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.
For The Machine Project Field Guide to L.A. Architecture, I chose the famed Los Angeles freeway system as the architectural site my performance would respond to. When I thought about stories to tell around the concept of the journey, Homer's "The Odyssey" seemed like the archetypal and ideal choice. I began considering what's at the heart of this ancient tale, and found that it is a story of a man trying to get home. Many Los Angeles commuters can surely relate to that feeling.
My piece is an adaptation of episode five, which begins with Odysseus having been trapped on the sorceress Calypso's island for seven years. She holds him there as her love slave. At the start of chapter five, the gods decide to help poor Odysseus out of his predicament, and so they dispatch Hermes to persuade Calypso to let Odysseus go free. After a rousing speech about the double standards of the male gods, Calypso relents to Zeus's will, and Odysseus travels home by sea-raft.
In my version, however, she does not relent, but stands her fierce ground, eventually using her witchery to get both the god and her man back to her cave. The play takes place in a Honda Odyssey minivan while it journeys around the Los Angeles freeway, for two people at a time.
In January, I sat down with UCLA Associate Professor of Classics Alex Purves, to talk about what it means to get lost, the gender performativity of gods and tricksters, and making theater in a moving car, among other things.
Alex Purves: Your piece moves away from the plot of "The Odyssey" in a way that's very interesting. You didn't do a literal adaptation but took an idea that struck you as interesting and ran with it. I like the Odyssey joke, that it's in the minivan. Your project proposes questions like: Why did Honda name its minivan the 'Odyssey?' What does it mean that we live in this crazy city where we're bound by traffic? What does it mean to get lost, and what does it mean to try to get home? You take these ideas from "The Odyssey" and then re-filter them in. The idea of a shipwreck -- or a car crash -- is constantly there under the surface, and there is a shipwreck at the end of book five, which is the section of the "Odyssey" that you adapt. And the play always happened at night?
Johanna Kozma: Yes. My interest in having the play occur at sunset was that there was a transition point, literally at rush hour, the commuter's hour. There's a big transformation that happens at that point with the vibe in the car. When you arrive, Hermes and Odysseus are trying to escape from Calypso with the audience. To get Odysseus back home. Then, at some point Calypso appears and everything changes. Her whole being permeates the car. Before that, it had been this banter between two men in a very masculine way, and then all of sudden there's this fabulous Puerto Rican drag queen in the back that takes over.
AP: You really expanded the role of Hermes a lot.
JK: My interest in both the writing and the performativity was in a spectrum of masculinity that had a wide range, from queer drag queen to very macho bro. I liked thinking of Hermes as this trickster figure, and I was really interested in having Odysseus and Hermes be mirrors for each other. Odysseus always struck me as this very clever and cunning catalyst, which was much like what Hermes was capable of.
AP: There are some interesting parallels between Odysseus and Hermes. In the original, they don't meet in book five. What you do is draw that parallel out and make it more explicit. You allow them to have this friendship, like a brotherly bond or male friendship. So, in some sense there's competition then between Hermes and Calypso over Odysseus.
JK: Yes, absolutely. And you really feel that as an audience member in the car. When you're in the car, physically Hermes is driving, but Calypso is seething in the backseat. All of her power oozes out toward the end and they go back to her cave. It's like, "Who is really driving?"
Because Odysseus went through a trauma, he's lost a certain amount of his agency. I wanted him to be "journeying" on a lot of different levels. One of them was his journeying through stories and talking to the audience member in the passenger seat. One minute he's talking to you, then the next minute he's looking out the window. The way to get him to embody the fact that he just went through the Trojan War and other horrible things, was to have him lose his responsibility and attachment to reality. He roams through different levels of attention.
AP: The fact that it's Hermes who's getting lost, or at least getting frustrated about the act of driving, and Odysseus is this hopeless passenger is interesting. It plays around with all those motifs of both of them as different kind of travelers. There is a really elaborate description of Hermes's journey to Calypso's island at the beginning of Book 5. She's supposed to live right in the middle of nowhere, right? He has to fly a long way to get there. It was nice to have all those elements of being a journeyer be put in tension.
Calypso can never leave her island. So, in a sense the minivan is also a trap or a place in which you're stuck, which is Calypso's problem. Unlike Hermes, she can't go anywhere.
JK: In my piece, her cave is under the Vons in Echo Park.
AP: It plays on that motif that she lives in this paradise, as well. In "The Odyssey," she lives in this beautiful locus amoenus, with all the food she wants instantly on hand. So, it's kind of perfect that tryou had her living beneath a Vons.
I wanted to ask you about where the feminine ends up in the play. At the beginning, with Calypso, you see this running wild witch figure. Then, when she calls on the phone her face shot is...
JK: A wide-open vagina.
AP: Yes, and then immediately, Hermes is hyper-misogynistic, saying things like, "You're a slut. You're a witch." When she arrives as a different actor in the back of the van, she appears by quoting Odysseus's lines to her from "The Odyssey, and so she gets to be the one Homer figure in the play. I like that a lot, not just because I like hearing Homer quoted, but because it was an interesting way to bring the original poem in.
JK: I wanted her to be really locate-able as a stereotype in the beginning, so that we as the audience imagine, when we're first driving out of that parking lot, "Oh, Calypso is some mad woman." Hermes is locating us in his version of events. For me, there's a little bit of that going on in the original episode five. Calypso gives this great feminist speech, but it was always so disappointing to me that she had to acquiesce and give up her man.
AP: Yes, but what was their future? Infinity?
JK: Well, that's the thing. For her, yes. She's an interesting parallel to Penelope, because now Calypso is going to be there for the rest of time. Not waiting, per se, but with this sense of, "He's gone now." That's always struck me as a very interesting parallel between the waiting wife throughout the story with what's going to happen to Calypso afterward. She had her seven years and then she waits forever.
As for the feminine aspects, I wanted to fuck with them a bit, to start out in a place that was locate-able, a trope, and completely prescribed already, and then to have all of these first impressions dashed half-way through.
I think, really, that the character that most embodies both masculine and feminine, in the end, is the Odysseus character. He's the one that is actually able to be journeying throughout these different roles. His gender performativity is much more loose than the others, even though there's a drag queen, which is still a very prescribed role.
AP: I'm wondering where you get that masculinity dynamic between male characters actually played out in "The Odyssey." It's always something that is set aside, because book five is all about Odysseus interacting with females (Calypso and then the sea goddess Ino).
JK: Yes, this is interesting. One of the things that I was thinking about very much when I was doing the writing of it was, on the one hand, there's the gods' masculine energy, like with Hermes or Zeus, and then all of these other female characters that Odysseus is encountering. Sorceresses, goddesses, mystical creatures. That was the impulse to make Calypso a drag queen.
I wanted to see Odysseus as this future gender. I wanted him to be transitioning--"journeying"--through gender roles very easily. The trickster embodiment is a sexual one as well as a psychological one. He can move between them. Hermes became the other extreme of this side of masculinity.
Everybody in the cast identifies as queer, either politically or sexually, and so we were all very much at a loss for what bro culture looked like. We had to do research. It was a foreign world to us. With Hermes, it was playing this drag of the macho.
AP: It's interesting to think about the kinetic aspect, the physical, in the van. I don't know how many theater pieces or performance art pieces have taken place in a car. But the more I think about it, the more interesting it is. You're limited in what you can do, but because you had a van, you actually had a bit more space than you would in a car. And then weird you can play differently with inside versus outside. The whole idea of the proscenium arch is gone. What's outside the window of the car as opposed to a moving background becomes part of the theatricality.
JK: The world outside the van became hyper-theatrical. One night a police car went by and everybody was like, "The sirens!" This is amazing, because it's completely not planned and there are all sorts of things that can go wrong. I mean, there are all sorts of things that can go wrong.
AP: Yes, including a crash.
JK: A crash, getting pulled over. We had all of this rehearsed with the actors. "If you get pulled over, don't break character." The whole play is very illegal. Nobody's wearing seat belts in the back. Every time we got in the car it was like, "Good luck. I hope nothing bad happens."
Alex Purves is Associate Professor of Classics at UCLA. She is the author of "Space and Time in Ancient Greek Narrative" and co-editor (with Shane Butler) of "Synaesthesia and the Ancient Senses." She is currently writing a book on bodies and movement in Homeric epic.
Johanna Kozma works in performance, experimental theater, poetry, and books. Her work has been performed at the Hammer Museum, Southern Exposure, PERFORM! Now, Machine Project, New Wight Gallery, Anatomy Riot, and the freeways of Los Angeles for The Machine Project Field Guide to L.A. Architecture, for Getty Pacific Standard Time Presents Modern Architecture in L.A. Her writing has appeared in Baumtest Quaterly, PANK Magazine, InDigest, Rymden Magazine, and in the WHL Studio Reader series, of which she is a co-founder.