The results of the election have churned up a tsunami of cultural backlash aimed at the incoming Trump administration’s rhetoric of hatred and intolerance (or, in at least one case, in support of it). There’s a lot of doom and gloom right now– hate crimes are on the rise as our new political era continues to take shape with increasingly horrifying cabinet appointments, from a conspiracy theory-touting Islamophobe as Secretary of Defense to a Department of Energy head who once called for the agency’s abolishment– even so, artists and cultural figures have banded together to express their dismay.
Some, like the Instagram campaign and public protest #DearIvanka, have infused political action with artsy weirdness, while others have just continued making the art they always have, the only difference being that the injustices they’re concerned with– the patriarchy, white supremacy, xenophobia– have seen something of a comeback as some Americans are once again proud to wear their prejudices on their sleeves (or Twitter feeds).
A Sunday-night performance at The Gateway, Diverse Universe: Alien Asylum, was proof that even the out-there psychedelic spirituality of Wild Torus, the collaborative performance art effort of Mág Ne Tá Z’air and Vlady Voz Tokk (aka Amy Mathis and Mike Berlant), have reconciled their above-the-political-fray, countercultural spiritualism with the current political moment, apparently moved by the same sense of urgency many of us are feeling in response to authoritarian stirrings.
When we last saw the pair, they had returned to Brooklyn, following an extended hiatus after leaving Torus Porta, to meet up with a relatively new Bushwick-based curatorial duo called Pulsar (run by power couple Tif Robinette and Ian Deleón) for the inaugural Wild Embeddings, an ongoing event series described as a “rave for adults” that combines Torus’s trademark super-maximalism with Pulsar’s occult-attuned minimalism. That event, which took place in October, felt like typical Wild Torus, carefree and ecstatic– a twisted baroque masquerade that, minus the noise music and projectors, could have gone down in fin-de-siécle Vienna or Weimar Berlin. It was a much-needed escape from real-world anxieties and especially the ongoing election.
Alien Asylum felt completely different. Instead of drop-out, anti-establishment escapism in favor of heightening spiritual experience, the more than 20 participating artists invited attendees to “descend into dissent,” a fairly clear indication of where they stood on the matter of the election. The sci-fi themes alone were indication enough that these performers were looking toward an idealized version of the future, which could be accessed by audience members who entered the “space-safe.” Much like Afrofuturism holds, “space is the place,” the theme was a reminder that by tapping into the vastness of the universe, all humans, no matter how alien they might feel to the present state of things, are bonded by their common humanity.
A performance by Bonnie Lane would have looked familiar to anyone who attended this year’s NYC Porn Film Festival, where the artist could be seen as a projected image shimmying across her desktop to disco tunes, apparently animated by the grainy, close-up vids of various dudes rubbing one off that danced across the screen as pop-up windows. On Sunday night, Lane shared a live version of her video– dancing across the Gateway’s checkered floor, wearing only lingerie and the projected images that illuminated her body as she shook it to songs like “My Neck, My Back” and Diana Ross’s “Upside Down.” She was in complete control. The dicks behind her looked like objects of mockery that were only topped in their idiocy by the cliché images of white male artists that floated across the screen. “Could this be a comment on the male dominance of the art world?” my friend asked, opening her eyes wide in feigned wonder.
Upstairs, Polina Riabova wore a blue wig and stripped down to her undies for a pretty creepy performance with Ronit Levin Delgado Rochas that had the audience both spellbound and totally confused. Riabova sprawled out on the floor, stretching her body into yoga moves while chain smoking and occasionally talking to herself. There were audible gasps when she casually put a cigarette out on her hip and began punching herself, first her thighs and then her chest. Meanwhile, Rochas was encased in a plastic-wrapped prison, methodically kissing the transparent walls and leaving behind red lipstick stains. Eventually, Riabova broke the spell when she freed Rochas from her self-imposed plastic cell.
Non Grata‘s performance seemed like an appropriate centerpiece for a show called Alien Asylum. As an awesomely weird sci-fi freakout, it was a fantastical critique of authoritarian tendencies and autocratic systems, things they know well as artists from Estonia, a Baltic nation with a fraught history under Russian imperial order and, subsequently, Soviet control. It became the most explicitly critical piece of the night when one of the performers addressed the audience: “They say, ‘Let’s make America great again.’ But who needs America?” Aliens from another realm descended on the room, carrying an enormous brain into the middle of the crowd, promising: “We’re going to make humans great again.”
The same orator seemed especially concerned with overcoming apathy. “Let’s make a break, we can’t sit here and enjoy because you are all a part of it.” Amen. Eventually, the brain was cracked open, revealing a teeming mass of sparkly wires. A masked woman picked out the innards and handed them to the audience members, the implication being that in order to start anew we’ve got to destroy what’s broken first. Eventually all of this culminated in each performer taking up a sledgehammer and violent smashing a computer mainframe to pieces. Meanwhile a handheld torch was passed around the room as the performers set off large flames that would disappear as fast as they came rushing out. Bits of plastic and glass flew around the room, but the audience stayed where they were, fascinated by the destruction taking place and the feeling of utter mayhem.
At one point, a woman dropped her pants and took a pee on top of the growing pile of rubble. “She needs to drink more water,” an audience member remarked, pointing out that it had taken a minute for her to get some liquid out. Then another bystander hopped in and let out a gush of urine on top of the already steaming pile of smithereens.
But a performance staged downstairs by Wild Torus was a bizarre turn for a show that, up until that point, had been dominated by inclusivity– women artists, anti-misogynist expression, anti-fascism, creative freedom in the face of authoritarianism, among other things. The image of figures on stilts wearing black pointed hoods, obscured completely by their robes, save for their eyes which peeked through olive shaped slits, bore an unmistakable resemblance to the Ku Klux Klan. To make matters worse, the performers were strung together by thick rope, recalling a noose and instantly invoking lynch mobs from the not-so-distant past, as well as a ongoing history of violence against people of color.
Not surprisingly the performance elicited an angry response from a few people in the audience, and it seemed to be cut short after a white woman wearing a flowered dress planted herself in the middle of the staged chaos, even after the performers had derobed, apparently moving on to another scene. Eventually, a couple of the performers branched out and began tying the rope around the audience members, most of them white onlookers, a clear indication that they too were complicit. Eventually, the ropes were subsumed by a massive vine of faux roses, maybe an attempt to move things from horror to redemption, but the shift wasn’t powerful enough to sufficiently communicate much of anything. The damage was done.
“Stop!” the protestor screamed. “This is racist!” Even if the vast majority of the crowd stood silent, seemingly dumbfounded and more confused and grossed out than they were convinced that Wild Torus was staging a racist performance, the protester voiced what many of us were probably thinking: “What’s the point?”
B+B reached out to Wild Torus for comment after the event, but has yet to receive a response. Given their history as a performance art duo, it seems unlikely that the message was meant to be racist. However, regardless of intent, what came across were images of racist violence, and symbols of hatred and hostility toward people of color. I missed the first few minutes of the performance, but a friend witnessed at least one person “storm out” out of the venue. Wild Torus issued no reassurances or explanations in the immediate aftermath of the performance, and preferred only to leave the audience with, “Fuck you.”
Kalan Sherrard, the Occupy Wall Street protestor, and a puppeteer who was recently named our city’s “most avant-garde nihilist” subway busker, was amongst those audience members who were vocally protesting the performance. He posted an extensive, and really pretty fair response on Facebook the next day. “It’s negative to ambiguously deploy sensational reproductions of racist trauma,” he wrote. And concluded: “im not mad at anyone, like i dont think ‘they’re racists!’ really at all i just think it shows about people’s filters and was pretty remarkably unthoughtful and careless and glib [sic].”
After the piece came to an end, my friend and I were discussing what we’d seen when a stranger approached us and asked to be updated on what the hell just happened. Weirdly, the KKK reference was lost on him– the guy explained that he was European, and that, “No one from Europe would have made that connection.”
Certainly, there’s a direct connection between the performance and current events: the KKK not only endorsed Donald Trump for President, former “Imperial Wizard” (aka Asshat in Chief) David Duke has praised the incoming administration for, among other things, appointing former Breitbart executive Steve Bannon as chief strategist. And the context points to the fact that Wild Torus, like the other participating artists, probably opposes this corrupt alignment and Trump’s slowness to disavow the support of white supremacists. But even co-opting and inverting the image of a hooded KKK figure by turning the white sheet to a black cloak, for the purpose of ironic imitation or voicing disapproval of hate, or whatever it was, is not ok.
The whole thing brought to mind the poet Kenneth Goldsmith’s reading of Michael Brown’s autopsy– the two performances could be interpreted, at best, as the result of flippant disregard for the pain and violence inflicted by white people on black and brown people throughout American history, or as a shameless exploitation of the hideous results of white supremacy for the purpose of getting across a white artist’s message. At worst, both are examples of outright racism, or as my friend suggested, “anti-black art.”
What made the performance all the more disturbing is that it was taken on by artists, and in the company of many other artists, whose work has so far been nothing but tolerant and welcoming, and critical only of the powers dishing out injustice, not aimed at those suffering from it. On top of that, the vast majority of the performers were white people, many of them white men, and the same went for their audience– white men, followed by white women, still have the upper hand in the art world in terms of funding, access to education and resources (material, financial, social, psychological), nepotism, and freedom from police harassment and fear of arrest. The performance co-opted an image that is not only symbolic of the KKK, but intrinsically tied to the source from which this white supremacist terrorist organization derives their power: purported anonymity and the blind-eye tolerance of the police, politicians, and the public, which have allowed the KKK and other hate groups to commit acts of violence and intimidating.
As a whole, Alien Asylum offered an accurate reflection of our current crisis as it plays out in the realm of art and culture. The vast majority of the work was on-point and the very opposite of alienating, and it’s necessary now more than ever for artists to denounce hatred and, especially for artists like these to use their position of privilege to lend their support to those who are targets of Trump’s policies of intolerance. But if the beneficiaries of oppression are trying to call out their fellow oppressors by using the very same tools of said oppression, then the message becomes muddled and folds back on itself, reinforcing hatred by honoring the power of its symbolic expression (in this case, the KKK costume) through replication.
Even worse, art like this fails to recognize and respect the perspective and feelings of those who have struggled to achieve basic rights as dignified human beings in a system and social order that has excluded, exploited, and murdered them since day one. The only comfort is knowing that Wild Torus is run by good people and good artists making what has mostly been pretty decent, if sometimes polarizing, art work. That leaves just one question for art work like this: Really, what’s the point?