New York

Ei Arakawa, How to DISappear in America, 2016. Performance view, April 17, 2016. Ben (Ben Morgan-Cleveland). Photo: Paula Court.

Ei Arakawa, How to DISappear in America, 2016. Performance view, April 17, 2016. Ben (Ben Morgan-Cleveland). Photo: Paula Court.

Ei Arakawa

Ei Arakawa, How to DISappear in America, 2016. Performance view, April 17, 2016. Ben (Ben Morgan-Cleveland). Photo: Paula Court.

In 2008, Leopard Press published a slim black volume by artist Seth Price titled How to Disappear in America. Written in the paranoiac and antiestablishment tone of a 1970s anarchist manual or a ’90s how-to Internet text file, the work was a sort of instruction manual for shedding your identity and way of life. It gave a scattershot collection of advice on liquidating assets, severing social and professional ties, and going off the grid. The work was born of its stylistic references: Price appropriated much of it from a single semianonymous online guide to disappearance that has been available in various incarnations since at least 1996. This year the text appeared again, now adapted as a musical by Ei Arakawa. This multimedia performance injected the original with a darkly comic narrative about two people fleeing abusive spouses and lives of drudgery and alienation. Eight acts comprise a synth-heavy pop score by Stefan Tcherepnin and lyrics by Arakawa and Dan Poston. In a formal twist, all of the lyrics in the performance, both spoken and sung, were prerecorded and lip-synched by the actors. Physical presence and audio thus fell slightly out of register, setting the entire performance temporally adrift. Meanwhile, following along with the live action, a teleprompter presented the lyrics to the audience in a slow, stuttering roll.

The work’s narrator is a talking animated envelope named Set, displayed on an LED array woven into a loose fabric banner. Whether an interior voice or an Internet presence, Set begins to advise Ben (played by artist and dealer Ben Morgan-Cleveland) on how to flee his abusive wife and menial gallery-assistant job. Opposite Ben is Marjory (Cibo Matto vocalist Miho Hatori), a mother and amateur painter with an abusive husband (artist Robert Bittenbender); she also starts listening to Set and planning her escape. After Ben and Marjory flee, they find temporary employment at the nomadic Anony-Mouse Dream Carnival, where ringmaster Arakawa presides over a band of bohemian carnies who welcome the newcomers in song and dance (preceded by a hilarious silent dance routine by a clown-faced Tcherepnin). Other scenes from Arakawa’s America present a fading millennial counterculture in the form of a rave, a shootout at an airport terminal, and a communal hippie farm that conceals an Internet data center. Throughout the play, we are constantly reminded of the increasing glut of sensible data gleaned from bodies moving through a cultural landscape enthralled with technological progress.

The production is the latest for Arakawa in a history of working with his artist peers, from Karl Holmqvist to Jutta Koether, among many others. In this instance, however, Arakawa did not collaborate with Price directly; the artist made an appearance in only one performance, discreetly posing as an audience member in a blond wig and beanie. The way Arakawa fit the play into the exhibition format became a kind of framing operation: While the set was open to visitors during regular gallery hours, only three scheduled performances transpired, each channeling Arakawa’s public into the crowded gallery. There, he would shepherd spectators throughout the space to accommodate as many viewers as possible, stage-managing the audience before the start of each performance as freely as he might direct his actors.

Why seize on Price’s Disappear in 2016? In his most recent book, Fuck Seth Price (2015), Price postulates that while in past decades disappearance for an artist may have meant going underground, today it might mean being subsumed by your career, displaced by your work. While writing my reflections on the show, I didn’t have access to official exhibition photos from the gallery. So I turned to Instagram, where hashtags of Arakawa’s name offered an archipelago of fragmented and incomplete views of the production, manifesting the artist as a collection of exterior observations clustered around a name. At a time of such unprecedented visibility for artists, the act of disappearing may be the most elusive goal of all.

Boško Blagojević