In Partnership with Machine Project: As part of the Getty initiative Pacific Standard Time Presents: Modern Architecture in L.A., Machine Project asked artists to take on the whole environment of Los Angeles and create performances shot on video and edited into short experimental films in response to notable architectural sites throughout the city.
In contemporary performance art settings, the distance between art and life is often compartmentalized. The audiences sits in one place, the performer performs in another place, and never the twain shall meet, save for the concluding applause or the occasional breaking of the third wall. The contract between the artist and the performer is dictated by strictly delineated roles. Artist Asher Hartman doesn't like third walls, or really any walls between the performers and the viewers at all.
Hartman wrote and directed "Glass Bang," for instance, an anxious experimental musical piece, to be performed off-site (the play was originally performed in Miami before coming to Los Angeles) as part of Los Angeles arts organization Machine Project's Field Guide to L.A. Architecture. The play begins and ends ambiguously, and the audience is given freedom to engage at their leisure. "We told everybody to get up, leave, go to the bathroom, get a drink, go outside," says Hartman. "And people did. This is happening around the audience members, and they're trying to make sense of these people, and this place."
Staged in Los Angeles at the MAK Center for Art & Architecture's R. M. Schindler-built modernist home on Mulholland Drive in Laurel Canyon, "Glass Bang" is loosely based around the narrative of an affluent man who has returned to his upscale house after an absence to find his economically challenged housesitter friends have taken over the home, invited friends in, moved things around, and generally disrupted the homeowner's sense of place and ownership. The interlopers throw a party for the returning homeowner, in which the performance's audience is considered guests, according to Hartman. Meanwhile, one of the characters is slowly shifting into "something else," says Hartman. The character's voice fluctuates, he takes on physical ticks -- he is splitting in two.
Hartman's utilization of the private home as a performance space throws the entire play into flux, forcing reality into his meta-narrative. "One has a body that's a home, and one has a place to live that's a home," says Hartman. "Within the piece, both are in question. In reality, homes are being foreclosed in L.A., and in Miami, where the piece was first performed, there's no rent control. The idea that you don't have a shell dominates the play. Beneath that are issues of class, race, money, and gender."
As the play progresses, a cast member is killed, and pushed into a pool. A breathing apparatus allows him to float, face down, but this process is unexplained. Hartman is interested in the reaction to this act, as the other actors continue the play. "Historically, audience and actor were not removed from each other," says Hartman about his interest in blurring those lines. "They were on the same page, and then they were separated. I really liked the idea of the old French theater, where you couldn't really tell whether the courtier was the performer, or the actor was the performer."
Hartman, originally, was trained in traditional narrative theater at UCLA, which becomes even more surprising as the experimental elements of the play shift the work further into performance art realms. But it was a love for the open-ended nature of jazz performance, and a few chance encounters with experimental theater that originally pushed Hartman in the performance art direction. "I'm very influenced by two performance groups that I never witnessed: the Living Theatre and [Wooster Group founder] Richard Schechner's work," says Hartman. "Early on, I saw a video of the Living Theatre. It was totally earthshattering. I also went to see a performance of artist Johanna Went at UCLA's Schoenberg Hall in 1984. My whole world opened up. I didn't know that theater could be that emotionally evocative. I thought, 'This is theater. This is what I want to do.'"
Los Angeles remains an ideal place for off-site performance, as there are so many spaces. For instance, homeLA, a contemporary dance troupe, holds performances in similar locations to Hartman's work. Hartman points to Angeleno performance artists Dawn Kasper (who has appeared in Hartman's plays) and Brian Getnick as contemporaries in the field of theater and performance in unexpected places.
Hartman is currently at work on his next collaboration with Machine Project: a three-actor play modeled after Czech black light theatre, which uses UV lights on fluorescence to produce a visually stunning piece. "It should be very entertaining," says Hartman.
Machine Project thanks MAK Center for Art and Architecture at the Schindler House.