Near-life experience

Happy new year!

This is how I partied on New Year’s Eve:


Crashed out at 9:30 pm with my dog.* Not exactly Andrew WK.

Man, Andrew WK. I could write a blog post about that guy: a pop metal Andy Kaufman whose thing is to convince people that he’s a corporate fiction. Those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, Google “Steev Mike” and follow the white rabbit. For a rational discussion of the phenomenon, read this. For an irrational one, read this.** Blue pill or red pill. The choice is yours.

As Baudelaire once wrote, the greatest trick Andrew WK ever played was to convince the world he didn’t exist.***

I’m not really going to write a blog post about Andrew WK, except to say that I am glad someone is still doing the kind of art that, while ostensibly in a single conventional medium (music, in Andrew WK’s case, or comedy in Kaufman’s), really belongs to a kind of performative meta-medium whose aim is to fudge the usual boundaries between artifice and reality and violate the unspoken compact between artists and audience. In Andrew WK’s case, it is clearly working.

Laurie Anderson — herself a notable practitioner of this art, sometimes called “performance art” — was friends with Kaufman and once wrote about how he worked to “engineer real space.” One of her own early attempts at doing something like this was to get people to experience the space of a room by “sending sound waves through the room so people in the audience could physically feel the space they displaced.” But Kaufman took it to the next level, because he got his audience to collaborate with him on articulating the space, though this was an experience they had not necessarily signed up for:

A few years ago I was in a night club and saw Andy Kaufman, the comedian, actually shrink a room. He seemed to understand space in a way I had never considered. He was an expert at letting the energy level in the room drop off disastrously—to the point where people suddenly become aware that they are part of a half-drunk clientele crowded in a room waiting to laugh. The walls start to close in.

Kaufman had this bit he did where he would come onstage in the persona of a timid little man trying to make people laugh and just bomb horribly. The set would go on forever and no-one would laugh, and at a certain point Kaufman would start to cry, and the audience started to feel terrible, and then, as Anderson writes, the walls would start to close in. You wouldn’t just think, that’s a terrible act; you’d think, this is a really uncomfortable situation. It’s not an act, it’s a situation; not a that, a this. It’s not something happening out there, on the other side of the footlights, but something happening right here. It’s not a performance of something; it’s a thing that’s happening.

Obviously, every performance is a thing that happens, but by the unspoken rules of art we are supposed to ignore the thing-that’s-happening aspect. If you go to an art gallery, you are normally supposed to look at the paintings on the walls, not the walls themselves, and certainly not the wires or baseboards or electrical sockets or exit signs that are also a part of the environment. If you go to see a performance of Die Walküre, you might notice that there are actual laboring bodies of people like yourself up there on stage, not gods and heros and giants, but if you spend too much time thinking about that you will miss the point. Unless you’re doing some kind of fourth-wall-breaking Brechtian avant-garde thing, theatrical performances are representational: they are performances of something. That of drives a wedge between life as we live it and life as it is represented.

What Brecht (and Artaud, and Meyerhold, etc.) did was to insist that the performance of a play is always at the same time an event in the lives of everyone who takes part in it, whether they be audience or players. In The Threepenny Opera or The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (both works scripted by Brecht and composed by Kurt Weill), the players repeatedly address the audience directly — hey, you, are you getting this? — while the staging insists on its artificiality. The viewers are constantly being ejected from any comfortable assumption that what they are seeing is mere content, happening safely on the other side of the proscenium arch and awaiting their consumption. The point is not to envelop the audience in a warm bath of artifice, but to alienate them from artifice and hurl them into the Real, like Neo in The Matrix after he’s taken the red pill. If, as Karl Marx wrote, that the point of philosophy is not to understand the world but to change it, then the Brecht/Weill theater of alienation aimed not to show us a world but to put us back in the world. This one, right here and now, where you’re staring at a glowing plastic rectangle and sitting in whatever room you’re sitting in. (Where are you, anyway?)

Famously, John Cage took it further. If you start mentally reframing an artwork as an event in the lives of the participants, why stop there? Why do you need an artwork at all? You could just reframe everything as art. Just draw a boundary around it: you could, I dunno, get a pianist to go onstage and sit silently for four and half minutes. And that act would mark a durational container within which everything that happens is art.

And at this point the “work of art” begins to disappear, and the artist who makes it disappears as well, becoming some new kind of person, something somewhere between artist, philosopher, practical joker, and shaman. Which brings us back to Andy Kaufman:

I learned a lot about space from Andy. For a while I was straight/woman/audience plant for him. I was an angry women’s libber and my job was to heckle him until he said, “Yeah, well, I’ll only respect you when you come up here and wrestle me down.” Andy never just pretended to wrestle. We used to go to Coney Island and ride the Roto-Whirl—the cylinder that plasters you against the wall, stretching mouths into grotesque smiles, and then the bottom drops out. As soon as everybody is inside, the door is locked and about three minutes pass while the cylinder is checked. It was this time frame that Andy understood. The moment the door was locked he began to look panicked. “I don’t think I want to be in here. I don’t think this ride is safe. Let me out. Get me out of here.” Suddenly the other riders’ mood changed, and they began to act like hijack victims. The bottom dropped out.****

I wouldn’t have wanted to be one of the people involuntarily caught up in one of Kaufman’s impromptu performances, but it’s interesting to contemplate. From a naïve point of view, Kaufman didn’t do anything except maybe enhance the ride: if you pay to ride the Roto-Whirl, you are paying to be scared, and the riders locked in with Kaufman were certainly scared. But a moment’s reflection will tell you that what people want from an amusement-park ride is an as-if scare: you want to be scared as if you are caught in a dangerous situation while knowing that you are not. What you’re really paying for is the assurance that none of this is “for real” and that you are not really in any danger at all. Kaufman’s act was to strip away that assurance: what’s left is real fear, not consumable and commoditized fear. From one point of view, this was a colossal jerk move, and Kaufman deserved to get punched in his stupid smug artsy face. From another point of view, though, Kaufman gave those people a priceless gift. A reified and commodified substitute of experience can only be only a shabby substitute for the experience itself.

Thus spake Tyler Durden, anarchist anti-hero of Fight Club:

Hitting bottom isn’t a weekend retreat, it’s not a goddam seminar. Stop trying to control everything and just let go.

“Performance art” has become another way to say “obscure and self-indulgent postmodern crap,” but ideally what you would get from it is what the guys in Fight Club get when they let go of the steering wheel: a near-life experience.

*That’s her head facing the camera, with her nose in the crook of my arm, BTW. In photos she comes off looking like an undifferentiated blob of fluff, like a large tribble.

**Warning: this page has pitchers of nekkid ladies, for no obvious reason. The look and feel of this page reminds me of the unsolicited letters that police get when a murder captures the public imagination, for ex. one rambling exegesis (titled “Consider Her Ways”) that James Ellroy found in his mother’s cold case file: “The letter was unsigned. It was accompanied by a page torn from an Italian-language magazine. One side of the page featured scientific text. The other side featured a large photograph of a bumblebee.” (James Ellroy, My Dark Places.)

***Because journalists apparently now believe that re-using your own lines constitutes plagiarism — “self-plagiarism,” a crime that seems to me on par with stealing from your own loose change jar — I should point out that I once tweeted this. No-one seemed impressed by my cleverness at the time, though, so I’m trying again.

****All quotes from Laurie Anderson and Mel Gordon, “Laurie Anderson Does ‘Stand-up’ Performance Art,” in Music in the USA, ed. Judith Tick (New York: Oxford, 2008), 734-35. A note for the confused: since pro wrestling is the one mainstream place in pop culture where Kaufman’s way of blending reality and artifice is perfectly normal, it is unsurprising that he started proclaiming himself “Inter-Gender Wrestling Champion of the World” and baiting women into wrestling with him. This is the kind of subject for which Wikipedia really comes into its own.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
This entry was posted in Avant-Garde, Performance, Pop Aesthetics, Pop Culture. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Near-life experience

  1. grahamlarkin says:

    Wow. There’s a lot to think about here.

    As it happens I was having an end-of-year musing about success-through-failure just the other day:

    Happy New Year,


  2. Pingback: The Artist Plays God | Dial M for Musicology

  3. Pingback: That was a thing that happened | Dial M for Musicology

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