The Death of the Avant-Garde and Other Urban Legends

MIX- 2014 Ceiling Blooms
MIX- 2014 Ceiling Blooms
A flaming orgy of DIY, go-for-baroque. Photo by Tinker Coalescing
A flaming orgy of DIY, go-for-baroque. Photo by Tinker Coalescing.

If the commercial Broadway theatre is the Fabulous Invalid, miraculously and profitably arising from its deathbed season after season, then its weirdo avant-garde cousin is the Incredible Lazarus, re-resurrecting from the grave of indifference with each generation.

Here in New York City, the “real” bohemian spirit seems to always lie one generation and one neighborhood behind the present: the Williamsburg of the 1990s, the East Village of the late 1970s and ’80s, the SoHo of the 1960s, the Greenwich Village of the late 1940s and ’50s. (The avant-garde is a nostalgia trip, man.) In today’s Googlefied, trust-fund-friendly downtown, the avant-garde is deader than last year’s short-in-front, long-in-back skirts.

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Of course, the avant-garde is not really dead; it just packed its paintbrushes and black tights and facial hair, and moved to a converted factory in Bushwick. If in the past the oddballs, freaks and cutting-edge aesthetes fled the stultifying conformity of the outer boroughs for the cultural freedom of pre-gentrification Manhattan, today they flee the stultifying conformity of prestigious MFA programs in Manhattan for the outer boroughs. And, yes, that’s a cliché right out of any number of New York Times lifestyle pieces of the past decade, but the fact that this trend has been noted, analyzed, rehashed, and served up to real estate interests looking for the next “cool” neighborhood to speculate the lifeblood out of, doesn’t make it any less true.

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The three performative events I attended during November and early December that inspired this month’s column, not surprisingly, took place in the Gowanus and East Williamsburg sections of Brooklyn and in Long Island City, Queens. While avant-garde movements have traditionally thrived under conditions of neglect and devalued real estate, these neighborhoods all strike a curious balance of grungy “realness” and bourgeois aspiration that seem the defining characteristic of post-millennial New York. All three may have taken place in barely repurposed industrial spaces, but on the way I passed gleaming glass-and-metal condos and afterwards there was always a charming bar with a decent wine list within easy walking distance. Which begs the question: how much longer can bridge-and-tunnel bohemia continue? This suggests an even more fundamental question: what exactly do we mean by “cutting-edge” or “avant-garde” in a time when these terms have been appropriated by pop stars (*cough* Lady Gaga *cough*), marketing and advertising agencies (and the awards they give themselves), and fashion brands? It’s obvious how these “avant-gardistas” are in service to globalized entertainment and capital, but, as Richard Schechner provocatively points out in his essay The Conservative Avantgarde, even nonprofit artists supposedly only committed to their own visions ultimately end up doing their part to keep the machinery running. They deliver exactly the product, Schnecher notes, that their presenters and patrons pay for:

As with identity politics, political correctness, and academic orthodoxy, the avant-garde is known before it is experienced.

I think Schechner has a point, and I also think he’s also being a bit unfair. There’s nothing new under the sun, even “the new.” Paradoxically, the avant-garde has established traditions and recognizable techniques (collage, multiple and simultaneous semiotic systems, resistance to cause-and-effect storytelling, extremes of maximalism and minimalism, autobiographical content, stasis and recapitulation in place of dramatic development, etc.). It also has master practitioners who serve as models and inspirations for younger artists. The influence of one of these MPs could be discerned at each of the performances I attended. Far from making them derivative, the result (for me at least) was a rich dialogue between past, present and future.

This year marked the 27th anniversary of the New York Queer Experimental Film Festival, MIX NYC. I attended the “Queering Utopia: The New and Now of Queer Performance” screening, a programming theme clearly indebted to the late cultural theorist José Esteban Muñoz’s book Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. But if Muñoz’s work provided the theoretical framework for the event, its artistic spirit came courtesy of performance artist and filmmaker Jack Smith. Taking over a cavernous warehouse in Gowanus for only a week, the festival organizers and volunteers transformed the space into a flaming orgy of DIY, go-for-baroque excess. As my friend Amanda, visiting from London, exclaimed, “It’s an art pop-up!” How refreshing, though, that the only thing for sale in this installation was the joy of shared experience and the lusciousness of the queer imaginary.

Stephanie Willing as Julia Lee-Barclay Morton as "Heather" as Patty Hearst as "Tania."  Photo by Ian W. Hill
Stephanie Willing as Julia Lee-Barclay Morton as “Heather” as Patty Hearst as “Tania.” Photo by Ian W. Hill.

Another excessive experience, albeit in the service of an intimate domestic meditation, was Julia Lee-Barclay Morton’s My First Autograce Homeography (1973-74), directed by Ian W. Hill at the Brick Theater in Williamsburg. Here the avant-garde touchstone was Richard Foreman but only if Foreman had been obsessed with Lite-FM radio and The Exorcist. It’s a fractured retelling of Lee-Barclay Morton’s unorthodox upbringing in California in the early 1970s where she was cared for by a religious zealot neighbor after her parents, for all intents and purposes, abandoned her.

Hill simultaneously conveys the bewildering emotional jumble of the lead character’s life, as well as her hope in the redemption offered by pop culture, through the sheer density of visual and aural signs with which he populates the mise-en-scène. (He told me there were 1100 sound and video cues and 238 light cues.) However, for me the most profound moment involved a single actor and some extraordinary choreography. Acting out a fantasy of female aggression and counter-cultural rebellion, Stephanie Willing as Julia as “Heather” as Patty Hearst as “Tania” practices looking cool and shooting shit up. It’s a heartbreaking moment that exposes the impossibility of a true revolution ever being televised in a postmodern world where the mask is the only reality we can be sure of.

Bobby Previte and Andrea Kleine discuss a baffling film by Yvonne Rainer. Photo by Brian Rogers.
Bobby Previte and Andrea Kleine discuss a baffling film by Yvonne Rainer. Photo by Brian Rogers.

In Screening Room, or, The Return of Andrea Kleine (as revealed through a re-enactment of a 1977 television program about a ‘long and baffling’ film by Yvonne Rainer) at the Chocolate Factory, Andrea Kleine cannily masks herself as both “herself” and MP filmmaker and postmodern choreographer Yvonne Rainer. A refusal of spectacle (both the personal and scenographic kinds), the piece confronts the fraught dynamic inherent in the spectator/performer binary. Why do we watch? Why do we need to be watched? Is being the one watched a privilege or a form of punishment? In a surveillance state, these are profound questions. We watch Kleine as Rainer “watch” herself on film in the re-creation of a talk show interview. Gradually, the piece morphs into pure movement with Kleine performing a solo dance of introspection, looking away from the audience, hair covering her face, hand flexed towards us in rejection.

The notoriously shy Rainer was in the audience the night I attended. One can only imagine what she thought as she watched Kleine, act(h)er and danc(h)er. She fled into the rainy night before any of us could ask.

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Tim Cusack
Tim Cusack is the artistic director of Theatre Askew. For Askew he has appeared in and/or directed numerous productions, including Bald Diva!; i google myself; I, Claudius; Cornbury: The Queen’s Governor; and Busted. He is the co-author of a study guide to the significant court cases of the gay rights movement and a former contributor to Stage Directions magazine. He holds a BFA from NYU/Tisch School of the Arts and an MA in Theatre from Hunter College, where he was a Vera Roberts fellow. Follow him on Twitter: @TheatreAskew.