Journal

Pseudonyms and Skepticism: My Date With a Stranger for Frace/Yousefzadeh's The Life Model Jan 20, 2016

by Tessa Hulls

My third date with a stranger almost didn't happen.

When I email him to discuss the details of the project—I bring a total stranger who has never been to On the Boards to see a show, we talk about performance art and whatever else our conversation meanders to, and then I write about the whole experience for the OtB blog—he wants to make sure that neither his name or image will end up used in promotional materials or posted on the internet. I tell him that, for my first two participants (you can see them here and here), names and images had been used, and so perhaps this isn't going to work out. But my curiosity was piqued; at the very least, I was interested in having a conversation about the ownership of digital identity and the feasibility of controlling one's internet footprint.

So I propose a compromise: What if we use a fake name and don't post a picture? “Owen”—who chose his own pseudonym—is game. We agree over email that, seeing as it's easy to google a picture of me, it will be up to him to find me in the lobby. So my sketchbook and I sit down before Frace/Yousefzadeh's The Life Model and wait with absolutely no prior information about the person I am about to meet. The individual who shows up is considered, articulate—and extremely skeptical about performance art.

“I have a love/hate relationship with performance art,” he tells me. Owen runs an ESL tutoring center for a local community college, and he questions whether art can be as pertinent to real life as it often lays claim to. Owen speaks with the cadence of someone who takes the time to fully form his opinions, and has clearly thought through his perspective on art. He appreciates art because it gives the “opportunity to disrupt regular engagement with the world, to make reality feel strange and to make me more able to see life's nuances and inconsistencies.” But he also criticizes its self-indulgence and snootiness, the way it revels in its own inaccessibility.

I ask Owen why he was interested in participating in my OtB experiment, and his response is pragmatic: “I mostly wanted the free ticket. Something like this is too expensive to see otherwise.” A quick digression: as a working artist, I can very much empathize with this sentiment, and I would like to take this moment to say that if you are broke and passionately want to see art (of all sorts), there is almost always a money-less way to make this happen. On the Boards has a Ticket Bank where—through the kind donations of those who are financially able—interested parties can sign up for a lottery of free available tickets, and many theaters offer a “pay what you can” night. If you're a young'un, many theaters offer an under-25 discount, and also the Teen Tix Program, which gets you into a mindboggling array of places for only $5 a ticket. The Seattle Public Library also offers free museum passes (seriously, this is amazing), and if that's not enough, there are many, many things you can do to get yourself a comp ticket. Theaters need handbills passed out, bars tended, sets painted, audiences ushered, tickets taken, and so on and so forth. Arts organizations fully understand what it means to not have much money; if you reach out to them and say that you really want to see something but can't afford it, beautiful compromises and volunteer opportunities will often arise. 

As a self-described punk who questions entrenched systems and power dynamics, Owen is perhaps the perfect person with whom to watch The Life Model. The show takes place during the 2011 Egyptian rebellions that led to the resignation of then-President Hosni Mubarak, and the story focuses on the relationship between art, politics and national identity. Henry, an established white American artist whose work is inspired by the geometric patterning of Islamic art, is in Cairo on a fancy commission. While there, he begins a romance with the Egyptian video artist Muna, whose Brazillian/Egyptian cousin Gabriella is in Cairo tying up loose ends after the death of her mother. While lost on a street corner, Gabriella meets Ali, a rakishly charming activist and graffiti artist who is more than happy to show her around the city and lead her into the realm of activism. The show shifts between four languages—Arabic, English, Portuguese, and Art Speak—and while each of the characters can speak at least two of the four, there is no common language in which they are all fluent.

Henry is going through a very solipsistic identity crisis about himself as an artist—the specifics REALLY don't matter—and he garrets himself away in his studio listening to classical music while the sounds of the revolution fill the streets. As Muna and Gabriella become more politicized in their actions, Henry digs his heels in deeper to the world of his art (some of his one-liners: “what you call cynical others might call discerning,” and, “politics don't affect my work”) but is eventually forced to concede that he can't hide within the cloistered vacuum of his studio and that he, too, must go join the rebellion. Many aspects of the show are very successful; all four actors deliver impassioned, believable performances, and the interweaving of video projections is a particularly strong note.

But something about the show just doesn't connect, and after the performance, Owen and I sit in the lobby and try to hone in on what fell flat. Both of us question the choice of Henry as the entryway into the storyline. “I felt annoyed that he took up so much of the narrative,” Owen offers, and I agree that there's something obnoxious about the story of a revolution being couched within the extended metaphor of a rich white man wrestling with his relationship to art.

At one point in the show, we see the characters running lost through a street riot, their forms drifting in and out of the walls of smoke wafting over the stage. But rather than showing a sense of frenetic, messy chaos, the play's rebellions feels tightly controlled, and some of the tropes that strive to instil a swelling universality of inspiration instead simply highlight the near-impossibility of finding a true emotional engagement with someone else's revolution. I wanted to be moved by The Life Model, but it felt almost like looking at Banksy print; the moving stereotypes writ large removed the power of personal connection. Owen summed it up perfectly: “Its insistence on eloquence made it stilted.”

I am very glad I saw this show with someone who was not part of the art world choir, because the questions raised by an outside perspective are larger, more challenging on a systemic level. Rather than approaching the show as a single performance that didn't quite work, the conversation that I have with Owen centers around whether or not art has the capacity to make a meaningful contribution to the realities of oppression and human struggle. Owen came in a skeptic, and in this case, he left equally skeptical; “I could see what they were trying to do,” he says. “But I just didn't feel it.”

The show closes with the actors standing upon a platform, their gazes turned earnestly out into the crowd. They look up, draw a deep breath as though about to speak, and then the lights go out. Owen and I are both waiting for them to have something more to say.  

 

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The Adventures of Honeybucket
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