Love is Colder Than Death: Wax Factory at the New York Center for Media Arts
It’s cold. The faint glow of a few space heaters doesn’t stand a chance in the high-ceilinged hall and 12,000-square foot area of the New York Center for Media Arts (NYCMA) in Long Island City. It’s January, and I’m pleasantly surprised that over a hundred have made it to an unmarked alley supposedly called Davis Street to see WaxFactory’s latest production, Quartet V1.0.
WaxFactory, based in Williamsburg, has been staging hybrid works in non-traditional venues in New York and at international festivals since 1998. The company’s three principal members, Dion Doulis, Erika Latta, and Ivan Talijancic, work frequently with international collaborators from a host of artistic backgrounds. Informed by the influences of cinema, electronic music, the visual arts, and architecture, WaxFactory often revisits and reconceptualizes classical texts by playwrights and authors such as Georges Bataille and Jean Genet.
Trusted sources told me that I missed an amazing experience last summer, when WaxFactory performed at the Old American Can Factory, an industrial compound/arts space in Gowanus. This site-specific rendering of Henrick Ibsen’s Lady from the Sea was performed as 13 installations/acts staged through the space and sequence of the performance with the aid of a site map. (I’m marking my calendar for WaxFactory’s restaging of the performance for the Triennial International Ibsen Conference in the summer of 2003.)
Their latest piece is set in another expansive art space housed in an old factory. The NYCMA—an emerging institution dedicated to exploring new forms of artistic expression through digital media—opened in May 2001 with a large-scale exhibition comprised of luminary and mid-career artists, whose works examine the evolving relationship between art and digital technology. NYCMA is largely in hibernation for the winter, save for a three-weekend run of WaxFactory’s work-in-progress performance project, Quartet V1.0.
My friend and I take seats in front of an eerily lit quasi-proscenium; a large cube, described as a “quarantine” in the press release, dominates the hall. Pale green light emanates from the base of the structure, which is made from clear industrial plastic wrapped around scaffolding, and is sparely adorned with florescent tubes that light the corners. The transparent cube is flanked by two counterposed stacks of monitors. A row of small monitors perched above each wide-screen TV displays dancing linear forms as the audience huddles into folding chairs.
Quartet V1.0, a “decadent requiem for the end of the millennium centered around the controversial text by German playwright Heiner Muller,” draws its two characters from the infamous novel Liaisons Dangereuses, superimposing the manners of late 18th century noble decadence on a desolate and claustophobic landscape. An oblique narrative of sexual conquest, sickness, and cruelty emerges through the vicious banter and ornate obscenities exchanged by Valmont and Merteuil (Doulis and Latta). Muller’s stage directions set Quartet in a bombed-out bunker after the third world war. In WaxFactory’s version directed by Talijancic, the characters are contained within the plastic quarantine. The structure evokes an asylum, or perhaps a laboratory tank where subjects are monitored. The climate of diseased isolation is accentuated by spiral tubes hooked onto their backs, and by loose-fitting, utilitarian garb crafted by avant-garde fashion designer Vilma Maré. Infirmity is further heightened by a low frequency noisescape that blends nicely with the rumble of the elevated 7 train passing outside.
Four surveillance cameras positioned at different angles inside of the cube simultaneously scrutinize the duo’s choreographed interaction. These raw, high contrast images—close-ups, overheads, and over-the-shoulder shots—appear on the wide-screen TVs on either side of the quarantine. The tech booth in the back is buzzing with activity; the fee from the performance becomes a live montage as Mikolaj Szoska (the associate installation designer) switches between different camera angles. Beside him, vishwanath Owen Bush (of the sorely missed Fakeshop/Ongolia) works with the sound input to modulate digital abstractions that appear on the smaller monitors. These evocative, nearly topographical, forms echo the sexual and emotional proceedings in the quarantine. My eyes jump from one stimulus to another: shifting lights, flickering screens, and semi-hidden live spectacle. Watching the audience is like watching spectators at a tennis match.
The minimal set and barren surroundings rarify the voyeuristic pleasure of watching Valmont and Merteuil perform their passionately abusive relationship. The libertines engage in a sad and sadistic game, playing out the novel’s scenarios—the seduction of the virgin and the submission of Madame de Tourvel. The two androgynous performers slink, creep, and curl themselves around one another within the confines of the quarantine. Doulis and Latta’s paused and unnatural gestures create a counterpoint to their performative affect. The resulting contrasts intensify the unsettling sexual charge of Muller’s text. Could the chill in the air be considered an extreme form of sensorama?
Throughout their game, Merteuil and Valmont alternately assume the roles of seducer and victim. This role reversal heightens the gender ambiguity that runs throughout the work. Over Valmont-as-Mme de Tourvel’s prone body, Merteuil-as-Valmont intones:
“Lady, as you see, your offer makes no muscle stir, no nerve quiver inside me…I scorn you with a light heart, share my job…Tears? You are crying with good reason, Queen. Tears of joy, I know it. With good reason you are proud to have been so scored. I see you have understood me…Cover yourself, my love. An unchaste daft might stroke you, cold as a husband’s hand.” The reproach is part of the frigid seduction; she descends on her prey. Cut…fade to black.
The high impact of Quartet is produced in part by a coherent array of interwoven tensions: severity and spectacle, the theatrical and the cinematic. It also relies on tight compositions and timing of sound, light, and video effects. The grainy, static, image quality on the wide screen monitors calls to mind containment, voyeurism, and isolation. The themes often associated with surveillance-based video art are also present in this performance. Yet the random and impersonal quality of surveillance video does not appear to be the focal concern in WaxFactory’s production. The doubling of the performance on video creates a level of intimacy rarely experienced in theater. The close-up framing in which the performers speak directly into the camera appears more frequently than any of the other shots. Talijancic’s live montage relies on the cinematic manipulation of space and time, rather than randomness, to draw us further into the emotional depths of the performance.
As Latta’s pre-recorded voice is heard as the epilogue, a close-up of Merteuil’s heavily powdered face on the screens evokes an ailing tenderness that is at once tragic and absurd. This may be the only instance in which Quartet echoes the 1988 blockbuster film, Dangerous Liaisons. In the costume drama’s final shot, a close-up shows Glenn Close smearing the powder from her bitter face with violent gestures. The image is analogous, but the effect is entirely distinct. In Hollywood, the close-up moralizes the wicked woman’s defeat. In Long Island City, the close-up identifies us more closely with the tragic loss brought about by the couple’s licentious play. The video screens mark our complicity as voyeurs and catalysts of a dangerous game.
In reference to his 1969 film Liebe ist kälter als der Tod, Rainer Werner Fassbinder said, “In my film, there shouldn’t be feelings that people have already absorbed and digested; the film must create new ones instead.” If the themes of cruelty, lust, passion, disease, and mortality are not exactly new, the recombination that takes place in Quartet V1.0 frames these themes in strong and unusual ways. No one knew quite what to say when the applause ended and the lights came up. I was in dire need of a scotch to shake the chill from my extremities and heart. There isn’t a whole lot happening in Long Island City after the museums and galleries close at 6 pm; it’s either the Court Square Diner or karaoke at the Shannon Pot Pub. We opted for the rockabilly ebullience of the "Pot." Less than half a block away from NYCMA, a portly guy with a baseball cap and a long beard wielded a Budweiser in one hand and a microphone in the other, crooning, “That’s Amore.”
Like the spaces in which WaxFactory performs, their works are often evolving projects. The final production, Quartet V2.0, will be performed this summer in Croatia at the Split Summer Festival. Ivan Talijancic promises that it will return to New York next season, or in 2003.
For more information of WaxFactory’s upcoming projects, visit www.waxfactory.org
The New York Center for Media Arts will be opening a new exhibition later this spring.
See www.nycmediaarts.org for details.