a term referring to visual art performance. But the NEA Four weren’t what I would consider visual art performers, and indeed, PS 122 used to be one of the homes to artists like Ethyl Eichelberg, for whom they still present a eponymous award. When C Carr was writing those pieces there was a different and asyncronous system for presenting and producing the work that doesn’t neatly fit our contemporary categories. And yes, I’d appreciate some of that urgency in our current environment. From what I know of where you intend to take your own work, I would imagine you’d prefer being engaged with in open-minded rather than narrow terms, even as you choose not to reject the defining characteristics of your practice.

    5. With regard to the entire APAP shitshow/Performa dichotomy, I think it’s false. I think what Performa is presenting–and I don’t want to be entirely prescriptive here because it would be unfair–is problematic in that many visual artists are…mediocre. Same as any field. Given their concerns and how they bring those to time-based modalities, it’s unsurprising that many arrive at “bad theater” rather than something more meaningful or accomplished. It represents their biases. And many companies producing contemporary performance…well, they’re artists trying to get by, many of whom are scared shitless of fucking up the next piece for what that will do to their career (I’m working on an article right now about what I’m seeing in terms of this field’s fear/resistance towards artists moving dramatically beyond something that “worked”). But the core of what I was trying to get at in the framing of this piece was my excitement at watching a few artists owning the fuck-all attitude towards creating performance, choosing not to employ the tricks to make it read or flow (which isn’t a rejection of enjoyment or humor, for the record) and put something out there with a different expectation on the audience. This gets into super complicated stuff that I don’t remotely want to tackle in a comment, but regardless of what you thought of Wampler’s piece, for instance, I still think you can appreciate she placed a greater demand on her audience’s attention than Nature Theater did in “Life and Times.” Despite the dramatic durational differences.

  3. 1.

    HA! Supporting use of the term Contemporary Performance BECAUSE of its very meaninglessness and non-specificity is certainly the best defense I have heard of the term. Touché.

    However, as an artist, I’m looking for terminology to communicate or explain something about my practice. Having the industry standard for explaining or categorizing my work be a meaningless term… well, that is less than useful.

    To be clear: I am not looking to divide work into categories like Dance or Theater or Visual Art. These terms are based on established forms, which are far more liquid in our field. What I would like instead is to forge a category that helps expresses intent. Contemporary Performance fails this test. Experimental Theater used to be better a better term, because it hinted at something behind the work. Obviously the term Experimental Theater has grown passé and is too limiting because of the word “Theater.” However, I would argue the word “Performance” is now also too limiting in the same way.

    Strictly speaking, was Pan Pan’s “All That Fall” a Performance?

    Unfortunately, I missed the show, but I don’t think it included a “live act.” And it is only the most recent example. Other examples include Annie Dorsen’s Hello Hi There, Bonanza at Under the Radar in 2011, and Gob Squad’s Super Night Shot.

    There are many very good reasons we consider these pieces “Performance.” Each has its own reason for correctly being categorized as Contemporary Performance (since we lack a better term). In All That Fall, it could even be said to be the “liveness” of the audience engaged in the communal act of experiencing the work. But then what of the live audience that experiences the communal act of watching The Hobbit at AMC?

    So to jump briefly ahead to your related question at the end of number 4: I do not want to be engaged with a term that is narrow, per se, but I would like to insist on one that makes a meaningful statement about my practice when I (or more often: critics, presenters, and other members of my audience) use it to describe what I do. And inasmuch as I see us all throwing this term around with increasing irrelevance, I feel a responsibility to call us out on it.

    It is important to have a term that could address the intent of the work to clear up the confusion as it relates to complaints about Under the Radar and COIL shows lacking the fuck-all, challenging, edgy qualities they purportedly embody. Because I do not think these qualities are actually willfully embraced by all of the artists currently working under the Contemporary Performance rubric in New York City.

    For those of us who define ourselves as being invested in these qualities, let’s put ourselves in the cross hairs and be willing to be held to such standards. Let’s see if we can keep each other honest. For those in the Contemporary Performance field not actually invested in these things, let’s cut ‘em a break and stop holding them to a standard they are not actually interested in engaging. It is not a judgment call… let’s just acknowledge the difference in artistic interest and intent.

    That being said, I don’t have an answer. And I’m not clever enough to suggest a new term.

    However, I have been thinking about it like this lately: if we were all scientists, some of us would be working in the branch of applied science and some of us would be working in the theoretical branch.

    Those artists working in the applied sciences are seeking a predictable outcome. They are “concerned with concrete problems… rather than with fundamental principles,” technical problems, and the practical application of known techniques or equations. They are seeking a known outcome. If you write a scene that includes “this type of situation” and underscore it with “that type of music,” then the audience is likely going to react in “such and such a way.”

    In the applied sciences, the desired effect can be judged based upon known and understood criteria. Put these chemicals in a pill, take the pill, and you are going to feel the intended outcome. I would argue the writer of a Broadway play or Hollywood movie knows what effect a scene should have on an audience if it comes off correctly. There is a formula! In the same way, I think a number of artists working in so-called Contemporary Performance are aiming at predictable outcomes based on the employment of known techniques. Some of this work is great. It is also absolutely predictable.

    On the other hand, artists working in theoretical science are most likely unsure of the outcome when they start a project (and this is why I always liked the “experimental” part of Experimental Theater). This group is “concerned primarily with theories or hypotheses rather than practical considerations.” Their interests lie in the speculative, the hypothetical, the impractical, the iffy, and suggestive. Evaluation of the work is less concerned with how well it comes off, but rather… what risks did it take? Was there the possibility for discovery?

    Basically, I want a new category to distinguish the applied scientists from the theoretical scientists. I don’t want to keep the applied scientist from making work. In fact, they can keep the term Contemporary Performance for themselves when they make it. It would certainly help me save money on tickets next January.

    2.

    Yes. I think you are right.

    3.

    Yes. I totally agree.

    4.

    Yeah. I totally admit that I focused on the artists in Carr’s book that actually interest me and ignored the others in my argument. However, I also did this because of the argument you seemed to be making about wanting to see work that wasn’t overly concerned with the clarity of how it read.

    The group I ignored in Carr’s book seems to fall (mostly) into the solo-show/monologue “Performance Art” category. Typically, the radical part of that work has to do with its politics vs. its form. Similar to your criticism of Veal, it both wants to and lets you “get it.” The political stakes involved require an investment in readability. In short, I ignored those artists because they seemed off topic to me.

    5 (part I).

    I look forward to discussing the relationship between Visual Art Performance and Contemporary Performance with you further when I see you in the real world. I know we are working on some kind of forum to make that happen… and I really hope others will join us.

    5 (part II).

    Yes, I agree completely. Wampler placed a greater demand on her audience’s attention than Nature Theater did in Life & Times. I sensed immediately that Wampler was much less interested in my attention, which was fine by me. Whereas, in Life & Times the performers routinely returned my gaze and repeatedly tried to engage me on some level—to share micro-moments with them throughout the show (although, I must admit I probably got a higher than usual dose of this treatment since I was seated in the front row). But, in general, Life & Times seemed to suffer a certain anxiety concerning what was being asked of the audience’s attention. This self-consciousness was occasionally referred to jokingly in telling ways, but almost always seemed present during the show. NTOK was not afraid to stand its ground, but if you looked them in the eye, they blinked. By contrast, Wampler’s work appeared more confident.

    As an audience member, I’m happy to be responsible for the quality of my attention. If Wampler’s goal was for me to simply be aware of my awareness and consider the question: “Why am I watching this?” then she succeeded immensely. Although I’m not sure she would be thrilled with my conclusion.

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