American Realness

2 Days of Not So American Realness

2 Days of Not So American Realness

by Marissa Perel
published on: January 17, 2013

Saturday, January 10, 5:30 PM

Dana Michel squirms, pants, gathers herself up under a black hoodie and baggy pants, adrift in a listless stupor. But this listlessness is focused, she seeks to destabilize the atmosphere to test our attention, and our capacity for sitting with the uncanny. There is nothing recognizable about her speech or movement, she avoids eye contact at all costs, yet there is something familiar about this troubling feeling, this sadness, this eerie summoning of racial tropes.

White, antiseptic set, white cotton swabs strewn around her body, mushed creaminess of masticated banana bulging from her lips, a painted yellow trumpet, the sounds of which become a continuation of her speech in its absent sputtering – these objects, taken up and mis-treated in their own time, accumulate to form a landscape of dis-use. Michel’s body is at once a part of this landscape and is the catalyst for it, pouring kool aid into a silver bowl, stretching out time as she slowly consumes the liquid, head bent over a table, appearing to nod off and then returning to sip it. The alchemical kool aid works its way through her body as she begins to recite a recipe for seasoned breadcumbs and a hair treatment. But the recipe is undone by the repetition, breaking, and slurring of her speech. Michel’s language, like her objects, exist outside of signification, outside of time and space. It is the utterance in its barest sense, wavering on the cusp of meaning and nothingness.

We hear a thudding bass. Her body gyrates on a chair with stockinged feet, we all know this bouncing: legs spread, knees bent, ass hitting the floor.

On her chair, now, Michel raises a platinum blonde wig as a gospel song resounds in the stark white space. She stabs at it with ambivalence, resentment, riding on the edge of real violence, though she never falls into that kind of acting out. The blonde wig is a joke, but the feelings for, of and about what it represents are not funny. Internalized oppression spreads like a contemptuous, thickening fog throughout the theater.

Then there’s a working backward into concealment, putting on the black hoodie again, and the backpack. Michel walks around the stage, preparing it for more blaring absurdities of cultural politics. She attempts to tell the weather on a piece of brown paper with a black marker, again the language isn’t the point. It’s the spectacle of speech, and the feeling of that spectacle.

She goes off the edge of the paper and marks a white curtain with the marker, a fatal blemish to her set. She then improvises an apology to the audience, the staff, but it comes out like the rest of her piece, and we break down from its suspended hilarity.

She takes a hand, puts it in a jar of fluff, nearing the end of the show. The white, artificially sweetened goo stuck on her black hand, stuck to her pants, a glue that will never cease to adhere.

* * *

Sunday, January 11, written over the course of 3 hours watching Mårten Spångberg’s La Substance, but in English

What is selfhood? Is the self a consumerist idea? What kind of information is in a gesture? Is the performative v. the everyday still a distinction worth making? The quotidian has, by now, been quite subsumed into contemporary consciousness. So what is the body for, anyway? This concept of the body’s Modernist potential for greatness becomes less seductive than intentional or unintentional moments of the sublime, which is really just a conflation of our escape fantasies. That moment when identity is no longer chained to things – that fabulous loss of gravity and time. Floatingness, is that not today’s desired product? The promise of escape as ultimate experience.

Being a clown or being a sad clown or an ugly clown or a half undone clown, the willingness to confront your own frayed expectations of your identity to reveal a self undone. You are floating between what you think you are, and what you simply don’t know that you are because on the other side of the sublime is the void. The void isn’t ever what we want to see. The void itself is a confrontation, untoward – it is the space of possibility and thus fear. What if Realness is the courage to occupy this space, and reflect it to the audience without fear?

Realness is coercive, Realness is conflicted, and therefore Realness is both multiple and elusive. Our illusions get unearthed and through this our desires and assumptions about our desires get exhumed. Contemporary art is hard just like being in a body. I don’t think I’ve articulated our cultural underbelly quite enough yet. What I mean to say is that sexuality and race, taste and value, are the product of unexamined cultural assumptions. When these assumptions are examined, it’s like the fire alarm the in the theater or museum or other such institution has gone off, you get that fight or flight feeling, maybe you cough or laugh because you can’t run away. But if the sprinkler system went off and covered you with water, you’d probably be relieved, but then everyone would see through your clothes and maybe that transparency wouldn’t be such a relief after all.

So it’s much better to stay here and uncover your own fear and shame or whatever you’re hiding by being present with and available to the performance in front of you. We create epic mythologies about what can happen in time and space, creating the show in our minds before we give ourselves a chance to acknowledge what exists there. Where do you find the art in all your projections? Is it what you’ve mythologized? Is it what you see, clear of internal monologue? Maybe it exists somewhere between those modes of desire and perception. Stepping into the void, we learn about it a little more and we come understand why we are here right now. We come to terms with what we can fulfill for ourselves and what we can never possibly figure out how to satiate.

Identity as a skin, worn away, performance as the activity of shedding, unraveling and exposing of a new, raw membrane. You sit waiting for something. The extravagant emotional rollercoaster of waiting is the map of your internal topology that expands to meet the terrain before you. Yes, you are working in this waiting. We are all here to work. We are not sitting passive while our shadow selves are benignly served up in delicate portions. We are working on these selves and even working on these non-selves and we are becoming the other that we see.

image: Ian Douglas