PRINT April 1990



WHAT KIND OF RESPONSE does this age—the last decade of the second millennium—demand from us? How can we possibly express it? We have seen the Berlin Wall pulled down, the massacre of students in Tiananmen Square; been witnesses, via the television, to Soviet troops in Azerbaijan; read of purges in Romania, Bulgaria, and Mongolia; watched as a playwright, Vaclav Havel, assumed leadership in one country, while another leader, Nelson Mandela, was freed from imprisonment in another. Closer to home, we have been barraged with the extremities of physical pain, personal loss, and societal dislocation marked by the AIDS crisis and the growing number of the homeless.

There is a sense of “too muchness” about the culture—too many images, too much information, too little time to digest them, or come to terms with them, matched by an awareness that events have accelerated beyond our control. Psychologically, the universal destabilization seems to have left the culture in a state of suspended animation—a sort of highspeed atrophy—in which stunned silence may be the only appropriate response.

This atmosphere of schizophrenic overload—one in which the old dualisms of right/wrong, good/ bad, or left wing/right wing seem no longer to apply—was both the subject and the means of a performance this winter at the Kitchen. Entitled Ipsodefacto, a joking hybrid of the Latin ipso facto (“by the fact itself”) and de facto (“in reality”) the piece was the creation of three artists (Kevin Carter, Tom McKinnon, and Paul Vandeborne).

Upon entering the theater, the audience found a couple seated on a couch, watching a large video screen onto which a “black hole” (i.e., a black circle) was projected. A soundtrack of light rain gradually turned into the sound of a storm as two white-leotard-clad figures struck a series of poses. From the rear of the auditorium, a video camera entered and scanned the room: random objects, water pipes, and the audience’s body parts became fragments projected onto the screen.

A further sense of auditory and visual fragmentation was provided by a procession of multiethnic musicians in native costume. Entering one by one, they each performed something on their instruments: a kilted Scot a bagpipe, a kimono-clad Japanese a wooden flute, a Native American woman maracas, an African a drum, etc. Then, gathered together, they randomly exchanged instruments and played simultaneously, creating a riotous cacophony of sound.

While the audience was caught in this spectacle of noisy miscommunication, one of the key performers floated silently, upright and fully clothed, in on eight-foot-tall tank of water. Linked to the outside world by a megaphone alone—his only source of air—the submerged man was at once liberated from all but the time of endurance, and rendered mute in the face of the chaos around him. For to shout would be to drown. The image of man suspended between chaos and silence became a powerful visualization of Marcel Duchamp’s statement announcing that he was giving up being an artist to become a “respirateur,” a breather. What was Duchamp trying to survive even then? The 20th century? The United States? What must we do to survive now?

The most vocal character in Ipsodefacto, aptly named Redneck, fluctuated between dogmatic insistence and post-Modern pathos. Accompanied by raucous music from the band Reek of Success (Robert Fitzgerald, Bob Keay), Redneck, dressed throughout in battle camouflage, launched into a frenzied monologue: “All Germans are Nazis, all Jamaicans are crazy, all French are rude, all Italians are horny, all Canadians are nice [the artist playing Redneck is, as one might guess, Canadian), all Iranians are terrorists, all Americans are obnoxious, all Russians are communists.” To the right was an image of fire and the text, in angry scribbles, of the angry words leaving Redneck’s mouth. Looking to the left, the audience saw a mirror reflection of his tirade—we looked through the words and saw them revealed as superfluous. National stereotypes are roles that are worn, like ancient masks; but their real meanings have been forgotten, severed from any authentic interaction in a culture of media bombardment and action-packed atrophy.

Minutes later, as if to contradict the dogmatic insistence of his rhetoric, Redneck took a more cynical tack, asserting: “There is no such thing as stealing anymore. So next time you get arrested for breaking into that car, or robbing that bank, just tell the judge that you’re appropriating. There’s no such thing as a thing anymore. It’s a collective history of a cultural amnesia. Whatever the fuck that means.”

Despite the noise and the clashing of paradoxical oppositions, the sense conveyed throughout the performance was one of muteness——a deeply felt cognizance of the irreconcilable elements and products of our fin-de-siècle culture. Freedom of speech, Ipsodefacto seemed to suggest, has been reduced to the imperative of the next breath. At times, the performance felt almost like a morality play, inviting an allegorical interpretation. But in a late-20th-century context, the apocalyptic and millenarian warnings of the medieval morality play can only become a splutter of incoherence.

No simplistic overview was suggested. We, like the actors/artists, were forced back on ourselves and the stereotypical roles we assume to control the world as we live in it. We are as immersed as the man in the tank. To break with the accepted interface with experience that the stereotype performs is to break with the world of communications itself as we know it—too big a leap for even the most courageous of us.

The performance was shadowed by an unspoken mood of impending disaster. Between the explosive effect of the bombardment of language, sight, and sound, and its implosive center of meaninglessness, the experience was one of confusion and anomie. As an anonymous voice aptly observed: “I have no sense of identity, only time. I have no sense of time, only experience. I have no sense of experience, only sensation. I have no sense of sensation, only space. I have no sense of space, only consciousness. I have no sense of consciousness, only perception. I have no sense of perception, only reality. I have no sense of reality, only identity.”

This seems to be the point we hove reached in the last decade of the 20th century. Speed has become the viral infection of the modern world. And in this world of simultaneous technologies, the high ground of simple answers and fixed positions is a precarious space to occupy. It can, in fact, be dangerous. The only sure thing seems to be that the world is too complex and change too rapid to justify any all-embracing, unified view.

What Ipsodefacto very effectively indicated is that when orthodoxies of all kinds have been discredited, when the world becomes an arena of seemingly arbitrary edicts and gestural interventions, everything—and nothing—is possible. In such a cultural climate, art can only intercede on the threshold of a contemporary Tower of Babel; artists can only cause ruptures between discourses.

Right now, Ipsodefado tells us, traces of the old world still leave a powerful residue on the new emerging culture: computer blips blend with primordial body language, the written word clashes with the image, electronic and synthesized sounds collide with the natural rhythms of past eras. Yet it is also clear that the familiar ways of defining meaning—while not entirely obsolete——can no longer provide us with a solid foundation for comprehending what is going on around us. We have (the performance implied) exhausted the old dualisms that were the very framework we used to define our political and psychological reality. Paradox has now replaced the old binary order. Survival in this newly configured universe will entail play in the Niemandsland between the separated worlds of discourse. Maybe this is where our freedom lies.

Rosetta Brooks is a writer who lives in New York. She is the editor of ZG magazine.