Temporary Distortion’s Welcome to Nowhere (bullet hole road)
In the fiftieth anniversary year of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, the theme of road travel continues to loom large in the American imagination. This past June saw Atlantic Theater Company’s production of 10 Million Miles, a road trip musical; in November, BAM features a commissioned work by Sufjan Stevens about the BQE. Fortunately, the contemporary theatrical avant garde has not missed this confluence. In October, the Queens-based performance ensemble Temporary Distortion brings its most recent project, a theatrical investigation of the road movie genre titled Welcome to Nowhere (bullet hole road), to The Chocolate Factory.
Since 2002, Temporary Distortion has created productions that vex the boundaries between live theater, sculpture, installation, and, most recently, film and video. Their last five projects shared a scenic concept that has become the group’s trademark: a large boxlike structure composed of industrial piping, plexiglass facing, fluorescent tubing, light bulbs, undisguised microphones, surveillance cameras and video monitors. The productions take place within and around these confining—and coffining—boxes, which are often built to the exact dimensions of their inhabitants, and which recall Robert Morris’s sculpture Box for Standing (1961) and the shadow box assemblages of Joseph Cornell. (The boxes are constructed in the living room of artistic director Kenneth Collins’s apartment in Sunnyside, Queens. When I recently visited a rehearsal, the set took up half of the tiny room, and the complex system of electrical wiring seemed poised to cause a borough-wide brownout.) The actors speak from within these enclosures in ashen tones, often slowly, at a pianissimo, and with near absolute physical stillness.
Dramaturgically speaking, it’s easy to recognize the influences at work. The group is young, and like so many contemporary theater artists in their twenties and thirties, they unhesitatingly acknowledge the inspiration of Foreman, LeCompte, and Wilson. (One also detects resonances with the work of artists from the generation after Foreman, et al.: for instance, Reza Abdoh, Sarah Kane, and Romeo Castellucci.) However, the group’s entire body of work, especially Welcome to Nowhere, suggests another inspiration: Beckett. This, too, they readily admit—in fact, the text of their 2004 production Contingent cites Malone Dies explicitly with the line “‘Nothing is more real than nothing’ quoted Samuel Beckett.” (Incidentally, another existentialist, Kafka, is also a noteworthy forebear: his novel The Trial provided the starting point for their first project, Alien Even Then .)
Beckett’s relationship to the road trip movie may seem surprising at first, but not when one remembers that the prototypes for Welcome to Nowhere’s explorations—films such as Easy Rider and Bonnie and Clyde and their cinematic progeny—owe an unmistakable debt to Beckett’s plays, chiefly Godot. Prior to the twentieth century, America’s experience of its landscape was one of transcendental Romanticism, best articulated by the sounding of Whitman’s barbaric yawp. With Godot (the third play Collins ever read, after Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead), the situation reverses. Romantic individualism is replaced with mutually miserable codependence (we see this in On the Road as well, with its two male protagonists) and transcendence becomes impossible. Travel leads to no escape, to no coherent self, no exit, and no redemption, only to other “compartments.” As Gogo puts it: “There’s no lack of void.”
This angst and antipathy make their way from absurdism into the anti-escapist road movies of 1960s and 70s America (where Temporary Distortion intercepts them)—expressive as they are of the severe emotional and political malaise of the time, long after Manifest Destiny and the illusions of meaningfulness it offered had exhausted themselves. Following the automobile boom of the first half of the twentieth century, young Americans found themselves more capable of long-distance travel than any previous generation, but also without any apparent direction, spiritual or geographical (the era of “Go west, young man” long having passed). Bonded in their individual isolation, Didi and Gogo replicate themselves repeatedly in the iconic guise of the road trip duo, forced into perpetual, nomadic self-exile, disenchanted by the ideology of destination, and, essentially, going nowhere in spite of all their movement.
The staging of Welcome to Nowhere reflects this dual sense of traveling and stasis (the simultaneous experience of which is uniquely modern, thanks to technological developments in transportation, film, video games, and, ultimately, the Internet and Second Life). It’s true that Collins’s approach here feels slightly easier than in past projects: “more naturalistic,” as he describes it, “and with more situation and plot,” though wandering in its approach to narrative. Nevertheless, the actors remain distant and relatively motionless throughout, except for a few changes of position. Above their heads, an ever-shifting phantasmagoria of projected video images, courtesy of video designer William Cusick, plays in widescreen format, signifying different locales and creating movement in marked opposition to the actors’ implacable stillness.
The video opens on the scene of a desolate country road (c.f., Godot) with a decomposing pickup on the shoulder. The performance has hardly begun, and we already feel the weight of some violent trauma or inexpiable crime. Cusick’s graphics locate us in a surreal world of disjointed dreams and memories. At one point, the film shifts, and we find ourselves in what feels like a nightmare: it is night, we’re driving through a forest, we feel that we’re fleeing something unspeakably dreadful, the road before us is in darkness, it remains obscure no matter how far we follow it, vanishing beyond our headlights. We feel intimately that, in Welcome to Nowhere, the nearer we get to our destination, to coherent memory, and consequently to the truth, the more it retreats into the darkness just beyond our grasp. In short, the production’s prevailing metaphor and obsession is traveler’s amnesia.
Temporary Distortion’s technology fetish belies its ostensible commitment to what it has called, somewhat confusingly, “pure minimalism”—the use of stage machines and the spectacle they consequently produce betray a far more baroque sensitivity. This technophilia continually asserts the existentially mechanical nature of the body. Moreover, the automatism of the actors insinuates more than a dehumanizing fusion of car and driver, man and machine (as in Beckett again, e.g. Krapp’s Last Tape). It also feels like the forced, purgatorial narration of self and past (c.f. Play, What Where, and Not I). These themes and tropes may seem like absurdism’s leftovers, but Collins and his company employ them in ways that feel startlingly novel.
For all Temporary Distortion’s recent shifts toward a more naturalistic style, its performers do not portray characters in any traditional, psychological sense. Rather, they exhibit a quality of self-abstraction, of self-forgetfulness, and, as the play progresses, the character identities begin to blur and resist coherence. A hallucinatory film sequence depicts one character, Hunter, digging with a large shovel in the forest, and one’s mind is left to wonder whether it is he or another character, Wyatt, doing the excavating; whether he is exhuming something or burying something; and whether that something is the past, the truth, an authentic self, or a rotting corpse.
Welcome to Nowhere, with its centered, Zen deliberateness, is specifically intended to allow for moments of reverie like this. Indeed, the company has suggested that their theater—a “theater of stillness”—is designed in part to provoke “a liquid sort of thinking that allows you to drift in and out of places while watching the performance,” and to extricate its audience, however temporarily, from the catastrophic speed, business, and acceleration of modern life. In this regard, Welcome to Nowhere shows much potential to succeed.
Welcome to Nowhere (bullet hole road) runs October 12–27 at the Chocolate Factory, 5-49 49th Avenue, Long Island City. Visit www.temporarydistortion.com for more information.
Joseph P. Cermatori is an MFA candidate in dramaturgy and dramatic criticism at Yale University.