Kerry Tribe, Performance of Critical Mass, Hammer Museum, April 7, 2011
Conceivably, there were many different ways Kerry Tribe could have shaped her live performance of Hollis Frampton’s 1971 experimental film, Critical Mass. Less than a minute into it, it became shockingly clear that she had taken the most obvious, and yet somehow also the least expected route: a faithful, blow-by-blow re-enactment of the film as it is presented. By this I mean—every stutter, every guttural repetition produced by the relentless jump-cut editing in the classic structuralist film, was faithfully replicated by the two brilliant and totally on-top-of-their-game actors, Reed Windle and Jasmine Woods (no small task at all, if you’ve seen the film).
In the intimate space of the Hammer’s Annex room, brightly spot-lit on an empty stage, the two simply dressed actors engaged in an energetic, spot-on theatrical rendition of an abstracted work of film. In this film, a virulent and banal argument between a man and a woman is chopped up into pulse sensations, with every utterance stopping and repeating numerous times, emphasizing the unpleasant emotional currents between the two while obscuring any discernible rational language. Seeing these effects acted out by live actors seemed to make the argument flesh again, restore its blood flow, and yet, these twice-mediated reverberations made the performance even more uncanny than the hypnotic film on which it was based. Consider this: while the base material of the film had been improvised by two college students chosen for their natural volatility, Tribe’s impeccable performance was crafted via more than 100 hours of intensive rehearsal time. It’s as though flesh were deconstructed, and then aggregated again into flesh. (I should also note that the film employs visual effects—such as blackouts, flickers, and fade-ins—but the stage production was clean and stark, emphasizing the acting.)
There were interesting moments when the actors seemed to use the verbal repetitions as part of their acting, as when Windle pleaded with Woods, “But you don’t have to know-ow-ow!”, adding even more urgency to his line. It was also intriguing to observe how the dynamic changed during those moments when the jump-cutting in the film stops, and we are allowed to hear longer passages of dialogue, uninterrupted. In the film, these are welcome pauses of relief, when the two arguers seem human again. But on the stage, the reversion to regular dialogue actually makes the play seem more like a play, and thus less viscerally compelling when compared with the desperation of elemental noises.
It was a spectacular 25 minutes of theater/performance art, and I am deeply impressed that Tribe had the balls to do it the way she did (not to mention mind-boggled by how the actors were able to perfectly memorize every single stutter the way they did). Looking at Tribe’s past projects though, I shouldn’t be surprised; doubles and feedback loops loom large in her work, and simple retreads tend to reveal untold parallel universes. This retread, which pulled off the rare feat of being every bit as mesmerizing as the “original” for both similar and dissimilar reasons, is another chapter in the artist’s ongoing investigations of perception and memory. It also offers a goldmine for academic considerations of re-performance, mediated performance, the mediatized subject, and sundry film and drama theories, I’m sure.
Kerry Tribe’s Critical Mass will be performed again at LAXART on Friday, April 22 at 7:30pm. Do not miss it if you know what’s good for you!!