In 2014, Elliot Rodger killed six people and injured 14 near the University of California at Santa Barbara before killing himself. It was later proven to be an attempt on Rodger's part to punish women for rejecting him and other men for having relationships with women. Since then, Rodger's become something of a symbol for toxic masculinity—unchecked feelings of entitlement to women's bodies and attention that leads to everything from street harassment to murder—and that was enough to give me pause about attending the west coast premiere of Royal Osiris Karaoke Ensemble's The Art of Luv (Part I): Elliot at TBA:16. It's a performance that puts Rodger's manifesto of hatred towards women—or, as he puts it, "girls"—front and center.
But context is everything, and what could have been horrifying becomes a much more nuanced meditation on desire, gender, capitalism, and the way a fractured, dysfunctional idea of romantic love is commodified in our culture. Oh, and it's quite literally a meditation: Audience members were welcomed into Reed's Black Box Theatre by an attendant wearing a white robe and handing warm, lavender-scented towels out of a small white cooler. Inside, the theater was full of ritualistic detail: small tea lights lining a stage surrounded by cushions, a projection setup, and more white-clad figures wearing golden laurel crowns and playing instruments. The stage was altar-like, but where you'd expect to see a statue of a stone Buddha or blue-veiled Virgin Mary, there were two VHS tapes of Titanic.
What came next should be familiar if you've ever attended a mindfulness meditation class: an opening chime, and instructions to notice the sounds around you and your own breathing. It was dogma-free (this is a performance art festival, not a silent retreat), and, turns out, a pretty good way to spend an evening, but since we were effectively about to dive into the wreck of American gender relations, it was also necessary. The night I attended, these conditions had the effect of creating an almost-instant sense of fellowship among the tragically hip crowd TBA routinely attracts.
That was when Elliot Rodger appeared in a projected video, at first only faintly recognizable—for a moment, I mistook him for actor Max Minghella; sorry, Max Minghella—ranting about "girls." (Sidebar PSA: If a grown man calls women "girls" and can't say the word without verbally sneering, don't go out on a date with him! No, I don't care if he has a cool job or something! Run away! Future you thanks you!)
It was strange to see Rodger speaking, but what was stranger was to hear his words recited by two ensemble members, who took turns reciting pieces of Rodger's tirade as his own voice was muted out. This spoken karaoke-type performance was the linchpin of The Art of Luv (Part I): Elliot, and continued throughout a number of videos intercut with the one of Rodger. There were videos of legitimately creepy pickup artist tutorials, "haul" videos from Youtubers, and a closing moment during what I'm assuming was a meditation circle, in which a woman very poignantly describes the paradox of relationships: that it's possible to feel deeply connected to other people without being attached to them, and that it's also possible to feel incredibly alone while in an ostensibly intimate relationship.
The "haul" videos at first seemed out of place, but then the videos began to cohere, perhaps because the karaoke-style delivery drew attention to the poignance, humor, absurdity, and horror of what was being said. Ultimately, there's a connection to be inferred between Rodger's sense of entitlement to love and sex and the "haul" videos' strange juxtaposition of personal pain with purchasing power—as when a teenage mother, in tears, describes her boyfriend's betrayal and then holds up her child's baby clothes and shares the cost and provenance of each item; or when Rodger says he should be able to have a girlfriend because he has expensive sunglasses and a BMW. We think that because we can buy objects which we take to be signifiers of status or comfort, we should be able to acquire love and unconditional positive regard from other people with the same instant gratification. But it isn't so.
Our feelings of entitlement to romance are like our entitlement to things, but this sense of entitlement breaks down when it comes to love, which isn't a commodity, however commodified the idea of it can become. And so we're left with that final thought: that communion can exist outside of our much-projected-upon idea of romance, and that in fact, connection without clinging may be what makes love real, and frees us from our distorted view of it as an abstraction or a thing to be bought.
These are lofty, even destabilizing things to think about, but the ritualistic context they were presented in made them digestable, and it helped, too, that the performance didn't take itself (completely) seriously: Its end was signaled only by the return of one of the performers, who, having exchanged his white robe for street clothes, picked up his backpack, put it on, and walked out of the room.