New Writing on New Performance in New York

The Democratizing Power of Art


In the early winter of 2010, after an only slightly city-debilitating blizzard, my friend Mike and I decided the snow might shut people in, allowing us a vacant Guggenheim, perfect for exploring Tino Sehgal’s much-hyped “This Progress” in relative peace. Seizing a gift of time and space rarely granted by New York, we met in front of the museum in the afternoon and found it satisfyingly empty. A notorious provocateur, I made Mike agree to one concession — our first ascent would be completely earnest, we would respond with our initial impulses, being true to ourselves and the work, quelling any childlike desires to subvert with shock-value. Almost three years later, what I remember more than the artist-constructed conversations, what I recall as if it happened yesterday, was a complete accident: at the height of our experience we were arguing with Gabriel Byrne over the rules of the artwork.

While descending the spiral — after an invigorating series of questions and answers covering love, death, and Nazis, and preparing for a second inflammatory attempt that would probably include more Nazis — we paused to peer into the rotunda at the couple dry humping in slow motion on the museum floor. To our right I saw a similarly fascinated man snapping photos with his blackberry. Exceedingly conditioned from the start to Sehgal’s desire that there be “No Pictures!,” and unable to resist the urge to police people behaving badly, I poked Mike, who chided: “No Pictures!” The stranger gaped at Mike, I gaped at the stranger, and as the boys began jousting with their penises, I realized he wasn’t a stranger, he was Gabriel Byrne. After a fun spar, and as his do-you-know-who-you’re-talking-to grimace transformed into a you-either-don’t-know-who-you’re-talking-to-or-you-just-don’t-give-a-damn grin, Byrne waved goodbye and sauntered down ahead of us.

About twenty minutes later, during a second jokey and lifeless ascent, we saw him again, well, he saw us. From out of nowhere came a jovial bark — “No Pictures!” And there he was, our good friend Gabriel Byrne, now fitted with a female companion in need of amusement, giving us a wink and a nod, as if in the context of this artwork we were the celebrities to be recognized. The fact I remember this exchange more vividly than anything Sehgal intended (though I certainly enjoyed the contrast of talking to the very old moments after the very young), may mean I’m a star-fuck more concerned with fame and fortune than truth and beauty, but I think it’s more interesting than that. I think the encounter was unusual for everyone because it demonstrated how such a firmly rooted hierarchical space can be democratized rather simply — by changing how people relate to one another.

Unable to know what Byrne felt, I can only go with my own experience. In the transformed space of the museum I was relieved of the roles society requires I traffic in — I felt free of the need to project a personality, free of the competitive drive to compare myself to the inevitably more successful, more beautiful, more worldly woman just ahead. Knowing I couldn’t take my liberation when I left, sensing I’d only get out of the situation what I gave to it, I maximized my enjoyment and the pleasure of those around me. Together we laughed, we danced, we provoked strangers. We followed for ourselves the moments we valued.

Before reading Lauren Collins’s New Yorker profile, I may have begrudgingly admitted there’s genius in what Sehgal does, but like any artist who’s struck gold and isn’t quite sure how, he undermines the power of his discoveries talking about his process. Sounding naive and excessively eccentric he says, “I have this belief that if you have an idea, and you have to write it down to remember it, then it can’t be a great idea.” Tino, my man, this is a foolish belief. Writing is a conversation you have with yourself, the initial spark can lead anywhere, a simple idea can fuel more complex ones. Like the conversations in your work you’re only hurting yourself when you hold back, so not writing things down is actually the bad idea. But, hallelujah, confessions like these give the rest of us hope — that just because we don’t know what we’re doing, or why people respond to our work, doesn’t mean we stop trying. Because even if Sehgal mistakenly thinks he has redefined the goal of art to be about the “transformation of actions rather than things” — psst!, this is what all art has ever been about, think folklore, music for dancing, propaganda, architecture — he’s reminding us that the most basic way to transform a person is with another person, with their attention and care.

By constructing situations where performers in street clothes exchange stories with patrons, Sehgal creates a space that momentarily relieves us of the power dynamics that dominate our capital driven lives. In the constructed micro-democracy of Sehgal’s Guggenheim we’re all the maker, the muse, and the audience — no one person’s attention is worth more than any other’s, no one’s work is held in higher esteem just because it happens in the public eye, no one is celebrated or maybe it’s that we’re all celebrated. In “This Progress” a person is just a person with or without a self-defined purpose for that moment, and if they are measured by any standard it is their ability to be fully present, receiving and engaging someone else. Now, I may be the one to sound naive here, but that goal — to be fully present for others — is a value around which anyone can add meaning to their life.

Contemplating “This Progress” today, I understand it’s not the protected space of Sehgal’s spectacle that is the illusion, on the contrary, it’s our everyday delusion that money buys significance that is the lie. Nevermind that it’s just not true — how do we challenge the misconception? Art is one means of transformation, as Sehgal notes, when it is aimed at a practice not a profit.

Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh talks about the deep meaning that arises when we commit to artistic activity: “By producing works of art, you contribute to the work of the collective awakening of our people…. Nothing can be compared with that kind of joy, knowing that your life on Earth is beautiful and is helpful.” When a bunch of oversized neon toy tulips, “credited” (because he seldom touches the materials) to Con Artist Jeff Koons, sells for a record sum of $33.68 million at Christie’s (even though “five unique [read: other] versions” of the same sculpture exist) what activities are we valuing as artistic? When the story involves “guaranteed reserve prices,” “consignors,” and “third party default owners,” it sounds like bolstering assets and hedging bets, not art. I have no problem with Jeff Koons wasting his life, I have a problem when his corporate model of production and consumption (that takes more than it gives) confuses what is beautiful and helpful to the real world. Crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter aren’t much better because they distort the narrative of “support” — they reward artists prior to earned achievement, leave them indebted with their time (precious time they could use practicing), and feed a percent of profits to the The Very Hungry Amazon Monster. We don’t need websites to invest in one another. And we don’t need to follow the money trail back very far to identify the commodities that make these sites work — our attention and care.

The lesson for me, to bring this back to jousting with Gabriel Byrne at Tino Sehgal, is that fame and fortune only have power when they matter to us. And we can choose to care about more interesting things — affection, insight, nourishment, craft. We can celebrate work that is beautiful and helpful to a common good. If our attention is what websites desperately want to capture and commodify, it must be pretty powerful. Can we take a cue from Tino and reclaim our eyes, ears, minds, and hearts from our phones, pods, pads, and screens (and from the corporations that profit from our pilfered personal data), and start giving our most valuable asset — our empowering, transformative, engaged attention — to other human beings.

—Katie, January 2, 2013

What I’ve been reading + watching that made me write this:

Handmaking America, by Bill Ivey (Counterpoint, 2012); watch his thrilling PBS interviews: here and here. (Pull quote: “Personal creative practice, as a pathway to a quality of life, is an avenue through which the arts can re-establish a sense of value and importance to society.”)
Amour, a film by Michael Haneke

“The Question Artist,” by Lauren Collins,
The New Yorker (August 6, 2012), with Report on the Construction of Situations,” by Guy Debord (1957).
The Laugh of the Medusa,” by Hélène Cixous (1975).

Art & Money: Making Ends Meet While Flourishing as an Artist,” by Ela Thier (2012).

Illicit photo from this gal’s flickr.


A group of scraggly twenty-somethings (with protest signs and prophylactics) haul a mattress into the lobby of a Chase Bank. Cornel West follows with a camera crew, mock-umenting the spectacle.

CORNEL WEST: We are here to ignite a sexual awakening! We are going to impregnate the city with the spirit of revolution.

NOAM CHOMSKY: One success of the Occupy Movement is that it has changed the national discourse, the other is not much discussed, but fairly important —

CORNEL WEST: — it has increased individual intercourse!

AZRAEL (girl): I’ve never dated someone so eager to be with me. Two weeks after meeting Narcissus in jail, he moved in to my DUMBO loft.

NARCISSUS (boy): Before that I had been sleeping in the bed of my pick-up. I left my parents’ house in Tallahassee to be homeless in Manhappening.

Narcissus tosses himself onto a nearby mattress, strikes a sexy pose, and beckons Azrael down to the mattress. She flops down giggling and they begin tickling.

JUDITH BUTLER: This movement is about bodies coming together in alliance. About taking it standing up and from behind, never lying down.

Judith kicks the mattress, trying to get the kids to their feet, but they won’t budge.

JUDITH BUTLER (CONT’D): Come on, tell us, what are your demands?

NARCISSUS: Uh (scanning his brain), I want the bare minimum of clothing on all citizens of all genders and all orientations.

AZRAEL: More pepper spray — it sustains the tingle longer than K-Y jelly.

BEMBO (boy): Open-membership — in hopes of attracting freeloaders, promiscuous girls, and sex-starved lechers.

PATCHOULI (girl): La petite mort pour late Capitalism!

CORNEL WEST: Don’t be afraid to say sexual revolution!

BEMBO: I want you to occupy my heart!

PATCHOULI: I’d rather occupy your hard-on!

BEMBO: Oh baby, stimulate my package!

Attempting to cockblock the blossoming orgy:

JUDITH BUTLER: Ok, kids — let me hear you say, “Weee the people!”


CORNEL WEST: Judy, I got this. Brothers and sisters, I want you to amplify this sensation through your human microphones. Get on up, like a sex machine, and squeeze the skank nasty democrazy juices outta this nation.

AZRAEL: Brother? He’s my boyfriend!

NARCISSUS: Babe, you know attempts at permanence stifle my creativity.

AZRAEL: My wouldn’t-have-a-home-if-he-weren’t-crashing-at-my-place homeless boyfriend.

NARCISSUS: And you’re my life, and my life-style.

NOAM CHOMSKY: Many wonder if this generation is even capable of participating in small social systems that prioritize collective goodwill over personal gain.

CORNEL WEST: We do know one thing.

NOAM CHOMSKY: Lay it on me, Brutha West.

CORNEL WEST: They’re making love, not just class warfare.

Suddenly Radiohead’s there, too, blasting “Let’s Get It On,” as the OWScouples go at it.

—Katie, March 28, 2012

Winnicott, on fantasy: “The subject says to the object: ‘I destroyed you,’ and the object is there to receive the communication. From now on the subject says: ‘Hullo, object!’ ‘I destroyed you.’ ‘I love you.’ ‘You have value for me because of your survival of my destruction of you.’ ‘While I am loving you I am all the time destroying you in (unconscious) fantasy.’ Here fantasy begins for the individual.”

Cave of Speculated Dreams

(Archaeologist Nicholas Conard and Werner Herzog in Cave of Forgotten Dreams)

For the work of a filmmaker enamored with original discovery (“The volume and depth and intensity of the world is something that only those on foot will ever experience.”*), Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams contains mostly counterfeit revelations. We can, at least, be thankful for his images of Chauvet Cave (ordinary people aren’t allowed in) and his use of 3-D photography in capturing them (dramatizing how the motion of the paintings plays on the contours of the limestone). Still, Herzog might better serve the beauty of Chauvet if he shut up and simply showed us; we might actually experience something profound rather than ironic.

As a granddaddy of narrative-documentary cinema, I enjoy Herzog’s Bavarian-baritone asides and oppressive authority (no! you! stay here!) as much as anyone, but in moderation and if to some ends. When his goofy commentary enlightens the breathtaking images his celebrity status lets him access, or when he mutters accidental poetry about incongruities we all see but can’t verbalize, he’s at his best. It’s when he bloats his stories with irrelevant speculations, or painfully exploits the eccentricities of his subjects that I lose faith. Is irony the only emotional weapon in Herzog’s arsenal? If Herzog doesn’t respect the choices his performers make, isn’t it fair to assume my humanness, as an audience member, receives similar contempt and takes a backseat to his agenda extending the myth of Herzog. If he’s so captivated by weird characters who beget epic and preposterous stories,** shouldn’t he stick to narrative fiction films? Not documentaries.

Herzog’s treatment of “discovery” in Cave of Forgotten Dreams is particularly troublingThe film is repeatedly dedicated to the explorers who found the cave in southern France in 1994, yet allows archaeologist Nicholas Conard to declare the end of adventure in archeology (it’s not Indiana Jones daring-do, but the scientific poking of pipettes). For Conard, discovery is about answers — arriving at conclusions, evaluating results, knowing. For me, discovery is about questions — experimenting with possibilities, enabling surprise, finding new things by not knowing. It’s all semantics, sure, until it’s about how language translates into principles and actions embodied on screen. Herzog’s historically sweeping claims are charming, until you face the premise-disturbing caveats: this might be data reflecting daily events, there’s uncertainty in carbon-dating, and just because we haven’t happened upon older cave paintings doesn’t mean they don’t exist. In place of opportunities to witness the paintings in Chauvet for ourselves, we get opinionsLike the useless activity of imagining the “forgotten dreams” of the numerous names in a Manhattan phone book, these Herzogian juxtapositions seem to primarily amuse him (or gratify his ego), and offer infrequent simulated payoffs for us.

Herzog's so caught up in exploding every nuance of character to seem larger than life (with the voluminous and the intense), he has misplaced the essence of true character (the deep***). Superficial art can be tolerated or even entertaining, but it’s best left to works that acknowledge they’re fictionKatie

*Herzog on Herzog, edited by Paul Cronin (Faber & Faber, 2003), p. 280.
**“I love the Frenchman who crossed the whole of the Sahara in reverse gear in a 2CV. And I love people like Monsieur Mange Tout, who ate his own bicycle. I think he also tried to eat a twin-engined aeroplane. What a guy!” also in Herzog on Herzog, p. 199.
***There’s wisdom in
Claude Levi-Strauss’s reflection from Tristes Tropiques (1955): “Exploration is not so much a covering of surface distance as a study in depth.”

(The bison, rhinos and lions of Chauvet Cave)

(Pablo Picasso’s ‘Amorous Minotaur with a Female Centaur,’ 1933; Herzog theorizes the cave paintings’ imagery prefigures Picasso’s and that creativity may be born from inherited unconscious patterns of imagination.)

Animal Instincts

(Director Michelangelo Frammartino with a goat that stole the show)

In his book Great Reckonings in Little Rooms (1985), theater phenomenologist Bert O. States suggests one way to “defamiliarize all of the old familiar defamiliarizations” on stage might be to include more animals. “An animal can be trained or tranquilized, but it cannot be categorically depended upon. There is always the fact that it doesn’t know it is in a play; consequently, we don’t get good behavior, only behavior.” Although the immediacy of this idea is weakened when applied to film — which allows accidents to be edited out and doesn’t require the physical immersion of a live show — watching “a real dog reacting to what, for it, is simply another event in its dog’s life” on screen feels no less sincere a reflection of nature than if it were happening in front of me. The performance engages me because there is nothing performative about it — there is no effort toward verisimilitude, only complete authenticity. It is precisely this conquest of illusion by reality that gives Michelangelo Frammartino’s Le Quattro Volte its air of raw enchantment. As I watch an abandoned baby goat fatally fail to bleat his way back to the herd, I console myself with the knowledge this is fiction, not a documentary — there is a crew off screen who will swaddle and nurse him out of his hysteria after the director calls cut. But as soon as this emotional cop-out occurs to me I wish I could unknow it. A braver response might have been to allow myself to experience the genuine anxiety and despair being offered.  —Katie

Le Quattro Volte screens at Film Forum through April 12.

Lazy Barbarians


Personifying a metaphor from Nietzsche (“the baroque style originates whenever any great art starts to fade”), My Barbarian ended their show at The Kitchen on March 26 by asking the audience to close their eyes — essentially requiring us to effect an illusion on ourselves. When we open them a minute later we’re confronted with an empty stage — Malik Gaines, Jade Gordon and Alexandro Segade seem to have evaporated. More than a culmination of the show’s themes (“a recital of the grandeur of excess executed through impoverished means”) this feels like a trick to dodge a curtain call. Unsure whether we should applaud or wait for more entertainment, we conspire to gather our things while trading quizzical looks. Left with no outlet for appreciation I approach fellow audience participants and compliment them on their attitude or a touching improvised insight (“in the future meditation will act as fuel”). Over post-show drinks we wonder why these people weren’t excited to present their work. Where was their energy? Where was the life? The intention.

Work this slipshod makes me think we’re experiencing a crisis of purpose where excessive access hasn’t exploded the demands of expression but exposed a dearth of depth. Reading Nietzsche’s notes on the baroque in Human, All Too Human only further flummoxes. “The feeling of a lack of dialectics or inadequacy in expressive or formal ability, combined with an over-abundant, pressing formal impulsion, gives rise to that stylistic genre called the baroque…. To these belong the choice of material and themes of the highest dramatic tension of a kind that make the heart tremble…. A constant involuntary overflowing of all the cornucopias of a primeval art born of nature.” Did Broke People’s Baroque Peoples’ Theater contain high dramatic tension? No. Over-abundant emotion? Not the slightest. Heart trembles? Maybe in one sequence where participants indicated who in the audience they were sexually attracted to (performance as menacing cupid). Did these Baroque People demonstrate an inadequacy in expressive or formal ability? An involuntary overflowing amount.  — Katie

Idea #1: Grinder


The Sum of Their Methods

Describing how his company, the Rude Mechs, came to develop a sequence in their latest show, The Method Gun, where two men prance across the stage completely naked, their penises held toward the sky by batches of balloons, writer Kirk Lynn recalled a gauntlet thrown at the Orchard Project in 2007: “Our friends from Radiohole were there, and they were out running around filming each other naked in the woods at night, and we wanted to rise to the challenge.”* It’s not just the idyllic image of a workshop artopia where late night nakedtime leads to new material that charms me. It’s how aptly this scenario of group-on-group escalating dares epitomizes ideas of artistic resourcefulness in the show that I love. If The Method Gun grapples with big questions: How does a company move forward when a guru abandons them? How does a group decide when there’s no lone decider? (Who pulls the trigger?) Rising to challenges from a like-minded ensemble proves one fruitful response. Seeing where the passions, whims, unfulfilled expectations of individuals within your own group take you, another. Inviting your public to help reconstruct the legacy of your enigmatic mentor via the Internet, another! Attempting to assemble a play out of the negative space of “A Streetcar Named Desire” after removing its four main characters, yet another. Bereft of a single tried-and-true way, the company discovers a multitude of new ways. Once you burn your idols and quit searching for an authoritative method, your collective net for catching inspiration exponentially widens, and together you move toward unknown territory. — Katie

The Method Gun plays through March 11 at Dance Theater Workshop in Chelsea.

Members of the Rude Mechs developing ‘The Method Gun’ at the Orchard Project in Hunter, New York, 2007

*Robert Faires, The Austin Chronicle (March 28, 2008).

This photo of Wim Wenders in 3D glasses at the premiere of Pina in Berlin makes us want to see the film more than ever!Pina  on watching: “What I do — watch…. Perhaps that’s it. The  only thing I did all the time was watching people. I have only seen  human relations, or have tried to see them and talk about them. That’s  what I’m interested in. I don’t know anything more important.” From Pina  Bausch by Royd Climenhaga, p. 54.(More images at www.wim-wenders.com)

This photo of Wim Wenders in 3D glasses at the premiere of Pina in Berlin
makes us want to see the film more than ever!

Pina on watching: “What I do — watch…. Perhaps that’s it. The only thing I did all the time was watching people. I have only seen human relations, or have tried to see them and talk about them. That’s what I’m interested in. I don’t know anything more important.”
From Pina Bausch by Royd Climenhaga, p. 54.

(More images at www.wim-wenders.com)

Beyond Interpretation

Katie’s ruminations on James Thiérrée’s Raoul. Performed November 5, 2010, as part of BAM’s Next Wave Festival, at the Harvey Theater in Brooklyn.
One could read James Thiérrée’s Raoul as an allegory of a waking unconscious. The program note establishes a duality even before the show begins: “In the late hours of an undeniably nameless day, a man — at the residence of an unspeakably lonely character, living under the obviously usurpated name of Raoul — was attacked shamelessly by a man claiming to be him. That is, Raoul.” The action supports a Jungian interpretation: Our reclusive protagonist (the ego, Raoul) is besieged by a combative antagonist (his shadow, ‘Raoul’), and by wrestling his dark side, is liberated, destroyed and integrated into a harmonized psyche (the buoyant, Raoul!). Multiplying Raouls sounds a little like James Franco simulacrizing himself, but this is no postmodern performance pastiche. Thiérrée’s buffoonery, at its most arresting, personifies what André Breton admires about the fantastic — “that there is no longer anything fantastic: there is only the real.”*

Born — likely tumbling — into a family of circus performers, Thiérrée is what theater nerds revere as an “acrobat of the heart.” In Raoul he embodies an ape, a horse, a firey-eyed spider, a radio antenna dodging interference, and pushes his body to its physical limits. With the help of at least one body double, he plays both Raouls simultaneously (which Raoul is Thiérrée now?). In interviews he talks about regularly revising routines to keep risks alive and discoveries fresh. His contortions and wee dances generate, in the receptive spectator, what Gaston Bachelard calls an “original amazement” at the immensity of the world within each of us. He sparks — and I don’t type this often — genuine “spasms of the soul.” So, in approaching a Thiérréeian spectacle, real rewards might come not by landing on a psychological reading, but by moving into the poetic.

Two qualities endow Raoul with its infectious lyricism — the handcrafted scenography (he calls his work “moving sculpture”) and a delicate economy of gesture (the more tender movements are rarely repeated even for echo’s sake). In addition to conceiving and performing the piece, Thiérrée is credited as scenographer — maestro of the stage environment, orchestrating the play of light, sound, props, wires, rods, and the relationship of the audience.** He invites us into the chaos a few times — by opening to the audience in takes (that urgently ask “Is this happening?!”) and, in one sequence, lifting an oversized round mirror up to us (we’re floating on the face of his moon). His mother, Victoria, fabricates the puppets and costumes. A sneezy catfish, a pyrotechnic scorpion, a toddling jellyfish, and a glumpy phantasmic elephant populate the supporting cast that attempts to coax Raoul out of his protective cocoon and into the abyss. Dadaesque costumes are made from salvaged kitchen antiques — frying pans act as armor, a cheese grater guards his wrist, an egg beater is brandished at imagined predators. And with a fragile sense that prioritizes the moment — through the entire show runs a feeling that this might never happen again, that tonight is it! — Thiérrée transforms the raw material of everyday life into fantastic images that compel us to rediscover what is unique in the familiar.

At the end of the night, uniting Raoul and ‘Raoul’ in Raoul! has less to do with a narrative of psychological liberation than it does with the physics of balancing a daring spirit in a grounded body. Raoul doesn’t ask to be understood, or read, or mentally unpacked, just ecstatically felt.


*Manifesto of Surrealism, 1924 
**The Cambridge Introduction to Scenography, 2009