Readings, or, My Adventures Over the Art Los Angeles Contemporary Weekend
“Reading is the site where structure is made hysterical.”
– Roland Barthes, “On Reading,” 1976
The act of reading a text reveals the multiplicity of voices inherent in it, whether they spring from the text itself or are drawn to it from disparate sources; Roland Barthes tried to make this assertion concrete when he wrote S/Z, an exploratory reading of Balzac’s short story, “Sarrasine.” During the crazily stimulating Art Los Angeles Contemporary (ALAC) fair weekend, two days of divergent events were loosely and subjectively united for me by two sets of performative readings, each as different from the other as night and day, and each evoking, in Barthes’ words, “a plural field of scattered practices, of irreducible effects…”
Near the fair’s closing time on Saturday, I found myself invited by a giddy Eric Kim to participate in a site-specific performance orchestrated by his friend, the artist D’Ette Nogle. Groups of people were being rounded up to read short transcribed scenes from the notorious reality show, The Hills. The readings would take place as part of the ALAC after-party in the Mondrian Hotel’s trendy poolside Skybar, located of course atop the Hollywood Hills on the Sunset Strip. Being a connoisseur of The Hills—whose impeccably flat vacuity, in my opinion, approaches stunning minimalist perfection—I immediately said yes.
I enlisted fellow arts blogger Arely Villegas as a partner in crime; she would read the part of Lauren, I would read Audrina, and the artist would read Heidi in the “girls have lunch” scene. We arrived at the Mondrian minutes before we were due to go on; the artist and her friends and assistants were set up in one of the comfortable poolside nooks, and the readings were proceeding smoothly. We jumped in and read our short scene, at the end of which Nogle said, “Now let’s relax,” and put her script down and closed her eyes. Not knowing what was going on, I assumed this was a reference to all the dead air and conversational silence that tends to happen on The Hills. I later found out that the artist had actually based the structure of this performance, which was titled The Hills/Relax (Mondrian Hotel), on Dan Graham’s iconic Lax/Relax. Behind us, a perfect view of Los Angeles at night rolled down from the heights where we were perched.
The rest of the evening quickly descended into a random, magical oblivion, as so many evenings in LA do. The hotel was impossibly posh and over-designed, instantly transporting everyone onto the set of some glamorous, fictional Hollywood movie. Free vodka flowed at the bar until 9:30, and various art people started filtering in and blending with the general crowd. I remember lying on a couch and having a long, meaningful conversation with a cool couple named Dennis and Erin whom I am quite sure I’ll never see again. I also remember getting led around the place by Arely, who thankfully was less inebriated than I was, and exchanging a few words with a very cheerful Ryan Trecartin, as well as ALAC director Tim Fleming and Andrew Berardini. What was said, I have no idea, and I only hope it wasn’t too embarrassing. The last thing I remember was sitting next to the pool and watching a glass of white wine float perfectly across its surface.
This past week, I found out that D’Ette Nogle is being featured in a solo show at Parker Jones in Culver City (up through March 5), so I stopped by to check it out. The show consists of a two-channel video installation titled Reality/Relax. In the video, we see scenes of the artist and her parents reading transcribed reality show dialogues, taken from shows with more familial themes like Real Housewives and Keeping Up with the Kardashians. Each scene is situated in a specific domestic space—sitting on the sofa, standing in the kitchen, gathered around the dining table. At the end of each scene, Nogle would announce, “Now let’s relax,” and all three would stop and close their eyes. The camera then lingers on them for a few minutes while the next scene begins on the other channel.
An interesting aspect of this installation is the fact that the artist chose to install a leaning rail for visitors instead of a bench or chairs. This rail is reminiscent of the type used at mass family entertainment facilities to provide a place of temporary, but not extended, rest, with the goal being to keep large crowds moving. It serves to heighten the sense that what we are seeing is an absurd, canned spectacle. Reality TV shows, of course, are supposed to be unscripted, but everyone knows that a certain amount of scripting or at least manipulation is involved, in order to achieve desired effects or outcomes. The sight of the artist and her earnest, but obviously not groomed for TV, family doing table readings from these shows completely takes away any illusion of spontaneity or “natural” behavior, pushing their predetermined fishbowl quality to another level.
The reference to Dan Graham’s Lax/Relax is also interesting, particularly with the word “reality” replacing the word “lax.” The seminal Graham work (first performed in 1969), in which a taped recording of a woman saying the word “lax” between slow breaths plays while the artist does the same (but live) with the word “relax,” explored phenomenological consciousness through mirroring and feedback, and was said to lay the groundwork for all of Graham’s subsequent performances. There is mirroring and feedback present in Nogle’s work, but the irony is that instead of the consciousness expansion of the 1960s/70s, we are looking at the packaging and merchandising of vapid “content” that is endemic to the current era. If anything, Nogle’s subtle work is playing on the phenomenon of a total reduction of consciousness; in my own reading of The Hills, I find that the characters are so perfectly vacuous that they turn into elements of abstract filmic composition—beautiful in a really sick, Less Than Zero sort of way.
And now back to ALAC. The day after the Skybar party, even though I was excruciatingly hung over, I dragged myself back to the fair one last time to catch the Sunday performances and panels. Most of it was forgettable for various reasons, but luckily there was Anna Mayer’s WORD THE WORD, Part 2: Succuthis to make my pain worthwhile. More directly in line with Dan Graham’s explorations, Mayer’s WORD THE WORD series investigates the resonant power of language through evocations and reiterations of specific sets of words. Part 1: Meta Psych, which I unfortunately couldn’t attend, was a “guided listening session” in which Mayer played selections of psychedelic music interspersed with her own spoken meditations on awareness, observation, and transformation. In Part 2: Succuthis, Mayer enlisted several friends (Steven Anderson, Enrique Castrejon, Megan Hoetger, Malisa Humphrey, Elana Mann, John Martin, and Nancy Popp) to join her in a table reading of transcripts from the Surrealists’ round-table sex research sessions of 1928–1932.
Unearthed by a French scholar decades after the fact and published as a book in 1993 with the help of the French Ministry of Culture, these transcripts are records of extended frank discussions among members of the almost all-male Surrealist group (including André Breton, Max Morise, Pierre Naville, Benjamin Péret, Jacques Prévert, Raymond Queneau, Yves Tanguy, and Pierre Unik) about every aspect of sex and eroticism that they could think of. As is to be expected, the dialogues contain many instances of sexism, cluelessness about women’s bodies, and strange personal idiosyncrasies. Listening to the words read today by a youthful group of mixed gender and race, these comments were not so much offensive as quaint and laughable. And surprisingly, after a while, one was also left with a sense of how sincere the Surrealists were in their quest to smash propriety and explore forbidden areas of inquiry. In spite of their annoying flaws, their efforts were touching. And sitting casually amongst the crates that comprised Liz Glynn’s Verse│Chorus│Verse installation, Mayer and friends looked like an earnest group of grad students, engaged in their own sincere inquiry, letting all the words fall where they may, without judgment.