Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Impressions from Tour Part One: Appropriation!

This is the first in a series of posts, in which i recap recent experiences and put them into a context from which relevant conclusions can be drawn. The main purpose here is to create a record of these events and my reactions to them for my own future reference. This is not the whole story of our tour, many good times good people and simple yet inspiring events or banal frustrations aren't mentioned.

To summarize: After performing with some great noise acts in Boston, we went out to a party and then a bar, and managed to have some very interesting conversations about the play, post-modern philosophy, political aesthetics, and what-not with Karl Heinz (not Karlheinz Stockhausen, khznoise) and Mike from Sharpwaist before people got too drunk. At the Lemp Arts Center in St Louis, Kate and I got into a great argument with Mark Sarich (who runs the place), and Max Woods (Peter's little brother) about everything from creative economies to social determinism. Peter had been waiting all tour for this showdown, and it met his expectations.

This group of events has given me a better handle on what is required to realize and empower the DIY artist class against capitalism. This is largely a reaction to Adorno and Horkheimer's assertion that the revolutionary opportunity has passed. I don't think it has. I think a combination of DIY production methods and ethos, "corrosive unacceptability" and content-driven, intellectually stimulating work can come together to create a movement which cannot be co-opted by the capitalists.

Lets start with Karl Heinz . Karl is a very precise and exacting musician. He's rumored to have been working for over a year on a single piece of music. He's known on "the noise board" for vitrolic comments and devastatingly honest criticism. He had a number of very specific questions and comments about the play, but soon our conversation spread to the subject of noise. I mentioned Theodore Adorno's "corrosive unacceptability" idea. That some forms or experiments in the arts could be too harsh and dissonant to be assimilated into the bourgeois entertainment machine.

If you're familiar with Adorno and this idea, skip this paragraph. For the unininitiated: Adorno is among the most pessimistic of the anti-capitalists. He and his associates claimed that "advanced capitalism had managed to contain or liquidate the forces that would bring about its collapse and that the revolutionary moment, when it would have been possible to transform it into socialism, had passed" (Wikipedia). He believed this containment was achieved through the culture industry, that bourgeois society re-institutes itself through the forms and formulas of art, especially narrative structures, catharsis, etc. He was a musician and inspite all this pessimism he did hold out that certain music: "only through its "corrosive unacceptability" to the commercially-defined sensibilities of the middle class could new art hope to challenge dominant cultural assumptions." (wikipedia). This earned him a reference in Paint the Town.

Karl Heinz and the other musicians that we played with (indeed Peter J Woods, who we traveled with) are noise musicians. Noise has got "corrosive unacceptability" in spades but, when I brought up the possibility that noise would remain artist-owned and not be co-opted by corporate capitalism, Karl asserted that it was already happening. He's not alone in this assertion. Peter has also been known to complain about PBR swilling douchebags showing up at his noise shows. This empty hipsterism is the first stage of mainstream assimilation of an art form. Also, lets face it, many noise musicians are tapping young white male angst more directly than metal, punk and hardcore ever could. In doing so they're also tapping a huge marketing demographic, the one Hollywood lusts after with every lame comic book adaptation film they churn out. Noise might not have much life left.

But, not if we can do anything about it, and we can. First, now more than ever, independent musicians have access to the equipment and networking necessary to produce and distribute their art without the industry. Secondly, it is possible to make art unappropriateable. Karl Heinz believes that capitalism always appropriates only the surface of an art movement, not the content. I think this nexus of corrosive unacceptability, DIY empowerment, and content driven work might allow artist/revolutionaries to thrive outside of capitalism. If not today, then in the future, as these trends continue.

Unfortunately, these trends might not be continuing. Fast forward to St Louis. Mark Sarich, who has run the Lemp Arts center for 8 years, and has been an active member of the DIY punk community and experimental music academia for i don't know how long, has a much more pessimistic perspective. Over the course of my approximately 10 years of involvement with underground art, i've witnessed an expansion. I've got the impression that we're more empowered and radical today than we were when i got started. Mark, on the other hand sees us as steadily worse off.

Mark's pessimistic conclusions are supported by other older members of the theatre and arts communities i know. John Manno and John Schneider have both also described a steady decline in ambition, quality, and popularity of avant-garde or experimental art. They seem paralyzed and alienated from society, avoiding art that they automatically assume will either piss them off or dissappoint and depress them. Now, it could be that these different perspectives have more to do with our individual attitudes and lives than objective reality. I see potential and reason for optimism because i'm still young (though 30 is kinda old for naivete) and haven't yet been defeated. They despair because they're getting older, are having a harder time connecting with new talent, and are nostalgic about the past.

But, i don't think that's entirely the case. Theatre X (John Schneider's company) used to travel the country and the globe. They had much more support locally and had a good sized group of people who were able to commit fully to the company in ways Insurgent has not been able to recruit or inspire. A large part of their success (or at least sustanance) came from university gigs, and grants. These options are not available today.

The optimist in me wants to believe that things like this swing on a pendulum. That yes, in the 80s we saw a great closing of the art world on all levels. The NEA and regional theatre movement saw their budgets slashed, the grassroots hippie culture burned out and experimentation ran up against a brick wall. But the pendulum swings back. The experimentation of the 60's and 70's were a rebirth out of the mediocrity of the 50s. The 40's and 50's were a clamping down on the dada-ists and flappers of the teens and twenties. By this logic, we're in for a strong resurgence of art and experimentation.

This resurgence might be even more powerful because it is not dependent on governement money, grants, or the university system. We're building a complete network and infrastructure that is artist controlled on every level. If we succeed, our opponents won't have a rug to pull out from under us the way Reganite's gutted the NEA during the culture wars of the 80s.

But, for us to acheive this more thorough and independent success, we need to be better, work harder, and stop short-changing ourselves. The capitalists and traditionalists are getting better and better at cutting off new movements before they can even start, and many within our communities are making choices that make us vulnerable.

There are three problems: First, we're too eager to participate in the capitalist entertainment machine. Second, we sell ourselves short, trying to make our products less radical and more palatable. Third, we like irony too much.

The first two problems are simple. We go see shit like The Dark Knight and forgive it's commercialism and excess and exaggerate it's few virtues. Then we hold ourselves back from fully realizing our work for fear that it'll be too dense or inaccessible to "the commoners" we want to attract to the audience.

The local run of Paint the Town has provided good examples of this. Paint the Town is an unapologetically intellectual play. It is dense with philosopher and artist names and concepts, characters name drop everything from "the Frankfurt school" to Genet to Hegelian "determinations of the will" and Nietzsche's "slave morality." After Russ Bickerstaff (local reviewer) saw the show, he gave me a warning: "I get some of those references, but most of your audience isn't going to know them at all" and he went on to write a review that, rather than judging the piece on it's own terms, reads like an apology to the audience, who Russ assumes will be entirely confused.

And, yes, as always, there were a number of people who didn't get it, radical theatre is not for everyone, and it never will be, but Russ and others seemed to think that the play had no hope of finding an audience who could appreciate this kind of thing. Once we hit the road and got some audiences who came to the shows cold (they were there to see the bands, not the play) these naysayers were proven wrong. The references got laughs, and compliments. "It's not often i get to hear so many Marx jokes" said one audience member in Baltimore (who was originally from Milwaukee). Also, many people who didn't understand the references at all came to tell us how totally inspired they were, by the play. They bought copies of the script and other merch with great enthusiasm. It seems the people who were able to recognize that the names were shorthand, and view them as character development (these characters are people who argue with each other on that level) rather than as content, were able to focus on and follow the over-all themes of the play much better than those who got caught up on the details and frustrated when something went over their heads.

This is who i want to make art for. These people appreciate the same things in art that i do. When i go to a show that's over my head, i love puzzling it out or trying to catch up. I've sat on the edge of my seat taking notes during The Death of Empedocles. Notes which then made it into the final scenes of Paint the Town. I love going back and seeing things that puzzled or enthralled me again and again. I want more of this art produced. I want more of these audiences discovered and cultivated, so more make the jump from viewer to producer and I get to see more of it happen. One way to do that is to produce this kind of art myself and introduce it to the widest audience possible.

Another great example from this summer: i had the privilege of producing John Manno's This is Entitled: This is Entitled. This non-narrative play takes on and destroys all theatrical structures and systems of thought, and even the very idea of systems of thought at a break neck pace, and with hilarious results. It's the most "inaccessible" play ever. Russ was relieved that he wouldn't have to review it because he assumed he was the only person in the audience who got it's references to quantum physics. During one of the performances of this piece, i sat near the back of the audience, and a few rows in front of me were two boys, who came to see the show together, they were friends of one of the actors in another piece. One of them leaned back in his chair a scowling with confusion and boredom. The other, sat forward, hands on his knees and a huge grin plastered on his face, his eyes darting around the stage not wanting to miss anything. There, two rows in front of me, i saw the extremes contrasted. These two boys had come together. They shared the same backgrounds, the same culture, they could have been brothers for all i know, and they were having radically different reactions to this work.

Experimental and avant garde work is so rarely produced that there is no reliable marketing data for it, no demographic predictors, no way to categorize or pigeonhole the audience. There are people out there who will like this stuff, on a base level, and the trick is to produce it as widely and in as many unexpected contexts as possible to find those people and build a niche market. That's why the Paint the Town tour was exciting and successful. So many people came to shows expecting a few noise or metal bands and instead, they got radical theatre. Some of them hated it, but many loved it, and wanted more.

So, we can sustainably make art that has rigorous intellectual content, if we're creative enough in our presentation. We can pursue Brecht's ideal of a theatre that educates as it entertains, without simple propagandizing or catharsis-based messages. If we get out of the universities, and bring this work to the masses, we can find people who are hungry for intellectual challenges. Then we'll have the audience and the community and the demand for an art that combines non-bourgeois form with critical content, and the means to create a sustainable production apparatus that will remain out of the hands of the entertainment industry long enough for us to develop a mode of production that rivals and competes with capitalism openly.

Well, that's what could happen once we solve the first two vulnerabilities i mentioned earlier. Which brings us to the third: irony. There is a growing subculture and aesthetic within the community that epitomizes the very opposite of my goals and threatens to lead us all into the marsh of a mediocrity worse than capitalism ever imagined. This is a whole different story. One that requires a new blog post and a gut wrenching account of our experience in Providence (duhn duhn duhn!) Yes, i'm talking about the mullets and mustaches crowd. Check back in about a week, when I'll thoroughly explore this subculture in the forthcoming "Impressions of Tour Part Two: Fuck your Irony."

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