The popular and the weird performance art and person

I began to write about Megan Mayer’s “24 Hours From Tulsa” the June weekend long ago after she performed it in the Art/Road/Movie show. I was going to write about what seemingly contradictory “popular” “performance art” could mean and be. I’d had a lot of thoughts in that regard about karaoke and lip-syncing through Megan’s piece, where her eccentric glitzy character is seen on video pre-performance in an eerie state of busting plates “outside” the venue, and then enters and carefully sets up her stage to deliver an anxious lip-synced’ number. I didn’t manage to take the idea of popular performance art very far then, perhaps because her piece wasn’t about a “popular” character at all, but a real strange lady through and through. That in and of itself I think I see now is obviously at the heart of the discussion, which I’d like to return to anew.

It was an odd pleasure to watch Megan’s character be her idiosyncratic self–her glassy stare was so withdrawn and anti-social, but she was our star performer; she was so outrageous in her private behavior but so shy and neat onstage. I found myself thinking about her mental state as much as about her job here (the singing), where the subtext of “crazy” for the lady (most explicit in her breaking dishes outside) became sort of the impetus for what she came to do. But mental disability explains too much and nothing–it’s like dreams in movies, a kind of dues ex machina for a lack of problem. Without it, what would we have had–just a real lounge act?

If the woman were “normal” and entered the stage to present us a lip-synced song, we wouldn’t have been very compelled in all likelihood, I think. We want weirdo woman; we need weirdo woman to make the piece work. Why is popular performance art not a compelling subject; why wouldn’t it have “read” to us as an audience and why isn’t the plight of the common karaoke-er or wanna-be-singer good enough fodder for thought? I’m stuck on this. I’m irked by our collective need for crazy-times, and I’m unsettled by performance art’s paradigm being necessarily opposed to the “popular,” as exemplified in this case. It seems to be a fundamental contradiction in terms, and yet there in Megan’s piece a quintessentially popular performance art form was being represented, even if it is not considered as such, because it’s “popular,” perhaps “uncritical.”

I think people consider talent show singing or karaoke or lip-syncing or what have you as performance; but being more fun and play than investigation or deconstruction, they’re more contentious as art. Does Megan’s character as misfit/deranged person inherently investigate and deconstruct the popular form she engages in for us, moving the piece into performance art? Does the presence of that character preclude a consideration of the form at all, so that anything she did on stage would be performance art because she is a marginalized identity? In either case it seems to me, we need the craziness to stimulate our interest and corroborate the presence of art, beyond just creativity. Though the character was a “crazy lounge singer” whole from the start, without the crazy there would have been only performance and no art.

To play out this line of thinking a bit, I don’t only mean here that we don’t have a good chance of just enjoying some good old lip-syncing, or that the “popular” is missing from performance art. I also mean that anytime someone marginal activates a popular activity, we cannot seem to allow it to be that popular activity anymore; our experience as the spectators of that peculiar person doing that normal thing becomes commandeered by our hyper-awareness of their difference. The consequence of this is that only mainstream people can do mainstream things; everyone else is doing it as an other, and their overshadowing qualifier is what’s significant. Sure, watching karaoke, for example, isn’t necessarily that interesting no matter who’s doing it; but if the spotlight of marginality is all that enlivens it, that’s problematic, right? Minority art being significant just because it’s from minorities; yeah it’s good- for a minority. This is a knot in my thinking though: I want art, and performance art specifically which I am invested in, to be able to embrace the popular or mainstream forms and lifestyles, but have marginal identities as the subject or protagonist of them without even flinching.

I would like to imagine that if Megan’s character were real and really had some personality/mental health stuff, her anxiety and awkwardness on stage wouldn’t have been some symptom of her fascinating cracked psyche, but have been a very reasonable anticipation of our bias against and intrigue for her “sort of person” doing that “sort of thing” that so many more normal, socialized people get to do without a second look. People just wanna sing and sway, whoever they are; you saw the woman. And how are we, whoever we is, to appreciate that?

Moheb Soliman

Megan Mayer’s “24 Hours from Tulsa” in ART/ROAD/MOVIE

Bryant Lake Bowl Theater

June 4-5, 2014

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