Last week I caught a train from Glenwood Springs, Colorado to San Francisco. Well, that was the idea, but the train stopped in Reno because of avalanche danger over Donner Pass. I spent the night in Reno on Amtrak’s dime and even got a meal ticket to a buffet. Yes, it was reasonably disgusting, but it was free and abundant crab and shrimp.
I was headed to SF to participate in a SQUART (Spontaneous Queer Art) performance at the Headlands Center for the Arts in Marin. SQUART is the brainchild of Laura Arrington, a very warm and talented dancer and organizer. She is currently in residence at Headlands, which is pretty fancy if you ask me. One of these days soon, I shall do a residency there, mark my words. Anyways, SQUART has happened perhaps a half dozen times or so. I have participated twice before. It’s when a group of performers get together, split into smaller groups, have a time limit of two hours to come up with new work that follow some criteria, perform it in front of an audience and a panel of “celebrity judges”, and get judged American Idol style. The winning team gets a cash prize. This time at the Headlands, Laura swung it so that we had 24 hours to create something. Our criteria was that one person from each group had to stay up the entire night and they were featured as a soloist. Something about turkeys and coyotes. Create an installation in the room you were given to work in. Something about “retreat”. I can’t remember the other criteria.
When I arrived, Laura had me pick a number between 1-4. I chose 3. That meant that I was the 5th member of the smallest SQUART group consisting of Kiele Stewart-Funai, Pearl Marrill, Honey McMoney and Harold Burns. I was pleased. I walked into the old quarters of a military officer to find that lovely bunch. They greeted me warmly and offered me booze, red bull, and/or speed (no one actually took the speed). We all dove into warming up together, playing games, singing songs. We had to get used to each other before we could talk about what we wanted to do for a show.
It was dinner time. And dinner was delicious. All forty performers convened in the dining hall for dahl, homemade sourdough bread, salad, vegetable curry, pelegrino or beer if you wanted. It was fabulous. I sat with by beloved art~wife, Sadie Lune, and asked her how her process was going. ‘I hate dancers.’ One of her colleagues had a real bitch face until Sadie tied her to a pole and won her heart.
After dinner Ernesto, who co-organizes the event through the Off Center, brought us some blankets and a jacket from when the place was owned by the military. These items became essential to our piece.
“Wreck” is what we called it. We transformed the room into a ship. The two rows of pillars that ran through the middle of the room became the masts. There were chairs piled in a super modern way a la Honey McMoney. The curved wooden benches became the walls of the ship. And there was a beautiful bar in the corner of the room where the sailors would get drunk.
At one point during the 24 hours before the show Honey took a moment to observe the absurdity of our situation. It was late night, we had been crawling on the floor and wearing panty hose on our faces and Honey says, “Who does this? It’s strange enough that this is how we find our fun, but what’ even stranger are the people that come from San Francisco to watch us.” We figured that there would be the other 35 performers in the audience and maybe 20 folks would make the trip from SF. We were so wrong. So many people came from the city to see our show. I think maybe 100. I don’t know. A lot. And in the beginning of SQUART shows, Laura usually induces some kind of audience participatory game to get people to loosen up. For the Halloween SQUART there was a toilet paper mummy contest. This time, she had the audience form one single line and one at a time they would have to explain to the judges why they should be the chosen audience member to help decide the winning team. It was great. The performers just sat behind the judges as the audience members were put on the spot. The line was long, diverse and reinstated a hope in Sadie that people actually do like performance art.
The celebrity judge panel consisted of Kieth Hennessey, a dancer, Jess Curtis, dancer, Meg Stuart, dancer, and two dudes from the Big Art Group. The judges are some serious hotshots with a few fancy awards between them. One girl lamented to me in the dining hall pre-show that she only shows “finished” work and she really cared what the judges thought of her. I thought, ‘she’s screwed’ and I was happy not to be in her group.
Here’s what my group and I decided on. The audience would enter in two lines through the middle of the pillars. The pillars had performance artists with stockings over their head tied to them with old, wool blankets. They were like sailor ghosts.
And I was there captain at the far end of the room perched on a red, leather couch, candles lit behind me. Suddenly, my team mates would drop from the poles one at a time and their bodies crashed on the floor. Their bodies were scantily to nudily clad. There were clothes strewn across the floor. They writhed across the floor, collecting clothes with dragged limbs. Finally they got to me. This part took ten minutes.
One of my favorite parts of the piece was when we all looked out at the audience at the same time, the four of them in stockinged heads and me in a captain’s jacket.
Then, the seaweed ghosts got hip to how cool my coat was and they did everything they could to rip it off of me. When they succeeded, they revealed a blue, sparkly, tie dyed two piece. We marched across the floor in unison and kicking high. Our kicking flung the clothes into the air. This was a good image, says Kieth Hennessey, but it was unfortunate that Pearl fell midway through the action.
Next we did a nice little number at the bar where struck some tableau vivants and made rude kissy sounds to each other. I wasn’t the only perf-artist in the group that liked to throw the term ‘tableau vivants’ around.
We all got on the bar and did a kick line that was waves of legs crossing and we talked all at the same time about radiation fallout, spirulina, iodide, radiation fallout, spirulina, iodide, radiation fallout…
Then, Honey stole the show with his go-go turkey dance.
We broke out into song and dance. What would you do with a drunken sailor? We had white sheets tied around the pillars that we used as sails on a ship. I don’t know if we really sold this part. Judges seemed unimpressed with our drunken sailor diddy.
We ended it as though we were getting tossed around on a ship at angry sea, walking from side to side. And then we collapsed into
a clump that referenced the stack chairs in the room. Did anyone catch the reference?