May 2016



Vanguard Performance: Beyond Left and Right edited by Kimberly Jannarone

Despite being commonly grasped as left-leaning, vanguard performance and its real impact on the audience can be slippery to say the least. In fact, there is actually no real guarantee that its initial intention will not eventually be confiscated by a different kind of agenda, one that supports the exact same power arrangements inherently opposed by the vanguard act. Fed by uncomfortable discrepancies, Kimberly Jannarone's Vanguard Performance: Beyond Left and Right is set to apprehend exactly this: that a vanguard performance, despite its groundbreaking means and scope, can slip out of its creator's grip only to benefit reactionary and even totalitarian ends.

Betting on Karlheinz Stockhausen's (in)famous comment on the 9/11 events, describing them as avant-garde art in its purest form, Richard Schechner's essay recounts his own experience of the not-so-sublime when watching the twin towers collapse from his balcony while also being aware that he, too, is a part of an enslaved audience, just as the terrorists planned in the first place when rehearsing their final act for years and ensuring that it would be broadcast at peak time. Patricia Gaborik's "Il Duce's Directors" unearths the conveniently overlooked relationship between Luigi Pirandello and Benito Mussolini in an alert undertaking, to annul too simplistic or whitewashing perceptions on the playwright's most-known plays. One may fail to see any relation between experimental theater and fascism, but Pirandello's vanguard acts, with their constant appeal to innovation and cultural formation, caught and fueled Mussolini's interest in this particular form of live act. Pirandello's acts conquered the audience and invaded its senses, conveying the precise kind of reception that the Italian fascist regime required in its effort to build "the new man."

Nazi political rituals functioned as performances designed to evoke the sublimity of the total state. While most of the party leadership shared an intense hostility toward modernist art and literature, Nazi rallies were, like many avant-garde performances, designed to dismantle any psychic barrier between the star performer and other participants. Hitler describes speechmaking in the way that Marinetti and Artaud describe the ideal performance: as both an artistic act and a form of assault. [...] Hitler transforms words and gestures into weapons designed to batter away the crowd's capacity for doubt and reason, joining their will to that of the leader.

On another part of the European continent, also wrecked by the First World War, the dream of "the great English man" was also fostered, and Henry Williamson's writings (Tales from a Devon Village, A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight) and failed efforts to (re)create a heroic performance based on the myth of natural order stand as proof. His eagerness to regenerate the present context and achieve transcendence through choreographed rallies, coupled with his commitment to see various ethnic and racial groups as guilty for the corruption of the highest moral and natural standards, was and still is an inspiration for the UK's fascist groups.

Performing a reactionary, highly groomed masculinity in relation with the traditional Japanese warrior and as a counterpoise to his own cross-dressing, homosexuality, and love for the famous drag queen Akihiro Miwa, the prolific Japanese writer Yukio Mishima was also in love with fascist aesthetic, the idea of heroic death and leaving behind a beautiful corpse. In the ultimate -- and also his last -- vanguard performance that took the shape of a failed coup d'état and the subsequent seppuku as a protest against the modern, postwar Japan and a celebration of the imperial past, Mishima obscured the barriers between art and reality until one could not discern which is which.

The audience's exaltation and appetite for wholeness may be apolitical per se, but this doesn't mean that the effect of an immersive performance trying to create and reaffirm this very solidarity and community cannot easily be hijacked by totalitarian and right-wing politics. For instance, Rudolf Laban's initial mass choral bodies and their attempts at reinstating an artistic Greek antiquity out of temporality were used by Mussolini's fascist regime when trying to create and affirm the sense of belonging to the larger-than-life, mythic Romanita, in a useful mix of imagined past events and future conquests. And when you have thousands and thousands of performers making the same gestures at the same time in a choreography that is nothing less than awe-inspiring and disturbing at the same time, you might get a grasp at the sheer viscerality of this kind of performance. Spotlighting the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, directed by the controversial Zhang Yimou (who started his filmmaking career with subversive features that targeted the Chinese dictatorship), Katherine Profeta indicates how a mass spectacle designed to include totalitarian politics and celebrate the submission of the individual to the higher common good (aka the leader, one's nation, single-party state) can also be acknowledged as an innovative, vanguard performance. Or how Zhang Yimou himself puts it:

I have conducted [sic] operas in the West. It was so troublesome. They only work four and a half days each week. Everyday there are two coffee breaks. There cannot be any discomfort, because of human rights. This can really worry me to death. Wow, one week, I thought I should have rehearsed it very smoothly already, but they could not even stand in straight lines yet. You could not criticize them either. They all belong to some organizations. [...] They have all kind of institutions, unions. We do not have that. We can work very hard, can withstand lots of bitterness.

The vanguard substance of the performances staged in hell houses (horror-based attractions run by Christian reverends/churches to depict the dangers and punishments for not being a good Christian) might fly smoothly under the radar, unless one is eager to go deeper than eye-rolling and making sarcastic comments and focus on the way the audience's emotions, particularly those of a religious kind, can be channeled according to the director's purpose. However, Ann Pellegrini's "Signaling through the Flames" points out how the message forwarded by these dubious hell houses (that employ secular means and technology kits to approach their main audience, the younger generations) cannot be fully contained and how it could easily be queered precisely because of the very nature of the chosen medium, the theater. For instance, homosexuality/gay marriage is one of the "sins" that is mounted all the time during such performances, but the actors are never two men, but a real-life heterosexual couple, with the woman wearing make-up and clothes to look like a man. The reason can be found in the possible temptation that may occur during intensive rehearsals, and going for a heterosexual, real-life couple is the safest bet when the main purpose of the act is to convince the audience that homosexuality is a sin punishable by HIV-related death and eternal damnation. What such performances fail to contemplate is that some attentive people in the audience may already be questioning their own sexuality or gender. Or they might even get turned on at the sight or more interested in the homosexual act, only not in the direction coveted by the Christian church. You may also feel tempted to evoke delusion or hypocrisy when hearing arguments that such hell houses don't promote hate speech or hate-motivated actions, but once placed in the bigger American picture, they start "making sense" somehow:

"Love the sinner, hate the sin" allows people to espouse punitive judgments and promote discriminatory policies against their neighbors and fellow citizens, all the while experiencing themselves as "tolerant" and "open-minded." [...] This is about larger structures of American political life in which invidious social distinctions are maintained in part by the way they hook into dominant feelings. Feelings of tolerance actually support hierarchy and social domination. Although tolerance is usually promoted as a response to violence and social division, in practice, tolerance works to affirm existing social hierarchies by establishing an us-them relationship between a dominant center and those on the margins. To put the matter more starkly, tolerance might feel good -- and like good fate -- to those who mouth its words; but being tolerated might not always feel all that different from being hated.

There is hardly anything new about sporting military-style hairstyles and clothes, bombastic lyrics, and martial tones in vanguard music performances, mainly as a subversive venture to provoke, to make the audience question its own assumptions and submission to the laws of commodification that govern even nonmainstream music that came to life as a caustic reaction to the status quo and its exploitative dynamics. But the ambiguity at play in such carefully forged sonic acts stays. Regardless of the musician's or band's initial intention, the listener (who might also happen to be a full-time dictator) is still free to imagine what he/she wants, meaning that he/she could also take things quite literally. The genuine potential for misappropriating these music performances and their message lies precisely in their premeditated play with paeans to power and totalitarian iconography that is already charged by horrific events in recent history. This is precisely the case with controversial bands such as Death in June (well known for unapologetically indulging in Nazi paraphernalia and the vocalist's fascination with fascism) and Laibach, which managed to play in North Korea not so long ago (for further reading on this Slovenian band, you may want to check out Marina Gržinić's Necropolitics, Racialization, and Global Capitalism).

Aligning the latest improvements in communication technologies that led to the advent of radio with the ever-changing requests of modern combat, James Harding's "Encrypted Vanguards and Bleeding-Edge Technologies" points out how war as a large-scale site of innovation can invariably be employed by the least expected form of vanguard performance -- espionage. A kind of conduct that wasn't intended to be a work of art in the first place, espionage sets up double-cross agents who perform according to encrypted scenarios that are cutting both ways, and end up caught in a vanguard performance that is way out of their control -- they are both the players and the play itself, only this kind of play comes with bloody results as well. When the UK theater company Cheek by Jowl staged The Changeling (1622) in an attempt to recreate a well-known female character, the Jacobean "bad girl" heroine, as being much more than the shattered victim of sexual abuse who is not in control of her own sexuality, feminists may have applauded it at first. But Kim Solga's "Beatrice Joanna and the Rhetoric of Rape" flags how such a vanguard, left-leaning mise en scène can actually end up creating new, updated versions of the "classic" dichotomy that it tries to erode and which still rests at the very foundation of patriarchy: victim and/or whore. In the absence of a discerning audience that is experienced at making clear distinctions between sex work and traffic (an issue that still haunts feminist organizations), performances similar to the one staged by Cheek by Jowl will continue to wind up activating highly conservative reactions and interpretations among their viewers.

Illustrating the evenly lubricated process through which art academies are currently bent by the capitalist market to produce vendible artists whose work can pay off for any financial investment, "The Academy and the Marketplace" by Liz Tomlin also asserts that avant-garde artists are not an exception from this context either, even if by their very belonging to this form of art, they should oppose and not reinforce the status quo and its commercial ends. In fact, the few "chosen" avant-garde artists are likely and also expected to produce polite, conformist, and sterile art works that lack any real challenge and critical commitment and are not worth anything except money.

In this way, Mann argues that "art against the institution of art ends by advancing the institution's interests, revitalizing its moribund agencies, providing it with alternatives that constitute its next stage of development." In the same way, Mike Sell notes that "by dematrixing objects, actions, and signifiers from their customary social significance, Happenings and Fluxus events engaged the cultural logic of American capitalism, a logic that is more concerned with discovering new sources of value than sustaining old ones." In fact, Sell suggests, as is now widely acknowledged, that avant-garde movements could, in one sense, be seen as "research-and-development labs for a hipper, gentler, more interesting capitalism."

Concluding with a piece of writing pledged to apprehend the distressing links between avant-garde theory and right-wing ideology, Kimberly Jannarone's collection of essays cracks front-seated beliefs about experimental performance and the political reactions it is supposed to arouse, while also disclosing how even the most ingenious and radical vanguard acts, set out to challenge and protest against oppressive powers of various allegiances, can not only decline in their bid, but also be perverted to willfully back those very same powers. Ultimately, Vanguard Performance: Beyond Left and Right could also work as an honest but deeply distressing warning on how our own emotional urge to submit, even if temporarily and "apolitically," to ideas of completeness, community, and sublime belonging can be arrested and instrumentalized to disastrous, even lethal ends.

Vanguard Performance: Beyond Left and Right edited by Kimberly Jannarone
University of Michigan Press
ISBN: 978-0472119677
320 pages