The Fourth Wall, My Barbarian, MOCA Grand Avenue, November 21, 2009
You have to give credit to MOCA for throwing the two art parties of the season, which also happened to include the two performance art events of the season: Francesco Vezzoli’s Ballet Russes Italian Style (The Shortest Musical You Will Never See Again), featuring Lady Gaga and a multitude of other A-Listers at November 14’s “adults” gala, and My Barbarian’s The Fourth Wall at last weekend’s “kids” gala. Both of these climactic events come at the end of a very troubled year for MOCA, in which the institution found itself on the brink of collapse and faced harsh criticism in the press and in the community for its less-than-prudent financial conduct. The festivities, which celebrate the institution’s 30th anniversary, ostensibly announce MOCA’s successful recovery and triumphant rise from the ashes of oblivion.
Both of the performers were extremely shrewd picks on the part of the powers that be. Vezzoli’s extravaganza was positioned as an artist taking over and having his way with an otherwise formal event; and yet, because his work comments on the fetish of celebrity, his project just happened to corral the likes of Gaga, Miuccia Prada, Frank Gehry, Damien Hirst, and the Bolshoi Ballet into the mix. The resulting glitz, along with the long line of movie and TV stars (Brangelina!) coming in the door, engendered countless photo spreads, feature articles, and entertainment news segments—all priceless tools in the resuscitation of an institution’s caché.
My Barbarian, too, played its role in the healing of MOCA. With the international jet set taken care of by the imported Italian artist, it was up to the darlings of LA’s performance art scene to bring together the alternative/hipster segment of MOCA’s constitutency.
As much as Vezzoli’s event was over the top and filled with garish visuals that permeated the popular landscape, My Barbarian’s evening literally verged on invisibility. According to the press release, concepts from the Invisible Theater were utilized to create acts in inconspicuous places and/or without the knowledge of its audience; miniature plays were enacted throughout the evening in the entrance lines and at the bar, which were in turn based on interviews that had been conducted with MOCA staff beforehand. Without having read the didactic materials in advance of my arrival, I searched for more obvious interventions along the lines of Machine Project’s takeover of LACMA last year and came up empty. It was only through sheer luck that I ran into an informative MOCA staffer in the hallway five minutes before the main performance took place on the plaza. This performance went unannounced to the general audience, and was thus missed by the vast majority of people at the event.
The Fourth Wall was centered overall on the theme of transparency—“both as an optical experience and an institutional mandate.” Thus, the 10pm performance began with a group of people clad in glittery diaphanous tunics, a few sporting silver headgear, doing a coordinated dance using simple movements, somewhat reminiscent of a Bollywood number. I later found out that the dance moves were partly pre-choreographed, and partly inspired by the dancers’ observations of the visitors’ movements throughout the evening. After several minutes, the three members of My Barbarian, dressed in futuristic silver costumes, took the (non-)stage and sang an original song called “Transparency”:
Listen to me
Operates without secrecy
Tonight it’s all clear
I’m here, you’re here
Is that clear?
They then took turns reciting questions to the audience, which were also taken from the earlier interviews with MOCA staff, and ranged from the banal and chatty to the very touchy:
When did you start at MOCA?
What is the best show MOCA ever did?
What was the worst? Why?
What is the museum’s responsibility to the public?
What is its responsibility to private donors?
Do you feel secure in your job?
What were some of the misperceptions, or points missed (among the public, the press, donors and supporters, and artists) when MOCA’s financial problems went public?
What would be so bad about selling off the collection?
When this was over, the members of My Barbarian called for the performance area to be turned into a dance party. Dancers and audience members blended together as the deejay turned up the volume.
This ceremony felt like an acknowledgment of the troubles that have plagued MOCA, including criticism they’ve received for lack of transparency in their decisions and their dealings. It also seemed like something of an effort to turn over a new leaf by openly asking questions about touchy subjects and subtly involving audience members in the making of the evening. It may be more telling, however, that the script for the miniature plays included only answers to the most innocuous questions, and that one could have easily gone through the entire evening at MOCA Grand Avenue without experiencing one iota of My Barbarian’s intervention.
In the end, it was really about the party, in every sense of the word. Throwing a good enough party so that people will keep coming back, and keeping the party line intact, while still flirting with a little bit of fetishistic institutional critique. (My Barbarian’s trademark mix of theatrical doctrine, heavy irony, and drag-coated silliness suited this mission to perfection.) So party on, MOCA. When we left the premises at 10:50pm, there seemed to be even more people thronging the museum and the plaza than before.
For more of the party line, click here.