Starting this month, The Conversant will publish interviews conducted by artist Mark Allen, who runs Machine Project in Echo Park, Los Angeles. Machine Project is a non-profit cultural space that investigates art, technology, natural history, science, music, literature and food in an informal storefront. Machine Project also operates as a collaborative group of artists producing shows both locally and internationally, while promoting the documentation, discussion and distribution of contemporary art practice through films, publications and interviews. This month, Mark Allen interviews the artist Brody Condon on his work with LARP (live action role-playing). Condon’s work draws heavily from a progressive LARPing scene that has developed in Scandinavia.
Mark Allen: You draw from specific texts in conceptualizing your work, is that right?
Brody Condon: Before developing any events, I find myself thinking there must be a body of knowledge that can help me avoid repetition of previously solved problems.
For the recent work, Richard Schechner, professor of performance studies at NYU, was a basic place to start; he was director of the Performance Group, which eventually became the Wooster Group. Experimental theater in the later ’60’s was already hitting many of the walls that I think we’re hitting now, such as the complexity of participation or questions of authentic experience.
Performance documentation also functions as text, like videos of early Otto Muehl or Hermann Nitsch performances: ritualistic actions with animal entrails, fucking people with chicken heads, even the hairy camera guy naked except for his battery belt and a gold chain. How far should I take hedonism? Does it only end in insanity or death?
Going back further, Schechner was inspired by the Polish experimental theater director Grotowski, who spent time in places like India and Mexico borrowing from ethnographic method to mine for new performance mechanics..
MA: Like Picasso making Demoiselles d’Avignon.
BC: Yeah, but possibly more rigorous than a grab at visual style. He studied with those involved in the traditional practices he was interested in. Those two examples feel different to me now, though I can’t say how they were originally interpreted.
MA: Representations versus techniques.
BC: Yes. In any case, while others later like Living Theater were using participation and spectacle as a tool for socio-political transformation, Grotowski seemed to be approaching this nearly transcendent intensity, the destruction of all personal artifice within a performance context. “I’m getting rid of my audience and going out in the woods with my actors to perform together privately. . .” There is some criticism of Grotowski that it started to become cultish, too group psychotherapeutic or self-indulgent spiritual practice. Even he eventually admitted it was a mistake.
MA: Do you think that happened because of the loss of the viewer? Does the presence of a viewer keep a practice moving outwards rather than inwards?
BC: Yes and no. The practice collapses inward if the energy is directed towards a single charismatic leader. In a more communal situation like live role-playing [1. A live action role-playing game (LARP) is a game in which participants physically act out their characters’ actions. The players pursue goals within the context of a fictional setting, developed by the game designer or by the consensus of participants, while interacting with one another in character. In the United States, LARPing is primarily concerned with fantasy genres, having developed largely out of role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons. Condon’s work draws heavily from a progressive LARPing scene that has developed in Scandinavia, whose interests go beyond fantasy into a wider range of historical and contemporary circumstances.] the organizer functions more as a facilitator or referee. Each participant brings a tremendous amount to that cooperative environment. I suppose it is the difference between a poorly developed or well developed group encounter. It doesn’t have to devolve into cultism.
MA: So a poorly designed project turns into a cult?
BC: You could say that, unless of course you are a fledgling charismatic leader intentionally designing your new religious movement. In any case, without healthy group cohesion the social group will disperse, transform, or in extreme cases move towards suicidal neurosis.
I consciously construct temporary situations, meaning they are designed to fragment at some point. One just has to prepare a cool down process so the group disperses in a reasonably healthy manner.
MA: You’re still focused on the audience, then, even if it’s not there in that moment. You’re constructing the event for someone who will experience the piece through its documentation.
BC: Yeah. I can’t decide if that’s valid or holding me back. I sometimes feel like I’m tied to it because I rely on art institutions for income.
MA: Because the institutional ecosystem that supports these kinds of practices requires a viewer? In the case of the LARPs, though, it seems like people find other ways to support their activities.
BC: For a decade they have been developing alternative support methods that allow them to work without documentation. Recently, though, for better or worse, they have begun to think, “If we don’t create documentation, or treat each LARP design as a score so it can be repeated, then all of that work will disappear.”
With Level Five [2. Level Five, first performed at the Hammer Museum in 2010, was a two-day participatory performance that took the form of a 1970’s self-actualization seminar. Players arrived in character and were expected to remain in character, with minimal interruption, for the two-day duration of the game. Only participants were allowed in the performance space itself, while the footage from three cameras recording the event was mixed live and streamed for the public in the nearby theater during scheduled hours of the event.] , we might do it once more. I can only perform a piece three or four times before I start to hate it. Then we will have a manual that’s a couple hundred pages or so and we’ll offer it to the public as a score.
The video documentation functions in one way. The manual functions in another. We have the private performance that functions in yet another way. And in the case of Level Five we have the public viewing in the theater next door to that private performance. I question whether that’s an opportunistic covering of all bases, or if it’s just how contemporary culture production functions. There’s an idea, and then you dump that idea into 20 different forms to access various demographics. The final form of dissemination doesn’t actually matter.
MA: The different kinds of knowledge require different forms to manifest. A video
documentation of one of your performances gives me a huge amount of information that a score doesn’t. But it also closes down a conversation, because it’s indexical to a certain group of people and a particular moment in time.
It’s very interesting to think about strategically. As an artist, you make vehicles for an idea to drive around in. The idea circulates and means something really different in all these different forms.
BC: Yeah, but my most efficient hope is the content will intuitively find its own logic of dissemination.
MA: I feel like your approach to the questions of representation versus technique, appearance versus structure, has shifted over time. The earlier works, like Untitled War [3. Untitled War, first performed at Machine Project in 2004, was a twelve-hour medieval battle staged inside a gallery space, combining elements of fantasy role-playing, fabricated history, extreme sports, and computer games. Live camera views were streamed online and projected next door at the Echo Park Film Center, creating a game-like viewing experience for those outside the space.or your photographs of people in the Society for Creative Anachronism, were more anthropological, more about representations.] or your photographs of people in the Society for Creative Anachronism, were more anthropological, more about representations. They became a pathway for you to move into mining these different subcultures for performative technique.
BC: The question of representation versus performance mechanics solved itself over the course of a couple projects with live game-related subcultures. I quickly realized that their visual style is limited; it’s an arbitrary wrapper. The real gold lies in their social choreography techniques. Once the performance engine is functional, you can wrap World War II, sci-fi, the 15th century or a ’70’s self-actualization seminar around it—any visual style or period you want.
MA: What, in retrospect, do you think about the use of actors in Future Gestalt? [4. Future Gestalt, performed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2012, was part sci-fi film, participatory performance and experiential essay on the history of psychotherapeutic group encounters. Set in an antiquated vision of the far future, the work involved five trained performers robed in vivid, diaphanous costumes who were subjected to open-ended performative psychotherapy techniques, such as Gestalt Therapy. Tony Smith’s sculpture Smoke (1967), permanently installed in a high-ceilinged atrium at the museum, provided the set, with carnivorous potted plants serving as props. The performers were physically intertwined by their costumes and interacted directly with the monumental sculpture, which gave the appearance of embodying the immaterial presence of the encounter group leader. Each character brought to the session a distinct style of communication, such as an operatic language of shrills, clicks, and whispers, or a synchronized choreography of movement and voice.] That was a very strange aspect of that piece that I’m still trying to unpack.
BC: It was a misuse of actors.
With each project I’m trying a different kind of participant. Lawful Evil, [5. Lawful Evil, first performed at the Art L.A. Fair in 2007, was a staged game of Dungeons and Dragons in which every participant was required to play a lawful evil character—that is, a character who “cares about tradition, loyalty, and order, but not about freedom, dignity or life (and who) condemns others not according to their actions but according to race, religion, homeland or social rank,” according to the third edition of the D&D player’s handbook.] where I played a role-playing game with friends at an art fair was very different than inviting a group of Medieval re-enactors to fight in at Machine Project (Untitled War), or, as in Level Five, issuing an open call for participants for a two day seminar. Without Sun [6. Without Sun (2008), named after the classic Chris Marker film Sans Soleil (1983), is an edited compilation of “found performances,”drawn from the internet, involving individuals on a psychedelic substance. Images and sounds from the various clips overlap and combine to create a 15-minute pseudo-narrative focused on the exterior surface of their “projection of self” into visionary worlds.] was the first time I actually understood what actors were for.
At first I thought they were completely useless, but then I realized they were just being misused by directors. There are works that demand a level of highly refined technical skill that an untrained performer simply cannot achieve. Future Gestalt was trying to combine the open call feel of Level Five with the more technically virtuosic performance of Without Sun.
In Future Gestalt, my plan was to take trained actors, each with a very specific skill and ask them to create characters, to role-play. Then, over five sessions, I slowly removed the characters they had created, piece by piece.
Intellectually, they understood the role-playing thing: “OK, I’m going to bring this character I’m personally interested in and develop that on the fly with the other performers.” But they were constantly looking to me for more direction than I intended to give them. They were horrible role-players. They were trained to project outwards, not inwards. The way I finally got them was just to say, “Enough,” in the last session. “Be yourselves. We’re here together and we’re going to do a filmed Gestalt session.”
They kept a hold on the character elements that were most meaningful to them, whether they were conscious of it or not, just out of habit from the previous sessions. They were then able to just be present, open, and honest, with very thin characters as alibi.
MA: I was really struck with the range of awkward acting-ness. It manifests differently for each person. On one end is Carmina (Escobar). She’s communicating only in nonlinguistic sounds, and she seems very comfortable. Jackie (Wright) also feels organic, not like she’s trying to figure out how to do her job. The rest of them have varying degrees of trouble dealing with it, and different kinds of awkwardness.
BC: Well, they didn’t know what to do, as I often had trouble keeping up group cohesion. They become lost and anxious. Then I would zoom in on that group anxiety.
MA: But it’s very different than seeing someone who’s not trained to act. It’s almost like you’re watching them try to un-learn how to act, unpack this skill set of representation in the human consciousness.
BC: It was a matter of pushing them away from self-consciousness so that they could be present and authentically respond, not act. A role-player is coming into that situation without the goal of performing for a viewer, they’re arriving with the desire to create an interesting internal experience. The early sessions involved redefining the performers’ preconceived goals.
Also keep in mind I was being guided in each session by Tyler (Waxman), a trained group psychotherapist. During the filming of the last session I realized that I had intuitively picked five performers that each represented different parts of my personality, I was unconsciously projecting these five parts of my personality onto them. I was running sessions for this fractured version of myself, and those sessions were then being meta-run by Tyler. I imagine he knew was happening, but being a good group facilitator he just let it roll.
MA: We’ve talked about this before: the way in which the works become surrogates for some process you’re interested in.
BC: In Future Gestalt, one performer recounted a dream scenario which included a car crash, her brother’s medicine, and rotting dog heads. One of the most traumatic moments from my history is a car crash in which a friend died. She was describing something very similar to that past experience. Maybe it’s just the subjects I unconsciously chose to focus on while leading the session, but these uncanny moments were common.
MA: I’m curious how you understand the relationship between role-playing and therapy.
BC: I would say by the time I made Level Five, the live role-playing community consciously understood that what they were doing was—I wouldn’t call it therapeutic, but potentially cathartic. It became clear to them over time that their games had clear psychological consequences.
MA: Was that something that informed your thinking when you developed Level Five? Or were these two things happening in parallel?
BC: I imagine the concept of bleed, the blurring of the line between player and character, was already an important topic in the Nordic LARP community at that time.
When I think of role-playing in therapy, I think of the early history of performative group encounters, like J.L. Moreno’s Psychodrama which began in the ’20’s. They were using role-playing in front of an audience as a tool to engage with problematic personal issues.
In Level Five, it was twisted because the players were at a seminar meant to get to the core of their being, but as a fictional self. Simultaneously they were asked to participate in group encounter processes where those fictional characters had to role-play someone else.
One of the run-time game managers, Tobias, who developed what I would call a set of bleed mechanics, would periodically stop the event and say, “Okay, now go to your log book, and write down what your character is now saying to the player, or what the player wants to say to it’s character, or what the character you’re playing would say to you as a player.” He did that to mine the internal conversations that were occurring between player and character at any given moment. It was also a way to keep the players objectively removed their characters, so that they could have a critical distance from the world in which they were immersed. If they didn’t have that critical distance, then it was, at best, a re-enactment of an old self-actualization seminar, and at worst, just another poorly designed self-help seminar.
MA: It’s fascinating to think of simultaneously immersing yourself and trying to sustain a space to be critical, although part of what makes these pieces so powerful is that the effort breaks down at various points.
BC: It does. There were these odd moments, as you say, where this behavior, this authentic or seemingly authentic behavior, exposed itself in awkward ways because of that critical distance.
MA: One of the things that I found really powerful about Death Animations [7. Death Animations, first performed at Machine Project in 2007, was a performance in which nine dancers outfitted in fantasy armor recreated movements based on computer game death animations in slow motion. While this was occurring, the performers were blasted with high volume binaural beats reputed to induce out of body experiences.] was the way that you moved the actors, how the movement induced in the audience this fascinating oscillation between seeing them as human beings and seeing them as sculptural objects.
There’s a cycle of objectification. It’s here that the strategy of your being a semi-visible director seems to enter into your work. It is implicit in Level Five. It is very much there in Future Gestalt: this character behind the audience telling the participants what to do. You hear the voice, but the voice is distorted.
BC: You’ve come back several times to this idea of me intervening in the performances. I just want to say that the process was not always a conscious decision. It comes out of anxiety—out of an obsessive desire to control an uncontrollable situation. I originally wanted Death Animations to be a seductive visual fantasy. I didn’t feel the performers were naturally organizing themselves into an interesting composition, so I dragged them around the space. That’s consistent now in the performances, my presence as a kind of janitor. It is way for me to remove artifice and avoid the thing falling into emotionally manipulative fantasy by adding a dissonant interruption.
It also comes from being a DM (dungeon master) when I was younger, where the skill is run-time control of a situation as opposed to an emphasis on pre-production. It’s tyrannical, moving the characters. It’s like a dollhouse. If your familiar with, say, trauma theory, children work out their trauma through play, on the playground or in dollhouses, that sort of thing.
MA: It’s part of what brings the work a very interesting energy. You’re communicating to the audience all this other information about the piece and how the piece is functioning.
At the ending of the Death Animations, I had us turn off the lights, and I kind of regret it; I feel like I was too controlling with that. It was very interesting in Future Gestalt, when we didn’t plan out how it would end, and then you just told us to start telling people to leave.
BC: That’s what I would’ve done with Death Animations. People are walking out, but it’s still going on. People stay, but you eventually have to force them to leave. I have actually tried to end lectures like that.
MA: Where you just keep talking?
BC: Yeah. Somebody on the side turns off the lights or says it’s over, but I’m just still there lecturing. It just painfully keeps going on.
MA: It’s interesting that you and I have been able to work together, because I feel like my primary way of working is to try to remove discomfort for the audience.
BC: One re-occurring element of the performances seems to be a zooming in on anxiety. When I was first researching the LARP events in the states, I would visit medieval fantasy LARPs. You walk into their world in the woods, and everyone is half-in and half-out of character, and you are standing next to a dark elf swashbuckler in black face paint, elf ears and poorly made pirate gear. The awkwardness of that situation for me is almost crushing.
More than the immersive fantasy of the event itself, it’s that odd phase in-between identities that I grabbed onto. For all that I lack—an intellectual capacity, articulation—there is one thing that I can locate, packag and reproduce, it is the multiple variations of anxiety. If there’s anything I know well, it’s that. (laughs)
MA: It’s interesting because, while I don’t disagree with you, that wouldn’t be the first thing I would use to describe your work. It’s more of a sub-theme that threads through it.
I’m interested in anxiety, but in a liberatory sense. I find that, as a human being, the avoidance of feeling awkward or uncomfortable in the world shuts down the range of experiences that I can have. The more I can hold that awkwardness and live with it, the more existence opens up for me. I see it as very positive to be in the awareness of that space.
BC: I agree, but I want to create awkward situations that I have some control over. It may be a bit selfish: offering my anxiety to people, or more specifically my experiential interpretation of depersonalization or derealization.
MA: In a way, that’s what a therapist does, right? Create a safe space for you to address the relationships in your life, a space that you didn’t have when you were first experiencing them.
BC: Exactly. There’s also another aspect that is specifically performative: giving my understanding of anxiety as a gift.
MA: Do you mean as a proxy for the audience or to be liberatory or therapeutic for the audience?
BC: Sometimes I’ll immediately offer my present anxiety, first thing in a conversation, with somebody I just met. That’s not necessarily a gift, but an imposition. Even if it is a coping tool that makes me more comfortable with interpersonal interaction. But in a more organized group encounter the anxiety that I offer is not an imposition—it’s a gift. “Look at how amazing this is. Feel how amazing that is just for a second.”
MA: Because it’s structured as a performance; it’s not like you burst into people’s houses and then start LARPing on their face. They come to a place to see a piece by you or to participate in a piece. There’s a different kind of social contract there.
BC: It’s also a development from my initial reaction to performance art in school. People psychically puking all over my personal space makes me anxious. So I attempted to make performance art that offers the horror of watching it.
MA: Can you talk a bit about To Prove Her Zeal [8. To Prove Her Zeal (2012) was a five-day communal situation situated inside a seven-story mill tower and nearby farm in the small town of Wassaic, New York. It was commissioned by the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, in Connecticut, where a video made from the event was exhibited in late 2012. The setting was part late-1800’s unorthodox monastic commune, part 1980’s new age retreat, and part extra-terrestrial biosphere. The characters engaged in daily farm chores and group encounter sessions. As the players developed their characters, these emotionally intense sessions focused on their interpersonal relationships were led by an elusive artificial intelligence embodied by an abstract sculpture. The video projection on view at the Aldrich presented the artist’s rendering of this fictional world, while a second video revealed Condon’s collaborative performance workshop procedures and process.]? What did you feel you accomplished in that project?
BC: In To Prove Her Zeal, we were successful in simultaneously running a live role-playing game piece, trying out new techniques for shooting these difficult to document performances, and holding a mini role-playing conference. I flew in nine well respected designers and players from of the live role-playing community from Scandinavia to be the participants. We went for an iterative situation, with multiple game sessions, instead of a constant immersive situation that would require staying in character for the entire five days.
We had five in-game sessions, each about eight hours a day, with meetings before or after, which allowed for a discussion on a different topic each day that related to performative mechanics and content. We would screen films, discuss readings, and talk to specialists. For example, Each character had a plant they carried with them, and were psychically connected with. After we watched The Secret Life of Plants, Asher Hartman did an amazing Skype visit with the group to help us understand plant communication methodology. We were then able to translate that into a set of game mechanics for psychic plant communication.
MA: What are your standard methodologies for plant communication?
BC: The guidance came from Asher. Simple things, like not imposing your will on the plants, and waiting for the information to come to you intuitively. Not crowding the plants or forcing your personality upon them. Other issues we had to deal with in the game culture, such as what exchanging a plant between two characters means. What does it mean if another character gets too close to your plant, or touches it even? Is that a problem in this culture? What is the relationship between the plant and this extra dimensional AI sculpture leading the sessions? Does it have a special extra-sensory relationship with the plants?
We had issues because we were in a group encounter situation where the characters would be working through interpersonal problems. How do the plants deal with that? They were working in character on a communal farm that had an Aquaponics system in the greenhouse. The water from the Trout pool was fed up to the plants above and the waste would get filtered through the plant roots as it washed back into the pool. So could we use that as a metaphor? Do the plants filter out the negative feelings that are brought to the surface in the sessions? Things like that.
MA: Were you drawing from your own experience with plant communication?
BC: No. I don’t have much experience with plant communication. That’s where the specialists come in. I didn’t get to bring in in the others I invited. For example I wanted to run a small seminar about ethnographic film and performance documentation. Ethnographic film is a model that I’ve found really useful for documentation of my events—to create these fictional worlds and then shoot them in an ethnographic fashion, as opposed to a documentary or performance doc style.
MA: What are you working on currently?
BC: Circle of Focus is a project with Christine Borland, an artist from Glasgow, who has a long history of dealing with crossovers into the medical and scientific community in the U.K. She saw my work and invited me to apply for a collaborative grant.
MA: How did the piece go?
BC: We’re still in the middle of it; it’s turned into a three-year project. The first year was general research. We went to the Orkney Islands to study pit fired Neolithic pottery and Neolithic burial mounds around the archeological sites up there. Then it was on to central Scotland where we researched textile production—specifically lace production from the 1800s. We also visited surgical simulation labs in London, WWII bunkers, glass production facilities, tapestry studios and botanical gardens, among others. One of the core elements is a collaboration with an anatomy professor in Glasgow. He has allowed us to work with his department’s donated bodies. In the second phase we organized a conference at the Baltic Museum with a bio-ethicist, a game studies guy, medical educators, a curator, a sociologist of death and a historian focused human tissue in the U.K. since the late 1600s.
MA: When we spoke by email last week, you were about to do a very intimate five-person LARP in the anatomy lab, is that right?
BC: That’s right. That was the second phase, where we take everything that we researched and create situations like the conference that will hopefully help prepare us for phase three, next year, when we’ll move on to a larger public project. We access to an anatomy lab for half a day, some anatomy students and two to three bodies.
MA: Two to three?
BC: Well, we had three but we only used two. The third was in too many pieces. We brought in the respected Nordic player and game theorist Jaakko Stenros from Finland for design consultation. He also played a dead body, so we had two actual dead bodies and one person role-playing a cadaver. Then we brought in the plants and hung them over the cadaver’s faces.
Each person was given a character with a specific job. We were working with the students to re-contextualize the lab, to get them to work with dissection in a more creative and empathetic way.
It went like this: I moved the body into awkward positions, and another player would connect the cadaver to cables connected to a sound device to complete an electric circuit. Then we could touch the cadaver to make a series of tones. It was eerie. The hanging carnivorous plant by the body would listen to those sounds. Then it would tell us, via the botanist who would psychically communicate with the plant, where and how to dissect. Then we would dissect a geometric section from the cadaver and place it in sculptural jars.
Eventually we focused on the LARPer playing a corpse, so we had to discuss in detail the physical difference between him and the others. We finally drew on him where we were going to dissect, and stopped the performance before we cut into him. It had to remain private, as we are not allowed by the anatomy inspector to show visual documentation of the bodies publicly.
MA: This is an idea that comes up a lot in your work: alien subjectivity. Talking to plants. Identifying an entity that has a subjectivity we can’t access or communicate with, and then producing systems for trying to communicate.
This new piece seems like an amplification of that, because you have the plants interrogating the dead bodies, and then the information from the plants is being communicated through the botanist. It’s almost like a game of unreachable subjectivity telephone. We can’t communicate with a dead body, and we can’t communicate with a plant, but we’re going to communicate from the dead body through the plant.
How are you thinking about that? What is it about the idea of an unreachable consciousness?
BC: That’s a big one. The key concept in attempting to connect or communicate with an alien subjectivity is that it is potentially useless. I think that’s a common sentiment in most AI communities. A highly developed machine intelligence may turn out to be so advanced that it would be like an ant trying to talk to a dolphin. Why would we assume that this other entity, man-made or otherwise, has any anything remotely close to human-type interests and needs? Why even bother trying? It’s depressing.
In the case of Zeal, the device connected to the body is creating a simple but random sound pattern, which we imagine to be understood by the plant. Then the plant creates some psychic nonsense for the botanist. It’s a practical tool that allows for easy player interpretation during the performance.
MA: It creates a system for people to project upon?
BC: Yes, specifically because the language is intentionally indecipherable, you are opening up a space for people to project. It’s a common psychotherapy technique, creating an opening for free association that allows access to normally obfuscated internal dialogs.
MA: It reminds me of the Future Gestalt mechanism where the audience hears your instructions in two forms. One is garbled speech they can’t understand. The other is seeing the results of those instructions in the actions of the actors. There is an indirectness to both these forms of communication.
BC: It also allows you to play with therapeutic language. It is easy to fall into the language of the trauma industry, or into somebody’s traumatic narrative. This is a way to keep the emotional sentiment and body language of those subjective narratives but to remove specificity by pushing player speech to abstraction.
MA: It seems like what you are saying is that you’re leveraging the human drive to anthropomorphize everything. You’re saying, “Well, I’m interested in people talking about themselves and projecting their selfhood, and the mechanism I’m using for it is the impulse to anthropomorphize.” It’s like what they do with traumatized children, with the dollhouses: “How does the doll feel?”
BC: Maybe more a type of free association or even apophenia. How often has religion, before psychotherapy, offered us an apophenic interpretation of the cosmos for us to project ourselves into? The question is, how do you use it? Do you use it to reinforce a longstanding religious orthodoxy that sets its sights on world domination? Or do you, I don’t know, help children?
MA: I wonder if there is any space between those two options?
BC: World domination and helping children? Yes, probably.
MA: I wanted to ask you about the role of catharsis in the work. Is your idea to create an aesthetic representation of catharsis, or is it a desire to actually enact a cathartic experience for the participants? I’m thinking in terms of the more emotionally-laden work, like Level Five, for example.
BC: I think it starts, for me, with the Dieric Bouts painting, Resurrection, from around 1455. One of the things that fascinates me is how Bouts represents catharsis in the 15th century. One soldier watching Jesus fly out of the tomb is clearly overwhelmed with awe. Another guy on the ground is freaking out. Any serious cathartic moment can be simultaneously traumatic as well as transcendent. The painting captures that sentiment in oscillating stasis. I should also mention it is an anachronistic illustration of a fantasy-saturated historical moment.
My early psychotherapeutic pseudo-cathartic moments that I initially thought were very real, turned out in the end to be dramatized at the moment of recollection. In the past I participated in EMDR therapy, a rapid eye movement technique that allows the client to immerse themselves in a past trauma. It’s not hypnosis. The client jumps back randomly memory by memory they re-experience a past trauma. They potentially go back into shock. The goal being to write a new memory loop over the recollection of that past experience: “It was not my fault” or “It’s ok I’m not such a bad person.” Actually, it sort of works.
I eventually recognized I didn’t fully experience the original chaotic event due to dissociation. There are facts that get buried in the substrate of the memory, but during the process of recollection all of the gaps between those factual elements are filled in by desire. The event I recalled was full of unconscious fabrication. And, of course, my recollections of it later are constantly shifting, as I gather new information and change as a person. If these events are so full of fantasy, even when we are in experiencing them in the present moment, how can we begin to talk about authentic experience?
What one thought was cathartic truth becomes a representation, and becomes. . .not meaningless but untrustworthy.
MA: There’s some question about whether the recalling of experiences is positive or negative, isn’t there? If you experience the emotional release of catharsis, it primes your brain in a way for more traumatic experiences, because it creates a reward loop for it.
BC: It is certainly possible. Allen Blakeley, one of the medical educators who presented at the symposium for Circle of Focus, was into group encounter experiences in the ’70s with his wife. He said—and he didn’t strike me as the type to exaggerate—that three people from one of the more intense group encounter situations he participated in committed suicide. The psychological effects of cathartic release don’t seem to be clearly articulated.
MA: Thinking about the works in which you create or enact some representation of catharsis, like Level Five or Future Gestalt—you’re creating this representation for the viewer of the videos. But you are also, perhaps, constructing a genuinely cathartic experience for the people who are participating.
BC: In some cases, I should have just let them go, let that happen. I think they wanted an actual peak experience. Or at the very least, they wanted to act like it. I add performative glitches to frustrate them. I’m generally not concerned with their subjective perception or internal trip. I’m interested in the visual surface of phenomena like depersonalization or catharsis, or maybe what it looks like to search for it.
MA: I think it’s clear that that is where your focus is, but I’m interested in the question of your responsibility. In LARPing, you create specific structures for people to cool down and to leave their roles, right? I’m also thinking of the idea you had for a project with your stepfather that would use some of these techniques in the treatment of addiction. That would seem to be much more about the participants than the representations those participants produce.
BC: True. Folks in the recovery community need help and deserve it.
MA: Is that an interest that is driven by your stepfather’s involvement in addiction treatment therapy? Or is it somewhere that you see your own work going?
BC: It concerns me because my family members have received that help at different points in their lives and it was useful for me in a very direct way. It was also serendipitous that I could go on a research trip with my stepfather to visit some of the elders of therapeutic communities in California with a double purpose. I use the group encounter techniques for an aesthetic purpose instead of therapy.
MA: The therapeutic purpose is not an area where you see your artistic work going?
BC: I doubt it. The participants joining the role-playing events are co-creators to some degree; they have a sense of agency. Individuals coming for drug rehabilitation don’t necessarily have that; they’re in a sensitive state I don’t feel comfortable taking advantage of. I don’t know why that’s where suddenly I start being empathetic. But I do.
Brody Condon (born 1974 Mexico) is an artist based in New York. Via performative situations and their documentation, Condon’s recent work exacts a compelling investigation into a web of mid-20th century ideologies: the theorization of humans as bio-machines via Cybernetics, Minimalism’s engagement with the body as social space and experimental theatre’s recursive dialogue with group psychotherapy. Condon graduated with an MFA from the University of California San Diego and attended residencies at the Skowhegan and the Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten. He has recently presented work at the Hessel Museum of Art, Bard College, NY (2011); Los Angeles County Museum of Art (2010); Greater New York at MoMA/PS1 (2010); Hammer Museum, Los Angeles (2010); Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY (2009); Performa 09, New York, NY (2009); Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam (2008); and the Whitney Biennial at The Whitney Museum of American Art (2004).