For a performance art festival inspired by the Futurists, Alterazioni Video and Ragnar Kjartansson’s Symphony n.1 seemed like a rather appropriate work for the early days of Performa 09. Upon entering the upstairs space at P.S.122 the audience was greeted first by a number of inflatable plastic soccer balls strewn about the space. When trying to choose a seat, the overflowing audience confronted row upon row of seats reserved for P.S.122’s “Friends With Benefits” as they had clearly billed this as a special event for their donors (this detail will become important later).
As the piece got underway, five young Italian men dressed in what looked to be cut-rate rental tuxedos walked out on stage and took positions in front of and amidst a variety of props. (Futurism was founded by a band of twenty-something men in Milan, Italy.) One of the performers proceeded to solemnly place a VHS cassette into a VCR and the image of Ragnar Kjartansson’s bare chest appeared with tassled pasties attached to his nipples. Kjartansson then proceeded, with great effort in his breathing, to set the tassles on his pasties swinging in opposite directions. Meanwhile the Italian boys on stage undertook projects of their own—one bouncing and tossing ping-pong balls against buckets and overturned tables; another shining a series of bowling balls; another scaled a ladder where the ingredients for a vodka punch awaited, which he prepared over the course of the performance by throwing and pouring the ingredients into a large punch bowl below; another beat on a metal laundry rack; and the fifth spoke in Italian into a microphone.
The movements that followed the first didn’t change much. The speaking into the microphone changed into a recitation of Italian words starting with P; the shining of the bowling balls turned into stacking them one on top of the other; the ping pong balls were aimed at different objects. The change of the movement was dictated by the ejecting and playing of each new video of Kjartansson. After the pasties routine, the next tape showed him banging himself on the head with a computer keyboard and VHS cassette, in the next he ate a burrito in a loud foil wrapper, and in the fourth he played a guitar and sang.
The only real addition to the vaguely absurd performance came in the fourth movement. With Kjartansson serenading the audience, the young men on stage began to throw and kick those inflatable plastic soccer balls around the stage and into the audience. At the same time Kjartansson was ducking from the same balls in the video on screen. At first the act was playful, but within seconds it became more deliberate and quickly crescendoed into an aggressive kind of dodge-ball, with the men on stage pegging and kicking the balls with a fair amount of force into the audience, and some members of the audience sending them right back.
Some clearly enjoyed the game, but genuine fear spread through the crowd quickly, annoyance was a close companion, and a couple of audience members even tried to escape the room. The performers on stage were flinching and ducking as much as any in the audience as the volley reached its peak, suppressing giddy grins at their bad behavior, like little kids that can’t believe they’re really getting away with it.
Billed as a celebration of infinite joy, it was hard not to feel like the kind of joy they were celebrating was that of young children, which I grant is likely one of the least complicated forms of joy to celebrate, but also one of the least complicated to evoke. In general, the performance mimicked a handful of Futurist and Dadaist tropes that most people would recognize even if they didn’t know the exact origins. The music borrowed heavily from Futurist composers, who were devoted to the use of non-traditional instruments and mechanical sounds. Luigi Russolo’s The Art of Noises (1913), one of copious Futurist manifestos produced in the movement’s early days, proclaimed: “For many years Beethoven and Wagner shook our nerves and hearts. Now we are satiated and we find far more enjoyment in the combination of the noises of trams, backfiring motors, carriages and bawling crowds than in rehearsing, for example, the Eroica or the Pastoral.” You can watch and listen to a fairly recent recreation of an excerpt from one of the most famous compositions inspired by the Futurist conception of music, Ballet mécanique by George Antheil, on Youtube.
Without the kerfuffle at the end of the piece, Symphony n.1 would have been a fairly dry performance, but the conflict it gave rise to felt more problematic than insightful. How hard is it really to make a bunch of art biennial-goers flinch? If you attend much performance art, you have to get used to being subjected to a variety of humiliations, surprises, and ethical quandaries. Implicating the audience in performance has long been part of the game, and can be successful and troubling in some circumstances. But in this case, it’s hard not to wonder why, in a piece celebrating a childish glee in misbehaving, they would unleash a very adult aggression and become complicit in it. Aggression in and of itself is an easy emotion to access, but a much harder one to deconstruct and face up to. Marina Abramovich’s 1974 Rhythm 0, famously and quite effectively questioned aggression in the audience/performer relationship. In the end, the dodge-ball felt like an odd nod to the Futurists’ devotion to violence, though this one was inflatable and bouncy, instead of the gun-totting annihilation of hundreds of thousands of people that the deeply nationalist early Futurists envisioned and then participated in during World War I. But dealing with the implications of Futurism founder Filipo Marinetti’s political beliefs is something that few have dared to do.
(photo credit: Performa, P.S.122, Paula Court)