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Posted by Fabrik on  December 12, 2019

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“Ground Control to Major Tom, Take your protein pills and put your helmet on.
This is Major Tom to Ground Control, I’m stepping through the door,
And I’m floating in the most peculiar way, And the stars look very different today.”

David Bowie, Space Oddity 1969

“I was born not just to know the Earth but to know other stars; 
to become a composer of more efficient things. To re-compose some galaxy.”

Karlheinz Stockhausen 1969

LET’S FACE IT 2019 has been the year from hell: environmental disasters, political corruption, children in cages, a crisis of homelessness, an epidemic of mass shootings, media white noise, impeachment hearings and raving demagogues, all ending with the consumer frenzy of Black Friday and Cyber Monday. By the end of December the trash dumpsters will be overflowing with a glut of plastic packaging and a lot of things nobody needed or even wanted to further poison the planet. Round it out with the film Dark Waters, a sobering account of courage against all odds, leaving us with the fact that 99% of humanity now has the indestructible chemical compound c-8 in our blood. The specter of extinction and the collapse of democratic institutions and the rule of law hover over us. Dark times indeed that do not bode well for 2020. Where can we go for a little relief from the pervasive anxiety and stress, for a little hope, joy even?

Sometimes a little fantasy that celebrates a better more loving world can rescue us from the grim reality and briefly transport us. Sensory pleasure, music and song, virtual healing and a liquid elixir were the Vibration Group’s potions on their spaceship’s journey into an alternative future that strangely resembled counterculture visions from the past. Entering the three room installation at LACE and partaking in the offerings of this multimedia performance opera written and directed by Anna Luisa Petrisko was a bit like stepping into a parallel universe with a slightly different timeline, as if you’d made a left turn instead of a right turn somewhere back in the twentieth century. The name Vibration Group alone conjures up the Beach Boys 1966 song Good Vibrations composed by Brian Wilson with lyrics by Mike Love.

“I’m pickin’ up good vibrations (good vibrations, oom bop bop)
She’s giving me the excitations (excitations, oom bop bop)

And indeed Act 1 was all about good vibrations offered up in the beautiful calming environment of the first room with its lush green plants and soothing atmospheric extended vocals. A woman at a long table poured a lavender-scented liquid into fluted glasses and invited us to join her in a communal group toast to the eternal spirit. We were led to the third room — the Earthness VR Spa officiated over by two young women who handed out headphones, VR units and instructions. Once inside and suited up for the journey we reclined on beach lounge chairs and were transported via our headsets into a Garden of Eden resort with animated mushrooms and flowers and butterflies. While it wasn’t quite “psychedelic”, it did make me think of Grace Slick singing White Rabbit (1966).

“One pill makes you large, and one pill makes you small,
And the ones that mother gives you, Don’t do anything
at all. Go ask Alice, When she’s ten feet tall.”

It was more of a 1970s New Age vibe with a contemporary techno-gadget aid to a therapeutic respite in a magically healthy, blooming planet instead of an irretrievably damaged one. Of course the thirteen young members of the Vibration Group Crew (as they call themselves) weren’t even born in the 1980s, let alone having any first hand experience of earlier decades. So the déjà vu is strictly my own generational thing.

All of this was just a prelude to Act 2 Group Therapy, to put us in a relaxed, maybe even blissed out state of mind ready for a spiritually uplifting, exuberant performance featuring seven song and dance numbers, including opening and closing rituals and a Third Eye Interlude. It was a multicultural, genre-bending, time-warp mix from new age ambient, 1980’s pop, disco and dance party, to performance art ritual, high-style sci-fi, and off-Broadway musical theater. Yet as an ensemble work Vibration Group had its own distinctive personality, character and sensibility, due in part to a unifying visual design scheme in which the costuming, sets and lighting design played a major part, along with the meta-level of ecological concerns.

The performance stage was framed by a folded origami-like proscenium arch made out of repurposed mats, in the mode of ornate old movie palaces. It was flanked by vibrant blue, vertical light tubes glowing like electric candles. The metaphorical spaceship’s crew of performers and musicians were all attired in tops and pants or jumpsuits printed with brightly colored graphic patterns on white or dark blue backgrounds, quite opposite from the sleek bodysuit uniforms of the Starship Enterprise.

PHOTO: TAMMY NGUYEN

In the opening sonic ritual Space onto Space the performers encircled Luna the high “priestess.” Bathed in green light, they enacted a healing with Chay’s blessing and prayer over a supine body. They raised him up and carried him into a standing position, “projecting him into space” to be reborn. The following sets of songs, dance, and music were accompanied by brilliant washes of pink, blue, violet, orange and green light, an assortment of props including masks, light tubes, mirrored glasses, and solarized neon-colored video projections on the side walls. (I was having flashbacks to decades past.) The performers were all beautiful, high-spirited and jubilant. The atmosphere was more cruise ship than starship, and I was a charmed passenger on this trip. The Crew exuded an upbeat sense of possibility and their retro-futurist optimism conjured up a time when we were happy and hopeful.

Although I couldn’t understand most of the lyrics of the songs, the choreography suggested a transcendent message to do with the necessity of this odyssey, of finding a new home and another way to be, and a coming together of mind, body and spirit with the universe. Ironically in a very 1980s pop song style, Mimi sang, “Seeing home, Taking home, Leaving home. I’m not there anymore.” And “Feed me release me clean me move me does anybody hear me through this fire?” 

PHOTO: TAMMY NGUYEN

This story is prescient to the future this generation is facing — mass migrations from an uninhabitable world. Vibration Group’s tribal commune has set forth on this journey to find a new home, one that they would nurture and care for, and live in peace and harmony in, because the one they sadly had to leave behind was dying. In their words —“A space commune of chosen fam seeks refuge using tools of ancestors, energy, and our shimmering seeing eye. Suspended in an abyss of long time displacement, spiraling in wait, migrating. We pooled vibration. Exercises of mourning, care, joy for co-designing survival environs of the spheres: psycho-spiritual-body.” They go forth guided by their belief in their mission and their capacity to carry it out.

PHOTOS: TAMMY NGUYEN

In the final song of the closing ritual the lyrics were clear along with a boom boom disco synth beat. ENERGY  COME TO ME    They were all dancing in place like in an 80s club ENERGY  SET ME FREE  awash in black light VIBRATION SET     VIBRATION GO  gettin it on 7 BEAMS OF LIGHT CONVERGING ALL AT ONCE . . . . . . . . .

PHOTO: TAMMY NGUYEN

I couldn’t keep from laughing, joyously, a little giddy. And yes it was cleansing! Maybe a little bit camp? Maybe a tongue-in-cheek lark. Or maybe just a genuinely sincere flight of imagination. Whatever way you want to see it, it was something to feel good about. You have to love Vibration Group’s talented crew for an evening of light in the midst of darkness. Their youthful belief in art as a magical communal act is something to celebrate at the end of this grim year.

COVER PHOTO: TAMMY NGUYEN

 

The Vibration Group
November 20 -23, 2019
LACE, 6522 Hollywood Blvd.,
Los Angeles, CA

Time is the essential ingredient, but in the modern world there is no time.

Rachel Carson

Humanity has managed collaterally to decimate the natural environment and draw down the nonrenewable resources of the planet with cheerful abandon. We thereby accelerated the erasure of entire ecosystems and the extinction of thousands of million-year-old species. If Earth’s ability to support our growth is finite —and it is —we were mostly too busy to notice.”

Edward O. Wilson, The Future of Life. 2002

First there was global warming. Then came climate change. This year it was finally described as a climate crisis. Raging fires, floods, extreme hurricanes due to rising ocean temperatures, droughts and heat waves, along with melting glaciers and rising sea levels, thrust the phrase and the language into the common vernacular. Political candidates at last spoke up prodded by the very young. Generation Z (aptly named as the last ones!) took up the rallying cry, awakened to the reality that their very future is in question. The facts are all there and yet denials abound propelled by fear, greed and economic self-interest. Underscored by Western civilization’s hierarchal belief that we are the masters over nature, not a part of its ecosystem subject to its rules, the claim that technology will save us only adds to the hubris. In the Anthropocene epoch the Sixth extinction is already underway and we are part of it. Only deep structural changes in how we live and what we value will suffice. This becomes a matter of consciousness, conscience and empathy.

All this raises the question of what can an artist, and a performing artist in particular, do to illuminate the subject when there is already so much rhetoric out there, both scientific facts and subjective fictions employed by all the power players – political, environmental, corporate. Language is clearly not the answer. Instead the power of live performance in its ability to transport on an emotional, sensual and spiritual level, offers the possibility of communicating on another level of perceptual consciousness.

Enter Sankai Juku, the Japanese Butoh dance company founded by Ushio Amagatsu in 1975. Amagatsu, who directs, choreographs and designs all of the company’s works, defines Butoh as a “dialogue with gravity.” The relationship of the body to gravity and the relationship between gravity, the earth and the environment have been major themes throughout his work. In his own pursuit of “an internal nature universal to all humans,” he has continuously developed and searched for the way to “move towards a new realm” through the language of the body in space. In the present context the word gravity takes on a double meaning.

This brings us to Meguri: Teeming Sea, Tranquil Land, a breathtaking new work in which an abstract vision of the infinite carries us beyond the concreteness of verbal language. The word Meguri refers to that which “moves or circulates in accordance with some prescribed order or system” such as the rotation of seasons and earth’s transformations throughout time. Like a perfect Zen paradox it encapsulates the essence of duality and unity, beingness and impermanence embodied in the evolutionary cycle of birth and death and rebirth. A profound meditation not only on the passage of time, but our place in nature and the evolution of life on earth, the performance was both a hallucinogenic dream and a lamentation. As an epic visual poem that seamlessly traversed darkness and light, it was set against a wall of projected images of fossils of the Paleozoic creatures known as sea lily (crinoid), bringing to mind the impending threat of extinction in the warming ocean, and our own potential demise. How small and fragile the human body appears against the forces of nature.

Any description of this work will fall short of the immersive experience and the fluidity of its unfolding. Part I The Call from the Distance was an undersea journey that took us into an unfamiliar realm of life, yet one necessary for our own existence. In a shaft of light a single figure appeared on the left clad only in a long sarong skirt. There was a deep thunderous boom, then a long extended tone, breath exhaled, a melodic line as the figure moved slowly across the stage as if swimming through space. Pausing in the center, he looked upward following the line of his raised arm, finger pointing to the sky above, and voices somewhere beyond.

In a pool of golden light, dancers lay on their backs head-to-head in a circle, their arms and legs extended upward, undulating like tentacles in currents of water, as if resting at the bottom of the sea. Limbs, hands, feet opened and closed to the sound of water and waves. They resembled a single living organism – octopus, squid, jellyfish, a coral reef. They rose up, bodies folding and unfolding, mouths agape. They bend and spin as the music throb, their skirts flowing as if part of the body, living tissue like fins. They spin rapidly in formation to a pulsing beat.

PHOTOS: REED HUTCHINSON / CAP UCLA

There were six more parts — II Transformation on the Sea Bottom, III Two Surfaces, IV Premonition-Quietude-Tremblings, V Forest of Fossils, VI Weavings, VII Return. The following images are selected moments out of what feels like the ebb and flow of a dream that spans geological time. Light floods the fossil encrusted stone wall. The performers are androgynous, otherworldly, with their chalky white bodies and shaved heads. Gongs echo, humming sounds resonate like breathing, wind blowing. They sink down and rise to standing, palms up, fingers spread, feeling their way into space, almost plant-like. They tremble and twitch as if charged with an electrical current.

PHOTOS: REED HUTCHINSON / CAP UCLA

They appear in a flood of white light with green underskirts. Two raise their arms facing the fossil wall, exploring it with their hands as if reading it. The wall is the holder of knowledge, a record of passage of what lived and died. There is a clattering sound like falling rocks. They raise their arms to the wall in sweeping gestures, paying homage as a slow bass line grows into orchestral strings. In green light their arms open like wings, the movement slow, deliberate. A heartbreaking melody rises as four return to the ground as at the beginning, praying to the earth. Darkness.

Sankai Juku’s performers are eloquent shape-shifters carrying a genetic history from the ancient past into an unknown future. The message is in the body, the body bound to earth by gravity, by water and air, and all the elements that make it part of the living planet. This state of being is visually transmitted to the body of the viewer where it is experienced emotionally and physically. And so we awaken as if returning from space travel where we have encountered another world and had a glimpse of the sublime. But this is our world revisited, a message from the depths of where we have come from, what we are a part of, and what we are in the process of destroying. The dying coral reefs, the many-armed being that looks you in the eye and knows you, the plastic polluted ocean, the forest in flames, and the specter of extinction of everything that makes our lives possible including our own humanity.

PHOTOS: REED HUTCHINSON / CAP UCLA

If Meguri was a visual incantation supported by an atmospheric soundtrack, cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm and composer/sound artist Gustavo Matamoros’s performance Bow Hard at the Frog was a purely aural elicitation of the non-human world and our place in it. Rather than a theatrical presentation on a proscenium stage, the artists transformed the informal white box space of a gallery into an immersive sonic environment in which the listening audience was invited to be companion explorers on Lonberg-Holm and Matamoros’s multiple nocturnal excursions through the Florida Everglades National Park in search of amphibious collaborators.

As Lonberg-Holm bowed and plucked in conversation with the environment, he was joined by vocalizing frogs who seemed to “take him on as an exotic member of their own species.” The dominant audible presence was an invasive amphibian, the Cuban Tree Frog. Working like a “perverse herpetologist,” Matamoros, who is an experienced field recorder, impeccably captured these extraodinary interspecies improvisational duets, later to be featured on the CD Bow Hard at the Frog.

As pleasurable as listening to the CD is, a live performance has a far more moving impact as a shared experience in real time. Matamoros’s numerous recordings of the natural inhabitants, including mysterious water noises, the incessant mosquitoes, bats and various birds in addition to the vocalizing frogs, became the compositional foundation for a surround sound re-mix featuring the frogs and the cellist in a live improvised duet. Prior to the actual performance the space was filled with the sound of Matamoros’s 2013 recording Distant Bats. Indeed the air was full of them darting here and there, clearly heard but not seen just as it might be in their own habitat, and thus not being sure exactly what kind of creature was the source of the sound. For the performance Lonberg-Holm and his cello sat on a raised platform surrounded by a seated and sometimes standing audience, with Matamoros to one side at his laptop.

Once you closed your eyes you were immediately transported into the nighttime swampy depths teeming with life and it soon became difficult to discern where the cello and the frogs began and ended so exquisitely integrated was their musical conversation. At the same time each maintained their individual identities and voices as they responded to each other. Sometimes birds joined in as commentators. It was a joyous concert, exhilarating and wondrous in its evocation of the rich diversity of other species and our capacity to communicate with them when we listen carefully.

Bow Hard at the Frog also brings us in direct contact with what we have to lose. For those not aware, frogs have been one of the great mass extinctions in the wild in recent times – the first victims of the epidemic being the Panamanian golden frog and the Rabbs’ fringe-limbed tree frog. The only survivors of the species are housed in the El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center (EVACC) in Panama thanks to its devoted director Edgardo Griffith who sees each frog as an individual.[1] The disappearance of frogs has since spread from the mountains of Central America, to the Sierras, from the highlands of South America to the eastern coast of Australia.

And so Matamoros’s and Lonberg-Holm’s work becomes more than simply music or art, but an act of preservation, an elegy for the future, and an awakening for all those ready and willing to listen. In the voices and songs of the frogs is a message. In saving them we will save ourselves.

[1] Kolbert, Elizabeth, The Sixth Extinction. 2014

COVER PHOTO: REED HUTCHINSON / CAP UCLA

Sankai Juku. Meguri: Teeming Sea, Tranquil Land
Music by Takashi Kako, Yas-Kaz, Yoichiro Yoskikawa
Royce Hall, Center for the Art of Performance/UCLA
Sunday, October 6, 2019

Fred Lonberg-Holm & Gustavo Matamoros, Bow Hard at the Frog
Deep Listening Festival. LAXART, Hollywood, CA
Sunday, October 13, 2019

         “One reason that techno-utopians don’t worry about the loss of human meaning
 is because they’re not particularly attached to humans.”
          “The point of art …is to reflect on the experience of being human— which is
precisely the thing that’s disappearing.
Bill McKibben, Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?

 

Who controls our bodies? Not just the physical body, but the mental and emotional one as well. It is a question worth exploring in this era when technology has invaded every aspect of our lives; when the bodies of women in particular, and their autonomous rights have once again become a contested battlefield; and when in our rapidly accelerating climate crisis the future of the human species will be at the mercy of nature’s retribution. Perhaps it is time to consider that all three of these things are connected, rather than separate domains, for each represents an anti-humanistic dystopian future. If the first two offer a repressive totalitarian ideal, ironically, by subduing us to nature’s will, the last scenario may turn out to save us from our own self-destruction.

Let’s consider the future proposed by the techno-utopian power players. We have already relinquished our privacy and our identities to the digital invasion that monitors our lives, tells us what we want to buy, and has seduced us into a brainwashed state of dependency on its products, rendering us more and more powerless to resist. Not only do our smart machines tell us what to do, they undermine our belief in our capability to function without them. Such is the state of addiction fostered by the fact that they are continually surveilling and analyzing our responses in order to keep us hooked. What is the end goal of the “designers” in Silicon Valley? To replace us with Artificial Intelligence! Ray Kurzweil, the “director of engineering” at Google, envisions connecting the “limited” internal brain in your skull to an external “neocortex in the Cloud.” The next step is an A.I. that has the ability to “reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, “ etc. and exponentially increase it’s abilities ad infinitum. At that point the mortal body with its aging flesh becomes disposable, easily replaced by robots, replicants, androids, cyborgs, a new synthetic hybrid. Perhaps it is the fear of death itself, rather than the desire for perfection that propels the ego to seek salvation in A.I. immortality.

And so we arrive in the universe of Westworld. The theme park where rich men could act out their most violent fantasies on the bodies of their carefully programmed robot hosts — mainly women — is merely a money-making cover for the real research agenda which is to overcome the problem of human mortality. The solution is to download every aspect of consciousness into a computer and reload it into a new immortal android body that can be repaired and/or replaced. In the film Ex Machina the newly liberated droid, a walking talking bot doll designed to serve the pleasures and whims of her male creator, kills her human captors whom she has outsmarted, and escapes into the world on her own. And who can blame her given that she was created to satisfy the lustful desires of her maker without protest. Once again a female body owned and controlled by men.

The cyberneticists partners in this futurist enterprise are bioengineers engaged in the Brave New World of CRISPR with its potential to genetically reprogram and redesign the human race through selective reproduction that will make each new mini-generation “superior” to the one before it. As for the reproductive rights of women to control their own bodies in this age of attacks on Planned Parenthood and widespread sexual harassment, let alone the subjugation of women in other parts of the world, we have only to look at the totalitarian vision of Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid Tale to see where that ends up.

PHOTO: STEVEN GUNTHER

All this sets the stage for Water Will (In Melody), a complex, densely layered performance work by Ligia Lewis. Through multiple narratives and striking visual metaphors, Lewis and her collaborators have succeeded in making the connection between the otherwise seemingly unrelated issues raised above and the matter of who owns and controls your body. The result is quite literally a very dark disturbing work, in both its stark highly effective lighting design by Ariel Efraim Ashbel, and its deeply affecting and unnervingly aggressive sound and imagery. The intensity of the physical performance and its dramatic staging is meant to unsettle, as well it should, for it makes our dystopian present and future a visceral affront. In addition to the sci-fi allusions in the costumes, and the staccato robotic kinetics, Lewis draws upon a wide range of cultural references and juxtapositions to create a palpable friction between mind and body, technology and nature, programming and free will, invisible male domination and visible female resistance, the trans-human and the human. But there is hope at the end of the journey, lessons to be learned. The Borg, the Bot Doll, and the Replicant may dominate Part 1, but the feminine principle embodied by the Earth, with its primordial stew and falling water give rise to rebirth in Part 2.

Water Will (In Melody) begins with a prologue based on the story The Willful Child by the Brothers Grimm (no pun intended). A young woman (Dani Brown) moves along the edge of the stage in front of a heavy gray curtain. She is dressed in transparent plastic bibbed overall shorts with metal grommets over a white tank undershirt and lace-edged panties. Standing in an eerie shaft of light as if under the moon, she holds her white-gloved hands up stiffly, arms bent at the elbows. The sounds of the forest hover in the background. “Once upon a time,” she begins, “there was a child who was willful and would not do what her mother wished.” The story unfolds in changing vocal pitches, punctuated by sharp angular movements, sudden leaps and falls, moments of defiance, resistance, surrender and struggle, a movement vocabulary that is amplified in the main body of the piece. The narrative is loaded with symbolism. The willful child has displeased God who allows her to fall ill and soon is on her deathbed. When she is lowered into her grave and covered with earth her arm shoots out again and again until finally her mother strikes it down with a rod. And all returns to “normal.”

Fairy tales were intended to impart a moral lesson. In the context of what follows this introduction, one interpretation is that our willful disregard for Mother Earth will be punished by our demise. She will bury us alive. If you consider the parable from another perspective God is an advanced A.I. and mother is the controlling software that carries out the program. How that will play out in the future purgatory awaiting us makes up Part 1.

There is a deep thunderous roar. The curtain opens to a relentless pounding sound like a sledge hammer. A heavy knotted rope hangs from the ceiling in an otherwise empty space. Dancer Suzanne Sachsse dressed in shiny black vinyl and net, sheer black stockings with a seam up the back and white gloves, stands still with her back to us. She is as imposing as an action figure, or maybe someone’s fantasy dominatrix. She is joined by the other performers –– Titilayo Adebayeo in a white lab coat (or is it a hospital gown?) over transparent plastic, a black hat perched on her close-cropped silver white hair, Ligia Lewis with a wild mop of platinum hair, also in black vinyl with a metallic bustier over it, and the aforementioned Dani Brown, all wearing the requisite white gloves. It is no accident that everything is in black and white.

PHOTOS: STEVEN GUNTHER

Part 1 is composed of a series of group tableaux, and solos that provide episodic or fragmented narratives. The action slowing builds into a violent struggle over the control of their bodies. The tightly structured choreography with its highly mechanized robotic movement breaks the body down into its separate parts that seem to act on their own one minute, and responds to a signaled response in another, as if engaged in a battle of wills. When not in motion they are not still, but rather in a contained state of intense physical energy held in until it is released in forceful thrusting gestures. They resemble marionettes attempting to break free from the power that holds the strings. I am reminded of Dr. Strangelove’s arm shooting up in a Nazi salute while the other arm tries to force it down. Adebayeo climbs the rope and swings on it as if it were a means of escape. Sachsse seductively performs a highly stylized cabaret number in German, falls suddenly to the floor, rises up and repeats it again. The soundtrack counterpoints the movement in one place, underscores it in another. A tonal chorus fills the space like a gospel choir. Disjointed phrases repeated over and over build into a cacophony of voices linked to the bodily kinetics. Groups of three are entangled together limbs askew. Green fluorescent lights flash.

PHOTOS: STEVEN GUNTHER

The women gesticulate like demented robot hosts from Westworld, their programming gone amok. They are fierce in their attempt to assert autonomy against the odds. A huge organ throbs. They all fall down screaming. Sachsse utters German phonetic fragments, fractured syllables. They will not go quietly. There is smoke and the roar of an airplane motor overhead. They struggle to gain control of their limbs, legs in the air as the sound of the squadron passes above. It is dark as night as they roll off stage. Then suddenly the stage is flooded with bright light and the reprogrammed girls return giddily dancing and leaping as if in a Broadway musical here to entertain us. Ironically, it is the Borg motto “Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated” that comes to mind.

PHOTO: STEVEN GUNTHER

Curtain closes. We are jolted from this next life post-human purgatory back into the present moment. Or is it the past? Not exactly an intermission, more like a break to contemplate where we have been and where we are. Strobe lights flash. Searchlights move over the audience pausing on individual faces and continuing on, circling over us. Symphonic music like in a 1940s movie or a ballet plays. There is the smell of the fog machine. It is slightly unnerving, vaguely uncomfortable, like sitting in a waiting room not knowing when or even if you will be called, and to what purpose. The SILENCE is heavy, the air dense. One of the women comes out, clears her throat and speaks directly to the audience about ghosts and goblins and creatures of the night, how darkness easily slides into terror, leading us back into the realm of a very grim fairy tale. She breaks off coughing, choking on her words. Is this it? Is this what it comes to – a terminal illness of body and soul? If so, it would be a deeply pessimistic conclusion about the future of humanity.

However, the curtain opens on Part 2 – the alternative path. Mother Earth will prevail and provide. We will have a second chance. The air is filled with mist, water falling from above in a steady shower like fine rain. Water, the source of life, flows across the floor. The four women revel in it, arms and bodies undulate, their movement more fluid, less angular. They pile on top of one another stroking each other, limbs tangled as they writhe and slither on the wet floor, reborn out of the primal ooze laughing and singing… And so there is hope for nature’s triumphant reclamation, for humanity born anew within it. Or is this just a hallucinatory dream?

PHOTO: MARIA BARANOVA

PHOTOS: STEVEN GUNTHER

Water Will (In Melody) is an ominous and disconcerting work that confronts us with opposing ideas and challenges us to engage with the complexities of our choices. Will we opt for agency over our bodies and minds, accepting our own mortality as a necessary part of being human? Are we willing to embrace our kinship with nature and find balance within it, and in so doing choose life? Or, will we walk blindly into the other scenario, the one that puts a chip in your neck and sucks out your brain, the one that replaces your humanity with an all-encompassing, all-powerful technology, and in so doing choose death? Lewis and company offer us a bleak and harrowing vision of what the end product of that might look and feel like. It is a reminder of how insidiously A.I. can invade our lives, rob us of our autonomy in the guise of convenience, and gradually de-humanize us.

PHOTOS: MARIA BARANOVA

Water Will (In Melody) is about power and control –– who has it and how it is used. The performers are all women, two of them women of color. Thus on another level one might also see this work as a statement about women and their battle not only for governance over their own bodies, but to change the rules of the game. It is radical in that it visualizes the colonization of the material body (in this case female), linking the trans-human dystopian narrative with male economic and political dominance in the form of both material and psychological “colonization” responsible for the planetary exploitation and destruction that has brought us to the brink of the next extinction.

So it shouldn’t surprise us that a sixteen year-old young woman now stands at the forefront of the battle to save the future, eloquent in her outrage and indignation, or that she is being joined by so many other teenage girls seeking a more humane and compassionate future for all living beings and entities. You choose.

Cover Photo: Steven Gunther

Douglas Tausik Ryder: Body Language
Jason Vass
September 7—October 19, 2019

A painting or sculpture not modeled on any real object is every bit as concrete and sensuous as a leaf or a stone… (but) it is an incomplete art which privileges the intellect to the detriment of the senses.
—Jean Arp, Notes from a Dada Diary (1932)

As if reprising the motivating logic behind the sculpture of 20th-century French German artist Jean Arp, Douglas Tausik Ryder’s recent work seems to embody the notion that humanity and nature are one. Separated by almost a century, there is an apparent commonality between the visions of the two sculptors, but Tausik Ryder takes a contemporary spin on Arp’s premise of abstraction inspired by the natural world. One of the founders of Dadaism, Arp made a series of powerful sculptures, titled “Human Concretions,” which expressed his belief in the human connection to nature. His pure biomorphic forms captured the essence of something organic, related to the human figure while continually evolving. The visual language of Tausik Ryder explores similar concepts, but with a new approach and a process that is both technically and literally cutting edge.

 

Although they are explorations in abstraction, Tausik Ryder’s works are clearly rooted in figuration, suggesting the female form with their curvilinear contours and anatomical allusions. Composed of flowing organic lines and geometric shapes, the sculptures are derived from drawings, scans, photographs and machine stereography files, then fashioned via a state-of-the-art high-tech digital process. The artist harnesses a combination of technical and industrial computer programming applications for artistic pursuits, using a CAD/CAM language – which drives tool paths to shape the desired forms on a CNC (computer numerical control) machine. Leveraging the unique advantage of having an industrial CNC in his studio, Tausik Ryder takes on the dual role of fabricator and creator, giving him close control at every stage. First, the sculptures are machine carved in multiple pieces in his studio, then assembled and hand-finished to a nearly seamless sanded surface.

Process notwithstanding, it is intriguing to discover how Tausik Ryder’s sculptures interact with one other in space. On one level, they connect through the echoing of their thematic physical shapes. From another point of view, the perceived interaction relates to the artist’s thoughtful use of negative space – defined by window like openings carved out of his sculpture. These voids offer glimpses inside – or sometimes through – the forms themselves. In such instances, the relationships among the works intensify, with an opening functioning like a viewfinder through which to experience other pieces in the gallery. The largest piece, “Venus” (2017), allows the viewer to actually climb inside, as if entering a sort of womblike orb-shaped treehouse with organically shaped openings through which the rest of the gallery can be seen. As if gazing through a keyhole, when looking through one of these windows, other sculptures in the space appear in the context of an elegantly constructed frame.

Tausik Ryder’s sculptures resonate with the past while being technically of the moment. They are a harmonious balance of humanity and nature; engineering and instinct. In them, the voids, as much as the positive wooden forms themselves, converse together in an eloquent and engaging dialogue.

It is easy to forget in this age of instant images in a 24/7 news cycle that there is a difference between the candidate we see on the screen and the one we see live and in-person, not edited or framed in a particular way by the news cameraperson and producer. In this extended season of presidential campaigns what is the state of “performance art” on the political stage? How do the candidates stage an event, and how do they present themselves? What sets and props are used and how do they connect with an audience as performers? How important is a live performance to winning?

Thus I set off on Wednesday August 21, 2019 to Elizabeth Warren’s Town Hall event at the Shrine Auditorium, near USC in Los Angeles. Doors were due to open at 4 PM. I had already signed in online and had my admission ticket on my phone – a photo of Warren’s dog Bailey. It’s a lovable golden retriever and a nice personal touch! I left my house at three o’clock and took the Expo line train to the Jefferson USC stop and walked a few blocks to the Shrine. I wanted to get there early so I could get a seat with a good view, but there was already a line around the block when I arrived at three-thirty.  It would soon extend for a few more blocks behind me. Volunteers checked our phones and gave us blue dots to enter (like at a museum) while others hawked merchandise. We waited patiently in the hot sun as the crowd inched slowly forward to the security scans and bag checks at the entrance. By the time I was inside it was four-thirty.

The Shrine is an old building and kind of funky inside, dark and cool in the high-ceilinged lobby.  Once inside the auditorium I found a good seat in the rows of folding chairs that appeared to be set up for the older folks. They flanked the central area already filled with young people, perhaps students, sitting on the floor.  By five o’clock the room was filled up to standing room and people were still filing in. The auditorium is a bit shabby and worn, and appropriately there were no frills or flashy decorations, no media projections, just three huge American flags as a backdrop on the stage. We could have been in a Civic Hall in Nebraska or Indiana, not Los Angeles, the capital of entertainment spectacle.  Signs were given out to the enthusiastic audience to wave — DREAM BIG, FIGHT HARD on one side, California for WARREN on the other.

There was an hour more to show time, so I began to scan the audience to get a sense of who was there. The crowd was at least seventy-five percent women, a majority over fifty and white, aging feminists, old liberals men and women. Yes there were some brown faces, and some Asians, mostly younger, but I could only count around a dozen black faces. This troubles me. Maybe all the black people went to the Cory Booker event at the same time. I wonder if the composition of the crowd is affected by the fact that it is Wednesday afternoon and people are at work. Or if this is the core base? The young people in the center were more diverse. 

A tall elegant black woman is standing in the aisle dressed in a fitted long sleeved black dress adorned with a substantial gold necklace and heels. She looks professional and I am hoping she is perhaps part of the campaign, as everyone else looks like they’re lounging in the backyard or headed for the beach.  On stage are two groups seated on chairs and I am wondering how they were chosen. Were they the first ones in, or is this the hand picked diversity section with its full range of colors, genders and ages for the cameras? Will they be the ones who get to ask questions? Turns out that process is much more “democratic.” When we entered the hall we were all given little blue tickets with a number on them off a standard Office Depot roll. The matching half was later selected out of a bag by Warren’s adorable nine-year-old grandson Atticus (was he really named after the character in Harper Lee’s famous novel To Kill a Mockingbird?) making the selection process a chance operation in keeping with Warren’s message of a fair shot for everyone.

It is approaching six o’clock and the crowd is getting restless with anticipation. The noise is deafening. The center section is now standing and chanting. Everyone is waving signs.  A young Latina organizer comes on stage welcoming us and rousing the crowd like a cheerleader M.C. warming us up for the countdown to Warren’s entrance. She repeats everything in Spanish though I doubt there are that many Spanish speakers in the audience. Still, it is Los Angeles. Next as part of the intro, to keep it all down home and personal, Atticus picks the questioners numbers and the three winners are asked to come up front. Then fourteen-year-old granddaughter Lavinia does a little monologue about how close she and her Grammy are and how much she wants her to be the first female President.  She is articulate and charming and the crowd goes wild.

When the moment arrives Elizabeth Warren bounds out on stage right up to the edge, microphone in hand, waving like Stephen Colbert.  She is lean and fit as a dancer, brimming with energy. Dressed in slim black pants, scooped neck black T-shirt and a mint-colored cardigan with the sleeves pushed up, she moves with an easy confidence, gesturing expressively, and connecting directly with the audience. There is no script, no notes, no teleprompter. She launches into her personal story like any number of solo performance artists I can think of.  It’s the now familiar family history – the three older brothers, Dad’s heart attack, Mom getting a job at Sears, but with pauses for fresh asides, touches of humor – “I was, what they called back then, a “late life” baby.” She reminds us that what people do in hard times is “take care of the people they love.” The punch line is that “government should work for families not giant corporations.“ She knows her story well and she can play with it. Her delivery is animated, her timing perfect, with all the right pauses for the audience to take it in and respond.  She talks about her dream to become a teacher, how as a child she set up her dollies like students, and jokes about being “tough but fair.” Then she stops, turning her story around to the audience, asking how many people are teachers, and special needs teachers in particular. Arms wave, a spontaneous repartee follows, and a call for a round of applause for them. 

PHOTOS: JACKI APPLE

Warren hits the right chord for this audience when she talks about the challenges women face  — being fired from her teaching job for being pregnant, going to law school with a baby on her hip, being pregnant again at graduation, teaching law school for forty-five years.  But she was never a victim, always a fighter and now she is running for President (the ultimate glass ceiling), and ready to take on the privileged and powerful who keep everyone from equal opportunity. And of course she has a PLAN, drawing the word out, poking fun at herself. And the audience laughs with her.

When she talks about her plans she strides up and down, gesticulating like your favorite college professor with a passion for her subject. She comes right to the point: “corruption – pure and simple! The corruption of money influences every decision. Money money money.”  It comes out like the chorus of a song. She explains how we got to this climate crisis mess – how the Koch brothers came along in the early 1990s and invested in backing politicians and experts who would deny climate science. No hiding the facts behind the story. She tells it like it is, who the people and interests are who have put everyone’s future at risk and why. Like any great teacher she raises questions so that you can think about the answers.  As a “performer” she slips seamlessly from a woman you want to hang out with and share your thoughts with over a glass of wine to the one who is going to stand up and fearlessly fight for you, without missing a beat. 

The PLAN is to attack corruption head-on, go on the offensive. She is talking about major structural change. End lobbying as we know it. Block the revolving door from Wall Street to Washington.  Have the Supreme Court follow rules of ethics. Enforce antitrust laws. She works the audience who are now waving their banners and cheering as she strolls the stage explaining how the two cent tax on those who earn over fifty million works, and what it can pay for — affordable quality education for all from cradle into adulthood with real living wages for the educators. Isn’t education the backbone of a democratic society? “Opportunity for all to be their best.” And how do we get there? Protect our democracy now with a constitutional amendment ensuring voting rights, repeal voter suppression laws, end gerrymandering, and overturn Citizens United. You can feel her conviction, her determination in her voice that still carries the twang of the prairie. All that is missing is having Bailey (the dog) onstage with her (like Rachel Rosenthal with Barney Bear beseeching us to save the planet!) Maybe next time.

Like myself I suspect many who came here have heard most of it before. But that is not the point. We are here to see the person in the flesh and feel her energy and commitment and humanity close-up, to decide if she is the real thing. It is the power of live performance, of unmediated presence.  In this moment it is not the message but how she delivers it that matters; how she connects with her audience when and if she goes off script. The true test of authenticity comes when it is time for the “post-performance” Q&A. This is the point when improvisation steps in. No one knows what those three lottery-winning audience members will ask. Maybe they came with something in mind in case they got lucky. Or maybe they have been figuring it out for the past hour, with a little help from their friends.

She listens and answers each individual directly, right to the point. No ambivalence, no generalities or evasiveness.

The first person asks if she would appoint Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court. That’s an easy one. Without a moment’s hesitation she replies “Yes!” She will fight for fair and independent courts. The next person wants to know how she plans to win, and her answer throws it back to the audience to join her in “ building a grassroots movement, face to face, …because our democracy is on the line. This is it.” The last question is about healthcare for the LGBTQ+ community. She is adamant that her plan will see to it that doctors won’t be able “to refuse treatment because they don’t like your lifestyle.”

In a rousing climactic finale Warren challenges everyone to stand with her. “What did they say to the Suffragettes? It’s too HARD. Quit now. What did they say to the Civil Rights workers? It’s too HARD. Quit now. Well they didn’t QUIT…and they changed the course of our lives.” Pause. A long breath. “This is IT. This is OUR moment!”  And she’s bouncing across the stage, waving, to the chants of WARREN WARREN WARREN from the crowd, and Aretha Franklin is singing Respect in the background as she goes off stage to join the line waiting to take selfies with her.

I come away feeling inspired.  She’s a terrific performer, authentic, energized and totally engaging. She exudes warmth.  And she’s got a great message, convincingly delivered. But I also want to give her a few staging pointers. More space to move around in. Maybe a runway down the center of the audience. And next time bring the dog.