My 6-year old son will sometimes play his piano songs on the wrong part of the keyboard on purpose. He’ll just move his hands four inches that way then pound it out. He does this with uninhibited aplomb. The weight of musical tradition doesn’t oppress him: “I’ll just see what ‘Ode to Joy’ sounds like … um … here!” But he’s still really playing “Ode to Joy,” not just testing how the notes are different. As he plays, you hear through these weird warps in the melody a spiritualization of “Ode to Joy.”
I kept thinking about this during an evening of artist showcases at Brooklyn Arts Exchange the other evening. A shared approach in the performers was to take some familiar rhetorical mode and shift it over a few inches.
Karen Davis, appearing in Jesse Barbagallo’s “Without Me I’m Something,” delivered a surreal stand-up comedy set. We heard the cadences of the edgier contemporary practitioners, but the thread of the joke was always hidden. Which is a good joke.
“Who do I talk to about time?” she kvetched. You’ve heard this rhetorical tone in a million comedy routines. Comedians say something like, “Have you ever noticed how white people are so stupid?” then go into a funny story about stupid white people. Davis struck that same tone but shifted us over a few keys to open a philosophical abyss where one feels a nauseating, visceral awareness of time as an arbitrary medium.
Walking back up stage after one of her cryptic punch lines, Davis patted herself all over and said, “Man! I don’t even know where to slap myself!” as though this were the oldest Catskills cliché in the world, on par with “Try the veal!”
Max Steele staged an encouragement workshop where we heard the speech patterns of a self-help guru at a seminar you might go to in Aspen. But the lessons always lay just beyond our reach. “I offer myself as an example,” he said, “because I’m a really good example.”
After listing some of the many ways society tells us not to “get caught,” not to get caught with your pants down, not to get caught trying, he urged, “Well, I say: GET CAUGHT!” The whole sequence had the rhythm of wisdom without the punctuation of meaning.
At one point, he invited a volunteer onstage to discuss her cluster of keys. Finally, Steele held the keys in his palm and sagely observed, “Ah … the weight of access.” It felt meaningful, but, pardon the pun, the key had been lost.
Interestingly, Sartre describes Kafka’s work as parables for which the key has been lost. According to some of the things you read, Kafka was just trying to write engaging tales like Dickens. But his peculiar effect comes from how he shifts this intention over a few inches. He bangs out Dickens on the wrong part of the piano. This is part of what makes his stories so Kafkaesque. It feels as though he’s telling us a kabalistic secret but we’ll never know what it is.
Of course, reading Kafka tends to make everything seem Kafkaesque, especially things like standing in line at the DMV or visiting your family. Even Dickens starts seeming Kafkaesque. Then the whole barrier between what is and is not Kafkaesque melts, and Kafka starts to look Dickensian.
For me, a similar sort of shift on the keyboard in these BAX pieces melted the barrier between performance and reality. With Steele’s piece, for example, I was never completely sure that the deconstruction of the self-help guru was deliberate. Maybe he meant for this guru to be more realistic, for his advice to be more concrete, but simply failed. Not in the least, of course. Steele’s performance instrument was surgically calibrated to create this cool effect. At one point, he distributed name tag stickers and asked the audience to label themselves with their favorite color. I couldn’t tell whether we, the audience, were supposed to be pretending that we were the workshop attendees who paid for this imaginary seminar in the same way you pretend that you’re a guest at Tony and Tina’s Wedding? Or were we supposed to pretend that this particular theater event at BAX was a workshop? Or did Steele genuinely intend for this to be an actual workshop? Was this work-in-progress at BAX just Steele practicing on us how to run such a workshop when he goes out and markets it to paying customers? Again, a cool effect.
As Davis mused upon temporal vertigo, she enacted a conversation between a child next to her June Cleaver-esque Mother in the front seat of a car. Mommy Dearest explained that you simply have to accept temporality as though she were saying that young ladies must always mind their manners. Again, it is a standard comic trope to explore an odd premise through a Norman Rockwell lens: “No, Timmy, lots of people have sadomasochistic anal sex. Now let’s say grace before eating.”
But then the mother in Davis’ joke violently crashes into someone and begins convulsing from severe injuries as the child watches.
In one of the early story sessions for The Simpsons, the writers laid out a scenario where Snake, the town criminal, wanted to get his impounded convertible back from Homer. Snake stretches a wire across the street to decapitate Homer. One of the writers explains, “The wire misses Homer, but his car is followed closely by another. The driver of the second car is holding a sandwich at a ridiculous angle high over his head and saying, ‘I told that idiot to slice my sandwich.’” You can see where the writers were going: wire cuts sandwich. But producer/writer Gary Meyer asked the staff, “What if the wire cuts off his arm?”
Davis uses the same sort of twist. The joke is to set a philosophical discussion about time in the front seat of a station wagon in 1962, but then the setting itself hijacks the joke. Jokes rely on the same simplification of physical reality you find in fairy tales. You don’t really think about whether Jack would have trouble breathing or get hypothermia as he’s up in the clouds, and you don’t wonder how a horse could fit through the door of a bar. But in The Simpson’s joke, the physical possibilities of a wire stretched across a road suddenly apply. The “funny part” has been shifted over a few inches. And with Davis, the physical realities of driving in a car suddenly and tragically assert themselves.
Meyer merely cuts the guy’s arm off, but Davis has the guy stumble around the street spewing blood and begging for help before he dies in agony. She continued her riff by switching from the mother gurgling in her own blood to the uncomprehending child crying, “Mommy? Mommy?” Back and forth, back and forth. You figured out quickly enough that Davis was going to take us to the bitter end, that she was just playing out the scene as a horrific tragedy. The joke was that it stopped being a joke.
You could also say that going too far is the joke and thus give Davis, as Barthes says, the alibi of art. Take away this alibi, however, this image of the artist coolly crafting a high concept gag as a deconstruction of a deconstruction, take this away and we are confronted with an individual performer, an actual person there in front of us, who needed to take us to this terrible place, to put us behind the eyes of a child watching her mother choke on her own blood. Without the alibi of art, I see the person who chose to perform this. Going too far blurs the line between the performance and the person.
Perhaps what made Lenny Bruce so revolutionary were not his dirty jokes but how he made it impossible to know whether he was a comedian or just some guy up there saying what was on his mind. The act was that there was no act.
Barbagallo inverted this formula. With Davis I felt suspicious that the performance had turned into reality, that this was just Davis herself. With Barbagallo I felt that reality had turned into performance.
After Davis left the stage, assistants brought out some chairs. I had the impression that Barbagallo was going to interview Davis. But then the assistants scurried back out and struck the furniture.
This made it seem that Barbagallo was making up her monologue on the spot. The show must go on.
But the monologue was a ramble about her experience in the residency program at BAX. There was never anything worth stealing out of the refrigerator. The kids in the youth programs were annoying. The Park Slope stroller-mom mafia was frightening. Meanwhile Barbagallo was having romantic troubles with a girlfriend who told her, “You don’t make me wet.” Then it struck me that she was reflecting in a kitchen-sinky style on her experience of developing the very monologue I was hearing! The realism was pitch-perfect, but the circumstances were transparently artificial.
Super-realism in live theater is destabilizing. Super-realism in painting is still confined to the canvas. If you look at a Ralph Goings painting long enough, maybe the real world starts to look like a photorealist painting too. But you don’t have trouble seeing where the canvas ends and the world begins. With Barbagallo’s piece, when the illusion of live reality is so carefully crafted, how do you know where planned reality ends and real reality begins?
For me, this called everything grouped together under the title “Without Me I’m Something” into question. Ostensibly, the piece was a curatorial presentation of Davis’ performance preceded by a lovely contemporary dance piece by STINE and then Barbagallo’s own monologue. However, in a surreal way, the whole sequence functioned as a play in a relatively conventional sense, as a theatrical parody of a showcase by a resident artist sponsored by an organization like BAX. The subtitle “Or, Twenty Minutes to Kill” was a tip-off. The performance piece was performing itself. The piece was acting the role of a piece.
Imagine going to a costume party without a costume. Werewolves, Marilyn Monroes and Darth Vadars surround you and ask, “Where’s your costume.” You say, “I’m disguised as myself!” You explain that you are not actually being yourself but rather you are imitating your own way of talking, your own way of standing. When you dressed for the party, you imitated the way you normally dress. From this point on, whatever you do is both just you and an imitation of you simulataneously. Barbagallo’s piece functioned the same way. Whatever actually occurred in the space was part of the performance.
After my son has been banging around the keyboard for a while, my ears play tricks on me so that the original position for “Ode to Joy” doesn’t sound right. The position is correct, but it SOUNDS shifted. In a sense, this is a good way to think about the difference between solo performance art and acting, between what Marina Abramovic does and what Laura Linney does. Performance says, “I’m disguised as myself.” My hands are in the same place on the piano, but the song sounds different. This idea is captured nicely in Barbagallo’s title “Without Me I’m Something.”