Brody Condon and players, LevelFive, Hammer Museum, September 4–5, 2010
Last weekend, I caught a brief but meaningful glimpse of LevelFive, a group performance orchestrated by Brody Condon, at the Hammer. LevelFive, which will be reprised later this month in San Jose as part of the 01SJ Biennial, recreates the self-actualization seminars that were intensely popular in the 1970s, but with an important twist: the seminar is re-cast as a role-playing game, and each “player” must arrive “in character,” and remain in character for two long days of emotionally grueling exercises.
The actual seminar lasted from 9am to midnight of each day. To preserve the original spirit of the 1970s sessions, the public was not allowed to be present. The only way you could view it was via a live video feed into the Hammer’s Billy Wilder Theater from 1–5pm each day. I showed up at the Hammer around 2:30 on Sunday and wandered around a bit before heading into the theater. I noticed a crowd of people assembled in the courtyard and assumed it was a school or tour group of some sort. They presently scuttled off, and at the same time, I went into the theater, just in time to see the seminar resume. It turned out that the participants filing onto the screen were the people I had just passed in the courtyard. Apparently, they had been on a coffee break. The timing of my reality/fantasy conflation was impeccable.
Led by an older woman who appeared to have experience with such things, the group launched into an “honesty exercise,” which was composed of two parts. In the first part, the participants divided themselves into two equal lines, facing each other. Each person in line one was then asked to walk to the person opposite that they were most attracted to, for whatever reason. One by one the people in the first line made their choices. Some people in the second line had multiple people lined up in front of them, while others had none. The choosers were then asked to explain their choices, which largely resulted in nice statements of positive affirmation.
Then came part two of the exercise. The second group of people was asked to look at the first group and choose the person they were least attracted to. This resulted in groans and hesitation all around. The walk taken by each person to their least favorite person opposite was noticeably slower, and the first explanation offered was nervously prefaced by several peacemaking compliments (which the group leader reprimanded). The emotional dynamic immediately became thorny. One woman was heavily criticized for her superior attitude and tendency to shut everyone else down. Another man was taken to task for “not wanting enough” out of the seminar. Yet another man, in the episode’s best comment, was told that “you look like a bro in a cubicle, and I just don’t like that.”
In the discomfort of negative confrontation, characters and personalities started to emerge, as well as bits of the group’s history (however brief) with one another. The session did have the emotional grit of a group therapy session, and yet everyone was playing a role. There were people in there that I recognized from the local community, who were going under obvious aliases (“Woody” and “Deborah,” you know who you are). But role playing here is not the pure acting that you’d customarily expect. According to the informative LevelFive website, “LevelFive is a live game based on the Nordic style of progressive live role-play that explicitly works with ‘bleed.’ In role-playing games, bleed happens when the thoughts and feelings of the character start affecting the player, or vice-versa. Rather than forgetting the existence of an original self, the character becomes a tool for projection, self-exploration and experimentation.”
With that in mind, it really becomes quite unclear how much of this exercise was “genuine” and how much was not… and whether such terms even matter under these circumstances. (James Franco, you may eat your heart out here.) Adding yet another confounding layer to this fake/real self-transformation seminar/play was the totally voyeuristic experience of sitting in the darkness of the Billy Wilder Theater, with only four or five other audience members scattered around me, peering at the emerging dynamics of this group. It really felt like performance art porno in there, with its weird mix of cheesy honesty and elusive illusion. According to an article on Condon’s own website, a film will be made of this project at a later date.
I have to commend Machine Project, who last year presented the intriguing Condon piece Without Sun at their own space in Echo Park. Machine commissioned LevelFive as part of their current year-long residency at the Hammer, in which their task is to re-imagine and re-activate the spaces of the museum. The tricky, multi-layered presentation of LevelFive was nothing short of functional genius.