Well Played, organized by Gracie DeVito, ltd los angeles, April 12–13, 2014

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Artist Gracie DeVito did such a great job organizing Well Played, a two-day mini-festival of short performance works that happened at ltd los angeles over the weekend. I caught most of the performances and everything that I saw was fresh, timely and compelling.

Looking at the group of works as a whole, I think you can discern certain qualities and trends that are at the vanguard of doing-performance-as-art right now. First, absurdist theater and improv are increasingly becoming the modes of choice, in a notable move away from the more conceptual and endurance-based works of the past. This makes sense to me, as I think theatrical formats can potentially offer a more pliable and multi-layered space in which to create work. Second, collaboration among peers and the incorporation of a variety of media such as video, installation, popular music and literature continue to be prominent, as they have for several years now.

And lastly, artists are hyper-conscious at the moment of the obscenities that have become commonplace in the current art market bubble, and are compelled to both comment on them and struggle against them in their work.

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Liz Toonkel started things off with a roar on Saturday night. Venus Fly Trap, an ongoing work-in-progress, was developed for this presentation via a four-hour workshop for interested participants that was held that same afternoon. The piece used the signifiers of contemporary hip-hop and celebrity culture in what was essentially an absurdist, feminist, anti-commercial self-empowerment rant. Toonkel led the way by rapping her own songs in a money-patterned jumpsuit, which she then removed to reveal a bright green full-body leotard with a fluffy Venus fly trap flaring out of her crotch area. Other artists backed her up with appropriate capitalist party poses. The piece closed with a bit of group yoga done to the mantra of a Drake lyric. See below for a selection of Toonkel’s lyrics.

A rap goddess is the female version of a rap g-d
Those g’s
In the corner of da club with lap dawgs
Throwing money like they spilling milk

But this goddess is a mothafucking lay-D
Not runnin with the likes of jay-z
Out there spewing Arendt and Chomsky
On the dance floor
Liberating hos and whores

I am a rap goddess
No need to be modest
I’m not a female version of a hustler
But this world’s boalian jester

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My flytrap from Venus
Eats your sweet Penis
Frolics on that stick
Inebriated off dick

Slap my ass
Smoke some grass
James Turrell
Tell that girl go to hell

Fuck me
Suck me
Stretch me
Hex me
Debate me
I plead you to rape me
Like a curator
An institution
A gallery
A discerning eye
Shoot up the quickie mart
And fuck me
Like a

Call me Cindy
Appraise me
You say I’m crazy

I may be a feminist
A guerrilla girl
A present object
Of desire
An agent flora
A sentient creature
But my defining feature
Is I want it
I need it
I need you to see me this way
Don’t let mulvy lead you astray
Just do it
Just fuck me like a piece of art

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Consensual art
Star fucking fish
Shooting barrels in the dark
I need a spark
Not simply a show
Not some curating ho
My cunt be the freshest
But not just for a career
Not a ready to go peer
I can’t go to openings
With all the hoping
Heeled up frauds
I need my Harold and Maude
Consensual art
Subject object hitting mark

Making coffee dates
So you can learn they’re second rate
I can’t hang with the crowd
These knees don’t bow down
I won’t make it
If I don’t fake it
Female ejaculate
Consensual art
Subject object hitting the mark

If I cower and hide away from the spectacle
From the menagerie
Will you still discover me
My crawl space can’t fit me and your ego
To every invite i say no

Can’t we mingle
At the Socratic seminar
Shy away from the bar
Network our ideals
And ideas
I am not my website
I am a site
A site
A consensual
An Exchange
My own free market
Open source

I take back the night
My right
To stand in front of you
As a subject object milieu
My right to say no
To exist
To twist your constructed
Of this industry
That begs to sell all of me
I won’t bring my soul to the opening
Just out it into my work
My output
Nonprofit values
That cause seismic change
To this shooting range
Put down your guns
And run

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Jesus Benavente, a visiting artist from New York, closed things out on Saturday night with two short but powerful pieces. Art Historical Reference started out very seriously with a short speech from Benavente about the importance of acknowledging your art historical influences. He then launched into a very bad re-enactment of Freddie Prinze Jr.’s improvised hacky-sack performance from She’s All That. It was disarmingly hilarious. The next piece, SHAZAM, involved Benavente repeatedly screaming the magic word “shazam” while colorful graphics danced on the two-channel video projection behind him. He screamed it really loudly, for about ten minutes or so, until he nearly collapsed from exhaustion. Needless to say, he was not able to transform himself into Captain Marvel.

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Benavente’s genial works were notable for their nod to an older performance tradition of visceral body-based gestures. At the same time, their light pop references and sophisticated use of media placed them squarely in the present. On Sunday, Benavente kicked off Day 2 of Well Played with a performance called Born in East LA. I just missed it, but audience members told me that he hired a full mariachi band to play the song “Born in East LA” while he threw de-thorned roses at the audience, who then threw them back at him as he exited the gallery.

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Harry Dodge, along with collaborators Leslie Dick, Taralyn Thomas, Phil Davis and Tara Jane O’Neil, made a welcome return to live performance with the appealingly titled You fuckers came on a good night—a scripted, costumed piece that the actors read aloud from yellow booklets. It was a classic Dodge work—a textual collage that made very little sense, with plenty of aggressive pathos and some queer content like Tennessee Williams references and an extended Kathy Griffin quote. It ended with an economics exegesis and a dramatic story about a circus dog with no talent, all of which seemed to suggest a critique of capitalist spectacle along with an affirmation of the collaborative dynamics that gave birth to this piece.

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Also wandering around on Sunday was Alex Becerra and his hilarious performance piece, Taco Belt. I was expecting a conveyor belt of taco production, but no, the dude was walking around with two huge utility belts stuffed with taco ingredients, ready to make a quick taco for anyone who was hungry. He also wore bright green pointy boots, reminiscent of a certain iconic Wizard of Oz character, with garden hoses shooting out of the ends. Not quite sure what that was about.

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The last work I saw was Gracie DeVito’s own Drive By, Performance, a really enjoyable work that seemed to tie a lot of the weekend’s threads together in a nice way. The piece was kind of a satirical meditation on art world anxieties and dynamics that used several LA-specific tropes, such as the idea of the drive-by, as generative motifs. The performance began on the sidewalk with the delivery of a Persian carpet, which was then unrolled to reveal the artist lying inside. She was presented with an accordion, which she began to play while singing “This is a performance…” As she played, a pair of garishly dressed tourists rudely walked right across the carpet while one of them loudly yammered into his cell phone. Then they came back and did it again.

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A dismayed DeVito stopped playing and made her way over to a black car parked in front of the gallery. She shook the hand that was protruding out of the back window, while a man in an orange jumpsuit called attention to what was going on. The hand presented her with a large cookie, which she was very happy about. Retreating into the gallery, DeVito and her “gallerist” proceeded to tape the cookie and DeVito’s arm to the wall, with the gallerist saying pretentious things in a fake English accent. Then suddenly there were grapefruits all over the Persian carpet outside, and the gallerist rushed outside with her camera equipment to document it, accidentally “ruining” the installation in the process.

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At this point or maybe it was another point, a caravan of three cars drove past yelling obscenities at the gathered crowd. Benavente also did a couple of walk-throughs during the performance, casually bidding DeVito goodbye.

Distraught, DeVito went back to the first car to see what else she could get out of it. This time she fished out a canvas painted with the words “Primordial Soup.” Gratified and hopeful, she held up the sign for all to see before going back to the gallery and presenting it to her dealer, asking her if she liked it. The dealer seemed to approve at first, but then followed DeVito outside and smashed the canvas over her head. A very unhappy DeVito turned again to the car for inspiration, only to be greeted with a barrage of exploding water balloons. Like a classic Buster Keaton move, this works every time in getting a good laugh out of the audience.

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And… End scene.

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