Fuse Box 2008 Part I

[28 May 2008]

By Justin Follin

Fuse Box 2008
04.24.2008 – 05.03.2008
Austin, TX

Part I: Performances covered: Etiquette, Five in the Morning, endless ocean endless sky, Inside the Dream Machine

A. Austin itself is experimental. Here we are in the middle of Texas. You can drive for a day and never leave the state. We are surrounded by cow ranches and long, flat roads and every stereotype I’d ever had about the Lone Star State before I moved here.

Think of the stereotypes you hold about Texas.

Find letter G and continue reading.

B. We are outside a small café across from a storage house and an empty lot. A pretty woman with bright red lipstick sings Girl from Ipanema over two ukuleles and an upright bass at the other end of the patio. That is not part of the show, but it is, because we hear it. It becomes part of the show: Etiquette.

The show is just us: my self and a friend. We are new friends. I only met her a few weeks before, and we hardly know each other. I brought her with me because the program’s description offered that London-based collective Rotozaza’s Etiquette is “best done with someone you know, someone to share this with.” I found it exciting to bring someone I didn’t know. And now we are sitting at this small table outside the café at dusk, wearing headphones and staring into each other’s eyes. It’s what the voice said to do:

Look into her eyes.

Find letter E and continue reading.

C. The next night I am early and walk into the theatre where there is a petite actress in a bikini that shows off a tan and a flat stomach, staring wide eyed at me. Two ushers run forward and ask, “Sir, can I help you?” They usher me out. I wasn’t supposed to see that yet, so I leave the theater for a walk around the neighborhood.

This theater is the Salvage Vanguard, a brand new venue in East Austin that might once have been an airplane storage hangar for the old airport that sits abandoned across the street. (There is still a sign over there that reads, “Park here while you FLY!”) Now, there are empty runways, some small houses that must have appreciated like winning lottery tickets when those planes stopped shaking the roofs, and this theater, which, despite its rickety outsides, hosts a slew of professional theatrical productions that are helping Austin get noticed for more than South by Southwest. I am here to see Five in the Morning, another performance by Rotozaza—the people that put on Etiquette. Because of this I am curious and very excited. I am also curious to see why that actress wore so little clothing.

What image flashes in your mind’s eye when I say that?

Etiquette

Etiquette

Continue to letter M and continue reading.

D. I am nauseated. I am sitting, staring at a spinning light, and I feel like I’m going to throw up. This is Inside the Dreaming Machine, a visual sound art installation from St. Louis artists at a studio space in East Austin. Let me describe it for you.

Continue to letter H and continue reading.

E. I am a philosopher. She is a young prostitute. That is the basic gist of the story. My friend and I become the actors. We remain the spectators. This is the purpose of Etiquette: to break down that fourth wall, invite you in, sit you down at its table and serve you a glass of confusion that implies you are witnessing a suicide.

My friend and I are sitting at this table. We hardly know each other, but the voice in my headphones tells me to take her hand and touch her wrist. The voice in hers tells her to lean her head to the side and look off into the distance. She is flirting with me. The voice says,

How could this girl be a prostitute? Look at the way her eyes move—they do not move like a prostitute’s.

We draw the stage on the table. We move small pieces around and write notes to each other. She is told what to do, and I am told how to respond. Sometimes the story is told using tiny figures on the table. Sometimes it is told through her, and sometimes it is told with sound bites of old films running through our headphones. But there is no story, just pieces of them. And there is no audience—just my friend and me at a small table wearing headphones outside a café in East Austin. No one around us seems to care that I have dropped what appears to be blood into her water and she drinks it.

Find Letter K and continue reading.

G. Austin is different. It’s the home of the state government, the state University, and the state mental hospital, all within walking distance from each other. You can find breakfast tacos, barbecue, and macrobiotic meals a block apart. People drive a lot here; mainly in big cars. But people bike and walk, too, for the environment. There’s something in the water here, maybe, or an energetic vibration emanating from the natural spring flowing through the center of the city. Something makes this place happen; something keeps the artists coming; something keeps Austin weird—a tired motto that keeps bringing developers here, too. All this keeps going right in the center of one of the reddest states in America.

Consider, for a moment, the possibility of moving to Austin. You keep hearing about this place, don’t you?

Find letter L and continue reading.

H. There is a woman sitting on a pillow in a lotus position in front of the spinning light. Her eyes are closed and she holds her hands like a Buddha statue. There are five other pillows surrounding this light, which sits on top of a spinning turntable. A shade with holes welded out of it spins around the bulb creating an intense strobe effect. I remember watching someone who must have been on more than dreaming stare into a black light in high school; I thought he looked crazy. This felt much like that: staring at a strobe light even though everyone says it will make you go blind.

Between the pillows were giant plush dolls and two big Operation game heads with the light-up red noses. At the other end of me and the spinning light was a guy with dreadlocks pushing buttons and bending circuits on a series of soundboards and effects peddles. He briefly looked at me with a vacant smile and continued to manipulate the sound which spun around me like the sounds of tiny gnomes from an early Pink Floyd album meeting a Josh Wink tweeked-out remix.

I dig the sounds. I dig the idea of meditating in a dream machine. But no matter how hard I tried, eyes closed, eyes open, turned around, my head hurt, and I really felt like I was going to puke.

That was Inside the Dreaming Machine. I feel like I missed out on something here. I probably did. They proclaimed a consciousness-enhancing experience, and I could see it happening.  It looked like the blissed-out woman on my left was getting there. But I just had to leave. It was too intense. I was going to have to continue this conversation elsewhere.

Find letter F and continue reading.

endless ocean endless sky

endless ocean endless sky

I. My directions had been wrong, and I showed up to endless ocean endless sky already confused. It was in the Music Lab, a mammoth rehearsal space smelling like wet cigarettes that houses muffled bands blasting in practice rooms like tattooed bees in a hive. But they told me on the phone to

cross the highway

in the wrong direction and I ended up in a block of South Austin warehouses. When I finally found the place, a woman smiled and said, “We’ve been waiting for you.” I took off my shoes and eight of us processed quietly into a giant inflatable bubble.

Think of a time you have entered a giant inflatable bubble. What did that feel like?

Find letter N and continue reading.

J. This whole thing is the voices. There’s not much of a story. But that’s the point. Five in the Morning is three actors acting like they’re not acting. Just taking commands from someone somewhere in the sky. Each of them does a miraculous job confusing their audience. Do they know what is happening? Have they rehearsed this, or are they as surprised as we are? They look perpetually shocked and confused as the voices continue to tell them what to do and how they feel about this fantasy or their imprisonment in Aquaworld. They contort and kiss and slosh around the stage with a perfected naiveté. That they are in on the whole thing only becomes evident when the actors begin to preempt the voices. Yes, this was all an act, but it seemed real. Like a dream.

Five in the Morning flows like the mind of a schizophrenic. The actors’ autonomy becomes increasingly tormented by the manipulators in the speakers. When the woman I first saw staring at me in that bikini broke from her verbal captors to declare her cognizance that she was under control but could never escape, the fun of Aquaworld seemed to melt under the magnifying glass, implying that perhaps we are all imprisoned by our thoughts.

What thoughts trap you?

The result is a strange trip through a subconscious mind, a glimmer into the constricting chains of perceived reality. In the end, all of the revelations of the actors’ individuality in the face of these controllers disappear as the performance finishes where it started: three bright-eyed swimmers in tight bathing suits waiting to be told who they are and what they are supposed to do. The conversation continues.

Find letter I and continue reading.

K. The magic of stage performance happens inside of the actor. It’s the moment when the performer loses all notion of self and acts from a place of deep intuition that bends any conventional notion of reality. Hitting that note is a thrill quite literally unlike any other. Etiquette creates this experience in the minds of its audience. It turns us—just two people at a small table—into the performers and overtakes the mind with cues, commands, and thoughts through headphones that release the constraints of self-identity to explore the nature of communication.

Who are you?

my friend asks while oblivious couples stroll by us as if we are just two people playing a game. She sounds like she means it. She sounds like she really doesn’t know who I am. It’s true, in a way. But the lines I am told to say in response come too fast to say them all. I become confused, she looks confused, too. The boundary breaks down when there is so much to do and so much to say. I move a small man with a giant head towards my friend and place it on the table. We watch his funeral together.

That is Etiquette: A play about communication and intimacy and death for only two people. Phenomenal. I have never experienced anything like it. Fuse Box begins for me.

Find letter C and continue reading.

L. Enter Fuse Box, a ten-day experimental performance arts festival that calls itself “a festival about conversation.” This whole conversation feels a lot like a loosely veiled dialogue about the whole scene going on right here in the hottest cool city in the U.S. Because a lot is happening here: the existence of a ten-day-long exploration of interpretive theatre and abstract performance lends credence to the notion that a city at the heart of a state surrounded by megachurches and a polygamist controversy continues to strengthen its voice in the national conversation about art. But a lot isn’t happening here, too. It’s not New York. Plays here happen in warehouse theaters across from abandoned airports and behind thrift stores. Audiences for these shows can be sparse, with many of the seats filled with performers from other shows.

Still, the experiment seems better for its lack of hype and grandeur. The rules can bend because there aren’t too many to begin with. Interactive dance shows in a music rehearsal space? Plays with everything but a story? An experiential coffee shop mind-meld? It all works here. And sure, groups came in from London and Portland and Brooklyn, but pretentiousness takes its place in an empty row at the back of the house while the performers and spectators just get to have fun. That’s what Austin’s about, really: music and art and fun. (And beer.) It’s what my experience has been these past few days, and it started with Etiquette.

Consider this: one train leaves westbound from New York, another eastbound from L.A.

Touch your forehead, rub your eyes. This computer screen is glaring.

Find Letter B and continue reading.

M. She wears a bikini because she is in Aquaworld. They are all wearing bikinis. All three of them, or, really, the two women are. The man wears a speedo. It’s never clear what Aquaworld actually is. It is either a fantasy theme park or it is hell. The stage is draped in white. There are no props. Actually, there is a mop and a bucket and the actors. In a way the actors are the props, because, like Etiquette, there are commanding voices here, too. Except they come from house speakers and they tell the actors what to think, do, and say. The actors look like nearly naked, wide-eyed robots just learning how to feel. Here are some of the things the voices say:

Raise one eyebrow.

Explain what you mean.

Make a human tower.

Find Letter J and continue reading.

N. The bubble began to inflate around us. We sat on a line of pillows in the center of the space. “When the bubble has fully inflated,” they told us, “the performance will begin.”

Again, like Five in the Morning, there were three performers: two women and a man. Also, it was all white: our white bubble, their white clothing. There were no words in Tahni Holt’s endless ocean endless sky, though. Their voices were music. And their dancing seemed to combine ecstatic movement with the kind of rolling around on each other I’d seen people do at something called a “contact improv party” I’d once stumbled across. Once the bubble filled with air, we sat in place while the dancers transmuted from crawling icebergs to evolving monkeys, little children to sexy women dancing so close to me I could smell their deodorant and sweat. Video on either side of the bubble hinted at a transatlantic plane ride or an underwater immersion. Portland composer Thomas Tortland’s sparse score provided the highlight of the show, particularly a recurring piece that sounded something like a Ratatat song played backwards.

For 45 minutes the dancers writhed and contorted and entered and exited the bubble while the eight of us on our pillows sat watching. I felt a little like I imagine Hansel might have felt seeing the gingerbread house witch coming and going with twigs to start the fire that would cook him. Something seemed so urgent about their movements, but I had no idea what. And I just sat there.

What is going on here?

It was a question I didn’t want to have because I felt it revealed my lack of comprehension of modern dance. But the abstractions of their movement and the sporadic in-out-in-out of these people into this artificial world we’d been drawn into seemed more confusing than entertaining. Still, though, there was an intriguing substance to this process, much in the way human emotion is beautiful even when we can’t make sense of our own thoughts. While the notion of “story” or “coherence” was left in the sun outside of our bubble, the Portland crew did create an experience. For those of us participating in the conversation, we could leave as if from a memory and ask:

What the hell just happened in there?

Find letter D and continue reading.

Inside the Dream Machine

Inside the Dream Machine

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/fuse-box-2008-part-i/