Morgan Bassichis, L​ive album recording of More Protest Songs!, 2017. Performance view, Danspace Project, New York, October 7. Photo: Ian Douglas.

MORGAN BASSICHIS IS A COMPOSER, a comedian, and a cabaret artist (not necessarily in that order). In performance, he plays piano, tells stories, and sings in a voice so honeyed and seductive that audible sighs are sometimes heard coming from the audience at the end of his songs. Lithe as a whippet, with laser beam blue eyes, he carries himself with both the self-deprecation of the comedian, and the self-possession of the diva. “You know I start every day with gratitude,” he zinged at Danspace Project at Saint Mark’s Church in October during a live recording of his forthcoming album, More Protest Songs! “I just thank god I don’t have children.” The audience guffawed. “It’s not anything against the children’s community,” he continued, “but I can’t keep my own sheets clean.” He may not want to be a parent, but Bassichis still imagines being a hero to future generations. “Thank god for Morgan,” he hears them saying, “that one conversation we had was super important.”

His stage persona also moves through the world in a naïf’s daze. Like a millennial Candide, or a wide-eyed fairy-tale prince, he is a picture of youthful befuddlement, as though pushed from his castle (his safe space) into a reality he can’t make heads or tails of—nor can it make heads or tails of him. A story he tells of seeing the actress Juliana Margulies walking in the East Village: “I see you,” he recalls her saying, and he takes her words as a sign of connection, of validation, a shared moment. “I see you,” she repeats, “get away from my family.” Later in the Saint Mark’s show, he describes being fired from a job at Veselka after a negligible stint. “Morgan,” his boss explained, “you don’t know how to do anything.” “Um,” the performer replied in his most respectful upspeak. “Your language is super confusing?”

Language can indeed be super confusing, particularly now when its used both to mediate expression and expedite it all at the same time. Bassichis’s humor takes aim (or at least, takes advantage) of the comic pratfalls inside of YouMe Speak, where entitlement and empathy battle endlessly over boundaries, personal and shared. “These are very like: Take what you like, leave the rest,” Bassichis said to his audience about his songs. Then added: “You don’t like any of them? That’s more about you.”

Baby I’ve got something to say to you
You’ll have friendships
I think you will
meet one in the meadow grass
but baby there are ticks in that grass…
so just go back inside / go back inside…
and you can get online
you can look at nature online
make friends online

Language isn’t just what we use to entertain ourselves, to explain ourselves, to warn ourselves. For Bassichis, words are magic too. One of his most beautiful songs—a protest song, by his naming—is but two sentences repeated over and over again, a form he returns to throughout his work:

We cast you out.
We send you away.

Morgan Bassichis, L​ive album recording of More Protest Songs!, 2017. Performance view, Danspace Project, New York, October 7. Photo: Ian Douglas.

At first, the song sounds stalled out, or like a music loop, or a glitch, his bandmates following and following as though just along for the ride. Then over time, the repetition lifts the lines into incantation, mantra. It’s exquisitely beautiful, all Bassichis’s wishful singing, though it sounds less like a protest, more like a lullaby. (In the words of another classic naïf: to sleep, perchance to dream). Midway through his Saint Mark’s show, Bassichis asked his mother to read aloud a tepid review of a performance he gave in Portland. She obliged.

I understand the desire for open interpretation when it comes to art, but in this context, the audience could have used, well... some context. I wonder how much more powerful some lyrics such as “we cast you out, we send you away” could have been if he’d taken some time to name our collective baggage.

To be fair to Bassichis, he did name the collective baggage, though during a different song. (Soda Stream! Capitalism! Police! Borders! Prison System! Fear! Exes! he demanded, GET ON THE RUG!) To be fair to the reviewer, there is little recognizable protest in Bassichis’s protest songs. Even when covering Holly Near’s iconic “Singing for Our Lives,” he sends her up.

We are on so many pills / and we are singing / singing for our lives…


We are having sex in all your bathrooms / and we are singing / singing for our lives…

And then:

We watch you while you’re sleeping / and we are singing / singing for our lives…

A joke is a funny thing. It’s the means to flog oneself, flay oneself open in front of an audience, and also the means to self-protect against the same. Respect and humor don’t necessarily negate one another, but neither are they obvious bedfellows. Why write protest songs that don’t appear to protest anything? Why send up the radical voices that came before us? In his luminous and devastating essay on television and American culture Within the Context of No Context, the critic George W. S. Trow wrote of his relationship to a history he inherited, uncomfortably, for it did not ring true to his present. He recalled the way his father would come home from work, take off his fedora, and playfully put it on young George’s head. In adulthood, Trow found that he could only sport a fedora if it was worn in jest. “A fedora hat worn by me without the necessary protective irony,” he explained, “would eat through my head and kill me.” Trow later amends his reaction as one fuelled not by embarrassment, but by equal measures of entitlement and feverishness—two conditions that don’t neatly settle alongside one another but rather, keep one moving away from what was and in search of what should be, might be.

I think about this as Bassichis introduces another song: “This one’s for after America.”

We have always been on fire
We have always been let down
We have always been an island…
…come get us.

Morgan Bassichis, The Faggots & Their Friends Between Revolutions The Musical, Pt. I, 2017. Performance view, New Museum, New York, October 19. Photo: Chloe Foussianes.

Weeks later, at The New Museum, he presented the second part of a musical adaptation-in-progress of The Faggots & Their Friends Between Revolutions, a masterwork of radical literary faggotry written by Larry Mitchell in 1977. The book is a fantastical, libidinous fairytale-cum-manifesto that takes place in the land of Ramrod under the leadership of Warren-And-His-Fuckpole, where faggots and their friends (namely, women) live and love and lie in waiting for the next revolution against the culture of men. The top floor of the museum was given to Bassichis as his stage, and he made the space warm and fuzzy and sparkling with white Flokati rugs and pillows decorated with paillettes and microphones on short stands so his performers could reach them while reclining on the floor. A potluck was held before the show, and his audience lined the tables with mac and cheese and pizza and fruit cobbler and salads and other homey dishes. A sign of the times: Guests were asked to sign a waiver releasing the museum of all liability before they could come in and eat.

It could be argued that the entire history of American musical theater has been nothing but one grand, sweeping infiltration of the mainstream by radical faggotry, but the idea that a homo-topic vision of revolution could maybe possibly be a future Broadway smash is nothing less than sublime. “Do you think this is going to be the next Hamilton?” Bassichis asked the audience. “Yes!” everyone cheered loudly, because we also know that words are magic.

For about an hour, Bassichis passed the book around the audience, asking people to read passages aloud, then he and fellow marvels DonChristian Jones, sisters Michi and Una Osato, and TM Davy, his musical collaborator, sang and performed songs, some of the lyrics of which were taken from the book.

When things are loose,
you can tell
the faggots
from the men.

At one point, Bassichis sat at the feet of a group of elders and elderesses who were in attendance (including Ned Asta, the book’s illustrator), all of whom had been members of the commune that inspired The Faggots & Their Friends. “What is a commune?” he asked them, and then, more eagerly: “What were Quaaludes like?”

“They made all of your inhibitions go away,” one of them chuckled. “You could hump anything.”

Bassichis lit up. “WE LOVE YOU!” he exclaimed, “DO YOU HAVE ANY LEFT?!?”

Morgan Bassichis, The Faggots & Their Friends Between Revolutions The Musical, Pt. I, 2017. Performance view, New Museum, New York, October 19. Photo: Chloe Foussianes.

The wisdom passed between generations isn’t always heavy, though for those who’ve come of age in the decades after AIDS, there are histories missing, ways of being now disappeared. What is a young artist’s responsibility to history, to the revolution, to the radical gesture? In The Faggots & Their Friends, Mitchell offered one model:

The faggots cultivate the most obscure and outrageous parts of the past. They cultivate those past events which the men did not want to happen and which, once they did happen, they wanted to forget. These are the parts the faggots love the best. And they love them so much that they tell the old stories over and over and then they act them out and then, as the ultimate tribute, they allow their lives to re-create those obscure parts of the past…And so these parts of the past are never lost. They are imprinted in the bodies of the faggots where the men cannot go.

Where the men cannot go. In the book, the men destroy all that they love and always have. They make unpleasant culture and always have. They are enemies of pleasure. They obliterate women and faggots and queers and anyone else who doesn’t serve their limiting vision of an ever-expanding cosmos. Those who believe in the world of men are fearful and small, and to mask their fear and smallness, they become power hoarders. Deciders. Destroyers. Yet there are still places men cannot go, things they cannot own, spirits they cannot obliterate because spirits are energy and energy cannot be obliterated and the spirits were here long before the men took power and they will be here long after the men are gone because there exist those who protect the spirits and will always carry them forward, no matter what form they’ve taken on.

We gotta keep each other alive
’cause no one else is
gonna do it.

The audience sang along to the show’s final number, and that moment, that now created by Bassichis and all, was joyful, heartening—not a protest so much as a promise, mapping a path to thrive that bends time so that what lies ahead of us bears the same beauty and ferocity as that which was left behind for us.

Jennifer Krasinski

Morgan Bassichis performed More Protest Songs! for a live album recording on October 7th at Danspace Project in New York. Part Three of The Faggots & Their Friends Between Revolutions The Musical will be performed on Sunday, December 17th at the New Museum as part of the exhibition, “Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon.”

Sarah Michelson, September2017/\, 2017. Performance view, Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, Annandale-On-Hudson, New York, September 22, 2017. Madeline Wilcox. Photo: Paula Court.

THIS IS THE THIRD TIME I’m writing here about Sarah Michelson’s work, following 4 in 2014 and tournamento in 2015. Now comes September2017/\, which I saw September 24 at Bard, and which was the culmination of a four-year residency Michelson had with students there. Culmination is the wrong word, but I can’t think of the right one.

I didn’t explicitly address those first two pieces to anyone, though of course there was a particular person I was writing to, and for. I’m thinking now of how Michelson has said she makes her dances for four people, herself included; it’s something, like many things she’s said, that she takes flack for, but that also, if we’re being honest, feels true and pretty great. Even four gazes in your head when you’re making something is damn crowded, no?

I’m stalling a little, maybe (though I think that all of this pertains, and I think my editor does too with his talk of this “tiny devoted audience” for SM’s work, to end the essay he wrote to end Sarah Michelson: “As always, only the hard core remain”).

What can I tell you about September2017/\, by which I mean the September2017/\ I saw. This was on a Sunday, so it was only a little more than two hours in length, no live streaming of the Stanley Love Thursday–Saturday performance at the Kitchen tacked on at the end, as I hear happened in the other performances. This is by far the best work with students I’ve ever seen. (The cast was a mix of these students, dancers who have been with SM for a while, people who I am guessing are on the technical and janitorial crew at Bard, and, thrillingly, Michelson herself.) It wasn’t the most engrossing experience I’ve had inside of Michelson’s world, but weeks later I am still thinking about it.

Sarah Michelson, September2017/\, 2017. Performance view, Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, Annandale-On-Hudson, New York, September 22, 2017. Madeline Wilcox and Sarah Michelson. Photo: Paula Court.

The first audience members walked out at the seventeen-minute mark, but attrition overall was lower than one might expect. Perhaps Michelson’s reputation finally precedes her. By then, we had watched Michelson move, really move, crouching and lunging and hunching and bending deeply at the waist and whistling and muttering/whispering/yelling through phrases like “this is not a literal hello.” She was dressed in skinny black jeans, a loose black short-sleeved button-up shirt, and white sneakers, and could’ve been the love child of a punk rocker and a witch, like a Macbeth witch, someone who means business.

And then we watched Rachel Berman roller skate around the stage, her hair down, her clothes minimal, her skates the old-fashioned white kind with pink wheels. Turning and pumping deeply, as Michelson worked a series of controls and noisemakers at her director’s station, and as she communicated with Madeline Wilcox, who was operating as a caller of some sort. A call-and-response between these two women with words, and Berman with movement, letters and numbers punctuated by a small number of short phrases, repeated and manipulated until they took on a totem-like meaning. Yesss Bunneeeee.

And then those two audience members got the hell out of there, and Wilcox moved from caller to dancer. And then things got really intense. Not in a movement way, as has been the case in most of her pieces for me, as in I find myself preoccupied by thoughts of the long-term wellbeing of the executioners of Michelson’s demanding work. But in a psychosexual physical way, in terms of the perverse intimacy on spectacular (theatrical?) display between Michelson and Wilcox, as Wilcox called out again and again and again—“Hold.” “Back off.” “Peace.”—stretching the syllables sometimes beyond recognition, and Michelson echoed and extorted and cajoled in these same words, winding and hovering around Wilcox’s often still, often pinup-posed body, at times gently thwacking her thighs or midsection with a handheld appendage. At one corner of the stage, sometimes barely or not at all visible, stood a man, also watching, like we were watching, another witness to a thing that seemed to exist paradoxically because of and despite its witnesses. The white female body on full display, in all its loathsome beauty.

But that Brit girl can make a dance! Whitest choreography I’ve ever seen. A new black.

That’s what Ralph Lemon’s lover tells him in the dream, in “B-Sides,” another essay in Michelson’s stark black-and-white (no pictures, just pages and ink) new book (in which he also calls “bullshit” on Michelson’s claim to making dances for four people, a claim she made to him originally). I don’t read this essay till after I’ve seen September2017/\, but I’m thinking of Lemon the whole way through, or thinking of him periodically, and then thinking of him hard at moments, maybe for example the moment when Michelson’s dance opens (pauses? ruptures?) to include a short work by Bard student Jaleel Green, a work that features the only Black bodies onstage that night, students earnestly dancing a contemporary dance in the television-meaning of contemporary, another universe from Sarah Michelson contemporary.

“The base query is something I’ve said a lot—What is a dance? What is a contemporary dance? Why would one make one? Why would one impale oneself on those questions?”

These are Michelson’s questions, as related by Siobhan Burke in her New York Times preview.

Sarah Michelson, September2017/\, 2017. Performance view, Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, Annandale-On-Hudson, New York, September 22, 2017. Rebecca Capper and Joanna Warren. Photo: Paula Court.

What do we do with the insert of Green’s aesthetic? I’m not sure. Everyone in the long car ride home from Bard debated it; no conclusions reached. Some people found it offensive, deeply problematic along racial lines, power hierarchies. I see that. But it isn’t what I felt while watching. I felt Michelson’s deep devotion (always that word) to those who devote themselves to movement. I felt her cult of personality, her will (need?) to claim and mark and extend territory and lineage. September2017/\ contains not the usual Michelson logos, at least not that I saw, but piles of the Movement Research Performance Journal, many bearing the faces of her kin—Ralph Lemon, Jennifer Monson—as well the usual quotations, chiefly, I think, Merce Cunningham’s dances. And Stanley Love at The Kitchen, which Michelson helped organize. And an abrupt, raw ending to the dance with an announcement by Barbara Bryan that dance scholar nezhat hafezi (1993–2017) had passed away.

And maybe, also, there was a commentary on how being asked to make work in certain settings can feel like being set up to fail, and a refusal to play nicely, to play by the rules. Or maybe I’m projecting.

Jesus, I’m well over one thousand words and there is so much more to say. I mean I haven’t even gotten to Chippy and Kitty and Puppy, the roles rounding out Bunny, and to the other room, where Jennifer Lafferty performed an unbelievably ferocious solo, for and with Michelson, who was watching from a black director’s chair of sorts (that blocked most of my view), silent by this time, miming out her commands instead to another performer. Or to Joanna Warren’s languid, fluid, almost distracted solo that bookended the performance and copped a good deal from Cunningham. Also there were potted plants and a door on wheels that led to nowhere and a girl meowing periodically, and then dry ice or something or other coming out of a trashcan on our way out.

I’m not sure what else to say. I won’t be at The Kitchen this week for October2017/\. Maybe you’ll write me back and tell me all about it.

Claudia La Rocco

Sarah Michelson’s September2017/\ ran September 22–24, 2017 at the LUMA Theater at the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College in Annandale-On-Hudson, New York. Michelson’s October2017/\ runs Wednesday, October 18 through Saturday, October 21 at 6:30 PM at the Kitchen in New York.

Arca performing at Brooklyn Steel, July 6, 2017. Photo: Fuck Theory.

AMONG THE PECULIARITIES of our current moment is an unprecedented willingness to give attractive, clearly male-presenting individuals radical gender points for wearing heels in public. That post-Butlerian zeitgeist certainly isn’t hurting the popularity of Venezuelan performer/producer Arca, and it probably explains the presence of the “I shop at Nasty Pig on lunch break from my Manhattan gallery job” contingent at his show at Brooklyn Steel earlier this month. But Arca taps into a much deeper and more powerful tradition of queer experimentation—less RuPaul’s Drag Race and more COIL’s soundtracks to Derek Jarman’s films of the 1980s. Imagine Peter Christopherson’s video for Nine Inch Nails’s “Happiness in Slavery” but with Kate Bush instead of Bob Flanagan. This is not just a regular show with a varnish coat of gender trouble slapped on.

The Thursday-night event wasn’t a concert so much as a spectacle, or maybe a ritual—as close to an immersive experience as a rock venue with a two-thousand-person capacity and a proscenium stage can get. This was a long-form performance piece, not a band showing up to recreate a dozen songs off a recent album. Familiar moments from his latest, eponymous LP wove in and out to excited applause, but that’s not really what it was about.

Arca spent much of the evening on a catwalk that extended out into the audience, and quite a few minutes offstage entirely while we were occupied by the video projections, the light show, and the music, which included slabs of thick post–Throbbing Gristle noise alongside the sensuous, alien sound on which he’s built his reputation. Arca’s fame is currently cresting on the back of production work for Kelela, FKA Twigs, and Björk, for whom he has crafted rhythms with an instantly recognizable and now widely-imitated style: skittish beats woven into shockingly organic warmth with dark, Gothy synth-strings and glitchy noise.

Everything about Arca’s show suggests a desire to resist the expectations of those who came because they liked Björk’s 2015 album Vulnicura. Which is fair enough; I can see how becoming world-famous in your mid-twenties as a Björk collaborator might create a certain kind of pressure. But it’s easy to construct a false dichotomy between satisfying and disappointing an audience. That’s how both musicians and audiences become embittered—next thing you know Pink Floyd is recording a double album about how hard it is to be famous. Arca’s graceful, determined assault on our assumptions has nothing to do with disappointment: It has all the hallmarks of an artist determined to use a newfound spotlight to conjure their full creative force. Arca resists our desire by offering us something better that we didn’t know we wanted.

Not everyone came along for the ride. The opening barrage lasted long enough to melt eager anticipation into palpable tension. People didn’t relax until the first clearly pitched notes came over the PA. I noticed a few slip out during the show; it’s rare to have more room right up front at the end of a concert than at the beginning. But those who stayed, and most of us did, were treated to the gorgeous, incomparable experience of a performer brutally and sincerely putting themselves on display. The sea of rapturous, shocked faces as the house lights came on was testament to Arca’s determination. Go see this show, is what I’m saying.

Fuck Theory

Arca performed live at the Brooklyn Steel on Thursday, July 6. He next performs Saturday, July 22 at the FYF Festival in Los Angeles.

Wally Cardona and Jennifer Lacey, THE SET UP: ISLAND GHOST SLEEP PRINCESS TIME STORY SHOW, 2017. Performance view, June 25, 2017, LMCC Arts Center at Governors Island, New York. Kapila Venu and Rajeev Padiparampil. Photo: Darial Sneed.


That’s a note from 4:24 PM Saturday, two hours shy of having experienced twelve hours, spread over two weekends, of THE SET UP: ISLAND GHOST SLEEP PRINCESS TIME STORY SHOW, a series of dances unfurling on Governors Island as part of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s River to River Festival, in makeshift locations ranging from carpeted office space to cavernous basement to the dry moat surrounding a nineteenth-century fort.

My dizziness was mild in the scheme of things: For the twenty-seven performers, the entire marathon spanned twenty-four hours (each day-long program ran twice), much of the intense, exquisite action taking place in humid air, on such unforgiving surfaces as stone and cement. And for the creators, dance artists Wally Cardona and Jennifer Lacey, it was the culmination of a five-year project spanning multiple continents and cultures. You could feel the time and care embedded in this work, like a finely woven fabric you might rub between thumb and forefinger.

Each of the dances in THE SET UP grew from a period of study with an artist immersed in a particular tradition: Nyoman Catra (Balinese Topeng), Proeung Chhieng (Cambodian), Junko Fisher (Okinawan), Saya Lei (Mandalay-style, classical Burmese), Jean-Christophe Paré (French baroque), Kapila Venu (Indian Kutiyattam), and Heni Winahyuningsih (Javanese refined). The resulting works were created in collaboration with these “masters,” as they were termed, and with the various casts, including the composers Jonathan Bepler, Reiko Fueting, and Megan Schubert.

I’d caught iterations of some of these pieces over the years. To see and hear them all in one place, for what was likely the only time, was overwhelming—a welter of movement impulses, values, and histories, interwoven with spoken and recorded texts by Lacey and Cardona and live music, full of percussion and voice and its own complex stew of influences and customs.

Picking out moments to describe the whole feels Sisyphean, but here are a few confused fragments: sitting cross-legged in a dim and cool tunnel at the fort, the wind blowing grit into my eyes, Lacey suddenly sashay-sauntering across my field of vision in the grassy moat, her thumbs tucked into her belt, while above a ridge of earth Cardona, bedecked with ribbons, moved through a series of decorous, balletic steps; sitting on a mat in the basement, watching Silas Riener slide into a gorgeously held split, all the while eyeing Cardona like a sulky teenager, as Cardona got not quite to the split, held, and then fell stiffly forward; sweating on a folding chair in a weird, hot, carpeted room as a significantly pregnant Molly Lieber stamped and hopped on a wooden platform and Lacey cut through the space like a blade and Schubert repeatedly cut a deck of cards, speaking clipped phrases in a foreign language; the audience’s utter concentration in a little side room as Winahyuningsih coiled through internal rhythmic shifts, energies circling and mounting but never fully cresting.

Wally Cardona and Jennifer Lacey, THE SET UP: ISLAND GHOST SLEEP PRINCESS TIME STORY SHOW, 2017. Performance view, June 26, 2017, LMCC Arts Center at Governors Island, New York. Jennifer Lacey, Molly Lieber, Wally Cardona. Photo: Darial Sneed.

Maybe more important than picking out moments is to try and describe the layering of disparate yet conversant virtuosities. It didn’t seem that Cardona, who appeared to be the main receiver for each form, was attempting to master any of these teachings in a pure sense (“pure,” he said at one point in answer to an audience question, “is a difficult word”). Rather he embodied them as fully as possible within his own prodigious training and sensitive readings. THE SET UP yielded complicated exchanges: According to a note in the program, Venu believes that the solo she created for Cardona is the first in the two-thousand-year-old Kutiyattam tradition “to depict a love story between two gay characters.” (The expressivity in Cardona’s face as he physically “told” this story was prodigious; Venu’s capacity for conveying states and characters, in her own solo, was unlike anything I’ve ever seen.)

Lacey meanwhile ran (delicately!) amok through the dances, adroitly fracturing the deep concentration embodied by Cardona and layering into the mix a sensibility both wry and wild. The sheer smarts and ferocity of her slippery movement, and her ability to seamlessly switch registers, astonished, forming an indefinable yet essential tracery, a translation into an expanded set of languages. The other dancers belled out from their two interlocking systems of intelligence (with some, like Riener and Lieber, occupying more principal roles), and the musicians surrounded and invaded this precision with their own marvelously calibrated systems: The parts were great, the sum far greater.

All this live action was augmented by a visual design created in collaboration with Jamie Boyle, who crafted an installation full of drawings, scores, notes, videos, and images like an exploded traveler’s notebook, as well as rooms within rooms in the varied performance spaces. Traveling among these delicately wrought containers, I occasionally thought of a recording of Lacey’s breathless voice that accompanied the opening salvo, a short, stunner of a solo performed by Melissa Toogood:

this is a dance for islanders
it is good to be an islander—as an island is small—when you move far away you can conceivably fit the island into your new home country—sometimes even right into your new hometown
this dance is a ritual adapted from a traditional dance.
this ritual ensures the transposition of the home island onto a new environment.

Wally Cardona and Jennifer Lacey, THE SET UP: ISLAND GHOST SLEEP PRINCESS TIME STORY SHOW, 2017. Performance view, June 25, 2017, LMCC Arts Center at Governors Island, New York. Proeung Chhieng. Photo: Darial Sneed.

Of course, as I think Cardona and Lacey are aware, such transpositions are ever fraught. During my two days on Governors Island, questions of appropriation and agency simmered continually in the conversations I had with fellow watchers. I understand these concerns and I see how parts of the work, particularly in isolation, might lend themselves to troubling readings. But for this receiver, THE SET UP seems a very important effort for white artists to be making — especially those who sit atop avant-garde lineages with ugly histories of claiming the sophisticated traditions of others as their own discoveries of natural phenomena.

Throughout the performance, Cardona and Lacey honored their collaborators’ complicated forms, offering the occasional contextualizing remarks, and weaving solo performances by Chhieng (feathery and honed), Venu, and Winahyuningsih within the larger flow, so that you could reflect on these artists as both traditional and experimental (and perhaps on why such categories persist, who they serve). THE SET UP is predicated not on taking a product out of context, but on asking (the seeking of permission is a crucial element) to study a process, to try and understand embodied knowledge from the inside-out. The results of this study are further complicated by Cardona and Lacey’s multilayered questioning and critique of their own histories.

This all sounds serious, and it was. It was also deeply weird and funny as hell. Watching THE SET UP I kept flashing on something an older choreographer once said to me about how strange and silly and porous downtown dance used to be before it curdled into a set of affects and stylistic markers. Nothing had yet curdled here. Everything overflowed. I left each day dazed, barefoot, feet slapping over warm pavement, dashing to catch the ferry that would take me from one island to another.

Claudia La Rocco

Wally Cardona and Jennifer Lacey’s THE SET UP: ISLAND GHOST SLEEP PRINCESS TIME STORY SHOW, made in collaboration with Proeung Chhieng, Junko Fisher, Saya Lei, Jean-Christophe Paré, Kapila Venu, Heni Winahyuningsih, Jonathan Bepler, Reiko Fueting, and Megan Schubert, ran June 17 through 25 at the Arts Center at Governors Island as part of LMCC’s River to River Festival.

Okwui Okpokwasili, Poor People’s TV Room, 2017. Performance view, New York Live Arts, April 18, 2017. Photo: Paul B. Goode.

“THERE WAS A TIME—way, way back—when Oprah was a human being, just a woman, she felt pain and she suffered. She felt fear and desire.”

So begins the storytelling in Poor People’s TV Room, a performance conceived by Okwui Okpokwasili, coauthored, designed, and directed in collaboration with Peter Born. Part theater, part dance, part installation, the piece hovers in an undefined space and time, conjuring the stories of four women: Merit (Katrina Reid), Madame (Okpokwasili), Honor (Thule Dumakude), and Yeru (Nehemoyia Young). From the grand tales of Oprah’s origin myth to the intimate gossip about one another; from stories about children and mothers and others who are no longer present to the descriptions of violence and death and T-shirts bearing slogans, the world they speak of is at once tender and viperous.

The performance is composed almost like a piece of music, in sections and phrases—monologues that erupt, dialogues that echo. The staging is split in two: Yeru and Honor sit on outdoor chairs, chatting with each other, sometimes repeating one another’s words in a way that sounds incantatory, if static. In her living room, Madame fusses and fights with Merit, her house girl, seeing things, lashing out at her young minder though she thrives by suckling at her bare breast. Words are heavy always, passed as wisdom and as weight—and they are not always to be trusted. As the radiant and exquisite Honor warns in a vivid, seething monologue:

I want to pry open your mouth—wide. I want to look deep in your throat. I know I’ll find a lie in there. I will go in there and I will grab that lie and I will drag it up across your tongue and out of your mouth. And I will stomp it into the truth.

Okpokwasili is a powerhouse artist with a molten presence on stage: steely, ever fluid. In Bronx Gothic, her 2014 solo piece that was recently adapted for film, she delivered intimate correspondences between two girls in the early bloom of adolescence and sexuality as she shivered and shook, as though she was the medium—the receiver—through which this tale must pass. Although her voice shifted registers as she spoke as one girl and then as the other, Okpokwasili bypassed the usual expressions of character, of literal embodiment, to locate the story somewhere nearer to the realm of phantoms. The words were all hers—she wrote the play, based on her own childhood—but her besieged body seemed to mark the distances through the thick muck of memory that her words had to travel to leave her mouth.

The spirit-characters of Poor People’s TV Room are embodied more firmly, forthrightly, though they’re not always clearly defined. The four women appear before us as something closer to visitations, materializing between the conditions of presence and absence, their voices alighting across song and stories, their bodies bearing burdens. At the top of the play, a woman covered in a blanket crawls across the stage; nearby, another dances before an opaque scrim, behind which we see another dancing too, her body blurred—we can just make out shape and color and movement through the plastic film.

Okwui Okpokwasili, Poor People’s TV Room, 2017. Performance view, New York Live Arts, April 18, 2017. Okwui Okpokwasili. Photo: Paul B. Goode.

Video also places these bodies apart from us, gives their absence/presence another dimension. In a beautiful, classic piece of stagecraft, a large table becomes a second stage on which Okpokwasili and Reid play the scenes between Madame and Merit while lying on their backs. With a video camera hanging overhead, and the tabletop decorated with wallpaper, a chair, and a window, the performers pose as though the room were “real,” upright. On the screen suspended above, we watch them, projected into this other space, with tiny slips of visual sense—Okpokwasili’s dress falling between her legs, the way both performers lean against the “wall”—to note that their image bears a different gravity than the rest of the room.

In some respects, Poor People’s TV Room is most directly about power and speech, via language and movement. How do words conjure the world, manifest our destinies and our selves, infuse earthbound lives with both the levity and heaviness of myth? What do bodies say, what do they know and hold, that can be read or heard or understood—or denied, destroyed? Okpokwasili and Born make no sharp point about all of this, though their source materials are rich and devastating: the “Bring Back Our Girls” movement/meme; the Igbo Women’s War of 1929; suicide bombings in the public markets of Northern Nigeria, often young women detonating themselves spurred on by the Boko Haram.

These subjects aren’t made explicit except in glimmers—we hear what sounds like the remixed recordings of women’s voices, the rhythms of their clapping hands and stomping feet—which is a shame since these are women and stories that rarely appear inside a New York theater. The piece is designed to be haunting, not altogether legible, yet it feels in some respects unresolved, like its central force hasn’t yet been fully harnessed. Its many facets mesmerize—the women are all marvelous to watch, and moment-to-moment there are resonant ideas, and graceful gestures—but the abstractions aren’t counterbalanced by even light anchors to orient and pull us through the whirl to a place we might come to know with greater clarity.

And yet the show throughout imparted a deep feeling of how bodies share parts of each other with one another, how they sustain, how they connect: with mother’s milk, with breath, with stories—and with theater. At one point, Okpokwasili sings in her rich, beautiful voice:

I’m irradiated
I’m illuminated
I’m intoxicated
I’m emblazoned
I won’t loosen this thread, no
I will wind it tighter
I will bind us closer
I will knot us up…
Don’t leave a wound tonight.

Standing there before us, channeling radical self-possession (and radical other-possession too), though belied by something grievous, she appeared to be singing to and for us, her audience, leaving no wound, but opening us to and for something more and more and more.

Jennifer Krasinski

Poor People’s TV Room premiered at New York Live Arts from April 19-22 and 26-29. Andrew Rossi’s film Bronx Gothic, based on Okpokwasili’s 2014 performance, premieres July 12 through 25 at Film Forum in New York.

Michael Portnoy, Character Assassination, 2017. Performance view, Volksbühne am Rudolfplatz, Cologne, April 18, 2017. Photo: Roel Weenink.

THERE’S NO SATIRE QUITE LIKE THE PRESENT, a fact that poses a funny challenge to contemporary comedy—or at least threatens it with redundancy. How to harness the power of a joke, when a joke has been made all-powerful?

Enter the great Absurdist, performance artist Michael Portnoy. His latest piece is titled Character Assassination, and it is (in part) a comedy heralding the end of comedy—or at least pointing to the rafters from which it’s hanging itself. Written in collaboration with Dan Fox (art critic, coeditor of Frieze, and author of Pretentiousness: Why It Matters), this deft and dizzying show riffs on the form of the late-night satirical news program. For a little over an hour, Portnoy delivers a monologue fueled by the bugaboolean logics that have long trumped popular political discourse, in “the only show about you and nobody else but YOU!” Sitting behind a large desk facing a teleprompter and camera, Portnoy is simultaneously projected onto a large screen on stage; you can watch him live, or “broadcast,” with video clips and graphics edited into the frame. Lest we believe he’s all about fun and games, Portnoy reads his news against a backdrop of a city in ruins.

“Let me tell you,” he says near the top of the show, “trust has been left in the dust. If you’re gonna survive these days, you’ve gotta be one helluva paranoid android. Nobody is who they say they are.” With that, Portnoy plants the seeds for what might be called “The Conspiracy of the Self” and takes us on a ride through the rabbit holes of the information superhighway. He weaves a story that begins with a guy named Rigoberto and ends in an homage to Don Quixote, infamous battler of windmills. He sews doubts about the nature of theater itself. “How can you trust anyone in a place that’s built to provide a stage on which people pretend to be other people?” he shoots. “This building is a machine for lying!” Imagine: Even our fictions lie to us.

Character Assassination is a play about language—our most elastic, plastic tool—and how it does the bidding of its user. Through the pens of Portnoy and Fox, mimicking the archness of comedy news, words perform all manner of acrobatics, pushing logic to take flying leaps into nothingness, without a net. Talk is cheap, but meaning is even cheaper: “I’m here to reveal to you tonight that we’re actually starved of context,” Portnoy explains to his audience.

That context has been rationed by governments, hoarded by politicians, kept under lock and key by the church and state in favor of pushing a relentless junk-food diet of CONTENT. You can content-generate some of the people some of the time, but you can’t contextualize all of the people all of the time.

We rabidly consume information to feel informed, but what do we know, and how do we know it? In answer, Portnoy conducts a sort of semiotic equation, letting the x in “context” equal the n in “content,” and then adding them together to produce one of the most enviable (and much-needed) neologisms since Stephen Colbert coined “truthiness” in 2005: CONTENXT (pronounced: con-tengst). What is contenxt? It’s the perfect marriage of content and context that produces a reasonable understanding of the information presented. (At least, that’s what I think it is. Constant audience confusion is a byproduct of the piece’s tonal shiftiness.)

From there, Portnoy rips information from several audience members’ Facebook pages, remixing their posts and photos to weave an ever-unraveling tale of intrigue. (Warning: If you friend Portnoy on Facebook in the weeks before his show, you risk becoming one of his targets—i.e. you risk becoming content.) In the iteration I saw, Portnoy picked out Jan Hoeft and showed us a clip from a film he’d made. He played back the voice of Therese Schuleit, founder of the Festival for Applied Acoustics in Beirut, and Yves Sandwichi, almost-but-not-quite his real name, whose character is presented as a series of fictional listicles: “Ten Things Yves Can Tell You In Bed That Will Make You Lose Weight Instantly”; “Five Gestures Yves Has Made That Will Make You Embarrassed to Ever Use Your Hands Again.”

What propels Character Assassination is of course character proliferation in larger culture: The overproduction of selves fertilized by our online feeds. Portnoy isn’t after people; he’s after their personae, mining what we think of as “proof” of who we are. Portnoy doesn’t disclose embarrassing truths about his victims, or if he does, we’re none the wiser, so super loopy are his fabrications. Character Assassination could risk more in this regard, charging the air with greater discomfort at who and what might be made public during the performance.

Then again, that threat in the end felt like a dupe—a clever trick to reveal one of the most uncomfortable truths of all: That there is a banality to our so-called public personae, to how we imagine and present ourselves inside the given algorithms. It’s all theater, in effect, but not all of it’s entertaining. And I wonder if Portnoy and Fox’s extrapolated fictions—twirling, vertiginous, and very funny—mask the fact that most social networkers portray themselves in flattened, flattering ways, tastefully serving themselves up for the middling palates of public consumption. Was there any funny business to be found? Any radical acts of selfhood? Perhaps the real question is: What do we learn about each other when mediated online that we might not otherwise in person? After all, contenxt is everything.

Jennifer Krasinski

Character Assassination premiered on April 18th at the Volksbühne am Rudolfplatz in Cologne as part of Pluriversale VI, organized by the Akademie der Künste der Welt.