When Does Performing Failure Make Its Own Failure?

Jeremy Wade, "Asshole Death Rave," 2015. Photo: Ian Douglas.
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How can an artist enact failure without presenting a failed act? How does an artist present an ethos of collapse without making work that collapses in on itself?

The U.S.-born Berlin-based performance artist Jeremy Wade attempts to perform failure and its consequences in his latest theatrical spectacle Death Asshole Rave Video, and the results are frustrating, illuminating, at times melancholic, though mostly they’re loud and simply annoying. All of which is, perversely, intentional, and all of which (again, perversely) proves his point, that we are in the midst of the systemic collapse of late capitalism’s promises, on an appropriately grand scale, with an appropriately panicked tone. But Wade’s delivery of these revelations is too often alienating, and becomes tiresome.

Wade’s performed assertion that the bodies, both public and private, are shitting their pants (his favorite metaphor), begs a simple question: are we, the audience, meant to find Wade’s presence and relentless noise (verbal and musical) boorish? Are we meant to read it as a mirror of the times and zeitgeist described by Wade, or are we all over-investing in what is simply a bad performance? Most important, can we tell the difference anymore; and if we could, would it matter?

Broken into three distinct acts – a neurotic clown show, a dreadful stand-up act complete with a Phyllis Diller costume; and a meditation, via dance and text, on death – Death Asshole Rave Video looks and feels (and even conforms) to the conventions of a short one-hander play. And herein lies the first trouble.

Like many performance artists today who use the templates of theater (Wade’s performance was held in a theater, on a curtained stage, and featured gorgeous lighting, hypnotic projections accompanying a filmic score, and costumes, which Wade changed into while on stage with the lights lowered), the performer is happy to employ the body and bones of traditional, capital-T theater, but feels no need to obey any of theater’s basic rules.

However theater is an inherently conservative form, and while I am all for rule-breaking, if I’m seated in a dark room next to others and listening in silence, it’s theater. If I have paid for and acquired a ticket, and then been asked to accept that what unfolds before me has a beginning and an end, a narrative arc, it’s theater. If, at the event’s end, I am asked to applaud while the artist bows, it’s theater. And theater comes with an entirely different set of expectations than performance art.

There’s a “script” in Wade’s performance, and it’s deliberately juvenile, perhaps one meant to communicate juvenility. I can’t quite tell. Wade’s monologue is messy and has no traceable narrative or through-line. Where the monologue needs writing, we get shouting. The clown and the comedian both speak about the broken promise that is contemporary life, but there’s no new information to be found. “All that saving you did for the future won’t help you,” Wade tells us; “you’re afraid,” he reminds us. “You might as well just let everything go and shit your pants,” he suggests. All undoubtedly true observations; none revelatory.

What’s the point in telling a room full of artists that being an artist is now nearly impossible? The irony of presenting this argument under the auspices of a well-funded public institution I will just set aside. Furthermore, once the point is made, it need not be made over and over again for an hour, unless there is a follow-up observation as pay-off, something truly deviational from the generalized nihilism. Nihilism is only a gesture. Wade takes an hour to do a moment’s work.

Similarly, the comedian character’s stand-up routine is a laundry-list of tired dead-baby jokes, none of them funny. One watches Wade parade these morbid knock-knock gags and wonders if he knows he’s not being funny, or if he is intentionally not being funny, or if he is failing at being funny but still attempting to be funny by poking fun at the laborious traditions of stand-up. Down the tunnel of mirrors we fall, and after a half-hour the shtick that might be about shticks becomes transparent, however one chooses to address its ruse.

Finally, reading the performance through the lens of theater, it should be noted that while Wade is an accomplished dancer (and the last third of the show, the death section, holds up as a lovely, if somewhat conventional, dance-as-monologue), Wade is not a natural actor. He seems less at home on stage than alarmed and confused – but, again, his performance could be about acting, couldn’t it?

In order to make sense of this testing work, we must obviously set aside any fixed readings. It is and is not everything it hints at or borrows strategies from; it supports and ridicules the systems it employs. In this sense, Wade’s work can be read alongside recent works by Toronto-based performance artist Keith Cole, whose performances at Videofag and Paul Petro Contemporary were extended acts of self-debasement, as well as the more crafted but no less resigned works of Divya Mehra, whose installations snigger at the empty leftovers of Identity Art. Nothing is reliable, such works warn us; and from that fragile viewpoint, much of what Wade does on stage is fascinating in its ineptness. Intentional or not (I choose to think it’s all intentional, as Wade is too smart an artist for anything less), Wade provides us with a plausible method of presenting whole-scale failure: become a clown. A terrible clown.

There are no other responses available. All we have left are the wholly questionable mockeries of a jester, the mawkish falsities of a paid re-iterator of the truth and all its counter-truths. Makeup and fright-wigs become logical tools for an age stuck in the madness-inducing cycle of information addiction and information resentment; an age dangerously near to being overwhelmed into dissociation. End times indeed.

How can an artist enact failure without presenting a failed act? It can’t be done, Wade’s performance argues. The failure must be embedded in the presentation itself, be the presentation, and the artist must be willing to create barely endurable situations and then stare the audience down, as if daring them to find fault with an action that begins from, and is generated by fault.

If that seems cynical, look around you. What cultural enterprise today doesn’t operate under a diagnosis of hyper-awareness, self-reflexivity and immediate disavowal, of its very aboutness?

On the other hand, from a perhaps nostalgic point of view, on my part, I like my theater a bit more carefully constructed. Call me old-fashioned, but it’s telling that the quiet last act of Death Asshole Rave Video – a dry–ice, fog-infused, twinkly-light-dappled, poetically-delivered recitation on death and the process of cremation, the most blatantly “theater–like” component of the show – was the part we responded to with enthusiasm and sympathy, a generous embrace.

We’re all still looking for the well-made show. We’re looking despite knowing better, despite our discontent with art as a delivery system for actual emotion, the conveyance of the too-loaded “real.” No wonder Wade’s last act felt like the beginning of an entirely different show. It’s one I would like, very much, to see.

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