My Barbarian, Death Panel Discussion, Hammer Museum, Westwood, January 19, 2011
The Night Epi$ode, a video installation by My Barbarian currently on view at the Hammer, is such a complex confluence of satirical and pulp references. The opening sequence speaks of the darkness of contemporary life in Los Angeles, particularly those haunted, sleepless hours between night and day, which give rise to anxious nightmare visions. “Sleep is a luxury in a doomed economy,” proclaim the titles. So much work to do, so little money to be earned, and no health care! The ensuing narrative vignettes serve to illustrate this precept with Night Gallery–like stories of premature death by SUV, empty sexual encounters, extraterrestrial/same-sex romance that results from a domestic fight over health care coverage, a near-fatal advanced yoga pose that requires expensive witch doctor healing, and office layoffs that result in animal-like violence.
In the gallery installation, the vignettes are punctuated by appearances from the curatorial committee from hell, who meet in an attempt to jury the ultimate international group show. Performed by the three members of My Barbarian, these characters are hilarious caricatures of art world figures: Jade Gordon is the narcissistic über-bitch with a trademark hairdo who identifies way too closely with her artists, Malik Gaines is the blind curator with supernatural visions and flawed theoretical foundations, and Alex Segade is the sycophantic Eurotrash snot. The extreme positions of these three curators as they heartlessly review various artworks mirrors the culture of cold exclusivity that currently informs our have-not economy. In their magnificent exhibition-closing performance at the Hammer last night, the trio took this concept to the next level by assuming the identity of a Death Panel, here to decide not just who’s in and who’s out, but who gets to live and die, touching on a wide range of ideological hypocrisies along the way.
It seems like a precarious juggling act to keep all these disparate balls in the air at once—campy art world judgments, economic crisis, health care battles, and pulp fiction (with some LA party excess, gay marriage, and the history of feminist struggle thrown in for good measure). And yet somehow the group pulled it off with brilliant aplomb. Combining live re-enactments of a few segments from the gallery installation with new embellishments that sometimes responded to up-to-the-minute news (Gordon’s character received two obnoxious tweets from Sarah Palin during the performance), they created an hour of musical theater that was fluid, inspired, and engaging, not to mention really funny. (I would love to provide some piquant quotes here, but it was too dark in the theater to take notes, and my memory is totally shot these days. Sorry.)
The Death Panel of course ended in the death of all three panelists, as each one, suddenly very thirsty, drank out of a bottle of poisoned liquid and expired on the conference table. Then out of nowhere, a troupe of singers, dancers, and drummers began parading through the audience, singing African folk songs and performing a few West African tribal dance numbers. I am tempted to ding My Barbarian here for doing that thing where white people over-romanticize the healing beauty of ethnic cultures. But I’m not sure I can really, because one of the trademarks of this group’s shtick is sweet, optimistic sincerity wrapped in tasty mille-feuille layers of über-hip irony. The multi-ethnic troupe’s performance was genuinely exuberant and uplifting. They were joined midway through by My Barbarian, clad in hyper-gaudy Obama pajama pants, singing a paean to socialism. Yes, really! It was all so silly, especially following the deep sarcasm of the previous proceedings, and yet you knew they pretty much meant every word of it. The group ended the evening by walking through the audience and warmly greeting people, calling out the ones they knew by name, which gave you that cozy community feeling inside.