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The term "performance art" is cringe-inducing for a lot of otherwise enthusiastic art people. Too many performance artists labor under the belief that if something is enjoyable for the audience, it ain't art. Two recent performances by Claude Wampler at DiverseWorks, "Rehearsed Reversed" and "PERFORMANCE (career ender)," were both art, but one was considerably more enjoyable than the other.
Wampler is the artist whose past DW performances have largely been about fucking with the audience, or, as DiverseWorks more delicately phrases it, "call[ing] attention to the viewer's role as audience." In her 2002 performance "Ambulance," things went progressively and intentionally wrong until (fake) blood was shed and EMTs called. In "Stable (Stupidity Project Part 10)," country music played as the audience spent almost an hour staring at some dogs dressed in goofy cowboy costumes, waiting for something to happen. Meanwhile, mostly unbeknownst to them, a woman danced naked in the theater's control booth. Word has it that one group figured it out and stood and gawked at her for the whole performance. For anyone who didn't figure it out, Wampler filmed the audience as they stared at the dogs while the real "performance" took place behind them. She then played the footage back to them in the theater. Sure, Wampler was making the audience aware of their preconceived expectations, but she was also saying, see, dumbasses, you didn't get it.
Wampler's performance "Rehearsed Reversed" at DiverseWorks was the best possible piece of performance art to drag my foodie husband to — she served dinner, and it was good. I kept waiting for Wampler to jack with us in "Rehearsed Reversed," but the worst thing that happened was the waiter standing with a tray of drinks wouldn't let my husband grab a beer as we were walking in. (They did bring it to the table.) A room was constructed in the center of the DiverseWorks main gallery. We were seated surprisingly comfortably on floor cushions and could actually lean back against the walls. The performance was basically dinner and a movie. Video was projected on each of the four walls above the diners. The movie was a condensed Bollywood flick, and the menu was Indian food. The convoluted plot revolved around a chef and his brother's conflict with the mafia. It included a goodly amount of dance numbers and bloody violence. The Bollywood film was periodically interrupted by Wampler's video; she had videotaped a chef making each course of the dinner and showed the video of it in reverse as waiters served each course. In the video, pappadams were magically reassembled and liquids poured themselves back into containers. The courses themselves were also served in reverse, the first being a savory "dessert."
The project was originally created for Monkeytown, a New York restaurant that showcases video art. That may be why it was one of Wampler's tamer performances. It was clever, but something of a one-liner. Wampler worked with chef Coleman Lee Foster to design the menu in New York; Barbara McKnight of Catering by Culinaire catered the food in Houston. McKnight received no recipes, just Wampler's backwards video of the chef making/unmaking the food. My husband thought the food was excellent but pronounced Wampler's menu "stymied by her vegetarianism." The vegetarian menu also stymied her work conceptually. After the performance, Wampler explained that the menu was vegetarian because she is, but also because it would be disturbing to eat meat while watching all that violence. But eating delicious but possibly visually off-putting food — maybe rare and bloody steak served during the shoot-'em-ups — would really have been more provocative.
Encouraged, a couple weeks later I attended the second Wampler performance, "PERFORMANCE (career ender)," billed as her last one ever. (My husband refused to attend — no food.) This time, it was presented inside the DiverseWorks theater. A keyboard and a drum kit were on stage, as was a rounded sheet of white board propped up like a screen. Hi-def video of a guy in a bear suit arranging things was projected across the stage and lingered on the "screen." He disappeared, and video of three female musicians was projected across the instruments. The guitarist appeared on the screen. Lots of fog began to accumulate, and we could see the ghostly image of the drummer and keyboardist reflected off of it. The band began to practice, playing for 15 seconds, then stopping and talking, then playing for 15 seconds. It was kind of cool for a while, but then the fog got really thick. The people next to us left, covering their noses and mouths. The band continued in fits and starts. It became really painful, like sitting through your high school friend's interminable band rehearsal. If I didn't have to review the thing, I would have left.
There was more and more fog. My friend Sejla and I covered our faces with our shirt collars, and I wondered aloud if Wampler was trying to genocide Houston's art community. Was it a fog machine or was it Zyklon B? "Look!" Sejla exclaimed, pointing up to an oddly shaped light fixture in the ceiling. "It looks exactly like the showers at the camps!" While I didn't really believe Wampler was trying to gas us, I did wonder if it was a good idea to breathe in all that fog machine output. But, I thought, surely someone who is a vegetarian wouldn't endanger the health of other humans. Wrong: A Google search of "fog machine" and "health effects" reveals all sorts of warnings. Thanks Claude!