The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 19-JAN 20

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DEC 19-JAN 20 Issue

Utopia Falls Short

Kristen Kosmas and Leon Finley, The People’s Republic of Valerie, Living Room Edition. Photo: Brian Rogers.

In a living room much like many living rooms, with tall white walls and stained wood moldings, an assortment of chairs and cushions were scattered about. The audience members filed in and made their way from a spread of snacks to their seats. Leon Finley shut off the whimsical tunes of an Abba vinyl.

After performing the piece in living rooms across the country, this would be the final performance for writer and performer Kristen Kosmas and visual artist Leon Finley. In the performance preface, Kosmas states at length that the piece comes from her desire to have a direct impact in communities affected by the political climate. Henceforth, Kosmas’s published book would guide others to perform her utopic vision under the assumption that it would be theirs as well.

The artists positioned themselves at the far end of the room. Finley stood before an old school slide projector, and Kosmas a music stand. Kosmas affirmed the Fort Greene living room was a real one where real people lived in a communal house and, since it was nearly dinnertime and we were in a real house, a real dinner bell may ring soon. “Don’t be alarmed,” she said.

Then she began. The People’s Republic of Valerie: Living Room Edition. Part One: Surveillance. 

Kosmas reads a story of a woman who arrives at a party and considers the scene around her. Shortly thereafter, the woman faints on the lawn. The partygoers and the sequence of events shift and scatter to create many alternate realities of the episode. Kosmas’s voice carries crisply across the space, and with each passing revision and recollection, the outcome of the story nearly arrives at a singular truth until it is collapsed to make way for the next iteration. Kosmas returns over and over to the initial moments the woman enters the party and wakes up post-faint. New objects appear: peanut butter crackers from her pocket and a stranger’s hand, Tim’s hand. Or not Tim’s hand, perhaps someone else’s? Kosmas’s character oscillates between the most proximate considerations of her own appearance, her black dress, to denying, shunning, correcting, and reaffirming what exactly was happening at the party. 

Finley, meanwhile, draws freehand on the projector slides. The lines and abstract shapes are cast across the far wall. His drawings begin an exchange between image and spoken word. Just as Kosmas verbally constructs and deconstructs the sequence of events for the fainting woman, Finley repeats shapes and designs.

Part Two Part Two: How it Happens. Kosmas dons headphones and stands in the light of the projector, briefly taking poses. She no longer recites a story, or a revision thereof. She speaks a sort of visual/viral overload of scenes, activities, tasks, images, and demands ad nauseum that appear to be the unrelated yet adjacent content of internet scrolls. Kosmas nearly shouts. ‘Wash the windows,’ she continues, ‘Take out the garbage,’ ‘Wash the dishes.’ Finley graphically mirrors the static and abrasive slices of information and covers the screen with dashes and as he does so, the imaginative abstraction begins to disconnect.

Kristen Kosmas and Leon Finley, <em>The People’s Republic of Valerie, Living Room Edition</em>. Photo: Brian Rogers.
Kristen Kosmas and Leon Finley, The People’s Republic of Valerie, Living Room Edition. Photo: Brian Rogers.

Part Two Part Three: You Get One Letter. Under a single overhead light, Kosmas reads a letter written to a friend from the asterism, The People’s Republic of Valerie, where she has arrived with a small cohort. Before she describes life on the asterism, she asks about life on Earth. Has anything changed?

Part Three: The Bright Future. While Finley moves slides over one another in smooth waves, Kosmas speaks earnestly. Her description of the future consists of romantic appreciations for bucolic and quotidian tasks like boiling lentils and taking naps, yet the majority of her utopia is actualized by erasing current news headlines. A future where candle light vigils are held when people die of natural causes, where we all make lasagna for the queer youth, where there is no word for “suicide” because there are no suicides, where nine-year-old girls will not fire an Uzi—no, nine-year-old boys will not fire an Uzi—no, nine-year-old children will not fire an Uzi. Her corrections of speech exist somewhere between a perfection of a personal utopia and an underscore of politically correct/inclusive language.

Kosmas explains in the performance preface that the impetus for the work was a promotion of utopia in the face of a draconian political climate. From the start, The People’s Republic of Valerie: Living Room Edition develops as a shape-shifting and abstract journey of memory and imagination, yet in the final part of the piece, returns to the confounding world of art as activism. It lands on a lackluster point that simply wishes-away our political reality and deems that a utopia. Time warped perspectives and far-beyond universes are pushed aside in favor of a tired reckoning with the current political climate. 

It was then that the fuzzy Abba vinyl resumed.


Mike Stinavage

Mike Stinavage is a writer and waste specialist from Michigan. He is currently researching the politics of waste management and writing his second collection of short stories in Pamplona, Spain.


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 19-JAN 20

All Issues