New York

Jared Bark

Idea Warehouse

In five evenings at the Idea Warehouse, Jared Bark alternated a performance piece from last year, Lights: On/Off, with a new piece titled The Neutron Readings. This was appropriate, since the two are closely related and the first provides a gauge to the growth, the improvement and the problems of the second. All of Bark’s work, including his photo-booth pieces and his paintings made by firing a BB gun at sheets of glass, involve a number of similar elements: performance, often humorous, if not downright vaudevillian; the misuse of a technique and consequently an amateurish or crude kind of illustration (a gun to make paintings, a photo-booth to make art); an appreciation of scientific knowledge (the gunshots attempted to illustrate specific constellations of the stars). The aspects of science that interest Bark most consistently are forms of light and energy, and in his performances he imbues them with human significance, vulnerability and irony.

Lights: On/Off is a series of short scenes, live, video and slides, while The Neutron Readings, a bit more complicated, also employs film projection. In both, Bark functions more as a behind-the-scenes director than as a live performer. In Lights: On/Off he wears a scientist’s white coat and, until the final scene, is merely a catalyst to various chain reactions among his props. The main prop is the light bulb, a metaphor for light and energy, an image for civilization and mainly a tool for humor. This piece is smoothly organized and a little superficial; it is good, “illuminating” entertainment, like Mr. Wizard. On video, Bark turns the light bulb off with various methods ranging from using the switch to using a hammer, torch and firecracker. He explores the notion of amateur performances involving light in a video of a 1971 performance where, backed by drum and bugle flourishes, he ritualistically aims his BB gun at burning candles, missing every shot. Then in a live sequence he more efficiently uses the BB gun to put out light bulbs and takes a water pistol to the candles. Until the end, the performance is a series of informative puns, metaphorical entendres and pratfalls.

But the last two scenes give the piece a deeper meaning. On video, Bark recounts the story of “Slotan’s Light,” about a physicist who died in horrible pain after accidentally banging together two spheres of uranium in his lab at Los Alamos. Slotan thus became one of the few people outside Japan to see the thick white light of an atomic explosion. The story and Bark’s flat, inexpressive tone are so mesmerizing that the thick white light gradually obscuring his image on the monitor passes unnoticed until the end of the story. And that’s when Bark notes that an American scientist testified to a Congressional committee sometime in the ’40s that death by atomic explosion is relatively painless. The piece ends with Bark, his face masked, his body shrouded in light bulbs, literally tied down by their plugged-in cords. In clumsy, groping movements, like a trapped monster (it’s a sideshow freak, Frankenstein image), Bark struggles to free himself, yanking out the plugs and bringing on the piece’s final darkness. So, after the joking around, Lights: On/Off culminates with allusions to the irony of man’s monstrous primitivism both in spite of and because of his technological advancement.

The Neutron Readings is neither as funny nor as poignant as Lights: On/Off. Many of its individual scenes and images are formally more complex and more powerful, but they’re not pulled together yet. Here Bark attempts a correlation between the atom and the universe as systems that can be split and disrupted. He also makes the connections between science and chance and, again, what this costs mankind. The piece began with a beautiful trio of scenes which emphasizes the “reading” part of the title. First there are slide projections of Mal Mallarmé’s poem “Un Coup de Des jamais n’ Abolira Le Hazard” (A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance), its words dispersed freely over the white pages like a drawing. A film then projects three lines of print moving parallel across the screen. It is soon obvious, making comparisons on the vertical, that these are three different translations of the poem. It’s a great way to see how much is lost and changed during translation. Then a woman appears at the microphone reading the same poem in a monotone, cantorlike song, off a single, ticker-tape strand. In these “readings” you begin to grasp the idea of words as particles which can be rearranged or transformed, losing their original form, order and meaning. Next Bark establishes the connection between luck and scientific discovery, saying that a woman on the video monitor is Marie Joliot-Curie (Madame’s daughter) who “almost discovers the neutron/virtually discovers uranium fission/actually discovers a transcendental number and performs two card tricks.” Joliot-Curie shifts a die in her mouth, coming up with different numbers. Scientific investigation is just another game people play, and when Bark runs a small electric train down its track and into the wall we realize that 1) the earth, like a neutron, could cut loose from its normal path at any time and 2) it is, like throwing dice, simply a matter of chance. A couple of times Bark mounts a platform made of light bulbs to talk about uranium fission, at one point using adjectival phrases from Mallarmé’s poem. After showing two rather sinister war-department slides of “Fat Man” and “Thin Man,” the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the piece ends, once more with an encounter between Bark and light bulbs. This time, in exaggerated slow-motion steps, he goes around springing mousetraps with a stick. Each mousetrap starts a zany, violent chain reaction which parodies and illustrates splitting the atom by freeing a stretched elastic band that snaps upward, taking with it a lighted bulb that explodes against the ceiling. This encounter does not provide the climax that ends Lights: On/Off. It seems to illustrate a point we’ve already gotten somewhere along the way.

Much more sophisticated than Lights: On/Off, The Neutron Readings still needs a lot more work. After the first three scenes, it has a tendency to drag. A major criticism is that the stiff, amateurish quality of Bark’s onstage presence can gradually become irritating. He performs a little as if he would rather not be there. I know that he is interested in the distinction between amateurs and professionals (both entertainers and scientists), but he doesn’t establish the distinction, he just performs naïvely. This contrasts both with the way he works with video and the way he uses other performers.

Roberta Smith