My Barbarian: Between the Black Box and the White Cube
“We have to make all new masks now, for a variety of reasons, one of which is that we sold the masks,” Alexandro Segade, one of the three members of the LA-based (now LA-Brooklyn-based) performance group My Barbarian told me in a recent phone interview. “This is one of those art-versus-theater things: Our props as art are worth a lot of money, but in the theater context, props are not. We can’t get the same kind of insurance for them. So we’re making new ones that are more for use, and also which take advantage of the theater space where you need to be able to see them from farther away. With visual art, props become an art object and you want them to be something that looks good close up, but in the theater actually it often works the other way around.”
Segade was telling me about some of the challenges the 15-year-old art group are facing transforming their take on Bertolt Brecht’s The Mother (shown last year as part of the Whitney Biennial) from a gallery-style performance piece to one designed for Abrons Arts Center’s Experimental Theater, where it plays this week as part of the 2015 American Realness program. Segade, along with Jade Gordon and Malik Gaines, formed My Barbarian in 2000/2001 in Los Angeles, where all of them had emerged from theater backgrounds. In its original iteration, the group’s performance work often took the form of experimental performance posing a rock band, and was performed in rock clubs to, by turns, bemused and amused audiences.
In the intervening decade and a half, however, My Barbarian has developed its unique interdisciplinary blend of performance and art-making largely in the crucible of the visual art world, making the group a case study in the ongoing tension over the “white cube versus black box” modes of presenting performance work, and the ironies (a word Segade used more than once) inherent in how context informs and influences how spectators experience work.
According to Segade, the movement into the visual art world wasn’t a conscious theoretical decision. “We all became more interested in the visual art field because the possibilities were so vast,” he told me. “We could create a video and present that as a work. We can make a performance in a space that interacts with sculpture. We can make our props and our designs into art pieces. We all found a kind of freedom in the visual art space.” That and, of course, the strict divisions between “visual art” and “theater” are nowhere near as absolute as in New York anywhere else in the US, even in the visual artist bastion of Los Angeles.
Starting from that organic progression, the shift in discourse was heightened by the trio’s various experiences in graduate school. Having already achieved the ability to tour and present their work (both visual art and performance) widely, the three all decided to go back to school at the same time, as Gaines was already pursuing his PhD. So Gordon and Segade followed suit. While Gaines was working in performance studies at UCLA, and Gordon pursued an MA in applied theater at USC (having a long history with social practice and engaged theater through studies in Boal’s methods), Segade went into the MFA in interdisciplinary visual arts from UCLA.
“I actually teach sculpture, drawing, video art, I teach performance art—I’m teaching performance at Columbia next semester and I just finished a year-long appointment at Cooper as a performance teacher.,” Segade said. “So I’m very comfortable with that field. I think I know the conversation about performance in visual art a lot better right now than I do in theater, even though that’s where we started.”
Indeed, as he added: “One of the questions that used to be a problem in terms of our ability to answer it was the relationship between theater and art. Whether our work was theater or performance art. We haven’t really presented our work in a theater context that often lately, we have been much more embraced in a visual art context, and that’s where our interest lay for a while. So that question has shifted over time. For a long time people sort of thought of us as a theater company invading the visual arts, and now it’s sort of shifted to we’re performance artists ‘opportunistically’ taking advantage of the theater space.”
The Mother began to take shape over a year and a half ago, when the group decided that “we’d been engaging with Brecht for so long and finally felt ready to go for it,” and tackle one of Brecht’s texts. Part of the decision was informed by changes in their personal lives: After working together for nearly a decade, Segade and Gaines were relocating to New York to take teaching positions, while Gordon was pregnant with her first child. So it made sense to tackle a “piece that had to do with the political ramifications of, or political mythologies around, motherhood.”
Which is not to say it’s strictly a biographical piece. The combination of Brecht and Augusto Boal’s theater strategies has long informed My Barbarian’s work. Around the time they developed PoLAAT (Post-Living Ante Action Theater) at the New Museum in 2008, they created a formalized frame-work for talking about their artistic concerns, consisting of five principles: estrangement, indistinction, suspension of beliefs, mandate to participate, and inspirational critique. (Interested readers should take in the trio’s long interview with Andrea Fraser in BOMB magazine.) Those concerns continue to inform their approach to making work, which often takes on diverse forms. For instance, the group developed an accompanying video piece to The Mother in which they perform with their own mothers, as well as the artists Mary Kelly and Eleanor Antin, who Segade described as “art-historical mothers for us.”
Additionally, for the presentation at American Realness, My Barbarian are incorporating another performance they created, this one for a curated night of performance work at the Whitney Biennial, called Counterpublicity (video). A “staged essay” inspired by José Esteban Muñoz from his book Disidentifications, the work is concerned with Pedro Zamora, one of the stars of MTV’s The Real World: San Francisco, an openly gay man with AIDS who worked as an AIDS educator in schools, and whose final illness was tracked by both the show and MTV News (he died mere hours following the season finale).
“We made a very short piece about him that we’re bringing into conversation with The Mother, which something we always wanted to do,” Segade explained. “To see if it’s the sort of conversation piece that other work or other investigations into art and activism can be connected to.”
“What we’re doing now for American Realness is adapting a piece that was presented in a visual art context. It started a gallery here in LA at a gallery run by Susanne Vielmetter, the gallery that represents us,” said Segade. “We send her work and she puts it in art fairs and things like that without us there—our drawings and masks represent our practice without us. Now we have to re-embrace the theatrical space, and some of the ironies of doing a play in a white cube aren’t there anymore in a black box, and it’s an entirely different game.”
“This is where I think some of the visual art training comes in very handy, because with performance art, one of the things you notice historically in the conversation is that context has been incredibly important, and visual art has investigated that a lot,” he continued. “Theater has too, but I don’t know that tradition as well, of theater in non-theater contexts. But I know how art works, how to design itself in a new context. So when our work changes context that’s one of the things we try to deal with—what are the parameters, what are some of the things that the audience brings with them to their seats and how do they perform their own position as audience in that context? So in visual art usually you have a viewer who’s moving around and distracted and not even paying that much attention. And that’s the kind of audience we’ve often engaged with, even when we have them sit down. We know we’re designing their expectation. Theater is a different animal that’s about focused attention, and an identification with the performer that’s also very different from visual art.”