You Don’t Know Squat

Claudia La Rocco on Squat Theatre

The audience watching Squat Theatre’s Mr. Dead & Mrs. Free at EAI on Wednesday, November 6th, 2013.

“HERE WE GO,” someone in the crowd, I’m almost positive it was The Unidentified Flying Dancer, said with an anticipatory sigh that seemed born of long experience, maybe? Batten down the hatches.

The UFD (aka Sheryl Sutton), issued her warning on a recent Wednesday night at Electronic Arts Intermix, as a conversation between two former members of the Hungarian-born collective Squat Theatre, long since disbanded, staggered to a halt:

Anna Koos: “It’s my opinion, let me have my opinion.”

Eva Buchmuller: “But I can argue.”

Koos, Buchmuller, and Sutton (a Squat collaborator) had gathered for a screening of the Squat film Mr. Dead and Mrs. Free (1981), one of several events tied to “Rituals of Rented Island: Object Theater, Loft Performance, and the New Psychodrama—Manhattan, 1970–1980.”

“I think it’s a kind of manifesto for Jay,” the Whitney’s chief curator Donna De Salvo said at the press preview for “Rented Island,” Jay Sander’s first show as the museum’s first full-time curator devoted to performance and the performing arts. That may be so, but I think of it more as a kid-in-a-candy-store fantasy—maybe especially a kid who doesn’t quite believe management is letting him horde all this fantastically weird candy. (Almost my favorite single item in the show is a vintage—if such a thing can be said to be vintage—box of blueberry Pop-Tarts in the Michael Smith room. I choose to believe the Pop-Tarts are still inside—that’s how much I’m rooting for this exhibition.)

Perhaps all shows in New York are, on some level, about real estate—and if they’re historical shows, that inevitably means nostalgia. I think it’s to Sanders’s great credit that “Rented Island,” which gets its name in part from Jack Smith’s nickname for Manhattan and delves into a forgotten corner of recent performance history, doesn’t succumb entirely to a Vision of The Past; it gives you hope for the future of performance at the Whitney. And yet it’s a lot about the city that was, and won’t be again.

Left and right: Squat Theatre, Mr. Dead & Mrs. Free, 1981, video, color, sound, 83 minutes. Left: Eszter Balint. Right: Sandi Fiddler.

“One of the most defining characters in the piece is New York City itself,” EAI’s executive director Lori Zippay said in introducing Mr. Dead and Mrs. Free. This comment made me think of the whole business of Manhattan being the fifth character in Sex and the City and… yeah. It’s just “such a different city now,” as Zippay, seemingly at a loss for words to describe the magnitude of the difference, said about contemporary Manhattan.

The Squat folks described the work as their most American project. Yes, through an intense, darkly scrambled Hungarian lens. (Here’s Sutton’s summation of the collective: “The Squat was less volatile than the Living Theatre and a lot more fun than Grotowski.”)

Mr. Dead and Mrs. Free features an early establishing shot: hundreds of bodies pouring over the Brooklyn Bridge—presumably taken during the eleven-day transit strike in 1980, back when Americans liked unions. Suddenly, here comes a gal jogging along in short shorts, a torch held aloft, like some unfortunate cross between our Lady of Liberty and an aerobics instructor. And we’re off!: car crashes and deadly police chases, storefront commandos, lines of cocaine, giant scary baby statues, intensely naked yoga, race and sex and sexism and Nico singing “New York, New York” in singularly disturbing sultry-junkie fashion.

And through it all, there’s a stroked-out sense of time. For all of its collage elements, things take a while to happen, the kind of “while” that’s so boring and draggy that it becomes transformative. There was a moment, after the lights came assaultively up, and the post-screening conversation assembled, when Sanders, who frankly looked a little slumped over, managed to say, “It’s such an astounding document.” And it seemed for a terrifically uncomfortable time that neither Buchmuller nor Koos were going to muster any commentary at all. My notes from here only read: “Is there a way to talk about it that seems productive? I want a cigarette.”

But of course I don’t smoke. I’m a responsible twenty-first-century citizen of the world. Time is money.

“That was a particular time and a particular slot in history,” Buchmuller said of the Squat’s Manhattan tenure. “We were in a situation that I would call grace. I’m not religious at all—but it was allowed.”

And then, she added, the time was gone, the city was changed, the group dissolved. And now The Squat is occupying the Whitney for a couple of months, in a little space near to Jack Smith’s gigantic sparkly alien bras and John Zorn’s tiny ritualistic objects and Theodora Skipitares’s disturbing talking goat.

Apparently, when the Squat’s Stephan Balint first tried to get Nico to sing “New York, New York,” she said something along the lines of, “I’m never gonna sing that shit.” Boy, was she ever wrong.

“Rituals of Rented Island: Object Theater, Loft Performance, and the New Psychodrama—Manhattan, 1970–1980” runs through February 2, 2014 at the Whitney Museum of American Art.