- Too Far In to Be “Out”
Out of Character anthologizes the work of thirty-one contemporary performance artists in ten times as many pages, from high poptech artists like Laurie Anderson and big-ticket monologists like Spalding Gray to less well-known ethno rappers like Robbie McCauley and multi-character soloists like Peggy Pettitt. While many of the performance texts are captivating, the collection’s emphasis on the monologue format, its lack of critical apparatus, and the absence of semiotic analysis of the mise en scène of individual performance events produce a limited view of the contemporary Performance Art scene.
Each brief chapter opens with a full-page photo of the performance artist, followed by a “biographical questionnaire” of the Playboy’s-Most-Eligible-Bachelors variety (in addition to basic personal information like Name, Stage Name, and Birthplace, the categories include Favorite Performance Experience, Most Terrifying Performance Experience, Hobbies, Reading List, and Favorite Quote). Following the profile is a brief “Artist’s Notes” section, which usually consists of a first-person commentary (ranging in style from the notorious grant-writer’s “artist statement” to casual self-contemplations) or an excerpt from an interview (conducted by someone other than the editor); this section provides helpful grounding for the scripts (often excepts from larger works) that follow.
Despite the bubble gum and flip card attitude of the setup, which does not always jibe with the slant of the “Artist’s Notes” (“flippant,” as Russell admits in his “Foreword” (xii), without accounting for how such a textual performance relates to his overall project), many of the performance scripts are insightful, witty, and engaging. Marga Gomez, for example, blends stand-up comedy with childhood recollections and incisive socio-cultural commentary (“When did I go from positive and perky to bitter and pathetic? I’m just like the first lesbians I ever saw. I was ten. I saw them on David Susskind’s Open End...” (165)). Penny Arcade deploys stream-of-consciousness personae to generate edgy satire and confront us with voices from “out/over there” that we would rather not hear (“You wanna help me out? With fifty cents or a buck? I can buy lunch with a buck! Shit. My name is Girl! An’ I am homeless!” (22)). Arcade’s troubling voices speak to Eric Bogosian’s dark humor, which brings us to the verge of a self-annihilating otherness. In addition to excerpts from Bogosian’s confrontational solo and ensemble pieces, the selection here includes “The Poem,” from Advocate. A stirring, eerie, and evocative piece, “The Poem” is performed in a dark room at a desk with a gooseneck lamp illuminating the “Narrator’s” face in a “spooky fashion” (“Come here, my little children. Come here, small tender ones. Into my arms. Into my teeth of streets. Run into the midnight traffic. Fall against the hot drops of water from your mother’s tears. Laughing into my teeth....” (46)). Though Bogosian is known popularly as a stand-up comic, the selections here highlight his evocative, provocative use of mise en scène, running performance along the edge of consciousness.
Bogosian is not alone among the artists represented who deploy basic means to create poetic effects. Ishmael Houston-Jones imagines death through the body. In his 1971 piece included here, “Score for Dead,” Jones dances through a litany of prerecorded names of the dead (relatives of friends, celebrities, fictional characters) in a semi-ritualistic event, part homage and part shamanistic transference of the power of death (“When I hear a name that has a particular resonance for me, fall down to the floor in some emblematic way and try to rise again before the next name is called. As the next and the next and then the next names are spoken, repeat the falling... and rising dance... become exhausted with the effort” (195)). Houston-Jones unpacks the mystique of death by embodying—dancing—its relentless rhythm. Houston-Jones is the one of the few artists represented in Out of Character for whom the monologue (in one form or another...