PRINT January 1997


Three Days in the Desert

SHADES OF Hunter S. Thompson . . . I am cruise-controlling through the Mojave desert having been dispatched by Artforum to cover a potentially dodgy event called “Chance: Three Days in the Desert,” described by its creator Chris Kraus as “a philosophical rave and summit meeting between artists and philosophers, chaosophists and croupiers, mathematicians and musicians,” and archly located at a resort casino forty miles south of Vegas. Obviously chosen for its “post-modern” kitsch value, Whiskey Pete's turns out to be both too cheesy and not cheesy enough. The locals populating the casino floor are too real, too degraded to deliver the cultural leveling and free play of signifiers the creators hope for. Indeed, my first encounter with absurdity at “Chance” occurs when I sign in and receive a hospital bracelet which, I'm told, “must be worn at all times for identification purposes.” Looking across the crowded casino, I spot every “Chance” attendee instantly, as if they were decked out in Vegas neon. The demographic rift between the slot jockeys and the art trash separates us like oil and water.

After a fair amount of eyeballing from the hotel staff, who seem to regard us as space aliens, we make our way into the auditorium that will serve as the locus of the conference. DJ Spooky kicks things off at three in the afternoon with a surprisingly loud “illbient” mix that would have gone over better at 3 A.M. Flattened by the noisy wash, described by Spooky as a mix of “water sounds,” I could only appreciate the performance from the befuddled perspective of the hotel bartenders in the back, who are clearly stunned by “Chance's” opening salvo, a far cry from casino regulars Ronnie Milsap and Captain & Tennille. In the aftermath of Spooky's set, Hong Kong artist Shirley Tse takes the stage to deliver a lecture on plastic in her native city, drawing on the monolithic metaphor of plasticity to examine both kitschy consumer products and the mutated, polyglot identity of postcolonial Hong Kong. Dressed in a plastic miniskirt and turquoise fishnet stockings, she receives a wolf-whistle from some male attendee, an act so anachronistic in this milieu, it's almost refreshing.

After this decidedly modern blast of chauvinism, it's back to pomo territory, with a somewhat tiresome lecture on chaos theory by self-described “Venice Beach roller blader, healer, and spiritual seeker” Marcella Greening. The lecture is troubled by the hand-wringing earnestness that plagues most thinkers with one foot in the New Age and the other in a Rollerblade. I nearly doze off. That night, Beat poet Diane di Prima reads some of her work, seeming out of place among all the chaosophists and cybersleaze. Di Prima is a relic from another era, clearly on display here to lend a kind of folksy credibility to this disembodied cocktail party. Following di Prima's no-frills reading, the lights dim for transsexual professor Allucquere Rosanne Stone's way-off-Broadway performance theory, which, for all its showbiz glitz, turns out to be one of the most substantial offerings of the weekend.

The highlights of the performance are its low-ball moments—rewritings of “I Get a Kick Out of You” and “The Lady Is a Tramp,” thoroughly vamped and camped up by Stone, whose booming alto recalls Ethel Merman. Cole Porter's classic is recast as a love song to guest of honor Jean Baudrillard, becoming “I Get a Kick out of Jean B,” which, while failing to scan, gets many laughs and embarrasses the pants off Jean B himself, who is trapped in his seat near the stage by a hot spotlight. Turning the spot back on herself, Stone subverts the ultra hep and undeniably het Sinatra standard by singing “That's why the Lady is a Trans” to the delight of all repressed gender-benders in the audience. This is new, I think to myself—lounge theory. Perhaps old theorists will never die, they'll just double-bill themselves into oblivion at the Flamingo with Englebert Humperdinck.

Saturday belongs to the Chairman of Debord himself, the inimitable Baudrillard, who, having won $100 from a slot machine the day before, seems prepared to address the conveniently ambiguous concept after which the conference is named. He first appears in the morning, introducing a Butoh dance troupe (whose marriage of herky-jerky traditional dance and modern business suits rather alarmingly suggests Night of the Living Dead). English is clearly something of a struggle for Baudrillard. Is there anyone more French than this man? He's got it all: the diminutive height, the wine-and-cheese paunch, the nose, the self-rolled cigarettes. And then there's the accent. Reading a prepared speech about Butoh that repeatedly mentions “primordially obscene bodies,” Baudrillard sounds remarkably like Peter Sellers' Inspector Clouseau—every utterance of the word “bodies” comes across as Clouseau saying “birdies.” That night, after detours with a Wall Street “chaos trader” and Calvin Meyers, a local Native-American activist whose painfully moving talk on the destruction of his lands by the US government is somehow cheapened when I spot him later in the cashier's line with a slot bucket in his hand, Baudrillard returns to deliver his paper on “chance.”

The talk is classic Baudrillard—rhetorically challenged, relentlessly circular, rambling yet loaded with discrete, quotable epigrams. Again, he braves English. The Clouseau factor is in full effect. The words “chance,” “destiny,” and that old warhorse “the real” drift by frequently in the obfuscatory haze. I'm not sure anyone in the audience truly understands what he's talking about. After an hour or so of rapt, respectful silence, it's over. On to “the party,” which consists of several forgettable bands and no dancing. There is, however, a renewed focus on the music when Baudrillard, now decked out in a gold lamé blazer with mirrored lapels, mounts the stage to front an impromptu avant-noise combo. He looks uncomfortable. With a cheat sheet in hand, he begins to recite a criminally pretentious poem called “Motel Suicide” in French as the band skronks away behind him. Dressed in a Whiskey Pete's waitress costume, Red Crayola vocalist Amy Stoll ululates the lyrics back at him in English. The poem consists mainly of the refrain “suicide ... suicide moi,” which Baudrillard gamely repeats, over and over again, between lengthy pauses and occasional glances at the lyric sheet. During the pauses, I imagine thought balloons over his head, containing phrases like “Why am I here?” and “Is this good for my career?” This goes on for nearly half an hour. Baudrillard is a real trooper.

The next morning, at a press conference, I ask Baudrillard what gets him out of bed in the morning, given the disappearance of the real and what have you. He responds, in French, “curiosity,” then adds something about confronting the indifference of the world. This indifference is nowhere to be found at “Chance,” where he commands the type of reverence generally accorded to demigods. In this context, though, Baudrillard is indeed a demi-god, having descended from the Mount Olympus of Theory (Paris, France) to grace his disciples with his presence. And I must say, given the performative absurdities he endured, he brought off this divine visitation with some measure of panache. Since Foucault, there has been an unspoken trend in academia towards transforming the professor of theory into the rock star. Ultimately, “Chance,” for all its excesses, was a frank admission of this desire, and its logical conclusion. And as all rock stars eventually gravitate towards Vegas, where they enjoy a kind of cryogenic afterlife, I suspect Baudrillard came to this Valhalla of simulacra to rehearse his lounge act.

Andrew Hultkrans is a frequent contributor to Artforum.