Figures in a Field
More as installations of various art performances than testimony to my theory I fashion what follows. The figures installed are culled from L.A.'s performance art scenes, which are as dispersed as the city's built-environment and its more or less segregated cultural terrains. Johanna Went has presented her performances most frequently in Chinatown's and mid-Hollywood's punk and new wave music clubs, which she prefers over the regular theater venues. The trio formed by Toti Mercadante O'Brien, John O'Brien, and Steve Roden has staged performances in art galleries, museums, studios, garages, and a friend's backyard. Their home base “at the Brewery project,” an alternative gallery run by John O'Brien, is located in the northeast corner
As art performances, the majority of works produced by these artists have at most a covert relationship with their individual identities. But the personal backgrounds of these performers, like the frame that supports the painting or the fringe that contaminates the center, do add interesting footnotes to their art. Fact Number 1: most of these artists were originally out-of-towners or foreign-born. Went grew up in Seattle; Toti O'Brien is Sicilian and her husband John O'Brien was born in Japan and grew up in Italy; Oguri is from Japan; Hannah Sim and Mark Steger started osseus labyrint in San Francisco. Fact Number 2: many of these artists never anticipated becoming performance practitioners when they grew up. They worked at odd jobs, traveled incessantly, or pursued other art disciplines until one day they stumbled across a performance artist or a theater/dance workshop that accidentally changed the course of their lives. Fact Number 3: all of them have settled in L.A. because they discovered in this unpredictable and sprawling city divergent pockets of support that have enabled them to present performances without depending on the box-office intake. Many of their performances are supported by (very) modest grants and open to the public for free or a small price. They all have found semiregular day jobs roughly related to the city's entertainment or educational industries in order to subsidize their art. Unlike New York City, L.A. imposes no stigma on “professional” artists who regularly work only parttime on their crafts.
Went was a store clerk in Seattle before she met her mentor Tom Murrin, the Alien Comic, whose anarchic humor so inspired her that she began doing guerrilla performances on the streets with the Balloon Theater, which in the early 1970s featured actors in androgynous makeup building “huge floating structures out of helium-filled balloons.” Went also joined Murrin's North America-Europe tour with DWARF (or, Theatre That Doesn't Get in The Way), producing improvisational actions in schools, shopping centers, and small theaters. She made her solo performance debut at the Hong Kong Cafe
Multicentricity provides a sharp angle to view the disparate aspirations and diverse biographies of these art performance practitioners. Their live artworks, however, do share some discernible tendencies to justify their adjacent placement in my virtual gallery called “Chapter 7.” These tendencies characterize the aesthetic affinities among my selected artists/ensembles, although they are not necessarily typical of all art performances. The terms I use to describe these aspects—nontext basis, body technology, improvisation-genesis, homixenology, and audience consumption—may sound unfamiliar; the techniques contained in them are by no means revolutionary. In fact, each aspect corresponds to a tentative idea laid out by Artaud's The Theater and Its Double in the 1930s. What is remarkable is the degree to which the four groups take these techniques into their performances, as well as the variety they display.
Nontext Basis. Almost all the performance works produced by the selected groups are movement-based rather than text-based. In appearance, these performances might be broadly recognized as dance theater, although visual design and performance concepts also feature prominently. Music, instead of
Body Technology. But often it's more than the Artaudian “poetry in space” that these movement-centered performances exhibit. The body gestures of a Went piece are so dominated by a wild abandon that her movement language is more akin to a tornado on stage than poetry in space. Poetry in space is more appropriate as a description for the somatic lyricism issuing from O'Brien, O'Brien, and Roden's movement pieces, but a generous awkwardness at times staggers the performers' motions, turning their poetry in space into three-dimensional nursery rhymes or nonsensical tongue-twisters. Oguri and his collaborating dancers enact both haikus in the void and grotesque scriptures on the earth. The hybrid choreography danced by this intercultural ensemble mixes the exactitude of anatomical physics with evocative poetry in space. Sim and Steger of osseus labyrint have created an astonishing series of kinetic vocabularies that veer between acrobatics and extreme sports, between corporeal animation and a transgressive ballet. Their movements systematize poetry in space with a mathematical rigor so that it becomes a body technology, a science of cyber-mechanics operated by little else than their own flesh.
Improvisation-Genesis. “The theater is the only place in the world,” observes Artaud, “where a gesture, once made, can never be made the same way twice.” Artaud's claim for the uniqueness of theater art may be grandiloquent, but his remark pinpoints the nonduplicatable quality of gesture. In contrast to a written language, a gesture can scarcely be copied exactly. There is a higher degree of liberty and distortion involved in mimicking a gesture than in transcribing a discursive text; this is so even with the coded sign-language, for any impression—vocal, facial, or gestural—made by the live body is affected by the impermanence of the flesh. In this sense, to create kinetic sculptures in a body-based performance is to be always in the throes of improvisation, no matter how rehearsed the enactment may be. Since the selected art performances all apply certain types of body technology, improvisation both features as a supreme methodology in making and rehearsing the pieces and extends to the performance process as a continuous generative force. When no rehearsals
Homi-xenology. To cultivate the technological capacity of the body is to mold or transform the body into hitherto unexpected, unimaginable, even impossible, corporeal forms. A consistent strategy adopted by the four groups to showcase their body technologies is to allow their human actors to merge performatively with the bodies of others —gods, demons, monsters, animals, plants, minerals, insects, bacteria, machines, sign systems, natural elements, extraterrestrial beings. I offer the neologism “homi-xenology” to account for the transitory fusion of two mutually alien forms—the body of the human performer (“homi,” an inflected prefix derived from the Latin homo) absorbing the postures, gaits, proportions, behaviors, and imagined psychic states of other species (“xenology,” from the Greek xenos and suffix “logy”). A freeranging creative method, homi-xenology draws inspiration from the biological, scientific, and fantastic worlds in order to extend the ornamental reach of the performer's body. Such a kinetic merging of the human performer with the body of others resembles what Artaud posits as “totemism,” which is created on “behalf of actors”: “the old totemism of animals, stones, objects capable of discharging thunderbolts, costumes impregnated with bestial essences— everything, in short, that might determine, disclose, and direct the secret forces of the universe.” Artaud believes that totemism, like brimstone, is a source of constant magic, which will help us rediscover and exercise the vital forces of life. While his belief is esoteric and unverifiable, Artaud's comment serves to analyze the inexplicable sensations that we might experience while witnessing a spectacle of “the marvelous.” What we marvel at perhaps is the tremendous power of the human imagination that craves for maximum expression, which is indeed a manifestation of vitality.
Audience Consumption. In his Second Manifesto for the Theater of Cruelty, Artaud imagines the production of a spectacle so encompassing spatially that it utilizes the entire hall of the theater, from the floor to the wall to the light-hanging catwalks. The spectators are so assaulted by the constant onslaught of light, images, movements, and noises from all directions that “there will be no respite nor vacancy in [their] mind or sensibility.” I doubt that Artaud's spatial scheme is the only way to create a vigorous theatrical experience, but his analysis insightfully portrays a spectator's all-consuming involvement (no perceptual vacancy left) with an intense manifestation of theatricality. I find Artaud's manifesto most useful as a description for how a live audience relates to a (theatrical) performance. Although Artaud might well reject my chosen vocabulary, I venture to suggest that this relationship between a theatrical enactment and its immediate receivers is best construed as an act of consumption on the part of the audience—taking “consumption” as