Located in SOMA in San Francisco, CounterPULSE is a non-profit theater, performance space, community center, and gallery with roots deep in the Bay Area’s provocative performance and dance scenes. CounterPULSE produces its own shows, helps support local artists and activists with its programs and can be rented for productions and rehearsals.
CounterPULSE, in collaboration with the University of Chichester (UK), host artist-duo Action Hero in a three-week performance workshop residency that culminates in a evening of performance, exhibition and artworks.
Stranger in a Strange Land is intended as a platform for interrogation and negotiation of the collaborative process, for selected artists to focus on process rather than product, and to investigate new ways of working and creating work.
Led by Action Hero, the workshop will use the stance/lens of the ‘stranger’ to investigate themes of pop cultural mythologies, the iconography of Americana, and the actions, images and landscapes of American nostalgia. Through collectively investigating these ideas through performative mediums, Action Hero and a group of local artists will generate and share an evening of a series of artworks that reflect and question these ideas. Local artists include: Andrea Hart, Elizabeth McSurdy, Ernesto Sopprani, Laura Arrington, Mica Sigourney, and Xandra Ibarra.
Action Hero is the collaboration between Gemma Paintin and James Stenhouse. They live and work in Bristol UK, where they have been making performance together since 2005. They make work that is interested in pop cultural mythologies, and the creation of temporary communities through performance. They have a long standing interested in America as represented through mass media and pop culture, and this theme has replayed through several of their performance works. They have toured their work extensively throughout the UK and Europe, as well as to San Francisco, Austin and New York. Over the coming months they will tour to Rio De Janierio, Sarajevo and Shanghai. Gemma and James regularly lead workshops and performance projects with both students and practicing artists. They are founder members of the artists collective Residence, Associate Lecturers at University of Chichester and are Associate Artists of InBetween Time (UK), Chelsea Theatre (UK) and Forest Fringe (UK). They both hold a BA (hons) in Theatre Acting and an MA in Performance Studies from Bretton Hall, University of Leeds. Actionhero.org.uk
University of Chichester
The University of Chichester is a small arts-based university in the South of England, close to both London and Brighton. The Department of Performing Arts has a strong reputation as a home for intensive and innovative theatre and performance-making, runs highly original creative courses and has shown a long-standing commitment to artist support and development.
Stranger in a Strange Land is part of a major cultural exchange project, that has linked the University’s Performing Arts Department with several key working partners in California. We want to establish a presence in California, connecting with artists, venues, teachers, students – indeed, anyone who is engaged with experimental performance work and who wants to explore the notion of cultural exchange as an integral part of the creative process. In doing this we are hoping to celebrate difference: diverse artistic, theatrical and educational practices from partners that, nonetheless, share a similar excitement for sharing and exchanging, as a way towards the development of creative performance knowledge.
Oh no…I really don’t want to do this. But since I’m on my Levi’s trip, how can I resist. Here’s a vintage commercial for the jeans with Bruce Willis. I really don’t know what to say…the dancing, roller skating, car washing…blues music. Oy.
My week with Bruce turned into something I never could’ve imagined. I don’t want to say too much, because my brain is a bit fried and I don’t want to give away anything about our event on Monday. But here’s my best representation of the “Born in the USA” album cover.
I can say that the Levi’s are only marginally more comfortable after a week of non-stop wearing. That was really the hardest part of my whole week. I wanted to take them off more than once. They don’t make them the way they used to. I think these were made for women or something. They are nothing like the pair I owned and loved in high school. But then, nothing is, is it? Also, they’re made in Mexico. But they still have the stamp on the inside pocket proclaiming: these are a pair of Levi’s. Whatever that means.
I’m learnin’ the Boot Scootin’ Boogie on my computer.
I knew this dance once. I mean, I’m pretty sure I did. but i aint done it in a coon’s age. Thankfully this lady on the computer made herself a youtube video. She made sure to wear a cowboy hat, high-heeled boots, and tight-as-hell, flared Levi’s. She says, “People in the country call this a ‘Hitch Kick.’” But Lady, I can think of three other dance forms that call the simple hop she’s referrin’ to a hitch. It’s a drag act y’all. but there aint nuthin’ wrong with a little drag. and you know there ain’t nuthin’ wrong with a little country! but her performance is as calculated as all the g’s i’m droppin’ and the y’alls i’m slingin. and there’s nothin’ wrong with her, and there’s nothin’ wrong with me writin like this, cuz you know every dog has to have a few fleas.
As I watch Romney back peddle to appeal to what conservatives so coyly refer to as the real America, I wonder what “real America” is. Todd Akin would have me believe it’s a place where a little gal’s uterus can kick the shit out of those no good rape sperm. Those same folks would have me believe that our increasingly moderate president who bailed out banks to the tune of $700 billion in tax-payer’s dollars is somehow a socialist. Silly ole logic just proves to me that real America isn’t so real. But what of the line-dance? What of the lonely cowboy drinking one bourbon, one scotch, and one beer? What of the road trip? Well, I wonder if like the road-trip the real America is somewhere folks keep drivin’ towards but never really get to. Even my family in Louisiana long for some America they never had.Mardi Gras on HBO’s Treme seems a little bit richer, them ladies in Stell Magnolias speak with a little more Southern flair, and the crawfish on the food network always look a lot tastier. America is sold to us as a place where the people are just a little bit friendlier, the food is just a little bit betterr, and the soundtrack is always right in step. Some place they’ve seen in movies or heard about in songs or read in magazines or watched on TV.
It is good for America for America to be that way. Or at least what I suspect the real America to be. The real Cowboys. Our former lonestar-state cowboy of a president, the one who is just like you, save the Harvard Business School education and the Presidential father. A blue and white Cowboy’s star painted on a football helmet covering up the head of some player who makes $9,000,000/year (playing for an owner worth $2 billion and for a company whose value hovers around $30 billion) or Vegas Vic, the light-up cowboy who’ll wave at you as you contribute to the state’s 9 billion in annual gaming revenue. I remember going to a casino in Mississippi with a van-load of my family. My brother and I found a corner to sit and watch. We were quiet for a while, watching hundreds of people crowded into an enormous room drop their paychecks into these shiny silver slots. I remember him saying “L, everyone in here thinks they are lucky.” America! Where everyone is lucky but only a few get the prize. I’ll leave y’all with some Southern wisdom I yanked off the good ole internet.
Beware the man who never let’s the truth get in the way of a good story.
[Okay, enough of me on this high horse! I'm gonna get back to learnin' these steps y’all!]
Gemma and I are back from our American roadtrip. Well actually we got back yesterday but having arrived late in the evening after 12 hours driving we stopped in ‘The Pizza Joint’ in San Francisco and ordered a slice of ‘on the road’ pizza (that’s actually what it was called). Whilst eating our slice someone stole my wallet. So I’ve spent all today on the phone trying to sort myself out instead of working on this project.
But despite having my wallet stolen and getting shot at I haven’t fallen out of love with America. Probably because I saw stuff like this on the road
The hours and hours of driving gave us time to think more about all the stuff we’ve been working on in the last week and lots of ideas and thoughts started to converge. Gemma and I both made some performance for camera work we’re excited by which we won’t reveal on the blog (we’ll save that for the showing next week) but we talked a lot about Destination, ‘the wilderness’ and the America as a fictional place. Being tourists, being foreign, searching for ‘realness’ or ‘the authentic’ and THE ROAD.
Arriving back and having my wallet stolen as well as spending an hour last night and an hour this morning trying to find a parking space for our rental car was in many respects a perfect end to the trip, encapsulating the notion of the road and the journey as dreamspace or fiction and America as a story (or a road) that’s not always believable (especially when someone shoots your window).
The trip was very quickly a strange memory that I didn’t quite believe, but I look through the photos now and there I am, on the road.
Perhaps it goes without saying, but all of the photos and words are mine. This has been the easiest way for me to organize some of my thoughts on this experience with Action Hero thus far, which I am describing as aesthetically polyamorous. I have a second camera that I am working on as well and will repost the link when it is updated. Fun Stuff.
Admittedly, I am getting rather obsessive over my long-term tasks that we’ve all assigned ourselves while away from CounterPULSE this week. I’m attempting a social experiment that I do not want to reveal just yet to the public blogosphere but I will say that it follows the afore-mentioned direction to “go outside our comfort zone, be ambitious, challenge ourselves.”
So our week “away” from each other begins. We’ve all set out with tasks we aim to focus on in a big way. James encouraged us to “go outside our comfort zone, be ambitious, challenge ourselves.” I had a few ideas scrawled down, but the one that seemed to get the most traction with the group was to take an album by Bruce Springsteen, and each day try to live out the lyrics to a different song. I didn’t think this sounded like anything that would put me outside my comfort level. Rather allow my barely concealed Bruce obsession to fully manifest. But hey, I’m game.
We started the week off right with some karaoke at The Mint where I sang a horrible rendition of “The River” and later a drunk girl told me that “I know you’re an arrrrrtist, but you better never put your hand in front of my face again.” I was simultaneously wounded by her ire and excited she somehow thought I was an artist. Was it the impassioned way I sang? Regardless, I left last night happy to begin my week of “tasking.”
First things first, I decided (after some study) to use “Born in the USA.” For all the obvious reasons, and also because, as Larry Rodgers interpreted it, “it was not until [Bruce] hit the gym to get buffed up and showed off his rear end in Annie Leibovitz’s famous cover photo for Born in the U.S.A. that he became an American pop icon.”
Starting with that image, I decided my first task would be to wear a pair of Levi’s 501 jeans the entire week. They’d have to be tight, to show off my butt. And by the end of the week, ideally they’ll be worn in enough to look cool. (I’ll be spending a few days on a farm, so conceivably, it could happen.) I must say, after putting these babies on, I was missing my old worn-out pair from high school. They just don’t make them like that anymore.
(Yeah, yeah, I know I don’t have the pose down yet. Saving that for day 6 after the jeans are worn in.)
After watching a few Bruce videos, I also decided I would spend some time every day learning to run and slide on my knees across the floor until I could look cool doing it. I filmed the first one today and no way in hell will I show it. Let’s suffice to say the tops of my feet are all scraped from the floor and I’ve learned you should wear socks (at the very least) and preferably cool black boots like Bruce, to make this thing work. (He does is a couple times in the first few moments of this video…just to give you a hint of what I’m aiming for.)
I was spending the day with my favorite 9-year-old, so I decided to focus on the song “My Hometown” since it’s one of the few that has a kid in it. I started by interviewing my young friend and her cohort about what a hometown is and means to them. Some of their answers:
“It’s where I sleep, where I get my food. A lot of caring things are there.”
“It’s where my memories are kept.”
“If feels like it’s meant for me to be there.” (Sigh. Where oh where could that place be…?)
Next, after plying her with a reward for helping me, we drove to an empty parking lot and I had her sit on my lap and steer the truck around while I told her over and over: Take a good look around. This is your hometown. (She had watched the video with me earlier and I told her I was going to say weird things to her. Trust me. She’s cool like that.)
Anyway, it wasn’t her hometown actually. It was a parking lot. And not a great one. And she really didn’t like the steering thing and asked to stop after a half-circle around the lot. We abandoned that idea and instead I got her to run down the street with a dime in her hand. But we weren’t near a bus stop and I didn’t want a paper (like you could buy one for 10 cents!) and so we drove home. As we neared the house the song came on the tape I was playing in the car, so I asked if I could film her while she sang it as we drove the last block toward home.
That was the first time I looked around the neighborhood and thought, oh yeah…this is her hometown. And most likely, will feel that way to her some day. The same way mine felt to me at one point. Before it turned into some strange place that just changes and morphs without me there to say it’s OK.
After one day I can say this project has started to scare me a bit. I wasn’t prepared for how depressing it would feel. The songs on this album are so mired in nostalgia for days gone by and lost glory and it’s filled with people who aren’t doing as hot as they were when those days were happening. I’m not sure how much of that thought process I can stand.
I also didn’t count on how it would feel to watch video after video of a young Bruce. I find the dude insanely attractive in every possible way, which only depresses me more. Mostly because that guy is gone too. Don’t get me wrong, the current Bruce is still a hottie, and if he’d just get rid of that ridiculous tuft of hair on his chin, he’d be sexy as hell still. But he’s, well…old-er. And even entertaining the notion that he would want me just puts him in that category of creepy midlife crisis dude, which ruins the fantasy. It’s somehow different watching the Pet Shop Boys circle Olympic stadium in bizarre bird outfits.
Sure they’re old now and wtf were they thinking with that whole performance? But they’re not singing about days gone by or lost childhood or forgotten dreams…so I don’t care as much. They’re free to be who they are now without it reflecting on any larger themes of loss or nostalgia. (Not to mention, there is absolutely nothing sexually attractive about those costumes.)
But there’s more to the gross feeling I get after spending a day with the Bruce videos. The highly sexualized nature of the young Bruce in his tight jeans is working some other kind of sick magic. As Bryan Garman said in his book “Race of Singers”: “the apparently working-class Springsteen was for many Americans a white hard-bodied hero whose masculinity confirmed the values of patriarchy and patriotism, the work ethic and rugged individualism, and who clearly demarcated the boundaries between men and women, black and white, heterosexual and homosexual.”
I’m watching videos from 1980 and feeling wistful and inadequate because I’m desiring something I will never have. And not because Bruce is out of my league (hell no!), but because what he represents was manufactured to perpetuate my feeling of inadequacy. Not only socially (he’s a star, I’m a peon) but sexually as well. His form of masculinity was specifically “up there” on stage with the writhing masses at a safe distance. A woman’s sexuality is meant to be always yearning for the unattainable approval of the hyper-masculine elite. If she were ever to “get” it her job would be to do everything necessary to keep it. If he does bring you on stage to dance (like he does the young Courtney Cox in the “Dancing in the Dark” video) then your job is to dance chastely beside him, not making eye contact. Who cares if the looks you gave each other before he brought you on stage could’ve melted the wall paper. (I mean seriously…she looks at him like she wants to hump his leg and once she’s next to him she stares at the floor and does a lame 8th grade white girl shuffle? Come on!)
Yesterday evening we went to a karaoke bar with the intention of each of us performing ‘Stand By Me’ by Tammy Wynette. When we got there however we changed our minds and staged our own individual interventions into the Karaoke format.
Andrea singing Bruce Springsteen
Richie singing a song about a car whilst running non-stop throughout
All the women in the group singing ‘Stand By Me’ by Tammy Wynette
Laura and Elizabeth playing inflatable electric guitars for someone else’s version of Heartbreaker by Pat Benatar (this went down well with the crowd)