It’s surprisingly rare to see a group of artists enjoying themselves while doing their work in public. In private, anything is possible, but when they’re presenting their work for the public, artists can often be very serious, or, more precisely, very stressed out and nervous. They could be stressed out for any number of reasons: worries about whether or not everything they’ve been working on for so long and at some personal expense is going to pull together; anxiety over what the audience will think; questions about whether or not anyone is actually going to show up; concerns that if someone really important does come that they may not see the work in the right way or think of the artist as serious or important or worth their time; along with all manner of other nagging thoughts about money or relationships or family problems that they may have avoided while working on their art.
So, it’s unique to find artists playing freely these days. It’s also rare to find settings where artists are willing and able to exercise a real sense of collegiality—experimenting openly, trying out new artistic relationships with collaborators, and accepting that some things they try out may not work but that they’ll learn something anyhow.
This little pre-amble may make it sound as if I’m painting the annual Target Margin Theater (TMT) lab as something of a utopia. It’s not that, by any means—and it’s certainly not the only open playground for artists in the city. But still, it was kind of really great to walk into the Bushwick Starr, grab a PBR for $3, sit down and watch some artists plying their trade and enjoying it.
It made me think of something the scholar Ellen Dissanayake wrote in her book Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Came From and Why: “Play in animals (including humans) is an appealing and quite mysterious behavior. It occurs in many species in which animals play naturally, without being taught… They seem to play for play’s sake, for sheer enjoyment and intrinsic reward.”
This isn’t to suggest that the only thing going on at the Lab, or anywhere else in the art world, is play and play alone. There’s real work in most artists’ process, and many reasons—biological, psychological, ethical, philosophical, intellectual, economic, etc— why we get involved with and go see art in the first place. But some chunk of it does have to do with transcending our daily lives and just messing about a little—putting on a bathrobe and pretending it’s a royal cloak, or even engaging in darker forms of play that involve testing limits and looking into dreams and fantasies and fears. Few little kids who get bit by the artist bug have any concept of what the realities of life as an artist are going to look like and all ways that becoming a practicing artist complicates and fractures the experience of making art. There’s something more primordial in it, something we lose sight of in a world that tells us that in order to be anything you have to be a “professional” at it. And something about this year’s TMT Lab really evoked all that for me.
Every year TMT chooses a specific niche in performance and art history to focus on, based on what its next big upcoming production is. So, ahead of their 2010 production of Tennessee Williams’s Camino Real, the Lab was comprised of little-known works by Williams. Ahead of 2008’s production of Aristophanes’s Frogs, they did a Lab comprised of many of that writer’s works. The Lab is not just an academic exercise, it’s a chance to pull works out that haven’t been dusted off in ages, that wouldn’t merit, perhaps, a full-scale production, but are worth another look in a smaller setting. And, importantly, it’s a chance for artists TMT knows of and is interested in working with to mess about and get to know each other better—to stretch their legs a bit. Not to mention it provides TMT audiences with some rich context when they walk into the big show later in the season. It’s a thoughtful and smart approach that elevates the ideas and the artistry in a way that a lot of one-off productions could never accomplish.
This year’s theme is Futurism and the Russian Avant-Garde. I asked John Del Gaudio, TMT’s Managing Director, who led this year’s lab with the artist Kate Marvin, about the impetus behind this year’s focus and he said that it’s not only related to their upcoming production of Uncle Vanya, but also to a culminating project in 2014 that will involve an original piece, created by TMT, that will land at the intersection of the Russian Avant-Garde and Yiddish theater.
You don’t need to know about Russian Futurism or Russian history in order to see the shows. Having not beefed up on my history before going, I missed a number of the jokes in the puppet re-enactment of the Bolshevik Revolution, but the grandiosity, ridiculousness, and beauty of the paper puppets (not to mention the fact that it went on for only 20 or 30 minutes) gave me plenty of opportunities to enjoy the show. But feel free to Wikipedia it up ahead of time, if you prefer to nod knowingly at all the appropriate moments.
The most important thing to understand about Futurism in Russia is that the absurdity, expansiveness, and darkness are the products of paranoia in a culture that has for so long lived under the control of outsized totalitarian rulers. The Russian writer Masha Gessen described it well in her essay Paranoiastan:
When you live, as I do, in a country where things just seem to happen because they do, with no apparent plan or reason, you can do one of two things. You can accept that bad things happen to good people, bad people, and in-between people at random. This is difficult. Most of us don’t like to live with the idea that we could get arrested or killed or kidnapped at any moment. So we make up explanations, not so much for why someone has been nabbed, as for why we haven’t…The point is to convince yourself that you are safe. So, welcome to the world of the truly paranoid. Paranoia, according to Freud, is a hyperrational system within a given framework. The system makes sense; it’s the framework that’s crazy.
It’s no accident that Futurism created under fascist regimes. It was hyperrational in its irrationality, it was totally reactionary, and it toying with violence and the inane while laying waste to linear narratives. It was aggressive in its ambition to overthrow art-making—so aggressive, in fact, that the majority of Russian Futurists either ended up entering establishment politics after the Revolution in 1917, or being persecuted by the new government. Revolutionary endgames, as we’re all learning from the so-called Arab Spring, are far less clear and coherent than their initial strategies for overthrow.
So, with all of that in mind, it’s well worth the hike out to the Bushwick Starr to see a few shows, if you’re willing to just relax and roll with it. The night I was there I saw not only the puppet re-enactment I mentioned above, but also an absurdist chamber opera that was both funny and dark, a choreographed and tightly acted theatrical meditation on time, love, and death, and a surprising dance piece on failed attempts. It was a pleasure to be there.