Stuck in the Same Muck: Journeying Through Asher Hartman’s Psychic Theater

Performance view, Sledgeweed (Zut Lorz) and Posiedon (Philip Littell) (distance) and PoJo (Paul Outlaw & Joe Seely) (foreground) in "Sorry, Atlantis: Eden’s Achin’ Organ Seeks Revenge," Machine Project, 2017. Photo by Haruko Tanaka.

God seduced Jesus on a Circuit City breakroom table. The seduction began as we, the audience, sat circled in child-sized chairs in a too-bright room. God, played by Jasmine Orpilla as cunningly and sexily in-control, crawled on all fours toward her divine son. The set felt like a contraption that had us rotating within it. We were made to trail the performers through a tricked-out hallway lined with photos of Circuit City employees. And we moved from one room to another, jumping when walls shifted or hidden windows opened. We were always reacting more than participants – even when Joe Seeley as a friendly, vulnerable Jesus Christ passed around ginger ale and Bushmills for us to sip, a kind of communion. See What Love The Father Has Given, staged in 2012 at the Los Angeles alternative art space Machine Project, was my first experience of an Asher Hartman production. I couldn’t describe what the play had been about afterward; I could only gesture toward what it felt like. The infectious, all-consuming energy left me thinking in a kind of instinctual, non-linguistic way about a lot of things: wage work, the weird religiosity of corporate culture, abuses of power, neediness, and love.

After that, I was hooked. I saw each of the five plays Hartman subsequently staged in collaboration with Machine Project, a space that from 2003-18 supported unwieldy experiments that may not have found backing elsewhere. Founded by artist Mark Allen in the now-thoroughly gentrified neighborhood of Echo Park, the space was itself essentially a collaborative art project. By the 2010s, when Machine regularly employed two to three full-time staff, Allen became increasingly interested in “intervening in the substructure,” as he put it in a 2015 essay. For nearly every Hartman production, Machine drastically changed its architecture: after the trick hallway came an elaborate secret basement theater; then a raised, slanted floor with trap doors. Or sometimes, Machine Project’s tiny staff helped Hartman secure unique architecture elsewhere, like for Glass Bang (2014) staged at the same Schindler-designed lair featured in L.A. Confidential. But the spectacle of the setting, while logistically dumbfounding at times, has always been easier to understand and describe than Hartman’s dialogue, which makes eerie, intuitive sense at the time and little sense if you try to recount it later.

Mad Clot on a Holy Bon: Memories of a Psychic Theater, a collection of three of Hartmann’s scripts published by X Artists’ Books.

When I first opened Mad Clot on a Holy Bone: Memories of a Psychic Theater, a collection of three of Hartman’s scripts published by X Artists’ Books in mid-2020, I was unsure how to engage with the plays as words on a page. (It also reminded of our current state of loss and change: who would drink from a communal Bushmills right now? Or even sit shoulder to shoulder in a basement theater?) Hartman’s core group of performers – members of the Gawdafful National Theater, which Hartman founded in 2010 and which is forever-evolving – exude a special charisma and chemistry, at least partly the result of so often losing themselves in ineffable work. In addition to Orpilla and Seeley, regulars Paul Outlaw and Philip Littel can stretch from restrained to feverish across a span of seconds. Hartman writes for his performers and amends the scripts in response to them over months of rehearsals – so, in effect this book, which chronicles Hartman and Machine Project’s close working relationship through the interview and essays that sandwich the plays, only exists because the performances already happened.

Certainly, a book cannot “capture all the synchronies of the performances,” as Machine’s founder Mark Allen worries in an interview at the end of Mad Clot. But with no images interrupting the dialogue, this book offers some distance from the intensity of the experience (in previous reviews, my breathlessness in describing those effects took precedence), such that I can focus on the political undertones and cultural commentaries in Hartman’s work – many of which, honestly, were on my mind anyway. In these plays, artists’ delusional exceptionalism and self-pity butt up against political realities and class struggles; characters internalize their frustration with exploitative systems, expressing it through guilty outbursts, self-doubt, and defensive justifications. Yet even as Hartman pillories artists’ tendency toward the myopic, the work is so exuberant, daring, and sensual that it conveys a contagious faith in art’s power to destabilize worldviews or transport audiences into other, stranger psyches.

While two of the three plays in Mad Clot were first performed in elaborate sets at Machine Project, the third, Mr. Akita, debuted at the Tang Teaching Museum at Skidmore College, during a Machine Project retrospective there. I later saw it at Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles’s raw-by-design, warehouse-like upstairs events space – where Cliff Hengst’s performance felt at once more sterilized and more out-there than it might have in Machine’s improvised storefront. Hengst, a comedian and artist who first met Hartman through Machine’s Mark Allen, played opposite a painting by L.A. artist Emily Joyce (also part of the Machine community), a controlled screenprint and acrylic composition with a blue-green top, pink-orange bottom, and a sun-like burst of white at its center. It’s never quite clear who Hengst plays; sometimes he seems to be the disillusioned maker of the painting (like De Kooning, the stage directions suggest), other times he speaks as the painting, or as an impassioned narrator (as Allen says of these plays, “the first thing to know is that the actors will play multiple characters, sometimes in the same breath”). The Mr. Akita referenced in the title is a thwarted artist and professor whose teaching still haunts his former students. In an oblique kind of way, Hartman, himself a former painting student and former professor, gets at the heightened anxiety that comes from believing in a failing system (institutional art education, in this case).

Rehearsal view, Po (Paul Outlaw) in “Sorry, Atlantis: Eden’s Achin’ Organ Seeks Revenge.” Machine Project, 2017. Photo by Ian Byers-Gamber.

The abusive, angry admonitions that ricochet through Hengst’s monologue – “Where is our salvation? Certainly not in your musings, your short autobiography,” a painting teacher tells students – don’t always arrive from any specific jaded professor. This beat-’em-down method will be familiar to MFA graduates everywhere, and Mr. Akita’s own frustration (“Why did I come here if not to take all?!!” he cries) conjures pop culture depictions of tortured artist-geniuses – the film Pollock, or the newer Hollywood monstrosity The Burnt Orange Heresy, in which Donald Sutherland raves about ideas of absence and his search for the perfect blue. But at least those films portray a tragic heroism, whereas Mr. Akita brings to those clichés a knowledge of how insular and dysfunctional artworlds actually are. About halfway through, Hengst tells this joke: “Two paintings walked into a bar. The first said, Gimme a thrill. The other said, Gimme all your money, your life, your mind, your would-be children, your hope…” and it goes on, the painting taking everything and giving nothing back.

The stream-of-consciousness feeling of the scripts compels us with such gems – and also make it near impossible to follow a narrative trajectory. “When I’m writing I often go into a light trance,” says Hartman in the interview at the end of Mad Clot. “I want passages that seem to come from another place.” This approach is the result of long engagement with different, less cerebral, and non-linear modes of communication. Since 2001, Hartman has given intuitive psychic readings, and in 2007, started the collaboration Krystal Krunch with artist Haruko Tanaka. The two artists offered workshops on intuitively reading architectural spaces, artworks, and everyday objects. The practice drew from serious study, but it was also intentionally lighthearted and fun – the invitation for a 2012 workshop at the Walker Art Center read, “Watch your intuitive powers magically grow! Marvel as you instantly connect with human beings.” (Mad Clot is dedicated to Tanaka, who died after a stroke in 2019.) In the balance between the careful craft and the seemingly spontaneous, albeit dark absurdity, Hartman’s dialogue is similarly playful.

As Lucas Wrench, artist and former operations manager of Machine Project, points out in an essay in Mad Clot, Hartman makes plays that are performed primarily in art spaces and for art audiences; yet their virtuosity and flashy staging “runs counter to performance art’s egalitarianism.” Still, Hartman belongs to an impressive lineage of artist who use the play, or theater, as a way to address political realities or invite experiences that unscripted performance art can’t quite get at. Artist Ed Bereal, who co-founded the Bodacious Buggerilla theater troupe in 1969, said the urge to move toward theater coincided with his desire to purge the influences of an elitist artworld and to “create a vehicle for social/political criticism.” Hartman’s work drips with criticisms too, though the unruly narrative structure makes didacticism impossible.

Throughout Purple Electric Play! (aka PEP!, 2014), which occurred in a Victorian-style basement theater constructed by Gawdafful National Theater member Joe Seeley, abstracted conversations about careerist elitism run alongside slippery dialogue about the performative politics of artists. After pages of alternately lyrical and jarring reflections on revolution – the character named The Star recounts being led to the guillotine before saying revolutions are for rich men; the two Vital Organs call indifference violent while refusing to take a side; the Audience says he’d like to be on the frontlines but only in spirit – PEP! ends with mob violence. The puppet called Donkey, shaped like a human-sized bag of popcorn, starts to sing, in an “earnest, Prog-ish” way according to the stage directions, and the Vital Organs jostle, harass, and beat the puppet to death. All the while a huge, glittery purple tongue emerges from the curtains to lick the audience.

Mark Allen knew Machine would soon close when he asked Hartman to do a final play, and so this one took the most ambitious liberties with the space itself. For Sorry Atlantis: Eden’s Achin Organ Seeks Revenge (2017), the floor was fully raised, propped up at a 30-degree angle, with one large circle cut in the middle and trap doors cut throughout from which actors emerged, walking, and crawling across the angled stage when not peeking out from their hole. Audience members sat in a narrow flat area at the front of the room and on a specially-built balcony that gave them a bird’s-eye view (tickets for the balcony cost more), and these audience members were asked to wear judge’s wigs. Often throughout, the characters addressed these judges as if they were in court, but no one – neither actors nor audience – judges understood the power dynamic. “How the hell do you expect me to give a goddam exceptional speech, your honor, if I do not know the crime I am herewith being fucking charged with. I am okay to be in the movie, just let me have the damn script!” exclaim two lizard twins wielding oversized stuffed phalluses.

Performance view, Donkey, Lo-Phat, Vital Organ, Star, Starvation, and Salad Bar in “Purple Electric Play (PEP!).” Machine Project, 2014. Photo by Marianne Williams.

The gender fluidity here, as in much of Hartman’s work, is so integral as to seem normal and yet far from utopian – like in the TV hit Schitt’s Creek, in which homophobia didn’t seem to exist yet characters still managed to be awful to each other. Even if their identities aren’t binary or conventional, the characters are stuck in a kind of underworld suffocated by patriarchy’s unrelenting grasp. They plead for the patriarch’s acceptance, though they also appear to despise him/her (father and mother, played by one actor, blur together). The metaphor is almost too obvious: the paternal figure, made powerful by a system that the powerless must succeed within even if they don’t believe in it. But the experience is anything but. The barely-dressed members of this dysfunctional family crawl out of trap doors, move in and out of character, pander to a panel of confused judges, and twerk. At the very end, Harry (a stand-in for Hades) says, “Silence all filled up by squeals of pleasure, they rowed on,” a line that effectively encapsulates the eccentric, invigorating energy that courses through a play that offers no sense of redemption.

One thing that is much clearer on the page, far from the virulent charisma of the Gawdafful National Theater’s actors, is that there is no individual in Hartman’s work. The characters express concerns and emotions that feel individualistic: self-pity, shame, fear of failure, performative progressive politics. But they share them, passing their embarrassing complicity (with art institutions, the patriarchy, capitalism) around like a virus, or a hot potato they can’t drop. Something in the swells and dips of sensation coursing through Hartman’s intuitive, deftly-honed writing conveys the futility of fixating on individual failures when all the characters are stuck in the same toxic muck. Amidst the nihilistic, non-linear narratives that populate these three plays runs an elated, alluring celebration of collaboration.

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