David Levine on “Habit” at Crossing the Line/PS 122 This September

“Habit” at the Luminato Festival. Photo by David Levine

One of the fall shows with the most pre-season buzz is undoubtedly David Levine’s Habit, which will be part of the Crossing the Line Festival in September in a co-production with PS 122 (Sept. 21-30). Partly that’s because Levine is a known commodity in New York, a successful theater artist whose work has spanned from the mainstream to the experimental to visual art. But it’s also due to the fact that this was a show many suspected might never make it to New York at all, because of the technical challenges it presents, despite considerable interest (it’s previously been shown in Europe, Canada, and at MassMOCA).

Which is sort of weird, because at first blush, the show couldn’t sound more mundane. Habit is, at heart, a 90-minute contemporary realist play by Jason Grote in the most predictable setting imaginable. “It’s a completely down-on-their-luck, white-trash ranch house, the kind American writers are so fond of portraying,” as Levine put it during an interview over drinks last week.

But that’s only at first blush. Habit is the latest work by Levine which explores the ongoing crisis of contemporary theater, testing the boundaries of theater’s ability to radicalize its own content by creating a collision between the assumptions of theater and visual art, challenging both discourses in the process.

While it’s true that the playscript is painfully stock, the production is anything but. Each day during the ten-day run, the actors spend eight hours constantly within the set, which is a full-size ranch house (without a roof) set up in a space as a gallery installation. There is no audience seating and there are quite literally four walls (audiences watch the performance through the windows). There’s also no established blocking. Rather, the actors perform the script doing whatever they need to do at the time–eating, drinking, using the bathroom, bathing–and the end of the play sets up the beginning, creating a eight-hour-a-day loop, no two versions of which are the same. The play is performed by two casts who alternate days. The event is free and open to the public at the Essex Street Market (130 Essex St.) from 1-9 p.m. No tickets, no box office, no seats–it’s the most traditional form of American theater re-contextualized as endurance performance in a gallery.

“I think I have basic sets of interests that get explored in multiple disciplines,” Levine told me, by way of trying to explain how his work as a performance maker spans theater and the visual arts. “My interests are spectatorship, failure, agency, unremunerative work…which I guess comes back to failure. The idea of performance as a kind of work, even when it’s inspiring.”

Levine’s career in theater followed a standard enough course, from early work at Soho Rep in the late Nineties to directing plays at Atlantic Theater, the Vineyard, and Sundance Theater Lab. But eventually the possibilities the theater offered Levine for exploring the questions that interested him seemed exhausted.

While Levine continued producing work for cross-disciplinary downtown venues like PS 122, by the early-to-mid 2000s, he was regularly presenting in the visual art world and living in Berlin. His first gallery piece, ‘Night Motherfucker (2004) was in response to Michael Fried’s 1967 essay “Art and Objecthood,” in which the critic attacked Minimalist sculptural for being mere “theater,” as it relied on subjective spectatorship. Levine placed pairs of professional actors inside a large Minimalist sculpture to perform “Broadway two-handers” out of view of the audience and one another.

His visual art work often uses extremely traditional forms of theater, both aesthetics and processes, as its material. Equity contracts often play a crucial role. In Actors at Work (2007), Levine placed Equity actors under contract while at their day jobs, thereby redefining their day jobs as performances. In Bauerntheater (2007), perhaps his most famous piece, Levine rehearsed Heiner Muller’s play Die Umsiedlerin (1961), but instead of ever staging it, he sent actor David Barlow to actually farm potatoes for 30 days on a German farm, using the anachronistic methods from Muller’s play.

“There’s basic things about theater that I totally accept,” Levine told me. “I have no issue with narrative and I have no issue with persuasive fictions at all. I’m not interested in being non-naturalistic, I’m not super-interested in non-linear story-telling.”

Bauerntheater was about Method Acting,” he explained. “Again it was a very conventional form of acting, I just removed everything else. In those cases one of things I was really trying to get at…Bauerntheater and Habit have a lot of affinities with Minimalism, with sculptural Minimalism. Which is to say that they set a really theatrical object in the middle of a space because the aim is really to make you aware of yourself within the space, and your experience as a spectator.”

“I think whereas that generation [of Minimalist sculptors] was trying to make you more aware of what you were doing in a gallery or what you had been doing looking at an AbEx painting,” he continued, “in my case, what I think I was trying to do was create a situation which, from the contracting all the way through to the marketing, was so duplicitous or so ambivalent that you could claim it was theater or claim it was a sort of endurance performance or whatever […] If you came [to Bauerntheater] looking for endurance art, you were instantly disappointed by the fact the guy was wearing a costume. You would have been perfectly happy to see the 990-hour endurance piece about farming, but what was disappointing was he was an actor. Or if you went to see this little-done Muller play, you would have been disappointed that there was no narrative or drama, just this guy farming, with the reassurance that he was ‘acting,’ but you couldn’t tell.”

Habit‘s just a much more fulfilling version of that,” he added.

The audience is invited to freely move around the gallery space during Habit, to peek through the windows or the sliding glass door, to watch the loop as long as they want. But though the work doesn’t present itself as theater, it is theater in a crucial way: Unlike the looped video, by virtue of its theatrical process, the in-the-moment improvised Method performances, each loop is actually distinct from the others. In this way, it forces visual arts audiences to grapple with the expectations placed upon them. “Habit, which I thought of years ago, was a really deliberate attempt…to force theater and visual art performance into this kind of collision where the spectator’s expectation become a short circuit,” Levine said.

The fascinating result is that by using the most traditional and mainstream theater methods, Levine has actually arrived–through recontextualizing the piece and subjecting it to different forms of audience expectations–at a rather Brechtian result.

“The ideal Brechtian space is not a theater, it’s a gallery. A gallery alienates everything. The affinities between the spectator’s experience of Minimalism and the spectator’s experience as postulated by Brecht in his writings about the theater…they’re pretty much the same. You couldn’t get half the things you wanted in the theater,” he told me. “At a certain point, you can’t alienate in a theater any more. You just can’t. Unless you start thinking about institutional critique, and alienating the institution. And that’s why being a follower of Brecht will inevitably lead you into visual art rather than theater, because theater doesn’t really accommodate that structurally.”

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