8:30 pm Wednesday, Sept. 12
PERFORMANCE (career ender)
I should have known it was going to be an odd night when the lesbian in silver stretch pants accosted me in line at the Gerding Armory Theater, demanding to know if I'd heard of some band leader named John Carpenter. (I hadn't).
It turns out this John Carpenter plays a seminal role in the latest performance piece by NYC-based artist Claude Wampler, called
(career ender), on view through Sunday, Sept. 16 at the Armory Studio Theater. And if the wildly divergent post-show audience opinions are any indication, this may quickly become the most talked-about show at TBA: 07.
The premise of the show is, ostensibly, simple: rock band shows up on stage, rehearses new rock song for a chunk of time (40 minutes, maybe). Once mastery is achieved, they perform the song full out. Lights flash, the audience dances, there is applause. End of show.
But we're at TBA: 07, so of course that's not entirely
it. The band that shows up at the show's top isn't a live band—it's a video projection of the band onto a stark set of drum kit, keyboard and mics. And only part of that projection is clearly visible: mainly, the band's guitarist slash lead singer (this is Carpenter). The keyboard man and drummer? They're but faint reflections glimpsed through a ghostly haze washing through the theatre, and you catch only an outlined arm here, a half-face there. It's a scene both completely unsettling and, in its way, ineffably beautiful.
The ghost-band warms up and begins to pick apart its song, a pleasant if anonymous-sounding lonely rock ballad that builds to an emphatic climax. We listen as the band struggles through riffs and changes and available sounds on the keyboard. This goes on for some while: fifteen minutes, then twenty-five, then thirty, and the energy in the room becomes unsteady. Then things start to...happen.
Even in the fourth or fifth re-heating of this same damn song, a woman in a wheelchair in the front row—inexplicably—continues to bob her head and sway with apparent enthusiasm. Two girls in the front row are rapt with attention. A man to my right scans the room with shifty eyes. There is nervous laughter.
And then an audience member walks out of the theatre. Then three more. Then a small group of at least five or six. What the hell is going on?
You don't have to read closely to guess: Oh yes, of course, this all isn't only part
of the performance, it IS the performance (a precursory scan of the Wampler listing in the TBA: 07 guidebook would offer plenty of hints; I find out later that those artfully planted performance-enhancing audience members are local artist recruits from PDX choreographer Linda Austin). So now this must be the part where we open a dialogue about the boundaries between artist and audience, between shared and solo experience. Of course.
Just when the band abandons their rehearsal and the lights raise just a bit, Wampler's real coup de theatre is revealed: John Carpenter and his cohorts emerge - in the flesh! - from the wings, take up their instruments, and play the shit out of their well-rehearsed rock ballad under brilliant flashing lights. Those two girls in the front row (remember the lesbian with the silver pants? She's one of them) leap to their feet and wriggle their asses. The woman in the wheelchair joins the fray. A stuffed polar bear head (the symbolic significance of which I'm certain cannot fully be explained in a simple WWire post) is tossed on stage. There is confusion; there is applause. The band finishes on a high note, and exits quickly.
There are rumors that technical challenges and setbacks plagued the show all day and evening prior to the opening. This may help to explain why the 8:30 pm show I attended started nearly an hour late.
But then again, who knows - perhaps it was all part of the show.
[photo above: video/performance artist Claude Wampler]