Having a Field Day With ‘Field Trips’
Click-slash. There’s a half-crazed guy with a video camera singing and pounding an accordion. Click-slash. A woman in a black cocktail dress is rolling on the floor in front of a pedestal with a fishbowl on top. Click-slash. Another wacko is ranting some dada diatribe about why he does what he does.
No, you’re not flipping the remote between Gonzo late-night shows, but the images do have something to do with TV. That’s what Mark Russell, executive director of New York’s Performance Space 122, found out when he put together this latest in a series of traveling performance-art cabarets known as “Field Trips.” It visits Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE), Thursday through Saturday. Russell didn’t set out to create a “theme” program, but he admits audiences may find a common concern in the various artists’ works--one that typifies what’s going on in performance art today. On the LACE bill are choreographers Ann Carlson and Ishmael Houston-Jones, films by Pat Oleszko and performers Danny Mydlack and Mark Anderson.
“This is a generation (of performance artists)--and it started a lot with Tim Miller--raised on TV,” Russell ventures. “All of them have spent time in suburbia, next to the television set.”
But instead of the bevy of black-clad nihilist ‘burb bashers one might expect, these Field Trippers belong to a kind of avant-garde “Roots” movement. They’re 30-ishers making artistic hay out of the grist of their generation, the emotional fallout of having cut their teeth along with Fred’s three sons.
The seeds of that fallout, according to 29-year-old Mydlack, were isolation and media-saturation.
“I just went back (to the Chicago suburb where he grew up) a year and a half after 18 years,” he says. “My family had no desire (to be a part of the city). The culture for the suburbs is mass media: TV, radio and magazines.”
Mydlack is quick to add that he’s more positive about this past than many of his co-evals. “A lot of people approach their suburban backgrounds with a great deal of spite, cynicism and satire. I value and treasure where I come from.”
Mydlack’s Living Room Project pays homage to this upbringing by taking video, accordion music, songs that include references to Tonto and the Lone Ranger and couch-pillow rituals into people’s homes.
The media references aren’t as overt in Anderson’s disquisitions, which the 32-year-old performer describes as “more critical than celebratory” of Big Electronic Brother. His topics range from baseball to science to the faux autobiography of a Brand X persona (“not really defining who I am, but creating a conglomerate, generic individual”).
While media-made middle-Americana may be only a subtle influence on Anderson’s choice of subject, it’s decidedly affected his work’s format. "(My speech is) seemingly stream-of-consciousness,” he acknowledges. “You could see the way I jump from one section to another as channel changing.”
Ann Carlson’s “Sarah,” from her animals series, evokes the voyeurism of the theme park, another bastion of the middle class. The performer-character, a glamorous Shamu-esque hybrid of person and whale, flounders, as it were in a “Sea World kind of place.”
A taped announcer’s voice decries Sarah’s shyness and other traits and explains the feats she will perform. (“Incredible to think--isn’t it, ladies and gentlemen?--that this sweet lady could consume an entire two-ton sea lion in just a few bites.”) The metaphor of the whale-person applies both to the performance artist as talking dog and what Carlson elucidates as “how women are treated.”
Pat Oleszko’s film “Footsie” is spliced into the otherwise live road show--yet another nod to the formidable sway of media. Like Mydlack, Anderson and Carlson, she twists the household everyday to reveal a quirky underbelly.
It’s not until you come to the improvisational dance of Ishmael Houston-Jones that you find a radical critique of the dominant culture of his generation. He shares his peers’ concern with family life (Mom was actually on stage in “Relatives”) and isolation (the theme of the solo he’ll perform from “The End of Everything”), but his work is also political.
Russell says this generation of artists is pragmatic about media and possessed of a “show-biz sense.” Its attitude, he says, is that the media “is here to stay, so we might as well use it and not be afraid of it.”
“Some of (the work) is anti-media, but it uses it, understands it as friend and something that’s funny and part of life.”
But does this media-savvy autobiography substitute for social awareness? “It starts there (with autobiography),” Russell responds. "(But) I don’t think people can be not political these days. (Although) you might have been able to throw that (accusation) at performance art a couple of years ago.”
“In the ‘60s it was easier (to be overtly activist): the targets were larger and stupider. Now, we have to be just as wily as the conservative media. I don’t think anyone can make didactic art (in 1988); people know it’s not effective. (Instead, these artists) wrap (their message) in entertainment values that sneak up on you.”