And I never graduated from art school!
November 3, 2010 8:52 PM   Subscribe

Help! I'm suddenly a performance artist!

Tomorrow night, I have been asked to participate in the closing reception celebrating the 50th anniversary of the ONCE Group.
The reception promises a "room overwhelmed with sound & vision - snatches of music, throbs & echoes, uncanny sights, haunted by fever dreams of the avant-garde past." I am not familiar with the artists being celebrated nor have any idea where they fit into the world of art history (but I assume they are kinda fluxus-y.)

I have been asked to wear my World War I reenacting uniform, sit on a hay bale lit by a single spotlight and drink a bottle of whiskey, therefore fulfilling the "uncanny sights" portion of the evening, I suppose.

While this scenario was not my idea, I am more than willing to take part (but maybe not drink a whole bottle of whiskey.) I've not been given much direction beyond the uniform, the hay bale, and the whiskey. I am allowed to interact with people.

I would appreciate any suggestions of how I could enhance my performance and not just be a guy in an old uniform drinking in the middle of a party.

Ideally, my performance should be joined with an activity that:

Is interesting and impactful to those in attendance.
Comments on the influence of the artists being celebrated.
Is not cliched.
Is not harmful to me or those around me.
Does not trivialize or slight the sacrifices made by real soldiers in the First World War (or any war.)
Does not involve any activity or substance that could damage my uniform.
Does not involve nudity, singing, screaming or making an ass of myself (which might be a foregone conclusion.)

What is available to me:
My complete 1917 U.S. Army Infantry impression with accoutrement (helmet, gasmask, cartridge belt, the whole nine! No firearms or edged weapons, though.)
A hay bale (or two)
A period-appropriate flask.
Various objects and artifacts that I own that aren't related to World War I.
Pretty much anything else you can think of within reason.

I go on in less than 24 hours.

Many thanks in advance!
posted by Hey Dean Yeager! to Media & Arts (16 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I'd fix up something that looks like whiskey but isn't. I'd think you'd be pretty looped after drinking a real bottle of whiskey.

An activity that occurs to me is - write a long letter "home"?
posted by randomkeystrike at 8:58 PM on November 3, 2010 [3 favorites]

For the sake of verisimilitude, I would think that you would want to be grimy, sweaty, and unshaven.

Are you allowed to smoke? I doubt it, but if so, you might give that a shot.

Bring a deck of cards and play solitaire. Ignore your audience entirely, as if you're just a guy in a trench, by your lonesome, trying to make it through the night.

If you think you hear a noise, by all means, look around. Under no circumstances should you stand up tall.
posted by Gilbert at 9:10 PM on November 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

The 'letter home' is a good idea - maybe you could ask the people around you, in character, for help with the letter. E.g., "Hey Charlie! What's the name of that river we crossed last week?" or "Sarge, when's my next furlong?" or "Davie, what'd you think of the cookies she sent?"

It might be useful to know some of the lingo of the time. Here are some links on Life in the Trenches.
posted by Hardcore Poser at 9:19 PM on November 3, 2010

I think you should drink the real bottle of whiskey. I assume that gradually becoming less and less coherent is the point.

Unless of course you'll be driving or you're prone to making a complete ass of yourself when drunk. I'm assuming here that you can somewhat hold your liquor and getting drunker and drunker as the evening wears on would be endearing and "part of the performance aspect".
posted by Sara C. at 9:30 PM on November 3, 2010

I would stick pretty well with what the organizers have asked for; they presumably know how it all fits in with the main group. You're singing backup; don't plan to bust out a solo.

Commitment is the key here. You become the character, and you stick to it. You are a soldier, in a trench, waiting for the call for the big push and knowing that gas could come at any instant. You're thinking about the rats, about how bad the grub is, about the girl you left back home. Basically, you're staring into the middle distance, lost in your thoughts. Don't see anyone in the room; remember, they're in Ann Arbor in 2010, and you're in Ypres in 1917.

Stare into the middle distance (10-15 feet away); don't make eye contact, but don't avoid people's eyes, either. They're just like the wall; just more people scurrying from one part of the trench to another. Occasionally look somewhere else, check your gear, take a sip of whiskey.

It's not showy, and you don't get to be a star, but there's a wholesome satisfaction of a job well done. And it's harder than it sounds, but commitment and character are the difference between a quietly effective performance and just being a guy in an outfit.

Also, the standard replacement for whiskey is room temperature tea, watered down appropriately.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 9:35 PM on November 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Unless of course you're not meant to be in character at all.

Having worked with performance artists and organized events like this, it's entirely possible that they're not expecting you to be a reenactor or stage character at all. The fact that you are allowed to interact with people, to me, means that what they want is probably not in line with what you'd be expected to do if you were an actor in a play. They literally might want you to be a guy in an outfit. They might quite specifically EXPECT you to drink real whiskey.

I would have a conversation about the organizers about this. Because the stock behavior of "performance artist" and the stock behavior of "actor" are really, really different. If you go in there as if you are about to appear in a play, you might really miss the mark.

I do really love the idea of the letter home, though.

Also, in light of "haunted by fever dreams of the avant-garde past," I think it could be interesting if you incorporated some aspect of the artistic and literary movements that directly came out of people's experiences with The Great War. Think Hemingway in Paris, the Lost Generation, cubism, futurism, Dada, etc. You also might want to do a quick Wikipedia tour of major world events during the war, for instance the Russian Revolution or the Spanish Flu epidemic.
posted by Sara C. at 9:53 PM on November 3, 2010

If you have experience with war reenactments, choose a bit from what you would normally do during a reenactment. Something most people would not consider who are not familiar with war. One of my students gave me Generation Kill to watch, and I found it really interesting to see the less action oriented issues soldiers have to address.

Another thought: the work of Joseph Beuys. He based a few of his performances on his near death experience during the war. He crashed in enemy territory, and the peasants wrapped him in fat and felt to save him from freezing to death. If you have alcohol and straw, for example, those are two life giving, heat giving elements in shivering weather. I'm not suggesting you set them on fire at all--your shivering would make the warming elements more powerful. Shivering would evoke isolation and loneliness. Beuys also has a work based on living with a wild dog for a few days---so there's some man and nature elements, for example.

You could take a look at the work of Yoko Ono. She dressed in layered clothing, and invited the audience to snip it off her body a bit at a time. It's devastating to watch.

Either of these artists would have a lot of folks in the audience who would be familiar with their work, so you could refer to theirs in your performance.

I hope you have fun.
posted by effluvia at 10:01 PM on November 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

These are great!

I plan on being sweaty and unshaven, and wearing all wool under a spotlight will certainly help that along. After wearing the uniform to several events its nicely worn in and muddy. And it smells lovely!

I agree that my role is entirely supportive. I am not and do not want to be the center of attention. I don't think I'm supposed to be a character, nor do I really want to play a character. I like the idea of playing solitaire, too. I have a nice deck of cards that would work well.

effluvia, good call on Joseph Beuys. I hadn't thought of him. One thing I had thought of was reciting a Hugo Ball sound poem (its the right era, and the mumbling nonsense might be apropos) but that may be too much.

Thanks again and keep'em coming!
posted by Hey Dean Yeager! at 10:50 PM on November 3, 2010

You are *not* being asked to be a performer, you are being asked to be a 'walk about'* part. (does not necessarily involve walking about). The most important thing you can do is come across as convincing and a lot of that will have to do with how you look, so you don't have any big worries. Interacting with people is fine, but not compulsory. If you choose to do so remember you are not at a party at the beginning of the 21st century, you are in the first world war. It's important not to get caught up in your surroundings. The trick with these sort of these is often to interact with people without acknowledging them (they aren't there -- you are in WWI the are in the future).

As an example of this I got asked to perform this year as a live performance hole on a miniature golf course (along with a bunch of other dancers). I would do all sorts of things pocket the ball, stick my foot in front of it, pick it up at random and drop it down at another a part of the hole, even hide it in my mouth. The one thing I was careful not to do was directly acknowledge the people playing. The better I was able to do this the better things went because it meant I was in control and people had to play around me (which was what I was there for) rather than me working around them. If I had directly acknowledged them it was have been too easy for things to get caught up in peoples reticence and embarrassment. By ignoring them they had no choice but to do what they were there for.

It is also worth knowing that however much it should be otherwise a large proportion of people are going to be there with traditional expectations -- i.e. they are the audience who are there to be passively entertained, the performers are over there and never the twain shall meet.

Finally whiskey and tea look exactly the same when they are in a bottle. You might be wise to take advantage of this.
posted by tallus at 11:39 PM on November 3, 2010

I like the letter idea. What about reading actual letters aloud? I'm sure that between now and then you could find plenty of material online and print it out. if you select things that are appropriate, I'll bet you could actually do something that is pretty poignant, and would make a nice contribution to the overall environment.

I would recommend reading in a normal speaking voice (nothing showy or attention grabbing, nothing that could be disrespectful to the people that lived through it). People would have to stand near you to actually follow what you are saying.
posted by Benjamin Nushmutt at 11:46 PM on November 3, 2010

Wasn't Trench Art a big thing in WW1? Could you hit your local Army Surplus and get a big shell casing to etch things into? It could give you lots of busy work.
posted by TooFewShoes at 12:29 AM on November 4, 2010

It's the "uncanny sights" part that's interesting. Seems like the more realistic you are, the more uncanny it will be. Which means you might direct comments to the audience, but not necessarily "hear" their responses.

Croon a period song to yourself -- off-key is just fine, along with a little more mumbling as you drink more, and a bit of not-remembering-the-lines. "My Buddy" would be great, or "Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag and Smile, Smile, Smile" with the proper amount of depressive irony. I think if you're going to try the letter bit, you really should add the "Hey Charlie, what was the name of that river" bit, too. Otherwise you're just a guy in an old uniform drinking and scribbling in the middle of the party.

There's also taking off your boots, examining your feet, wringing out your socks, etc.

And when that gets old, slump over and catch some shut-eye, complete with snores, snorts and little moans during your dreams. Drool never hurts.

Do NOT bring non-WWI stuff with you! (You probably know that, if you already have the gear. No FARBs, even for art.)

Have fun -- or more appropriately, I suppose, have a blast!
posted by kestralwing at 12:30 AM on November 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

Honestly, I think if you just drink the whiskey like you've been asked to then the rest should come pretty naturally. Whiskey's funny like that.
posted by Ted Maul at 2:38 AM on November 4, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'd echo Sara C. and say to do exactly what the artists want you to do. They're obviously going for a specific effect by having a dude getting drunk in the middle of the hall, and it's impossible to know from your description what that effect is. If what they want is a convincing WWI soldier, then do everything everyone says above. But if I were you, I'd make sure everything you do is fine with the artists – if they're doing, I dunno, some piece about the impossibility of human relationships in a time of industrialised war, then busting out some sweet poem to your girlfriend back home might not be appropriate.

Either way, have fun! It sounds like a blast.
posted by dudekiller at 5:42 AM on November 4, 2010

By all means, ACT like you're getting drunk. But a bottle of real whiskey - c'mon guys, you're talking alcohol poisoning time...
posted by randomkeystrike at 11:33 AM on November 4, 2010

A flask isn't that much whiskey, and nobody here said he had to drink the whole thing. A swig out of a flask every now and again, over the course of an evening event, isn't going to do much damage*. Half the people there will probably doing the same, or will be drinking far more liberal amounts of cheap wine.

If it's a typical reception and not some kind of crazy marathon Performance Art Till The Break O' Dawn thing, it should be fine to drink throughout without worrying that you will die of alcohol poisoning.

*Usual disclaimers about driving etc apply.
posted by Sara C. at 11:41 AM on November 4, 2010

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