Wednesday, October 21, 2009
On Saturday I boarded a bus in East Harlem for "The Provenance of Beauty," the Foundry Theatre's tour of the South Bronx. I have mixed feelings about this being the Performance Club's smallest outing ever (just two of us!): on one hand I would *really* like to hear other reactions. On the other, I'm happy none of you shelled out for what I found to be an irritating, offensive and thoroughly misguided work.
I picked this as a notable event on-air and online earlier this month. I was drawn to Foundry chief Melanie Joseph's idea of encountering a neighborhood with a troubled, easily stereotyped history. I was expecting something messy, something that forced an encounter with the self as well. I wasn't expecting 90 turgid minutes of selective history and empty metaphors.
Think about it: a bunch of (mostly) white folks paying $35 a pop to cruise through poor (mostly) Latino neighborhoods and gawk at the natives from behind darkened windows?? That's creepy on so many levels (one guy was taking pictures!). A performed bus tour of the South Bronx has all sorts of uncomfortable, potentially fascinating associations. The idea of busing, of "experiencing" a place without having to interact with it, of cultural tourism ... all of these things could be exploited, pun intended, for subversive artistic and political ends. I had this fantasy that the bus would "break down" on some anonymous corner, turning us audience members into pedestrians like everyone else, with no comforting narrative to guide us through.
But no. What we got instead was an audio tour full of the worst kind of faux-poetic, victim-narrative, humorless, condescending, white-liberal-guilt-ridden hoo-ha. Here are some gems from Jamaica-born poet Claudia Rankine's insipid, insulting script:
"Time is like that--it liberates you from your own past, your own signage, the neon in your life. Then impermanence is quotidian because transformation reigns." (Whatever. And my life needs all the neon it can get.)
"Perhaps every park is a constructed strategy allowing us to see other than what we see." (Don't even get me started on the weirdo anti-park propaganda running through this thing.)
"It was a place of filth and decay and because of that it was open to everyone." (Uhh, OK)
And a personal favorite: "Ultimately the life of a place is placeless. It overflows. It waits for me to coincide with you in the same instant it waits for you to coincide with me."
No thanks. Give me Arthur Aviles and his Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance any day.
We drove through his streets on Saturday, and he got a passing mention. Aviles' plainspoken, humble approach to place ("placeless" my foot) is rooted and poetic and quietly political in a way the "Provenance" folks just don't get. Come spring, I say, let's go back, lots of us this time, for one of the fabulously BAAD! street fairs. Watch out. We might even talk to the natives. Don't tell anyone, but I hear they're just like us.