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|VISUALEYEZ 2005 JOURNAL: MAY 29|
David Yonge's project was based on a ‘bar myth' that after the breakup of the Beatles, Ringo Starr locked himself in his room and drank sixteen bottles of wine a day. David's performance was to re-enact this: to lock himself in the hotel room, isolate himself from the outside world and drink sixteen bottles of wine a day for a week. The public could visit him during ‘visiting hours' each day.
When I first found out about David's project what I was hoping was that it would provide an interesting counterpoint to the other works in the festival, in that it was about isolation rather than interaction. I was hoping the work would be an investigation of rituals (of the rock star lifestyle, of machismo); by deliberately acting out the myth of a second-rate Beatle (rather than say, John Lennon) that the work would essentially function as a critique.
I first spoke to David at the beginning of his performance (when he was still relatively sober). In our conversation, my impressions were that rather than trying to comment or on the celebrity myth or the bravado associated with extreme behaviour, he in fact wanted to embrace it. He described the work as not political ; the rock star lifestyle aspect of the work, according to David, was a secondary aspect of the work, which was really about his pushing his physical limits. He saw himself as someone who was always able to do extreme physical tasks, which plays into his performances. When I spoke to him later, he said that he felt he needed to push himself to extremes for the work to resonate with him.
He told me later that through drinking so much wine (and without eating or drinking water) he developed alcohol poisoning. He became depressed and paranoid, and went to a great degree of physical pain. He also wrecked the hotel room at the Days Inn; Latitude made him sign a waiver form so that he would take financial responsibility for any damages.
Because of its sensational nature, David's project received a fair amount of media attention; more, I should add, than the other projects in the festival. This is not surprising as it is rare to see coverage of performance art in the mainstream media, unless it's “look what those crazy artists are doing these days”, with the implication that we are all self-indulgent, privileged narcissists living on the public purse. In this context, sensationalism and stereotype sell and there's no such thing as bad press. Extreme gestures, usually performed by younger white men, will always get the spotlight.
This is where performance art, ironically, is implicated in the rock star myth. It becomes about transgression, but never political , because we're never supposed to really contextualize what we do; that's the critic's or curator's job. And we can't afford to be political because it could piss someone off and lose us opportunities (revealing the surprisingly conservative and opportunistic motivations often behind sensational acts of transgression). I'll quote pop culture critic Thomas Frank here, as he describes ex-Black Flag singer Henry Rollins' presence in the media:
If you're unhappy with your lot, the Culture Trust tell us with each new tale of Rollins, if you feel you must rebel, take your cue from the most disgruntled guy of all:… Root out the weaknesses deep down inside yourself! But whatever you do, DON'T think about who controls power or how it is wielded. 1
The media coverage meant that when the public came during the visiting hours wanted to see a freakshow or to party. In the state David was in, this became very difficult to deal with; he said that if he were to do this again, he would not have visiting hours.
David's project also created a certain mythology, as he was absent from the other performances, and because we were all concerned about his safety. This, I feel is the most interesting aspect of the project. Whether it was just more hype or something he was trying to critically engage with is another question. A more disturbing question also surfaces: because of its media presence, will it just become hype, overshadowing the other projects in the festival, which, in my opinion, were much more thoughtful?
I'd like to end by offering a theory on the fascination with this kind of work. We are living in a consumer society that in essence is about comfort, convenience and avoiding physical and emotional hardship at all costs. It is also a society that represents itself through the lens of upper/middle-class values. In this context, self-destructiveness and excess become a kind of forbidden fruit: they claim to offer the authenticity and courage that we have supposedly lost.
In her text Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class2, Barbara Ehrenreich describes how in the seventies, the middle class experienced a crisis of values: on one hand believing in values of frugality, hard work and self-sufficiency, on the other hand being told to consume. This crisis, which she argues led to a backlash against the civil rights, women's movement, gay rights movement and anti-Vietnam War protests, was also one of gender roles, and to a certain degree, homophobia. The term ‘getting soft' was thrown around, revealing a repressed anxiety that North American men, especially white upper/middle-class men living in urban centres, didn't know how to be tough anymore, and toughness and courage were envisioned in terms of traditional masculinity. So, according to Ehrenreich, the middle class projected its own anxieties onto the working class, who were depicted as tough, anti-intellectual, politically conservative (although this statistically was not true) predominantly white and male (also statistically inaccurate) and traditional, especially around gender roles. These projections were represented in films such as The Deer Hunter or Taxi Driver , and TV shows such as All in the Family.
My theory is that a similar projection is taking place now, which I see as reflected in TV shows such as the Trailer Park Boys (which apparently is more popular in Toronto than rural Nova Scotia, where it is filmed), bands such as The Darkness, CJ Sleaze, or a few years ago, Nashville Pussy. I also see this projection as reflected in the appropriation of the ‘white trash' look (trucker hats,etc) by what seems like predominantly upper/middle class people (in my experience, I don't see this appropriation on the part of people who actually come from working-class backgrounds). According to the present day projection, the working class (seen as white, reflected in the term “white trash”) are seen as living an excessive lifestyle, are tough, anti-intellectual, macho and in touch with authentic experience in the ways that the rest of us phonies/sissies could only dream of. I would place David Yonge's project in this category of class appropriation, and would argue that it is more interesting for the ideologies it reveals than for what it has to say.