Distant Lands, Blowups, Quiet Whispers: the First Five Days of the Pacific Standard Time Performance and Public Art Festival

The first five days of the jam-packed Pacific Standard Time Performance and Public Art Festival have passed, and I’ve survived, albeit barely. Since Thursday, it seems like I’ve spent a lot of time driving to the farthest reaches of Greater Los Angeles to watch stuff get blown up, lit up, and shot at. Crowd-pleasing spectacles have definitely dominated the game.

On Saturday, hundreds of people came out to Pomona College to see a trio of “performances” (the pieces by Judy Chicago and James Turrell would be more accurately described as temporary public art installations) that took place at strategic locations on campus. They were all nice, although not exactly mind-blowing. I didn’t quite see what was so nifty about John White’s Preparation F, which made a spectacle out of college football players getting dressed and scrimmaging; modern dance works have done this sort of thing better. Chicago’s ejaculatory fireworks in A Butterfly for Pomona were certainly entertaining, and Turrell’s Burning Bridges was a nostalgic and humorous evocation of his then-developing interest in light and the framing of environments. The most remarkable thing about the whole event, however, was seeing so many people turn out for performance—the most I’ve ever seen in one sitting.

Crowds rush to check out Richard
Jackson's paint plane wreckage.

Likewise, Richard Jackson’s Accidents in Abstract Painting brought a huge, family-oriented crowd out to a field in Pasadena to watch a model airplane filled with paint crash into a wall. The plane had a couple of false starts and took a long time to get off the ground. One kid behind me was quite the heckler, at one point screaming, “I wish the plane would crash already!” When it finally did get airborne, it made two circles before zeroing in on its target for a perfect, paint-splattering crash. Seeing the colorful crash was pretty satisfying, but in the end, it was just another bit of art-flavored entertainment.

The only large-scale happening that really got me excited was Tirs: Reloaded, a group tribute to, and recreation of, Niki de Saint Phalle’s infamous shooting paintings. I was supposed to live-tweet from that event for ForYourArt, but because it took place at a remote shooting range in the Angeles Forest, I couldn’t get cell reception. I will, however, write a longer piece about that event as soon as I get some more brain cells back. For now, you can check out the photo documentation on PST’s website.

Other than the sublime Tirs: Reloaded, the more memorable performances of the past several days have been, for me, the more intimate ones.

Paul Waddell, Quick start camping trip urbane sim revision: a system for showing results

The first took place on Saturday morning, an unlikely time, at an unlikely location: the Art Los Angeles Contemporary Fair at Barker Hangar. In the tiny Ruskin Theater, Paul Waddell performed a new work, titled Quick start camping trip urbane sim revision: a system for showing results. The piece saw Waddell fiddling with a small tent, which he attempted to set up before sharing its billowing mass with the gamely laughing audience. He also made comical use of the small theater stage, entering and exiting the fake doors and getting caught in them. He even involved an audience member, who joined him for a short spell of aggression, beating a small box with a stick while he flailed around inside his tent. He wound the piece down quietly with extended stares at the audience, inserting tools into his socks, and deflating his tent.

Like his performance at Human Resources last year, Quick start camping trip was absurdist but not without a strong sense of internal logic and narrative. It touched on survival anxieties and the comic futility of human actions, which of course had special resonance for artists in an art fair environment. I was also struck again by Waddell’s powerful ability to create and hold an engaging performative atmosphere using his own energy, direct confrontation with his audience, and a specific collection of objects. It’s like watching a well-resolved sculptural installation emerge out of thin air.

Emily Mast's Birdbrain, presented at
Liz Glynn's Black Box

On Sunday Night, Emily Mast kicked off Black Box festivities early with Birdbrain, an ensemble work that she wrote and directed. The program that was handed out before the show told the story of Alex, an African grey parrot who was the subject of a 30-year language experiment. An animal psychologist set out to prove that birds can reason and use words creatively, claiming that Alex could identify objects, understand concepts, express emotions, etc. The study was controversial, as skeptics dismissed Alex’s “intelligence” as nothing more than mimicry. Birdbrain took Alex’s story as inspiration for a series of abstract skits that explored human beings’ mastery, mimicry, and fetishization of language and gestures, questioning where the lines are amongst the three.

In one skit, a woman repeated a series of random words over and over, with increasing speed, while another woman attempted to sign the words and a little boy, dressed in a bird suit, attempted to transcribe them on a chalkboard. Thus, “fetishization, fetishization, fetishization… hot dog, hot dog, hot dog… meow, meow, meow….,” etc. gradually devolved into frustration as the signer grew increasingly tired and the writer’s scribbles became unintelligible. In another skit, a burly actor sat and acted out a series of emotions while the other actors gathered around him and murmured judgments about how “real” his emotions were. In moments like that, Birdbrain became a piece of theater about theater, adeptly using theatrical conventions to question the workings of human intelligence and the meaning of human “mastery.”

Emily Mast's Birdbrain

Mast, who started using child actors last year in her adaptation of Peter Handke’s Offending the Audience, again used them to great effect in this piece. In addition to the bird/jester figure, the Birdbrain ensemble also included an adorable little girl in a tutu. She got a solo spotlight in a skit that had her wandering around the colorful set ruminating deeply on very adult concepts of spiritual despair and nothingness. Alex the parrot was said to understand the concept of zero, and here we wondered how much this poised, articulate child really understood of existential angst.

Finally, last night I dragged my tired self out of the house for the singular purpose of catching Andrea Fraser’s Men on the Line, KPFK, 1972, presented by West of Rome at the National Center for the Preservation for Democracy. I’m happy to say that it was worth the effort. I believe it was the artist’s first new performance in a long time, and it was a stunner. Fraser took a transcript of a 1972 KPFK radio talk amongst a group of men who were sympathetic to the feminist movement and trying to explore their feelings and thoughts around it. She memorized an edited version of the transcript and inhabited and performed each of the roles.

Andrea Fraser re-performing May I Help You?
at the MAK Center, May 2011

The presentation was daringly minimal. At the bottom of a narrow, high, amphitheater-style arena, Fraser—dressed mannishly in boots, pants, and a brown sweater over a white button-down shirt—sat by herself in a chair, the lone focus of a rapt, sold-out audience. She performed each of the roles meticulously, adopting particular mannerisms and voice registers for each man. With seriousness and concentration, she re-enacted a dialogue in which men expressed solidarity with the feminist movement and lauded it as a movement for humanity, not just women. They also, however, expressed nostalgia for a time when “I was the king and I had a slave” and fear over the conviction that women spent all their time in separatist meetings “talking about me.”

There were of course many chortles from the audience at the “MCP” (male chauvinist pig) comments, but overall, Fraser’s performance conveyed a sympathy towards these earnest, progressive men struggling to accommodate a new social paradigm. As in her classic May I Help You? performance, which was adapted for the MAK Center last year, Men on the Line was a piece that skillfully used the distance of theater at the same time that it poignantly inscribed the artist’s body with the challenging viewpoints of other social groups, conflating a variety of agendas to tease out a more complex examination of where feminism was then, and where we are now.

One Response to “Distant Lands, Blowups, Quiet Whispers: the First Five Days of the Pacific Standard Time Performance and Public Art Festival”

  1. […] first saw Emily Mast’s Birdbrain (2012) performed in a theater setting last year—first in a test version at Liz Glynn’s Black Box performance speakeasy, and later in a more polished version at REDCAT. […]

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