By Jef With One F
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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!
The guy in the bear suit — DW operations manager John Read — appeared in person, sans bear head, and adjusted the instruments and knocked down the screen to reveal a guitar. Then the musicians appeared in person and finally played through the whole, now completely annoying, song. A plant stood up on the front row and started to dance in place. The highlight was seeing DiverseWorks' own Gina Sonderegger having a great time as the drummer.
In the end, the performance would have been really good had it been condensed. Too often artists think duration somehow leads to transcendence, but maybe in this case it's just Wampler being jerky. A review of her New York performance reveals that it had a lot of obvious audience plants that probably kept people from getting bored. Other than the dancing girl, the only other one I heard about was some OCD person in the audience. Also, the New York audience was moved to a standing ovation when the band finally played in person, so I'm thinking that that band was way better. (The DiverseWorks group was a pickup band that had barely played together.)
Of course, audiences do differ, and that does change the experience. I hit the 8 p.m. show, but according to DiverseWorks director Diane Barber and Sonderegger, the 10 p.m. show was pretty crazy, with people calling for an encore and someone — not a plant — going on stage and dancing around with the bear head from Read's costume. (I'm thinking the late-nighters were a pretty boozy crowd.) Barber also revealed another element. Those who attended the performance will receive a link to a video clip of a curtain call for the cast. Apparently there were 19 audience plants. I thought most of them were just the usual performance art fan suspects, a guy in biker gear among them. Barber said there was also a plant that was passing out beer all through the performance. Why the hell didn't I sit next to that guy?
Ultimately, Wampler is exploring some interesting ideas, but I question her motives. There's a certain nastiness of tone toward her audience that leaves a bad taste in my mouth. While "Rehearsal Reversal" was actually pleasant, that was because the work was created for a restaurant, an artsy restaurant, but a restaurant. People have no hesitations about leaving a restaurant if the food sucks or they're having a bad time. But there's something sadly dutiful about performance art viewers. Wampler wants to exploit that. Or if you want to give her the benefit of the doubt, maybe she wants to change that. It would be good if people were as intolerant of bad art as they are of bad food.
If you missed the performance — and fog poisoning — you can get a small taste of it in Wampler's installation in the Main Gallery, on view through December 15. A tiny video of the band and a little fog machine are running behind the wall printed with text.