Rock’n’roll opera? Puppets? The very unlikely collaboration between artists Dan Graham, Tony Oursler and Rodney Graham in the same production? What kind of soup could come out of that!?
The setting was peculiar, one of the most important art fairs for contemporary art – Art Basel Miami Beach in December 2004, the sun was shining and I was really curious to see what this was all about. A small theatre was installed in the Botanical Gardens, in itself a perfect setting for something involving Dan Graham who has a special weakness for gardens – just across the street from the Convention Center. This spot was also a voting station merely a month before, at the time when George Bush JR had been re-elected after a long debacle about the Florida votes. After a struggle for the (free) tickets I finally made it to the premiere of the puppet show. After a brief introduction by Sandra Antelo-Suarez (director of Trans> magazine, the person that made the whole collaboration come true), Dan Graham made a little speech to introduce the show. Graham didn’t let anyone misinterpret what he thought about the re-election of Bush and the Iraqi war – the work we were about to see seemed to be an extension of his protest. It was also clear that although being a collaborative project between multiple artists and many other people, this was indeed an original idea by Dan Graham. The man sitting next to me, an art collector in his 60ies from the US with expensive taste, had undoubtedly voted for Bush and made it very clear that he was very uncomfortable sitting in rough benches and hearing “some left-wing artist slandering his president” which offended him deeply. As we were sitting at the very far end, highest up in the overly packed provisory theatre salon he was trapped and had to stay in his seat. I couldn’t help but to smile secretly when the very loud rock music started which made him hold his hands to his ears to protect him from the noise.
The visual and aural experience was surrounding and impressive; the “stage” consisted of a white wall with two “holes” inserted, in one of the holes (4 x 2 meter floor space approx. 1 meters high) the puppets resided with their puppet master’s legs visible just behind them. The stage structure could be likened with a white cube, a box, with two stages, and worked as a screen simultaneously. In the other hole there was just enough space for a guitarist/singer and a drummer (the band Japanther) that played very loud punkish music. The wall with the “cut out holes” was also, like mentioned, the screen for videos with close-ups on the puppets taking drugs or having sex etc. The experience was intense, fun and had a “wholeness” to it that was appealing and had me totally captivated. The show was not called “theatre” or “performance” but instead simply “entertainment”. Puppeteers were super skilled; the band was loud and oozed of young testosterone, the video clips funny and the story entertaining. It had all the ingredients of good entertainment indeed: sex, drugs, rock’n’roll, some intelligent political protest and a reflection of the world how it was, how it is, and how things maybe can change.
The narrative in the opera is based on the 1968 film Wild in the Street, which in turn is based on the book by Robert Thom with the title of The Day It All Happened, Baby about the hippie era in Los Angeles. The narrative of the opera is about a rock star, Neil Sky (based on Neil Young), who helps out a member of the Congress to rally for lowering the voting age to eighteen. After getting the whole senate high on LSD he manages to lower the voting age to fourteen, and hence, Sky himself gets to become the elected new president, the youngest president of USA at the age of twenty-five. Governing the country trusting astrology and being high as a way of communicating with his people, the backlash comes fast enough. Neil Sky’s band, his girl friend and his posse, including his found “son”, all have parts in the humoristic critique about the cult of the youth and the common patronizing of the same group too (“If someone can die in combat, they can vote”).
Graham (born 1942) has earlier collaborated for instance with Kim Gordon (who used to live downstairs from him in New York) among other musicians, and in his writing he connect the development of rock music tightly to theories about the American society and its decay and the development of social models as well as religion. Social models, the suburbia, architectural models and the American way (for instance his work from the 60-ies “Homes for America”) along with the glass- and mirrored “pavilions” that Graham has built, and continues to build, at different places during the last 30 years is what his art work is usually connected with. During the 70-ties he also made now legendary performances – also involving mirrors. Together with the Moderna Museet in Stockholm Graham produced the film Rock My Religion, which makes a kind of back-drop to the “Don’t Trust…” since it is about the relation between religion and rock music in contemporary culture with music by Sonic Youth and Glenn Branca, and is described like this:
With the “reeling and rocking” of religious revivals as his point of departure, Graham analyzes the emergence of rock music as religion with the teenage consumer in the isolated suburban milieu of the 1950s, locating rock's sexual and ideological context in post-World War II America. The music and philosophies of Patti Smith, who made explicit the trope that rock is religion, are his focus. This complex collage of text, film footage and performance forms a compelling theoretical essay on the ideological codes and historical contexts that inform the cultural phenomenon of rock ‘n’ roll music.
Rock My Religion is also the title of a book with essays written by Graham between 1965 – 1990 on his own work and the work of Donald Judd and Dan Flavin as well as rock, punk and pop culture without any distinctions on high and low. In his work he most often play around with the spectators perception on things, just like with the mirrors and glass or with video installations where filming the audience and screening it with a time delay plays important parts. In “Don’t Trust…” it is our perceptions and prejudices on history, politics that becomes mirrored through the narrative and the puppets. Puppets are, like we all know, dead things, but when they start moving around with the help of the strings, and start “talking/singing” they represent the human being in a very scary-spooky way, and the use of puppets in the play and not human enactors is of course a very deliberate choice.
The puppet master Phillip Huber has undoubtedly worked very hard on the production and the puppets looks a whole lot like real politicians or rock stars. Huber and Tony Oursler worked intensely together to make the videos for the production during the production. Oursler is also someone with extensive knowledge in the landscape of art and rock, with research and interviews in the area that resulted in the work Synesthesia (1997-2001). Rodney Graham, influenced very much by rock and Neil Young, composed the theme song and the music for the videos and Laurent P. Berger worked the set design. Many others were of course involved in the making of the process, and at one point even Paul McCarthy was supposed to work in the process but was too busy at the time. Mike Kelley was also a name mentioned in the process as someone who followed up on the project closely and also wrote an introduction in an early phase.
This collaborative approach of the whole project might connote the communal way of working – something that was praised during the hippie-era. But then again, when does one really ever know where the boundary of one’s own work and someone else’s work crosses each other? The collaborative work here is a hybrid of many people’s work, where the original idea of the narrative and the opera stems from Dan Graham, and the collaboration expanded from there without ego struggles. What is interesting is that the multiple-artists work result in, and it was indeed a very “whole” experience, a gesamtkunstverk in a small and intimate scale.
I was born in the 70-ies with what might be described as if not hippies at least hippie-wannabee parents, who were somewhat involved in the rock-era too, it is easy to relive the era portrayed even though I personally of course didn’t engage in the revolution of -68. I was though puzzled to find the above mentioned collector who is from the same generation and country as Graham who was unable to feel nostalgia, nor could he engage in any kind of discussion about the work. He rejected the whole thing and couldn’t wait to go to have dinner somewhere quiet.
In several interviews Graham has mentioned that it is generally older European woman that smoked pot during the 60ies that seem to enjoy the show more than others. If there is a problem with the entertainment of “Don’t Trust…” it is the notion of nostalgia. When something feels nostalgic it doesn’t feel up-to-date and not as something that should concern us in our daily life in contemporary life. But when there still are people out there like the guy sitting next to me it isn’t such a big problem I guess. And, the end to the tale, with a lot of embedded anarchistic humor, is not hippie-utopia-nostalgic at all – the lifestyle we connect with the 60-ies and the hippie era get its back-lash by the next generation who in a Hegelian anti-thesis send the president on rehab and tries to “clean up” the mess. The sense moral to the story can be debated for sure. My bet is that Zen has something to do with it though. The influence that the work has is embedded in the multi-layered story between then and now, conveyed by how the music and visual cross-over work together into something of a wholeness that creates an extraordinary and bewildering experience.
After the work was shown in Miami in 2004 the work “Don’t Trust…” quite naturally changed and emerged into becoming an installation without live people mastering puppets or a live concert. The work turned into a video installation with a different title and a different setup of originators, and is now entitled: Combine (Don’t Trust Anyone Over Thirty, All Over Again) by Tony Oursler, with Dan Graham, Rodney Graham, Laurent P.Berger and Japanther and has another date of origin - 2005. This latest version was shown at the Whitney Biennial 2006 among other places, and is also the version that will be shown at Norrköpings Konstmuseum in the exhibition Rock’n’Roll Vol.1.