Trial and Error

New York

Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster and Ari Benjamin Meyers, K.62, 2009. Performance views, Abrons Art Center, New York, November 2009. (Photos: Paradise Gonzalez/courtesy Performa)

LAST WEDNESDAY NIGHT, I found myself standing on the main stage at the Abrons Art Center, blinded by stage lights, looking at a gently playing string quartet, dimly aware of a full house halfheartedly applauding my arrival . . . and wondering what exactly I was expected to do next. As I circled toward the strings, I noticed a woman standing downstage, frantically beckoning me forward. “Are you K11?” she asked. “Yes, I’m K11!” To my relief, she led me into the auditorium, where I was gratefully given a seat in . . . row K.

Such was my entry, in medias res, to Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster and Ari Benjamin Meyers’s K.62. But the performance, one of the culminating commissions of this year’s three-week-long Performa gauntlet, had actually begun forty-five minutes earlier, for me and eighteen other Ks, as well as all the members of the orchestra, who were brought to the Abrons from various locations downtown. An inversion was taking place whereby the orchestra entered via the auditorium (and sat in the stalls until going onstage), while the audience entered via the stage.

In fact, I felt as if the work had begun eight hours earlier, when I’d been offered a “solo” or a “group” ticket to the performance. I immediately leaped for the solo option. A subsequent phone call instructed me to go to the Performa Hub on Cooper Square at exactly 8 PM and told me that my experience would last approximately ninety minutes. My informant deliberately cultivated an air of enigma and mystique. On arriving at the Hub, I was handed an envelope labeled “K11.” At the top of the steps was a violinist playing her part of what was clearly a larger score, synced with an earpiece to hear what (I assumed) was the rest of the orchestra. Inside the envelope was an invitation to “After” (a party on the corner of Grand and Pitt streets) and twenty dollars for the cab ride home. Uh-oh. So this was the “solo” option: one audience member getting to watch one violinist for ninety minutes. Avant-garde difficulty writ large.

But I was wrong. A yellow cab parked outside had “K11” on the windshield, so I got in. As we set off, the driver put on a CD of flamenco-guitar music. Gradually, I realized that I was being driven slowly to the corner of Grand and Pitt, i.e., the back of Abrons, which bore the neon sign AFTER (matching the one on the invitation). A video camera greeted my arrival, and I took my place in a line alongside three other Ks (surprisingly calm and unspeculative). From time to time, the bouncer talked to someone inside on a radio and let one of them inside. When it came to my turn, it was pretty obvious that entry into the building was going to mean entry onto the main stage.

Having seen two previous performances by Gonzalez-Foerster, one for “Il Tempo del Postino” (in Manchester) and another, NY.2022, at the Guggenheim last fall, I had some inkling of what might be coming. Both had involved an orchestra playing the first movement of Beethoven’s Sixth and a gradual dispersal, one player leaving the stage after another until a core handful were playing—until there was one. This time, I guessed, the Ks were being fed onto stage to fill the vacated seats.

Again, it was far more complicated. On either side of the stage were whiteboard charts on which the movements of each K were being mapped in relationship to five movements of music played onstage. The house lights were up, and the organizers’ radio links were audible to the audience. Shortly after my arrival there was an audio sample of Orson Welles’s 1962 film of Kafka’s The Trial, and the next K to arrive gave a short speech responding to the excerpt we had heard. At this point, it became clear to me that Gonzalez-Foerster was creating for us an experience of controlled subjugation akin to that experienced by Josef K at the end of The Trial: to walk into a situation that seems predestined but where you have no idea why you are there or the logic behind the gathering. The other point of reference was Martin Scorsese’s After Hours (1985), in which a man is stranded in SoHo when his last twenty-dollar bill is blown out of a window of a cab. That film also contains a scene outside a nightclub with dialogue directly lifted from Kafka’s The Trial.

Candice Breitz, New York, New York, 2009. Performance view, Abrons Art Center, New York, November 2009. (Photo: Paula Court/courtesy Performa)

Such a wonderfully dense web of references was a consummate development of Gonzalez-Foerster’s previous performances and took the tropes of avant-garde dispersal, transparency, and fragmentation to a new extreme. (Having said that, I’m glad I wasn’t K18, who arrived just as the evening was winding up.) Its elegantly inscrutable structure could not be further from one of the previous week’s other Performa offerings at the Abrons, by Candice Breitz. She had organized four sets of identical twins to workshop a new character, an alter ego who they would take, in turns, to perform onstage. The event that we witnessed had three sections: a thirty-minute video of the twins talking about their character, and two half-hour live performances in which all four characters were onstage, improvising a situation performed by one half of each set of twins.

The video part was OK: Breitz knows how to edit, and the cutting was sharp and snappy. It was entertaining, if also very light. The characters were more or less enjoyably unbearable: a flamboyantly trashy Asian-American TV presenter in skimpy dresses who lives in the West Village, a wealthy young misanthropic geek who likes to slum it by working at Duane Reade, a disaffected mixed-race sixteen-year-old from the Upper East Side, and a gender-fluid Gypsy-esque performer from the Balkans. Symptomatically, all of them fantasized about great wealth.

However, it’s one thing to relay these fantasies on video, where all the dull interludes can be edited out, and quite another for the twins to embody the characters live onstage. The result was an abortion. Why would these four folks ever occupy a shared space in the first place? The geek had supposedly picked up the TV presenter at Duane Reade and taken her home, where he appeared to share an apartment with the Gypsy performer. The sixteen-year-old reluctantly appeared halfway through, having left her keys there the night before. Even if we could brush aside the unlikeliness of the plot, there was the issue of dire overacting––admittedly a recurrent trope in Breitz’s work, but one that hardly makes it easier to stomach. More than a few audience members voted with their feet and left the building.

Performa specializes in this kind of high-risk tightrope act, getting a blue-chip artist to move from one medium to another, in this case from video installation to live performance. Not everyone can pull it off, and Breitz’s performance seemed all the weaker for being preceded at the Abrons by Omer Fast’s . His Talk Show accomplished the same transition from video to performance, but with understated conceptual deftness. The work did exactly what it said on the can: It was a talk show, complete with two comfy armchairs, an APPLAUSE light for the audience, and two flower arrangements (with the morbid twist of a skull nestling in each one). A middle-aged woman sat in one of the chairs; a sixty-something man in the other. “So,” she began, “tell me about your brother.”

The man launched into a series of anecdotes about his childhood. The reminiscences were detailed, specific, idiosyncratic. Gradually, it became clear that there was something unusual about his brother. The audience was gripped: He was an electric storyteller. It turned out that a few years ago, he suspected his brother of being a serial killer. He explained, candidly and clearly, the pain of having to decide whether or not to go to the police, how to tell his mother, the unwanted attentions of the press, and so on. The story ended rather quietly, and he left the stage to great applause.

A younger man came onstage and took his seat. “So,” he turned to the woman, “tell me about your brother.” She began the same story, with greater or fewer variations. Key differences were detectable, however, and slips of the tongue made you wonder whether the dialogue was scripted or improvised. Her version was (inevitably) far less gripping––being as it was debased, less detailed, clearly secondhand. At the end of the story, she left to our applause. A very tall man came to take her place. “So . . .” he began.

You can imagine how the evening proceeded. Seven different characters appeared, all giving variations on the same story. Eventually, our champion raconteur appeared onstage again, this time as interviewer. We had come full circle, but in the meantime his story had deteriorated and morphed, became more reductive, more entertaining, more narcissistic (“Why’s everyone always asking me about my brother? Why doesn’t anyone ask about me?”). These changes were incremental and seemed to allude to the mass-media simplification and degradation of complex narratives.

Fast’s performance will, I suspect, end up as a video, as the whole thing was being filmed from multiple angles. Breitz’s was also filmed, but it will take some magic in the editing suite to salvage substance from that event. Gonzalez-Foerster and Meyers’s remains indefinitely unrepresentable: a lace of interlocking narratives from eighteen Ks, a fragmented orchestra, and a terminally divided audience. For most of November, it felt as if the only question going was “Have you seen anything good at Performa?” but finally I can say yes. This was the biennial at its experimental best: pushing artists and audiences to new engagements with the medium.