Reflections on Reperforming American Moon

by - Saturday, February 18, 2012

This week was a weird one- I spent the majority of it debating about institutional constraints and painting bacon tubes and blue meanie heads. We all got to enjoy a lot of time with the artist (in the swing on this picture) and his daughter Pilar; they were both very open with stories from the original and other reperformances and were very willing to chat about anything we brought up. I even told them about my interests and they brought me a film of Simone Forti performances- how cool is that? All in all, it was ridiculously fun and a great break from the regular graduate school grind. It makes me incredibly jealous of the drama PhD's who are making things while they theorize them. I really miss making things- now all I have time to do is take pictures! 

The process of working on American Moon began with the beginning of the class; the first real session, the class read over Michael Kirby's writing on the Happening, which proved to be invaluable both for us and the artist. We started with high hopes of what we would be able to do- in the original piece the space is split into 6 small seating caves with a oval-shaped space in the center for the performers. Above the caves were catwalks where many of the helpers worked. We tried to find a space that came with open minds, a strong ceiling, and very loose fire codes, but alas we ended up back in Prosser Auditorium, which is part of Stanford's Memorial Auditorium.

Because of where we were performing in this space, the class had to grapple with a large number of (often justified) institutional constraints (though we still got to put on parts like these, where a performer hangs from a high trapeze, but we had specific instructions on how we were allowed to get him there). Because of fire codes, we couldn't have anything over the audience's head, so Whitman's  tight caves became much more open. We also had to fire proof everything that would go into the space, so the amount of material and paper we could put into the space were limited. These constraints created a lot of (productive?) frustrations for us, but I think they were even more disappointing for the artist, who wasn't always impressed with our solutions to the problems.

This is one of my favorite elements we were able to have, which was the heap. In the original setting, it would have been unclear in the space made of rubble whether it was a person or not. I loved watching Giulia, the performer, move with this heap on, casting fabric everywhere. 

This is the best picture I could get of the motion- the entire thing seemed like it wasn't going to come together, we spent the week making things that could potentially be thrown out due to its fire hazard status. It became difficult to understand how to make a trash aesthetic feel professional, but when we brought in the lights suddenly it felt so much more serious and it really looked beautiful. If you look at the video online everything still looks relatively bright, but in the dull lighting everything felt a little more menacing/ anxiety-inducing, and it is that awkward feeling and temporality to me that gives the work its meaning and strange beauty. 

This is the best picture I could get of two of my paint jobs (did I mention how fun it was to paint? especially something that could be somewhat messy)- one is a tall tube that looks like bacon that a girl has to spin and scuttle in, and the other is a blue meanie with two large menacing mouths that crawled around aimlessly (and with a great scratchy sound). The piece also started with a mushroom cloud and a large patriotically painted hot dog being swung around and ended with what looked like a cut out of a vagina and boobs on sticks that swayed back and forth. It all sounds a little funny, and I think it is meant to be, but the humor of these pieces has perhaps increased over time because of the current taste for absurdist ironic humor. It doesn't get much more absurd than a German guy walking around a small clan of academics waving a large patriotic hot dog.

The class was made up of grads and undergrads, and one of the biggest surprises was just how much the undergrads stepped up to help with the project both with simple labor and having their own conceptual stakes in what happened. The grad who was the director of the performance was perhaps less willing to hear others thoughts,, but by the end everyone got what they needed to done and I thought the undergrads really shined. I think it is a lot to ask of a group of students to put something like this on, but I think that the pedagogical potential is worth the uneven workload it creates. If I learned anything, it is that adding a performative aspect to the syllabus in a class like this totally changes the tone. 

This is the craziness immediately before the performance. Yesterday I got to the school early ready to quickly pull together all those last minute details that had been left behind, but what became clear was that there wasn't much to do until  afew hours before the performance, when we rushed through 3 rehersals very quickly. The work itself I think was probably a great deal longer in the original iteration, but the cuts that were made shortened it to about 20 minutes long. Though I can see the value in allowing younger people experience works done before their time, the whole affair is drenched in a bittersweetness, because you are constantly reminded of how it could never be like it was.  Even if you were in the most forgiving venue with a cast once again dominated by men (the artist was slightly annoyed by the general lack of testosterone in the group), everyone in the room has moved on, so when you revisit the work, it has a whole new valence which is both rich and sad. I think the more flexibility a work has to consider these changes and to address them, at least implicitly, the more likely it is to be successful.

Of course, if these works are constantly taking on the changes around them, that doesn't leave much room for authorial vision (unless you are Marina Abramovic and you have a tight grip on your image... cake clone and all). Maybe this is a good thing, but it seems frightening and frustrating to them, and I am not sure how we temper it as historians. It was interesting to me that Mr. Whitman seemed the most attached to the films, which he could recognize as his own work (though it couldn't be original since it is in pretty bright digital color). He perked up when it would come on, but I wonder if that familiarity is too a lie, only better at hiding the changes a reperformance so bittersweetly manifests. The truth is, the more integrated your audience is in your work, the more vulnerable you are to the swift movement of time, because their appreciation will inevitably change. The more I see, the more I feel like art history is in some ways only as useful as the present it serves, but you can always hope a history or object will have even more uses in the future. I still feel optimistic, and the week really was a bright spot on my whole grad career, but I have to stay aware of the sadness and loss that underlies what we are doing.

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