Dawn Kasper, On Moving and Motion, Highways Performance Space, Santa Monica, January 21, 2011
Unlike many people, I can’t stand Spalding Gray’s monologues. I’ve never been able to listen to one for more than five minutes without becoming bored, angry, and/or depressed (in that order). To my ears, he’s just another neurotic New Yorker with a maniacally well carved-out world view who lives for the opportunity to foist it on others. Now it’s quite possible that I am missing something here, as he has been a linchpin of alternative culture for as long as I can remember, and there are many who fawn over him and proclaim that Swimming to Cambodia is the best film ever made. But I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that much of his popularity results from people’s basic love of storytelling, creative kvetching, and the singular, unified authorial voice.
A little more than halfway through her performance of On Moving and Motion, the latest visual poem from her “On” series, Dawn Kasper let it be known that she was imitating Gray in this piece. She had entered a stage setup that consisted of a simple table, a mason jar of water, a notebook, a microphone, and a few of her own personal effects (cell phone, wallet, keys, lip balm). This was of course the standard setup for all of Gray’s monologues, with the exception of the additional personal effects and Kasper’s compulsive OCD arrangement of all the objects. The parallel between the two artists was thus off-kilter from the beginning, and became even more so as the 15-minute performance progressed.
Kasper began by struggling to describe her experience of an image from a film—two old people walking toward the viewer, then stopping to gesture upwards toward something with their hands. Kasper kept insisting that “The point is that they’re dead,” and we soon learned that she saw this footage in the process of transferring a family’s old home movie to DVD (her current day job). The description was very evocative and beautiful, as Kasper conveyed how vividly the old couple’s movements spoke to her, and how she imagined that they had filmed that moment just for her, knowing that she would someday be transferring their movie. (Kasper always seems to be wrestling with memories and their transformation in her work, whether her own or someone else’s.)
This poetic homage to the art of seeing and remembering was soon brought to a screeching halt by Kasper’s revelation of her own doubts leading up this performance. With a sudden break of the fourth wall, she declared, “If this were a better performance, maybe I wouldn’t be so self-conscious, but today was a bad day…” She complained that she was sick of performance art, that everything had been done already, and she hadn’t even felt like dealing with tonight’s performance, which was part of an evening of works related to queer technology. Checking her cell phone several times, she remarked that she had received a text message, and that was technology, wasn’t it?
She felt that she was losing touch with reality, that she had worked it all out but then forgot it. She was trying to change her perspective and be positive, but things only got worse. It was here that she dropped the Gray reference—“I can’t kill myself, it would be too dramatic. The person that I’m imitating killed himself. But then that brings up questions of gender, and what do I know about sex? I don’t want to think about it, and then I do.” This incredibly self-conscious series of rants was hilarious. Kasper closed it out with a funny story about how she thought things would be better when she worked in a wine bar, but then she realized that she was the oldest person working there, and she was really meant to be an artist anyway.
Throughout her performance, Kasper also insisted, “I’ve been honest with you up to this point.” Like her earlier insistence that “The point is that they’re dead,” this statement is true in one sense and inadequate in others. The old couple may indeed have been dead, but the point of all of Kasper’s verbal meanderings around them was not limited to that. And had she been honest with us? Did she really “break” out of frustration with her own performance or had it been a carefully planned and staged move?
I think this is why I consistently find Kasper’s work compelling—at her best, she successfully exists in an elliptical, shamanic space where intentions are not only unclear, they are inconsequential. Instead of imparting a didactic, order-seeking narrative like Gray does, Kasper channels impulses, worries, musings, and fragments of external input into a psychological freefall that renders the subject fluid, elusive, and yet utterly present. As far as monologues go, Kasper’s are perhaps more honest by introducing elements of possible dishonesty. No such slippery collusions exist in Gray’s work, which are nothing if not constant hammer strikes of linear, formed opinions to the head.
In closing, Kasper’s own words describing the “On” series offer an eloquent expression of the inquiries at work here: “I find fleeting cognitive and emotional understanding through a physical process, a process I articulate through a series of charged, raw actions. I find the line beyond the characters I embody within my performances, creating these characters as foreigners to my body. I kill them and swallow them to inhabit their essence and to keep their deaths alive throughout the duration of a performance. In my re-enactments of death scenes and embodiment of various personas, I channel these characters in order to search for clues to the meaning of life.”