AMERICAN REALNESS notebook by Christine Shan Shan Hou

AMERICAN REALNESS notebook by Christine Shan Shan Hou

Editor’s Note:

One of the things that’s exciting to me about this space is the possibility of sharing it with multiple voices, through comments, through the bulletin board, through open letters and through posts like this. Christine is a respected colleague and a good friend, and I was delighted when she accepted my invitation to write something (anything!) for the Performance Club. There are lots of different ways to come at arts writing. Christine and I both do so from a belief in criticism as an art in itself, and specifically from the poet-critic tradition; reading her I can see how deeply her practice as a poet influences and informs the way she responds to the internal logic and structures of contemporary  performance. It’s a delight to be able to publish her here. -clr

Laura Arrington’s self-help hysterics…antics

Laura Arrington’s Hot Wings. Photo: Ian Douglas

…It’s evident

the art of losing’s not too hard to master

though it may look like…like disaster.

So writes Elizabeth Bishop in her poem, One Art, a poem about embracing the art of losing, even if it means making an irresolvable mess. This is an apt description for Laura Arrington’s Hot Wings, which kicked off American Realness on Thursday night, tackling hopeless stereotypes about women: self-help, hysteria, uncontrollable sexual urges, Mother Nature, and failure, to showcase a pseudo-feminist variety show of sorts. The results are funny, ridiculous, obnoxious, and overall, too smug for my taste.

Arrington opens up the performance by introducing herself and inviting audience members to come on stage and lie down: “Breathe. Close your eyes and notice how your body feels.” The lights are off and Joe Cocker’s Up Where We Belong  plays in the background for some “smooth listening.” Atosa Babaoff, Rachael Dichter, Liz Tenuto, and Mica Sigourney (in drag) enter the stage in the dark and lie alongside the scattered audience members. As the lights gradually brighten, you can see that they are wearing green and brown leotards and black heels while walking on their hands and feet in high upside down letter V’s. Their sultry voices whisper empty cultural signifiers like, “grad student…house…apartment….Barcelona…” and “communications consultant”, a reference to MASH, the children’s game that is played in jest to predict one’s future.

After the audience members return to their seats the women engage in a series of runway walks, orgasmic moans, bodily microphone thumping, giddiness and alternate modes of “craziness” (in case you don’t get that, they all break out into a montage screaming. “I’m not crazy! You’re crazy!”). Tenuto begs stuffed animals for guidance while Babaoff holds onto her tongue, bringing to mind Disney princess movies like Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, in which friendly forest creatures assist their heroines with domestic chores They lean against the back wall and glare at the audience with attitude and angst, reminiscent of the movie poster for Bridesmaids. They also baby talk…a lot.

I want to like Hot Wings, and to a certain extent, I appreciate where it’s coming from and the issues that are being interrogated. But the performance feels disingenuous, trying to be more gender-aware than it actually is. By replicating and exaggerating common notions surrounding female identity as a lazy means of critiquing them, Arrington is perpetuating these shallow misconceptions.

It also doesn’t help that many of the sketches in Hot Wings feel arbitrary and abrupt, especially at the end when Tenuto, in white leggings, faux-fur shrug, and white wig, breathes angrily into the microphone like a demonized gremlin. Or that Dichter closes the piece by performing a naked solo to Tori Amos’ Winter with a plastic white deer, her legs standing in for its missing hind ones (I love Tori, but unfortunately this evokes every stereotype of ‘90s feminism ever conceived).

My feeling about Arrington is that she’s off to a good start, but still has a ways to go. Ideas need to be more fleshed out; boundaries need to be pushed further; and seriously, enough with the baby talk.

The need for speed and love

Big Art Group’s Broke House. Photo: Ian Douglas.

How is intimacy compromised in a technologically mediated world ripe with yearning for the possibility of the future?

Big Art Group’s Broke House dramatizes the cultural threshold of delusion, technology, and our contemporary socio-economic state. Manny, Irena, Jerry, and two drag queens in plastic bag bustiers live in a skeletal house while being filmed by Dave, a documentarian. The stage set is composed of textiles hanging from a cubicle structure that slowly gets dismantled throughout the performance. Activity taking place in the “back rooms” is viewed via live camera feeds projected on large screens.

Manny, Irena (“Ree Ree”), and Jerry have dreams of another life: Irena is in love with a man she met on the internet from Nigeria and Jerry is in love with Irena, while Manny envisions a future with Dave, the documentarian. All are frantic and frustrated in their current schizophrenic state. Irena needs a new job so she can go to Nigeria, Jerry hasn’t been paid in six months, and Manny is trying to hold it all together for the documentary while hiding the fact that the house is facing foreclosure.

David Commander and Heather Litteer as Manny and Irena are marvelously spastic, carrying much of the performance. Close-ups of Litteer’s face fill the screen as she chats and strips for her online lover while Commander introduces his pet cats (all made of clear packaging tape) and gives a lively tour of the house.

Time hiccups in this alternate universe. Makeshift costumes and witty dialogues overlap with each other, creating queer narratives that maniacally interweave capitalist commentary, pure absurdity, self-help antics, and drag queen flair. The visual aesthetics of Ryan Trecartin’s videos  come to mind:

“If you don’t look good, you don’t feel good.”

“I’m going to shop until my fingers bleed!”

“It’s a toast sandwich birthday cake!”

“A person can be a home if you have a key.”

Titles of acts like “ECONOMY VS. EMPATHY” and “THE DEREALIZATION OF POLITICS” occasionally flash across the screen, feeling a little too obvious for Broke House’s entropic nature. The same goes for the moments when all the performers go out of character to review what scenes have not been covered, disrupting the deconstructive and destructive urgency of the piece.

Broke House’s success comes from its ability to work within this complex system while maintaining a certain level of indecipherability within the narrative. Escaping after all, is not that easy and not that straightforward—money needs to be saved, plans need to be made. The future is filled with possibilities of happiness, but only if we have the means to make it there.

Daniel Linehan: Part 1

Daniel Linehan’s Zombie Aporia. Photo: Ian Douglas.

The premise is one performance in eight parts, “composed in many small pieces…like a book of poetry” while working from the definition of aporia: “a logical contradiction.” Such a vague and simplistic conceptual basis can open up a performance; it can also confine it, leaving little room for intuitiveness or transgression.

Daniel Linehan’s Zombie Aporia is composed of a series of formulaic procedures that he’s set up for himself, Salka Ardal Rosengren, and Thibault Lac. Together, with their young faces, and cotton-collared shirts, they look like they’re on their way to the first day of school (a plainness that is quickly counteracted by Rosengren’s and Lac’s powerful presence). Most of the parts involve singing accompanied with prosaic angular movements, a navigation of systems of logic via body and voice.

In the second piece, all three copy movements on a laptop while singing phrases in rounds or finishing off each other’s words. Arms swiftly swing and jerk around in sharp angles followed by brief pauses.

“music is the background to the dance”

“music justifies…music justifies…the dance”

“dance is just a private experience”

There is a generic puerility to these statements, a quality that is thwarted by Rosengren and Lac—both of whose strong presences drive the performance. Rosengren’s cherubic face and commanding voice along with Lac’s severe bone structure and beautiful, articulate movements make for an unrivalled pairing. Both release themselves to us, moving with unguarded vulnerability.

In one part Linehan performs a solo while a video projection on the back wall shows a performance of the same piece from a first person perspective (imagine the camera being strapped onto his head). The resulting visual feedback loop is witty and reminiscent of Bruce Nauman’s video performances  in its wry approach to formalism. However, unlike Nauman’s best work, Zombie Aphoria feels one note and even cynical at times, especially when paired with commentary as nonspecific as “Something about the information revolution.”

In my favorite moment, Lac throttles Rosengren’s body in various positions that range from the Heimlich maneuver to a fish flopping out of water on Lac’s lower back, as he positions himself on all fours. She loudly sings phrases like “I am so self-critical…because I want to be cool” and “I think something should be done about poverty’s global distribution” to the tune of the Sex Pistols’ Anarchy in the UK. The repetitive catch phrases are distorted by Lac’s physical interventions, creating strange echoes of the immediate past.

I admire Linehan’s boyishness and his attempts to challenge choreography through systems. However, Zombie Aphoria is too blunt in concept and execution, especially in the second half, and doesn’t offer much beyond novelty, although glimpses of humor slip through. “There is no reason to feeling anything.” They all sing aloud while their bodies feverishly convulse as if having a dance seizure. There is no reason, indeed.

Ann Liv Young

has no more tricks up her sleeve?


Keith Hennessy’s Almost. Photo: Ian Douglas.

Keith Hennessy makes me want to be alive.

I want to be consumed by his charismatically queer aura. I want to lick it and I want to dance in it.

Almost is the lusciously glutinous in-between space that can only be experienced with the body. It is the sly escape from the ordinary, a revelatory shock to the system, the unstable economy generated between body and sound.

Produced in collaboration with sound artist, Jassen Hindi, Hennessy impulsively maps and destroys the space and objects around him: two large foam cubes that resemble blocks of dirty cheese, several open Plexiglas boxes that exhibit the chips and scratches from the previous performance, a bundle of sticks and a bag of miscellany including a couple of masks and scraps of golden fabric. “Improvisation is both survival strategy and political tactic,” Hennessy said during his work-in-progress showing of Turbulence a day earlier—a statement that is directly reflected in Almost.

Hennessy is a Charlie Chaplin. He trusts his body to respond to the situation at hand. And the audience generously reciprocates. Hennessy’s limbs fold like well-oiled portable furniture and his torso coils around whatever is closest to him, a limber slinky tumbling to the ground. He makes an impromptu sculpture constructed of two Plexiglas boxes, two branches and a mask. He fumbles around, trying to make it stand upright, but doesn’t give up. It’s thrilling to watch him relinquish control.

Mechanical, cult-like chants lurch out of the back speakers while Hennessy, in a loose and elongated black turtleneck and green underwear, wobbles on his foam cube tower (“just when you thought there was nothing left to do on the foam cube”). He pulls the excessive neck fabric of his shirt over his head like an inverted hood; an antenna-like stick is tightly taped around his forehead and neck. There is a ritualistic uncertainty in his action as he methodically hand signs to the rhythm of the chants. The image he conjures is a dark one, reminiscent of the hooded figures in the Abu Ghraib scandal—images that have seared our collective subconscious.

What is forbidden, and what is expected in the context of performance?

“What’s the difference between dancing and not dancing or if it’s all dancing all the time?” Hennessy asks.

What’s the difference between seeing and being, and being and writing?

He picks up an intimidating large steel pole that he found earlier, and dallies with it while smiling at the audience. He balances it on his right shoulder and starts spinning around in a circle at increasingly fast speeds. The tension in the room is palpable but he calmly assures us that the pole won’t fly off due to centrifugal force. Whether or not this statement is true is not a concern of mine. I trust Keith Hennessy. I am free when I am in his presence. I do something I don’t easily do as a critic, as a writer, as someone filled with queer uncertainty…I let go.

Linehan (reprise)

Daniel Linehan’s Not About Everything. Photo: Ian Douglas.

In Not About Everything, Linehan spins in a circle while surrounded by cultural paraphernalia: a current issue of the New York Times, a Vogue magazine, J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, and books by the artist Francis Alÿs and political theorist Giorgio Agamben.

He speaks:

“This is not about everything.”

“This is not about everything.”

“This is not about everything.”

“This is not about therapy.”

“This is not about desperation.”

“This is not about endurance.”

“This is not about me. But it is about me.”

He goes on to say that the performance is not about corporate greed, AIDS, the 99%, and so on. He spins and spins and spins. He stops, drinks a little bit of water and starts spinning in the other direction. Like Linehan’s video feedback loop in Zombie AporiaNot About Everything gets heavily bogged down in its own self-reflexive quality—a performance commenting on the very existence of performance through performance. This meta-quality brings to mind Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler:

Are you disappointed? Let’s see. Perhaps at first you feel a bit lost…But then you go on and you realize that the book is readable nevertheless, independently of what you expected of the author, it’s the book in itself that arouses your curiosity; in fact, on sober reflection, you prefer it this way, confronting something and not quite knowing yet what it is.

Substitute “performance” for “book”, and “performer” for “author.” Unlike Zombie Aporia and Montage for Three, I have a more visceral response to Linehan’s presence as his arms swing around in a manic-state of delirium. I can feel his intensity as it swirls around the room in naïve despair.

Untitled, or thoughts and questions for Jennifer Lacey

Jennifer Lacey’s Gattica. Photo: Ian Douglas.

true boredom is revealed as a mystery

let me consider this thought

one day earlier

without external pressure

the cold front, the hot light

a woman sits on a low table beside a candelabrum

she speaks iridescently about the future:

in the future we will all get enough sleep

in the future this will be called the American Reality festival

history will repeat itself in triumphant stages on its way there

the fourth wall comes

lumbering back home


waves the white fan

listening visited by occasional doubt

like a cloud consumed vertically

her soft hand flutters when inciting the feminine critique

I am going to close my eyes for a little bit

but I am still with you


what is the future of performance?


why must you thrust your lower back like that?


what is the site of empathy?

I believe in this moment absolutely

procrastination is for the present

ambition is not for the present

any questions?

let’s end at the beginning

**all italicized lines are from Jennifer Lacey’s Gattica.

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