The WTF Manifesto
At a very early age, I realized that people in authority didn’t understand who I was. I have therefore come to embrace ambiguity as essential to my practice as an artist.
I often feel that my first real work was Baby (a theater concerto for viola doubling guitar and violin, chamber ensemble, and obbligato dancer) (1975). The first performance of this piece included amoeboid shaped projection screen hanging from the ceiling, film and slide projections, with the audience wearing 3-D glasses. When this work ended on an unapologetic D major chord, I recall that two of my former teachers were seated in front of me. They turned their heads, looked at each other in stunned disbelief, and turned back to the front without saying a word. But it was clear to me that what they were thinking was “What the fuck was that?”
I consider that to be a good response to a work of art, at a time when too many things in the world seem obvious and literal.
By 1979, when I composed Cascando: A Concert Aria After Samuel Beckett, my technique for perceptual confusion had evolved. I wanted to create a piece that would be challenging to perform, yet would give the audience the impression of simple music, badly played. Even when the performers strive against considerable challenges to accuracy, the work itself betrays them. “It sounds like these people can’t play worth shit,” one of the performers said, listening to a recording. This perceptual ambiguity, where extreme accuracy gives the impression of being out of control, seemed to me an apt way to set a poetic work about the inadequacies of language, a love poem that admits it cannot articulate what it wants to say. Virtuosity betrays the performer in my work the way language betrays the poet in Beckett’s text.
The climax at the center of 77 Dream Songs: An American Wayang After John Berryman (1980) consists of a miscegenation minstrel song: performers in masks (the women in white, the men in black) and terrifying Easter pastel costumes, perform “Oh dem golden slippers,” (a popular minstrel song composed in 1879 by African-American composer James A. Bland). But the costumes are facades, and whenever the performers turn it becomes obvious that these colorful clothes are just pasted to the front of their bodies. As the song ends, a seventh performer rushes onstage, and pulls the ties that hold on these façade costumes, and they collapse to the floor, leaving the stage in a state of disarray, so that what should be an emotional climax is rendered ambiguous, painful, as the performers limp off the stage.
In 1982, I and a group of friends, (under the name The DeKalb Institute), created the JG Memorial Retrospective, a retrospective of the work of a fictional artist. The exhibit, which had all the outward trapping of a retrospective exhibition (including an audio tour of the exhibit and a gift shop where one could purchase postcards, catalogs, and photographs), was designed to critique the rather pro-forma nature of exhibitions, in which the actual content and meaning of an artist’s work seemed secondary to the structures and curatorial impulses of the museum. Many people, however, assumed that the exhibit, and JG, were real. The best parodies are difficult to recognize as such.
For many people, my most iconic performance was created in 1985, as part of a work in progress called Vegetable Love. This excerpt, first performed over a year before the final work, is a parody of myself as instructor, taking all the worst habits and mannerisms of a teacher (stammering over simple statements, losing notes, dropping chalk, etc.) and making them larger than life. You May Be Tested Later On This Material starts off as a lecture on structuralism, but by the end, in an attempt to explain kinship, I constructed a diagram of everyone I had ever slept with, a huge, messy jumble of pink triangles, little hearts, and endless erasures. The work, written in response to the death of my best friend to AIDS, might be described as tragic slapstick. More importantly, I often programmed this work at academic conferences, under assumed names, so that when I got up to give an analysis of structuralism that immediately began to fall apart, the audience was left uncertain as to whether this was "real," (that is, a presenter whose presentation was collapsing) or a performance carefully planned to look that way. Again, ambiguity was central to my purpose.
In the early 1990s, I arranged for one of my friends, a photographer interested in ethnography (who had been studying ritual possession in Ghana), to have access to my apartment, in order to document my life as an ethnographic event. Because I was complicit in this process, there was no way for it to function as an objective experience. This fictive anthropology eventually turned, as I feel much ethnography does, toward the voyeuristic. Personal Ethnography therefore ends with images of a highly personal nature, shot through my bedroom window at night, where I appear to be having a three-way with two other men (one of them the partner of the photographer).
In 1993, Music for the Tooth-Filing Ceremony considered several forms of ambiguity, prompted by my sensations of being exotic as an American in Indonesia, and as a queer man in America. This thematic material resulted in repeating structural “breakdowns.” A man in drag (noted drag personality Gurlene Hussy) was present as Margaret Mead. But the Mead character seemed unclear about where she was, or why. Her monolog kept being interrupted by other parts of the piece. Eventually she had to assisted from the stage when her monolog disintegrated into memories.
My lip-synch opera Confusion (2007), as the title suggests, is a work in which identity is lost in the obsessive interest in a celebrity. The Narrator, who seems to have no name or identity of his own, obsesses over the opera singer Natasha R. Natasha herself obsesses over the Countess de Castiglione, the most-photographed woman in the 19th century and the first person to become famous for being famous.
The Real Marcel Piron (2014) is an outgrowth of Confusion. Marcel is a minor character in the opera, a photographer famed for his images of opera singers. In this project, imagined primarily as a book, Marcel’s more personal body of work is explored and analyzed in light of his life. This work, like the JG Memorial Retrospective, is really more about the discourse of scholarship. Marcel’s photographs (almost entirely my own work) are used to explore his fictional life, but the mode suggest contemporary art analysis, complete with footnotes, references, acknowledgements, interviews, etc.. The mix of real, partially real, and completely fictive is almost impossible to untangle.