New York

“Artists Call”—Performance

Danspace, Franklin Furnace, P.S. 122, and Taller Latinoamericano

As part of the “Artists Call against U.S. Intervention in Central America” program, a nationwide political-action series of exhibitions, panels, video, film, and such, four New York spaces (Danspace, Franklin Furnace, P.S. 122, and Taller Latinoamericano) sponsored eight evenings of performance works as benefits. At the two programs I attended the audiences were unexpectedly large and enthusiastic, and an obvious feeling that these were unusual events ran through both the performances and the audience’s reactions. According to the sponsors, this was also true of the other evenings.

The conjunction of a specific political orientation and the work of some sixty different performers might seem strange at first. After all, some of performance’s most salient basic qualities—it’s ultra-personal, idiosyncratic, and willfully independent—would appear out of sync with a narrowly defined political thrust. But the last few years have seen a growing interest in the use of a flexible vehicle like performance for political critiques; formal radicalism alone doesn’t seem enough now, particularly in a context of neo-expressionism in all the arts. While other performance centers like Los Angeles and Toronto have shown a longtime, consistent interest in sociopolitical content, this direction is a relatively new one for New York, and Artists Call served as a summary of an interest in politics that has been building here since about the time of President Reagan’s election.

The series was remarkably effective at stirring up a sense of common purpose in the usually disparate performance audience and community. The programs exhibited the entire range of performance activity, the lineup including both specifically political groups and experimenters whose radicalism is usually thought of as esthetic rather than social. Some artists created new works for the occasion, others simply dedicated older works or works in progress to the cause. At one end of the spectrum was performance agitprop, a kind of “Living Newspaper” theater. A prime example was the didactic, exhortatory presentation by Herb Perr, Irving Wexler, and Marlene Lortev at Taller Latinoamericano. The trio juxtaposed slide images of Central America and the Caribbean, contrasting the vacation paradise the region comprises for wealthy tourists and the battlefield it is for its impoverished populations. The three performers’ commentary ridiculed U.S. conventional wisdom about these countries and demanded direct political action to oppose our government’s policies.

At the other extreme was a program of dance-oriented performances at Danspace that made no explicit reference to Central America nor to any kind of politics. Bill Irwin’s hilarious Post-Modern Hoofer, 1983, Eva Karczag’s in-progress version of a new Trisha Brown solo, Harry Sheppard’s witty stamping dance, and Pooh Kaye’s Crowds of Falling People, 1983, put radical esthetics and sheer entertainment at the service of the cause, and the overflowing audience responded as if they had in fact assembled for something other than just seeing a given performer’s latest work. Only Bill Raymond, of the Mabou Mines theater group, spoke directly to the issue of war—characteristically, through a filter, that of the persona of Ulysses S. Grant. Raymond’s soliloquy from Cold Harbor, 1983, a Mabou Mines play about the “first modern general,” describes the capture of Vicksburg during the Civil War using the language of sexual assault; it stunned and moved its audience as much as any testimony about Central America could have. Whether explicitly political or merely sympathetically aligned, Artists Call was an unusually communal platform for individualistic performance.

John Howell