The warning didn't bode well: "don't go in there." I had barely stepped into the lobby of Washington High School when two strangers on their way out, whispered secretively to me their misgivings about the evening's programming. Last night THE WORKS brought us Catch, a bi-monthly showcase of sorts that features an array of performances, videos, music, and more, hosted by Brooklynites Jeff Larson and Andrew Dinwiddie. It sounds entertaining enough. So what was this couple so troubled by, that they felt the need to warn someone they hadn't met before about the dangers of entering the auditorium?
I'm guessing that they were maybe thrown a bit by the art collective Oregon Painting Society, whose installations and sonic experiments have been described as an "unholy amalgamation of pop culture and ritualistic nature worship." Which about summed up the sight of their installation on the high school's stage. Running a little late, I didn't see the whole thing. But the audience was full, so I'm wondering if it wasn't as an unbearable experience as my two friends in the lobby had hinted at.
Next Larson and Dinwiddie took the stage to introduce another act. Oh goodie, video art. Something that I've already stated on this blog, I'm not so good at grappling with. Which proved true in this case as well. About two minutes into the piece and its flashing images of rural roads, semi-flooded country houses, and sound bytes of someone talking about the pros of those feet shoe things, zzzzzzzzz... yes, I completely zoned out. Which is what I would do for the majority of the pieces in Catch's programming. I don't mean to be caviler but things just kept falling flat in the auditorium last night.
That is, until some drunken drama ensued! Jump with me won't you?
So after the daydream inducing video, and a fucking god awful standup comedian (again not trying to sound overly judgmental, but it really was shitty) there was a bit of a lull in the programming. Everything was struck from the stage, nothing new was being setup, and Larson and Dinwiddie hadn't come up to introduce anything. Naturally, the crowd went into chatterbox mode. After a few minutes though things quieted when about half the audience realized that there was a darkly dressed dancer perched behind them on the auditorium's railing playing an eerie sounding harmonica. The eerie build of this moment became even stranger when a man stood up in the front row of the audience and began to loudly exclaim poetry while gesturing toward the dancer. "Oh," I thought. "Another piece is starting." Not the case! Apparently this man (who turned out to be tEEth's technical director Alex Gagne-Hawes, who allegedly has a penchant for being an overly boisterous audience member) wasn't part of Catch's programming. And this became utterly clear when Larson and Dinwiddie bum-rushed the front row and quickly escorted the man out. I had been standing at the back of the house and got a front row view as Larson firmly escorted our new acquired poet to the exit and asked him "are you cool? Do you want to hang out still?" But the man left and the confused audience return to watching Luciana Achugar's confusing dance performance. I however, needed to know what the fuck just happened and went to track down the recently 86ed poet.
I found Alex in one of the art exhibition rooms, standing alone, looking wide eyed at the art. He was clearly altered. I asked him what was going on? Was any of that planned? He replied simply. "Fuck no! I was just bored and those guys should learn how to run a fucking open mic!" In a way Alex was right. While the night's program wasn't so much an open mic, but a curated event, it surely didn't come off as that. The atmosphere was casual, the transitions sloppy, and the caliber of performances relatively mediocre in their execution. In an environment such as this, I could see how someone would perhaps maybe want to stand and take part in it. Or at least provide some sort of entertainment as a clearly ill-advised lull in the show was taking place. I think this speaks to the fact that Catch wasn't the best choice for an evening at The Works. I can see how it does well as a bi-monthly showcase in Brooklyn, where its laid back tone is probably more at home. But in an arts festival like TBA where the population of event goers have been doing nothing but seeing well executed art/performance all week, I think you need to work a little harder to keep the pace of the evening going, and to present things that will impress or at least engage the crowd. There is a lot to be said about researching your audience before you show them anything. I feel as though Larson and Dinwiddie were phoning this one in.
Alex Gagne-Hawes' outburst also harkened back to an element of the festival that has been written about some already (here and here), regarding how artists and organizers are handling audience reactions and in some cases, unplanned participation. It is an issue I'm having trouble coming to a conclusion with myself as I'm writing this. In one sense I want to promote the idea that a live art interaction should work on a two way street. And that if we as audience members are to believe that anything can happen while we're watching a live performance (something that keeps many of us still coming back to the art form), shouldn't the artist also have a similar expectation? If they are going to surprise us, can we not also surprise them?
But then there is the "fourth wall" element in which the social contract/relationship between performer and audience member does require some sort of etiquette. I mean, do you really want to be the dick who spoils the product that an artist has been working tirelessly on? Maybe not. But on the other hand, do you want to be the type of performer that would prefer a subdued audience member? Or even throw an audience member out when they are impassioned enough to participate?
There was a moment there while Gagne-Hawes was being escorted out in which I thought that I was witnessing a planned bit of theater. Fantastic! We as audience members were going to be thrust into an interactive piece that was to discuss some of the exact questions I mentioned above. But alas, not the case. Alex was simply on a bender, and Catch wasn't about to let a performance into their showcase without vetting it first.