STELLA ADLER STUDIOS | MAY 8 – MAY 15, 2011
When casually recounting—in person, to friends—stories about this or that performance last night, I have often been teased about my proclivity for starting with the less immediately relevant details about who was there, how many, which audience members left halfway through, and whether someone looked back to tell me to please stop talking so they could more fully enjoy David Parsons. What can I say? This sociological dimension is interesting—the entire, always unique, situation of being present in a particular space with a specific group of people actually affects and even constitutes live performance of all kinds.
I would even go so far as to include this kind of situational awareness under the heading of “theatrical ephemera,” a term I picked up from the playwright and curator Paul David Young, and which would also include interactions between directors and actors, financial exchanges, and anything else that happens off stage or in preparation. Theatrical ephemera itself—the stuff and people around, about, and making up a piece of theater—is increasingly being collaged or re-interpreted by visual artists. Its use has incredible potential in mature forms of hybridized time based work. Forget Michael Fried. Just think of Paul Chan’s MoMa installation of his “Godot”performances in New Orleans or Alix Pearlstein’s videos “Talent” and “Finale”on view last year at On Stellar Rays. The uses of theater in these works are legitimate and evocative, if hard to exactly pin down. Now, enter James Franco.
The celebrity/actor/performance artist/grad student/director/soap star/Oscar host, in his new work Collage, layers live pieces of theatrical ephemera, including excerpts from theater works, disparate pieces of choreography, and a behind-the-scenes style view of camera people. These layers extend, due to his singular position as movie star and aspiring art star, all the way to the great world stage that is Hollywood and the tabloids. In an unavoidable twist, the most interesting art-substance exists outside of the actual performance, which is itself a pretty long 45 minutes of bad acting in front of dizzying video projections; it is the circumstances of the performance that matter. The idea of “James Franco making a performance” is quite fascinating, and absolutely essential to the work being of any interest to anyone at all. This is, after all, the same artist who carved Brad Renfro’s name into his arm as an extension of his project “Rebel,” at the Venice Biennale: a publicity stunt that also attempts to place him art historically in line with early body art. It’s easy to be cynical about Franco’s mediocre product, but impossible not to appreciate that he’s turned fame into art. Not only does he appropriate pop culture, he is pop culture: this art does not exist without fanfare or video cameras taping from all angles.
Let me be clear about the two ways in which I am using “theatrical ephemera” as it relates to Collage. First, the actual performance: excerpts of Tennessee Williams’s and others’ texts, focused on the breaking point in bad relationships, are performed by acting students and combined with multiple live-feed videos of these intentionally amateur performances as they happen. Appropriating famous pieces of theater and combining them with video art is as old as the Wooster Group. What is different in this piece, and why theatrical ephemera needs to be explicated as something that exists separately from the trope of new uses for old texts, is that here the actors themselves—young, striving, trying too hard, loving the camera—are the real substance. They are put on display as such; we aren’t watching theater per se, we’re watching acting students trying to act.
We’re also watching ourselves watching them: at least one of the six camera people on stage filming the actors is always filming the audience. Everyone’s visage appears at least once on one of the projections during the performance—much as it would at a ball game. This is thanks to technology created by video artist Kurt Ralske, who collaborated with Franco (along with choreographer Chole Kernaghan) on the performance. From a seat in the back of the studio space, Ralske controlled which video would be showing on which screen—all three back walls were completely covered in projected video, and monitors hung in front of the actors. Throughout the performance, he used his computer to switch the positioning of the feeds, highlighting alternating actors. As this chaotic world crowded with too many actors for the stage and too much video for the walls unfolded in front of the audience, Franco stayed hidden in a booth at the back of the room, noticeably, as the only person in the small studio space who could not be seen. Playing the “narrator,” he would shout random comments to the actors, booming a ridiculous deep voice into a microphone that drowned out other sounds when he was talking: either notes on their acting, or comments pertaining to the storylines they were excerpting. “Are you a homo?!?!” was one of his more memorable lines.
Without the insanely long line outside the space with hundreds of young art student-looking people waiting for literally hours to get in (and then actually not getting in to the less than 50 seat studio), the comments about acting and celebrity that the work brings up simply would not hold as much water. Yes, it’s irritating. Yes, the lines are going to be just as long when the work is produced again for Performa11. No, the long lines do not mean that this is necessarily good work or better work than other kinds of performance. But the fans stuck outside and the celebrities in the audience: that is the work. Art has been expanding into all aspects of life, including pop culture, for a very long time; we keep renegotiating the boundaries between art and non-art. In this case, the blurring is being brought upon art and life by someone in a very unusual, very privileged position—even by Hollywood standards—to begin with. As to whether there is any real cultural or personal value in this kind of pop idol artwork: that remains to be seen. But as the Franco narrative continues to play out on art’s biggest stages, I, for one, will be sleeping with one eye open.
PATRICIA MILDER is an art and performance writer based in Brooklyn. She was a former Managing Art Editor at the Brooklyn Rail.