Los Angeles

Dorian Wood and the Art of Performance

Dorian Wood 1 _ Credits Zoe-Ruth Photography.jpg

Dorian Wood first came to wider attention among the internationalist Los Angeles avant-garde as artistic director and performer with Killsonic -- the anarchist gypsy symphony that took the scene by storm starting around 2007. Their sudden spike of fame included the critically acclaimed 2010 opera "Tongues Bloody Tongues" at REDCAT; and Wood did appear at REDCAT again in 2011 in the opera "Zoophilic Follies," along with Timur and the Dime Museum -- another locally-based outfit that folded operatic theatricality, burlesque rock, and progressive sexuality into the pop music fray. But Wood focus was increasingly pulled back toward the core of his artistry --songwriting and solo performance -- and thus 2010 saw the release of the album "Brutus," with Wood on solo vocal and piano. Part of this introspection also gave rise to a rapid succession of high-profile engagements and commissions that fell under the related but distinct rubric of performance art. In 2011, LACE commissioned a new work for the performance series Los Angeles Goes Live that was part of Pacific Standard Time. He gave them "Athco, Or The Renaissance of Faggot Tree," a controversially named, performance-based installation with a cast of dozens on the grounds of Barnsdall Art Park. Wood also performed with Marina Abramovic in her controversial piece "An Artist's Life Manifesto," created for the MOCA Gala.

Wood is also a prolific visual artist, but promoting that side of him is fairly new. "In the beginning, I felt terrible," he says about releasing his visual art into the world. "This was the one medium I had all to myself. It was my own little palate cleanser after all the other fucked-up shit. Suddenly felt like I had no private outlet. But then I found one, and I will never share that one with anyone!" Since Dorian has often performed at art-centric spots like LACMA, Highways, the Pacific Design Center, Yerba Buena, and the Stockholm Fringe Fest, it might have been easy to fall down the performance-art rabbit hole. But not for Dorian, who regularly tours as a musician across North America and Europe and, closer to home, filling live-music venues like Hotel Cafe and the Echo without noticing much difference in his audiences. When it comes to venues, he's not a monogamist; he connects with audiences online or IRL, in dank clubs or sterile galleries. Over the course of three weeks, beginning July 26, Wood will give a concert on live-streaming pay-per-view web-based concert platform Stageit.com; take part in a politically engaged gender and environmental justice performance-art marathon called Confusion is Sex; and play the old school Echo stage as part of the music festival Echo Park Rising.

Dorian Wood | Photo: Zoe Ruth Photography.

Wood's latest effort, "Rattle Rattle," is an collection of original "doomsday-themed songs" that hang together a bit like a concept album. Like Killsonic and Athco before it, Rattle Rattle incorporated dozens of participants -- in this case, over 60 musicians, including a 45-member choir assembled by Wood called the Difficult Women. Dorian directed the video for his song "La Cara Infinita," which featured a guest appearance by actor Margaret Cho, as well as some very direct images portraying gay sexuality in a manner of objectification -- similar to the treatment women usually receive in this context, and in the art world too. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there was some internet dust-up action, but by that point, the performance art, live music, and creative director aspects of his career had permanently fused. Though the album was only recently released, he began composing songs for it around late 2008. In the four years that followed, he was devoted to fleshing out arrangements, rehearsing, recording certain sections, lots of mixing -- all while working around some high-profile guests' schedules and staying within budget. "I underestimated what this would cost financially," he says, "and yet grew restless of waiting for the right label to come around and pick up the tab and I really counted on the incredible support of my beautiful friends to make it happen." The controlled chaos of his days with Killsonic prepared him for what he calls "the challenge of gathering over 60 musicians to create a cohesive sound." "There were times when I welcomed any collaborative input they shot my way," he continues, "but I was honored that they mostly just went along with my vision."

The Stageit.com live-stream concert seems like a natural progression of web-based culture and where technology can take it. But even without this innovative way of offering fans a live show, Wood has become a bit of a sensation on the YouTube/Vimeo continuum in this post-MTV world. He's been there both with powerful live performance footage and self-directed narrative videos like "La Cara Infinita" and many others. He embraces what these conduits to communicating with the audience make possible. "[I] realized that if I was going to keep putting out work that I believed in, I needed to allow people to 'join' me in the work. People rarely forget a truly immersive experience, and a big component in what I do musically has to do with who I am, what I look like, where I've been and where I'm at. For a while, I would wear masks and insane outfits, but there is no greater vestment one can wear than the one people believe is yours and only yours. The videos try to capture this without requiring that the audience physically be there in order to get the most out of it."

Themes of LGBTQ experience and sexuality and gender and politics seem to be clear elements of the work, yet -- while he certainly understands and accepts it being viewed in that context -- Wood does not consider his activity to be primarily political. "I believe I identify more with my anger than I do with politics per se, in that I create based on how something affects me emotionally; and in politics, only a few things affect me that way. I am deeply angered and saddened by injustices against LGBTQ and women, and somehow a rebellious little girl emerges within me whenever I feel anger, and she can only think of violent things without minding the consequences. Certainly, this is how 'Rattle Rattle' came to be, as well as the video we did for 'La Cara Infinita.' Like most people, I welcome the idea of solidarity, but if I had to choose between that or being the weird loner kid who punches walls and browns his trousers, well, I'll be in my corner."

Experience Dorian Wood at these upcoming events:
July 26th Stageit.com
August 3rd Confusion is Sex #3
August 17th at the Echo Echo Park Rising

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Top Image: Dorian Wood | Photo: Zoe Ruth Photography.

About the Author

Shana Nys Dambrot is an art critic, curator, and author based in Los Angeles.
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