Harvard Bard

Larissa Harris on Stephen Prina's “Retrospection Under Duress, Reprise”


Two views of Stephen Prina's performance.

“If you’re talking about it, you’re probably not doing it.” Maybe Stephen Prina had this caution in mind when he opted not only to open his exhibition at Harvard’s Carpenter Center with a screening and performance, but to schedule the event at 11:00 PM—a time better suited to action than analysis. Prina is a newly appointed professor and artist/exemplar of the postmedium condition at Harvard’s Department of Visual and Environmental Studies, the exotically titled studio program where undergrads make art and movies as part of a well-rounded liberal education. By way of backstory, you may recall that VES’s former director, painter Ellen Phelan, was ousted—I mean, resigned—in 2001 after expressing her frustration (some felt a touch inelegantly) by denouncing the administration as “those cocksuckers in University Hall.” Her replacement, and Prina’s boss, is Shakespeare scholar and gender-studies pioneer Marjorie Garber, about whom I distinctly remember my then-Harvard undergrad sister waxing ecstatic during Thanksgiving break, circa 1986.

As the crowd filed into the Harvard Film Archive screening room, talk ran from art-worldly banter about the recent Miami Beach fair (“I told myself to enjoy it and I did!”) to topical chat regarding Art History Department star Yve-Alain Bois’s imminent departure for one of those plum posts at the Institute for Advanced Study—the Princeton-affiliated ne plus ultra of American academe where Kirk Varnedoe held a professorship after leaving MoMA. Spectacle trumped speculation at 11:10, when Vinyl II, 2000, Prina’s marvelous 18-minute 35-mm Russian Ark-at-the-Getty, began to unspool onscreen. The film is an extended, real-time “reveal” in which the camera pans out from a Baroque painting to a quartet of lady musicians playing a bland Prina chamber tune, then cruises through a wall to the next gallery, where the artist himself (in a neat red short-sleeve garbage-man suit) accompanies the same quartet, innocent as a choirboy, his honeyed voice out of synch and sometimes barely audible—hilariously rousing entertainment.

Back upstairs, near a buffet board weighed down with hot crepes and sundry fillings, Bill Arning, curator at MIT’s List Visual Arts Center, told us between bites about a recent dinner where he’d chatted about pop music with a group that included Prina and Bois: “Yve-Alain looked like he had no idea what we were talking about and could not wait for the topic to change. I apologized and said, ‘I obviously spend way too much time thinking about pop music’ and Stephen says, ‘That's not possible! It’s the most important thing in the world!’"

As if on cue, Prina, now red-suited in the guise of his musical alter ego Red Krayola, picked up a guitar near an installation involving a piano and a bicycle and started tuning up for his evening of pop songs. Arning went to sit on the floor right up front, like a devoted undergraduate. After kicking things off with a song by Stephin Merritt, who, Prina noted, shares his interest in genre, he mentioned that in college he’d entertained a visiting John Cage with Carole King’s “It's Too Late” (which he then proceeded to play for us). Indeed, it felt a little too late, albeit strangely riveting, sitting there under the bright gallery lights while Prina dusted off one hit after another, his patter and vocal technique supremely confident, competent, and serene. “It’s incredible that this art thing permits him to just stand up there and do this,” someone behind me quipped. At one point our entertainer segued into something really strange undertaken with the aid of prerecorded percussion—“This is what I play at academic conferences,” he said. Meanwhile, the murmur around the crepes and berries had risen to a dull roar. Prina sat down at the piano to play a few ditties by Los Angeles writers and demimonde stalwarts Benjamin Weissman and Amy Gerstler (one, I think, was called “A Song about a Car,” and contained the lyrics “My DMVeee/record is shit-eee”). Of the evening’s set list, Arning enthused, “That was the best curating I’ve experienced in years.”