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call-cuta-in-a-box-rimini-apparatI entered into the wrong room at the ornate Goethe Institut across from the Metropolitan Museum on 5th Avenue. I waited for the phone call that was apparently originating from a call center from India — a reversal of the dynamic in which one’s call to a U.S.-based corporation is rerouted to a cubicle located in India or elsewhere.

Perhaps it was deliberate on my part as I am more than reluctant to go to theatre pieces that rely on audience participation. I find them contrived, a kind of theatrical mad-libs: the audience is only there to fill in the blank, providing the performance with a verb, a noun, an adverb but never really guiding or transforming the narrative. I am fine with the fourth wall, and I like my experimentation on stage, not in blurring the distinction between performer and ticket-buyer.

But I’m a media studies person and a friend recommended the piece, regrettably entitled “Call Cutta in a Box.” The “intercontinental phone play” is devised by the German troupe Rimini Protocoll in collaboration with the Callcenter Descon Center Limited in Kolkata, India and coproduced in New York by the Under the Radar Festival and the Public Theatre. (more…)

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Photo by Marius Slaustas, cringel.com

Photo by Marius Slaustas, cringel.com

Do not underestimate the power of a single voice to make or break an election. The power is not in the words themselves; it is in the sonic experience.

Everyone has seen—and heard—mainstream media news reduced to pellets of information called “sound bites.” We rabbity news consumers meekly nibble on these empty-calorie hors d’œuvres because we are starving for the taste of real information. Performance artist David Letterman has famously turned the tables by subjecting past presidents, as well as our current one, to the sound bite test. FDR and Kennedy pass with flying colors; Bush ’43 mumbles and stumbles to failure. Sound bites back.

The current presidential campaign is delivered in sound bites. The ads, catch phrases, pundits and talking heads get more air time than the candidates themselves (except for the occasional TV drive-by, when the news camera swoops in on a candidate’s real-time delivery of a speech, then cuts away to more important matters before he has finished speaking.) Sound bites are the news media equivalent of Chicken McNuggets—looks good; tastes lousy; fills us up but leaves us hungry. (more…)

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"The Hat Makes the Man" (1920) Max Ernst

I’m taking my first sound environment course at Hunter College with professor Andrea Polli. Our major text is Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music, edited by Christoph Cox and Daniel Warner. Featured readings come from interviews, essays, magazine articles and manifestos written by theorists, musicians and sound artists like Pierre Schaeffer, Theodor Adorno, Marshall McLuhan, John Cage, Brian Eno, Glenn Gould and Chris Cutler. The readings have been a real eye-opener—or should I say “ear opener”?

I’m a visual specialist. My music knowledge is as shallow as my art background is deep. Sure, I took piano lessons as a kid. But after I learned to play Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” well enough to impress my father, I lost interest. Like a lot of people, I’ve accumulated a “personal soundtrack” based on haphazard exposure to radio stations, TV, advertising jingles, movies and live performances. Unlike most, my personal soundtrack hasn’t been transferred to an MP3 player. It resides solely between my ears, where snippets of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” bubble up through layers of B. B. King, the “Dr. Zhivago” soundtrack and Alka Seltzer’s “Plop, plop, fizz, fizz” jingle.  (more…)

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Performance art, as a practice, may have found its fullest realization in the work of Saturday Night Live (SNL)’s Tina Fey. Fey’s channeling of Sarah Palin’s character is uncanny. In her re-staging of Katie Couric’s Palin interview and Palin’s performance at the Vice Presidential “debate,” Fey has merged the absurd-in-the-real to the really absurd, producing a composite memory of Sarah Palin that defies separation. When Sarah Palin appears on my television screen I see Tina Fey’s performance of Sarah Palin, rather than Sarah Palin’s performance of Sarah Palin. Fey has altered my perception. She—along with Amy Poehler as Hillary Clinton and Darrell Hammond as John McCain—has seamlessly infiltrated the mainstream political flabber-jabber.

Saturday Night Live, along with a handful of other comedy shows, has become the best political commentary and performance art ever. Part of its influence comes from the cheerful participation of real politicians in the parodying of their own personas. (more…)

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Sarah Palin’s qualifications for the second most powerful position in the land have nothing to do with her experience (or her lack of it) or the fact that she doesn’t know about the Bush doctrine. Indeed it has nothing to do with the realization that she never met a foreign leader until she visited the UN recently. It has everything to do with the tale she tells and the image she presents. Palin is a consummate performer who asserts her identity perfectly in her hairstyle, her eager grin, her wink, and the way her family—and even McCain himself–become props on her stage. While McCain is faltering, Palin is busy rebranding the Republican Party.

Palin was immediately recognizable to the American people as soon as she appeared at the Republican Convention. For the guys, Palin positioned herself as their high school sweetheart they shouldn’t have let get away. For the gals, Palin became the pal you have fun with on a girls’ night out. Even though she comes from Alaska Palin really emerges from the country’s fictional landscape. She is the mythic pioneer woman who will stop at nothing to protect her family–she can shoot better than any of the guys but still doesn’t mind being asked to dance when she puts on a frilly frock for the local dance. (more…)

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Just before it closed, I caught Manhattan Theatre Club’s production of “Top Girls,” by British playwright Caryl Churchill. I’d read several favorable or semi-favorable articles and reviews of the play, but it wasn’t until WNYC’s Leonard Lopate interviewed Martha Plimpton about her experience playing Pope Joan and Angie that I was persuaded to buy a ticket (a big investment these days) and check it out for myself.

Plimpton is a wonderful actress. As a devout “Law & Order” fan, I caught her 2006 Emmy-nominated portrayal of a desperately brilliant young woman who fails to capture the love of her even more brilliant, murder-investigating father. I’ve seen re-runs of the “Criminal Intent” episode many times and I still get caught up in Plimpton’s character. (more…)

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A. Culture-Jamming:
Stop watching the SNL Obama / Clinton split “campaign ad.” (Then you won’t laugh so hard you pee yourself.)

B. Performance Art:
Stop watching the Chris Matthews grilling of right-winger Kevin James, who hasn’t got a clue who Neville Chamberlain is. (Then you won’t laugh so hard you wet your pants.)

C. Theater of the Absurd:
Stop thinking about Hillary Clinton’s continuing “campaign” for the presidency. After all, she deserves the nomination, right? Besides, she’s the only one who’s reaching white people. (Really. Stop thinking about it. It’ll just piss you off.)

D. Art Exhibition:
Forget about politics and check out some really good bad art. It ain’t bad when it’s this good. (Besides, it’s hung near the bathroom.)

Above: Running Mates by Anonymous, acrylic on canvas. (I made that up.)

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