Passing On the Passed (Past)

Photo: Paula Court

What makes an icon iconic?  Or a hero memorable?  Does it require a certain amount of awareness to identify them? The naivete of youth?  In particular the less-than-obvious icons, and most especially the ones who started something – these minor mythical creatures who, as identified, evoked, and temporarily restored to their heroic posts by Ain Gordon’s recent performance of Radicals in Miniature at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, created – were – downtown before there was a downtown.

We mean New York City when we say downtown in this context, with regard to art making.  Why? Perhaps because downtown New York City at the time before “downtown” existed as anything more than a locational descriptor, was a run-down, scary, and affordable place to make art, and so those who had nothing, or less than, or not as much as, or simply were drawn to that energy, found themselves there.  Uptown was old.  Downtown was new.  And dangerous.  And filled with eccentrics who launched a scene, and are now – most of them – dead.

My heros of the downtown are still living, which makes sense, since I’ve only lived in New York City for a little less than six years, and because also there really isn’t a downtown anymore.  Downtown is a state of the mind these days.  It moves so quickly – for a few years, it could have been the gritty art scene springing up in Bushwick, but that was quickly supplanted by craft beer bars and almost-naked young white people playing badminton in public spaces. Maybe it’s near the campus of Brooklyn College, where the writers are hippest and Mac Wellman (a genuine living hero) still teaches how not to write plays.  But there aren’t many theaters in that area.  That’s just where you can learn about downtowniness.  Not a place to practice the aesthetic.

My heros of the downtown, living legends, some at earlier stages of their legendom, in no particular order and without apology for exclusion or unwarranted inclusion because they’re mine and I’m still young enough to pretend to be naive:  Jeff Jones, with his white coat, giving us the full moon in honor of the passing of Tom Murrin (another genuine hero, but one I never met); Sibyl Kempson and her spooky belief in the weird demonic energy that exudes from her practice; Paul Lazar, dancing the choreography of Annie B., or just, you know, moving through space in a way that no one else can move through space; Julian Rozzell, impossibly articulate before he even starts to speak; Eliza Bent, still coming into her own, but incomparable and anyone who you met who doesn’t know who she is isn’t really “of the scene,” one might argue; Daniel Fish, because he’s so reliably alone at the bar and it seems like he wouldn’t want to have it any other way; Becca Blackwell, a staple performer who knows that what we’re doing is beyond language, it’s way deeper than that; and others, I could go on, you should go on for me, counting heros not yet fallen.

Ain Gordon’s heroes, though, are uniquely authentic – not only due to his level of access (his parents, Valda Setterfield and David Gordon, downtown royalty, bought a raw loft in SoHo way before that was a thing), but simply because he was there “then.”  Which is meaningful, because – as he carefully, insightfully, troublingly articulates – that was before the ladder of ambition was lowered into the downtown and artists began to climb over each-other on their way towards a paycheck, however minimal it might be. In his downtown, you didn’t do it for money. You did because it was your life’s performance.  It was what you were, to him.  Gordon conjures up ghosts.  Their names – none known to me before watching the show – included John Sex, a club performer, the punk drummer and leather-jacket-bound David Hahn, and movingly, his once-babysitter and mentor turned object of vague shame due to her lack of external cool, Elaine Shipman. He writes their names on Starbucks coffee cups in order to force the barista to call them out when the coffee’s ready.  The coffee cups litter the stage, amid digital screens which display the tiny pixelated images of the heros that he was able to pull from deep research dives into the internet.  His heros, for the most part, predate readily populated Google searches.

The show – the performance itself – follows mostly alongside the lines of what one has learned to expect from autobiographical storytelling methodology.  There are several songs, and multiple instruments played (by co-creator Josh Quillen, who also shares a story about a hero, not his own but his mother’s, in Ohio – it doesn’t fit as well into the evening as it might, but still provides an intriguing counter-texture, reminding us that a scene can be whatever you want it to be, even a collective of oddballs your mother’s age in Ohio).  It’s technically crisp and professional, a combination of song and semi-poetic dialogue that evokes the staging of a well-written radio podcast (The Moth Story Hour, maybe).  If one doesn’t know what the hell one is watching – which I didn’t, we thought it might be like a percussion show because of the drums on stage – it takes a while to ease your way into the mindspace.  But once you’re there – and I suspect most if not all the audience at the performance I attended ending up getting there – it transforms into something hypnotic, memorable, moving. For some in the audience, those who were here then, the collective act of just remembering provides ample reason to be present.  For the rest of us, who are only here just now, an act of transference takes place.  

Count your heros while they’re living and keep holding on.  The scene is dead.  The scene lives on.

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