vast active… living… something or other
When Perfect Lives Manhattan goes down on November 6th, it will be third time some members of Varispeed have performed Perfect Lives on the streets of NYC. The second time was June 7th of this year as Perfect Lives Brooklyn, and the first was something Aliza & I organized in 2009 which was even less formal than that and had no name. I was recently asked where the idea came from to do a street performance of Perfect Lives and I started digging through my mind. Now, it’s not like I’m the only one with this kind of “guerilla” performance on my brain, the five of us all have our experiences with unassuming public art before these projects. But I started questioning myself, and initially, I came upon the non-staged, non-dance dancing and the confrontationally raucous, public musical improvising that occupied my time as an undergrad as starting places for me in this area*. But I didn’t have ideas for projects like this in the early ’00s, so it seemed like the real impetus for me came three years ago; something without which it never would have occurred to me to try my own hand at performing Perfect Lives or performing in public in this way. I wanted to share some thoughts on this notable moment:
I think it’s fair to say that my friend Ben Simington of Greenpoint, Brooklyn is in many ways to Philip K. Dick what I am to Robert Ashley. Ben has gone out of his way to not only understand Dick’s work, both well-known and long-lost, but to share it in a friendly, encouraging, revealing way (as opposed to people who have artistic fetishes and mostly want to hit you over the head with what they love). In 2007, I happened to pick up some of Dick’s mid-60s works, and shortly thereafter I began having regular conversations about his work and its implications with Ben.
Ben’s background is in film, and while he’s a master at karaoke and a great dancer, he’s not a performer in a traditional mold. That said, he’s got a better ability to set a scene and hold a crowd’s attention than almost anybody I know. Which is why it made perfect sense to me when Ben started mentioning that he was interested in doing some public readings of his favorite books. I can say with some confidence that part of his inspiration is the yearly reading of Moby Dick they do in Mystic, CT. After some deliberation (I think The Naked Lunch was in the running?) the book Ben settled on was VALIS, Philip K. Dick’s psychotic autobiography, in which Dick’s way of dealing with the feeling that God is speaking to him through orbiting lasers is to create a new persona separate from his own called Horselover Fat. Firm footing is hard to find in VALIS, which is part philosophy, part autobiography, part conspiracy thriller, part sci-fi. It’s a story in which plot and meditation are difficult to distinguish, and the book portrays California (North & South) of the 70s much as Perfect Lives portrays the corn belt of the late 40s to the mid 60s (in the sense that these stories couldn’t take place anywhere else). There’s plenty of similar language & metaphor between the two works, despite their vastly different tone – my favorite being the idea that four people or beings or units leave on a journey and only three return.
The parallels were in the back of my mind when I went to Ben’s first attempt at reading VALIS aloud from cover to cover as an “audience member”. The reading was to be on the Williasmburg Bridge, on the north side, at the tower closest to the Brooklyn side. The evening was very mild. J trains & bikers regularly whizzed by. The scene was amazing, transporting.
But I wasn’t ready to see what was going on. I thought of this reading more as a performance than as a rite. I went with three friends, who all enjoyed it, but while this was initially something quite social (everyone took turns reading), the task of reading and better understanding an artistic work was not properly addressed for me. I wasn’t sure why I was there – to hang, to listen, to learn. It’s of course debatable whether the goal should be more to finish reading a book out loud or to have a good time with your friends – you ideally want both to happen, but it was from this first reading of VALIS that I gleaned there might be something more to performing such a feat of dedication and endurance, using a great work of art as a vehicle to turn the simple act of reading a book into a revelation. Incidentally, though I left at 12:30 or 1 AM, Ben & co didn’t make it all the way through – the reading was done in by over consumption (and lack of proper disposal of the remnants of) chartreuse.
Ben I think had a clearer idea all along of the value of getting through the work, the value of emphasizing the rite over the social potential, and a month or so later called for a second reading**. This time, I was to be more intimately involved, and I knew what I wanted to get out of the reading. Ben set up shop around 8 PM on a Friday in the passageway between the L & the G at Metropolitan/Lorimer and started reading before anyone else formally attached to the project got there. After the abortive first attempt, we were determined to see what we would learn by executing the whole thing in public. Eventually, a core of four of us assembled and took turns reading/reciting/singing the text (1 Ben, 2 Daves, and an Adam). The cops who have a hub in that station were surprisingly disinterested in our activities. The passers by had mixed feelings. Optimism was high. Breaks were taken, but focus was maintained. The task was completed, but in full disclosure, I bailed around 3 AM before we finished. The knock on me is that I’m known to have poor late night endurance in a business where it often counts. But it was transformative for me nonetheless. I guess you don’t need the whole thing, you just need a receptive frame of mind.
The lesson learned from this was that a great way to show your love, respect, and connection with a work of art was to enact it regularly, ritualistically, and publicly. Publicity to spread the gospel and take the work out of your own headspace, ritualistically to ensure separateness from the everyday and help with focus, and regularly to acknowledge and tackle the depth of any great work of art and help make it into a ritual.
There’s also something significant to me that Ben had chosen to animate a book. We don’t think of books as ready-made performance instructions, but the VALIS readings did exactly that. So it went with Perfect Lives: we use the libretti in place of the score (which I’ve seen for the first time just this week), allowing a book to become magically transformed into a performance map. This for me was a huge lesson.
In the year between the second VALIS reading and the first Perfect Lives reading, I met Aliza Simons at a Robert Ashley concert, and thus found a co-conspirator in artistic scheming. It took a while to process these lessons of the VALIS readings and how I might apply them myself, and witnessing performances by Abby Levine & her dance group certainly helped a ton in terms of getting me thinking about performance in public spaces. Aliza was about to leave for a year on a Watson grant, but otherwise I can’t remember what the impetus was for bringing the VALIS approach to Perfect Lives. It just seemed like the right idea at the right time, and while we told our friends ahead of time, we knew we didn’t want to make a big deal out of it. The focus for me was more on what it would feel like to animate the piece than it was on the experience of hanging out or creating an audience. We were doing it for ourselves most of all, which makes it maybe not quite art in the traditional sense.
Ben was at that first daylong Perfect Lives for the Living Room and the Bar, for which I’ll be forever grateful. It was just three of us at that point, the third was one Evan Losow, and the three of us stuck to our guns by sharing an umbrella outside of Soda Bar on Vanderbilt Ave, managing to keep the libretto from getting too wet. I/We made it to the end, and having finally got the end of something, I’d like to think I learned that much more. Now things are more complicated, with arrangements and budgetary concerns and a significant audience looming, but I’m looking forward to keep Perfect Lives around for a while as something I can take out in public and learn something from whenever I need that connection, that feeling. And I hope we read VALIS again sometime soon. Let me know if you’re interested. No planning though, not right now…
*Perhaps I’m underselling the undergrad experiences. It’s probably no accident that Ben, Abby, Aliza, & I all share Wesleyan as an alma mater. Something about how Middletown is the training ground for street art in Brooklyn.
**I’m not implying that the social value is in any way a negative or undesirable, just as the social scene of a place of worship is nothing trifling. I’m just saying I’d rather worship somewhere where the holy is taken seriously than somewhere where the people are really cool, and the place where they keep an eye out for the holy is likely going to have great people to hang around anyway (but not necessarily the other way around). But heck.