Boris Charmatz, Levée des conflits extended (Suspension of Conflicts Extended), 2010. Performance view, Museum of Modern Art, New York, October 2013. Lénio Kaklea (center). Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
LAST YEAR, when MoMA launched its Some sweet day dance series curated by the choreographer Ralph Lemon, there was a lot of talk about the impossibility of the atrium space as a site for any art, let alone a body-based one, and about the fraught tensions between these two art-world cultures.
But, really, what were we all thinking?
That was my thought on Sunday afternoon, when I spent a little more than two hours watching Levée des conflits extended (Suspension of Conflicts Extended) by the French choreographer Boris Charmatz. The work, from 2010, comprises twenty-five gestures performed by twenty-four dancers, so that the full palette of movements is never realized all at one time. It was the second of three weekends in “Musée de la Danse: Three Collective Gestures,” the series, curated by Ana Janevski, that Charmatz and his Centre chorégraphique national de Rennes et de Bretagne are presenting with MoMA. It doesn’t get more blue-chip than this.
Nor does it get more crowd-pleasing. Forget all this talk of culture-clashes and failure: Dance is an absolute hit in the atrium. There are even social practice-y manifestos like this one from Charmatz claiming, “We are at a time in history where a museum can modify BOTH preconceived ideas about museums AND one’s ideas about dance.” Well, huh. Do we really think this is what’s happening, we who stand in line to plunk down our twenty dollars (or press passes) and then settle in to watch the lush physical noodlings of twenty-four beautifully trained and just downright beautiful (as in United Colors of Benetton beautiful) performers labor to materialize the vision of one celebrated European male author, smack in the middle of one of the most powerful art institutions in the world?
That sounds pretty cranky. And I admit (I admit!) I was in a bad mood when I arrived at the museum, for reasons having nothing whatsoever to do with the museum. But I actually had a grand time there, and left feeling absolutely lavished and comforted by the status quo, et al. The consolations of art. What’s not to love? I sat with my friend M. and mouthed off about all manner of things while dancers stopped, dropped, slid, and rolled over the big expanse of the atrium, their leggings ripping out over their knee-pads and their shirts darkened with ever-widening pools of sweat—here is the fraught encounter, between human flesh and punishingly-surfaced architecture. They worked hard for the money. (And how good was the money? One wonders, one always wonders.) Even having come expressly to see this work, I found it almost impossible to sustain anything akin to watching—and yet, wherever I looked, there was something beautiful begging for my attention. Emancipation for all. It was great.
“Was lovely seeing you at MoMA, the Atrium,” a fellow viewer emailed me after the event. “Yes, it is now an undeniable frame, a hovering tyranny. Still, I like how I can watch however I want to watch within the frame. Meekly empowered. I like Boris, the ‘prince of French dance,’ his exuberant (and privileged) generosity.”
And as the artist Ryan Kelly said at the private reception that followed, “There is a conservative impulse—almost a resistance, among some artists—to hold on to some of the values of the museum as a twentieth-century institution. It’s a reversal of the avant-garde’s historical position.”
It sounds even better when you imagine the champagne flutes we were holding. Plastic, but still.
Kelly was positing this “almost-resistance” as a potentially positive conservatism, something he is interested in, maybe even supportive of. Certainly you could make the case that Levée des conflits extended, with its insistence on the material concerns of dance (rather than narrative, identity politics, etc., though of course all of those things were there to be read, should one be so inclined), is a resolutely modern work of art, repackaged with contemporary trappings. In this sense, it’s the perfect work for MoMA, in the perfect place, at the perfect time. N’est ce pas? Let us not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments.
Flip Book, the third and final work presented in the series “Musée de la Danse: Three Collective Gestures,” is co-presented by Performa and will be performed November 1–3 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
“IS IT JUST ME? Lightning Bolt’s been doing it for, like, ten years,” a stranger sidles up, sensing a fellow-skeptic. I nod. “The shirtless thing, the masks,” he adds. My response is drowned out by waves of sonic interference. Out there in the spotlight, a balaclava-clad man stripped down to his waist is pounding away at some homemade drumlike instrument, while his bare-chested companion, a shaggy black wig covering up his face, is strumming on something resembling an elongated rocket. We’re being treated to sonic warfare by Poland’s noise rock band BNNT. Derivative or not, the act has got raw energy going for it, but on the fourth consecutive evening of Unsound London—designed to showcase new musical talent from Poland ahead of Unsound Festival Kraków (October 13–20)—I can be forgiven for feeling somewhat shell-shocked.
After New York and Adelaide, it’s London’s turn to host Unsound, a mobile new music festival based in Kraków, Poland, where it began ten years ago as a small, underground event. As with Unsound New York, which is taking a break this year following three editions, the festival organizers are working with bigger, high profile venues and institutions. There’s the BFI Southbank and the Barbican Center, for instance, as well as smaller and, for want of a better word, underground spaces in London, Corsica Studios and Café OTO, where I saw BNNT and its antics on the final night. With its concrete floors and haphazard vintage furniture, Café OTO is a bit of Berlin tucked away in a Dalston back alley. (Oto in Japanese fittingly means both “sound” and “noise.”) Since it opened its doors in 2008, the venue has become a mecca for experimental musicians of every ilk. This is where I learned from Terry Day, playing at one of the regular London Improvisers Orchestra sessions, that a balloon can yield up to four notes.
Unlike in Kraków, where the festival’s yearly editions have a catchy theme, from “Horror, the pleasure and fear of unease” in 2010 to this year’s “INTERFERENCE,” further afield the festival focuses on introducing new audiences to “advanced music” from Poland and the countries around it, anywhere east of Berlin. (Unsound London, however, jointly-organized with the Polish Cultural Institute, had a specifically Polish focus.) By pairing up emerging musicians such as Warsaw-based improviser Anna Zaradny with the British ambient dub duo and Unsound habitués Demdike Stare (who were accompanied by Sinfonietta Cracovia string players on the opening night at the BFI), artistic director Mat Schulz is hoping to foster collaborations between artists from those countries as well as create unexpected connections between different types and genres of music—a point of pride for Unsound.
Stara Rzeka’s Kuba Ziołek.
For Schulz, who moved to Kraków from Wagga Wagga in Australia, home to Unsound festival in a prior incarnation, Poland’s alternative music and festival scene has really taken off in the past decade. Instead of trying to emulate and copy their UK and US counterparts, Polish artists are increasingly developing their own sounds and turning to native traditions for inspiration. A case in point is the opening act at Cafe OTO that evening, the one-man-band Stara Rzeka (Old River), brainchild of acoustic guitarist Kuba Ziołek, whose debut album Cień chmury nad ukrytym polem got rave reviews from London-based magazine The Quietus. The artist himself prefers to call “magical brutalism” what critics single out as Slavic folk in the distinctive blend of influences, ranging from drone to black metal to krautrock. Polish musicians have their own, peculiar sense of humor, according to Schulz at least, when it comes to music. “How does humor express itself in music?” I ask him. Schulz is at pains to find an illustration. It seems you either get it or you don’t.
Unsound London ran September 26–29. Unsound Kraków runs October 13–20.
Agnieszka Gratza is a writer based in London.
Anne Washburne’s Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play, 2013, in a production directed by Steve Cosson with music by Michael Friedman. Performance view, Playwrights Horizons, New York. Jenny (Jennifer R. Morris), Susannah (Susannah Flood), Gibson (Gibson Frazier), Sam (Sam Breslin Wright), and Matt (Matthew Maher). Photo: Joan Marcus.
THE END, whether it is near or not, is certainly upon us: The contemporary American imagination is seized by the terror that we—here, now—are civilization’s last sigh. Film, television, and literature are of course the most prolific purveyors of sensational apocalyptic visions, offering an array of endings to suit every demographic. (It is of no comfort to observe that in our politically fractured, post-Empire America, one of the few unifying sentiments is an impending sense of doom.) We may be besieged by flesh-eating zombies, obliterated by a rogue asteroid, enslaved by alien invaders, wiped out by a pandemic, or meet our maker by way of an as yet unimagined horror: All remains to be seen. In Susan Sontag’s essay on science fiction, “The Imagination of Disaster,” she remarks that its narratives reflect “the deepest anxieties about contemporary existence.” Noting as well the narcissism that propels a culture to project itself as the final word, perhaps the apocalypse—with its punitive destruction of all that has come before, and its future of no future—can also be read as an anxious vision, a tantrum of sorts, of a society suffering from a systemic lack of imagination?
This and other questions lurk inside of Anne Washburn’s inspired and invigorating tale of post-apocalypse America, Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play, currently in production at Playwrights Horizons under the astute direction of Steve Cosson, and performed by the gifted ensemble of Matthew Maher, Colleen Werthmann, Sam Breslin Wright, Susannah Flood, Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Jennifer R. Morris, Gibson Frazier, and Nedra McClyde. Washburn summons an eschatological vision as an occasion to ask (and I quote), “What would happen to a pop culture narrative pushed past the fall of civilization?” In answer, she weaves a resonant and richly layered play for our post-appropriation era, one brimming with ideas about all the ways in which we Americans write our own fate.
The play opens on a group of five people gathered around a fire on an autumn evening, some of whom pass the time trying to recall the beats and lines of The Simpsons episode “Cape Feare” (1993). As we learn, the episode follows the story of Sideshow Bob as he tries to kill Bart, and is a parody of Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear (1991), which is itself a remake of the original 1962 film directed by J. Lee Thompson (and, I might add, based on a novel by John D. MacDonald). They take turns offering up what they remember, filling in the gaps of the story and doing imprecise impressions of Mr. Burns’s signature “Excellent,” until a noise is heard, guns are drawn, and what we thought was just Gen X patter—nostalgic if entertaining filler—is revealed to be a lifeline holding this group together in the aftermath of a pandemic.
In the second act, which takes place seven years later, we return to our group of survivors, now a touring theater company entertaining ravaged America with a staged version of “Cape Feare” as well as other episodes of The Simpsons complete with live commercials and a musical medley titled, “Chart Hits.” (It has to be said that Michael Friedman’s deft musical mashups are pure joy.) The episodes they perform have been cobbled together from memory—theirs, as well as those they buy from the general public, oral history evolved into crowdsourcing. For the final act, Washburn whisks us seventy-five years into the future to see the terrible but triumphant end to their little play.
One of the work’s many achievements is the unbalancing act Washburn sustains throughout. As an example, she pointedly refuses the high culture / lowbrow ranking that would typically cripple the power of such an appropriation. When one of the troupe members (Susannah) suggests that they amp the realism in the play of “Cape Feare,” her colleague Quincy reminds her, “This is a cartoon. That’s what we’re doing. A cartoon.” Their disagreement continues: “We have an opportunity here to provide meaning,” Susannah explains, to which Quincy, exasperated and exhausted, replies, “Things aren’t funny when they’re true, they’re awful. Meaning is everywhere. We get Meaning for free, whether we like it or not. Meaningless Entertainment, on the other hand, is actually really hard.”
The sly contradiction of a play as full of meaning and as entertaining as Mr. Burns is that as we delight in tracking the clever evolution of “Cape Feare” to survive beyond the world of its original production, we simultaneously applaud the failure of humanity to produce a pioneering vision for itself—to tell itself a new story. Rather, it’s as though we’re bearing witness to the animation of Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, sewn together from exhumed bits and parts to create a wobbly life out of old materials. Walking along Forty-Second Street to get to the theater in a (nearly) post-Bloomberg New York, one is bombarded by signs blazing on behalf of revivals, rehashes, and remakes. Such is our dispiriting time, when so much of American culture seems a cannibalization of itself. In this landscape, Mr. Burns is welcome reassurance that all the talk about the end of culture might only be causing unnecessary anxiety—an irrational fear that those in the future will finally dismiss as a story we told ourselves once upon a time.
Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play runs through Sunday, October 20th at Playwrights Horizons.
Jennifer Krasinski is a writer based in New York.
EVERYONE HAD KIND OF NOTICED, but then forgotten, the big yellow woodchipper. But now somebody fired it up; the performers, still dressed in their candystriped vaudeville getups, sliced through a giant Laura Owens painting with a little branch-clearing chainsaw and fed it piece by piece into the machine’s funnel.
Joe Sola and Michael Webster have appeared as Shakey’s since 2006. For Shakey’s in “Der Hintern in der Luft,” held on Saturday, September 14, the duo turned their knack for endearing self-effacement on their willing venue—356 S. Mission, famous in Los Angeles for hosting “12 Paintings by Laura Owens” for all those months, and for throwing wild parties. Even as they gently mocked nearly every art form, and performance above all, Sola and Webster did so earnestly, and at full tilt—because after all, when one’s livelihood is made in the spotlight, aplomb is often built on desperation.
All the ingredients were there from the start: an upright piano, the Owens leaned in a corner, props bundled together on a folding table and hoisted into the rafters, and—harnessed to the rope and pulley—a prone Sola. The audience had barely been allowed to take their seats when Webster walked over to the upright and tickled the keys. Sola stood, unclipped the rope, and lowered the bundle. He started and then extinguished a small trash fire. He made small sculptures on little wooden tables. Webster’s piano twinkled in time with Sola’s exaggerated gestures. Sola whipped up a crappy orangeish mustard cheese-and-glitter sandwich then walked on tiptoes toward a shelf supported by a thin stick. With much ado—the arpeggiating piano skittering higher, quieter—he placed the sandwich there, and out rang a tinny octave: Ping! Sola danced from foot to foot, hands waggling to Webster’s rag, which dissolved, dreamlike, into the sound of a doorbell.
Having punctured the myths of contemporary sculpture (indeed, the sandwich was almost an alternate for the exhibition in the adjacent room, “365 Sculptures”) Sola turned to drawing. He flipped the folding table up on its end into an easel, stuck a big pad of white paper on there, and went at it with a marker. A jazzy abstraction emerged. Sola put on a policeman’s cap and ventured a couple of strongman poses. But soon self-doubt set in; he flipped to the next sheet, slowly, like the drawing weighed ten pounds. He drew a Ship at Sea (an Owens joke?), then a stick figure throwing a knife. Sola marked a bullseye on the gallery wall and tossed his own blade into the outer ring. Then he tossed a hatchet, but missed; and next, Sola mimed a knife-throw into the audience, pulled a hapless volunteer up front, handed him a yellow balloon, and wound up with a giant axe…
But an artist’s triumphs always fade into the next project, and the doorbell rang again. Sola shuffled over to the Owens painting, fingered a small rip in the canvas, and dove in. Out flew a bunch of junk—popcorn, more glitter, a surfboard, a wadded up piece of newsprint. Sola ran to center stage and prepared—manically this time—an epic trash fire, with two bags full of crumpled paper and a gallon of gas. But as he wielded a huge fire extinguisher, he tripped. The extinguisher clattered to the cement. Webster played a disconsolate lullaby.
Sola rolled on the ground and squirted out a whipped cream pie, then splatted it in his own face. He tipped over his little sculptures, one by one. He swatted the leg out from the shelf and brought its contents down on his head. Sola slid over and clipped himself to the rope and pulley and hoisted his body into the air, inch by inch, until the seat of his pants formed an abject peak—and all at once the volunteer (still awkwardly standing there, still holding the balloon) belted out in an operatic baritone (piano pounding): “Der hintern in der luft, der hintern in der luft”—the butt in the air.
The chipper’s cranking motor cut through the applause. The audience played their part, too, sifting through the aftermath of the Owens, looking for good scraps.
Travis Diehl is a writer based in Los Angeles.