Leftovers 1.2: In which I accrue a great Atlantic trashmat of examples in an effort to write about where art goes when it dies.
On the Bread and Puppet tour bus this spring, my young company-mate and I made up a song about our experience traveling. It started with woe over the aching back and stunted dreams of the traveling puppeteer, then abruptly switched styles: “Just kidding! My back doesn’t hurt at all, / we’re going to the mall, / and we’re gonna eat their trash.” The line refers with jubilation to dumpster diving in upstate New York, an enterprise that netted us, after alchemical transformation, an enormous pot of butternut squash soup and a pan of bread pudding.
It could, however, as easily be a reference to puppetry in general. Puppets, at least the kind I find myself most often behind, under, and within, are made of trash. My own car is filled with broomsticks, bits of stiff wire, and other likely materials. At Bread and Puppet, the foundational political puppetry theater of 1960s New York City and twenty-first century Vermont where I apprenticed last summer, the workshop is lined with boxes of reclaimed wire, bike tires, rope ends, bottle caps, scrap wood and, of course, all-important cardboard. Most of the puppets at Bread and Puppet are made of this most versatile material soaked, separated, and layered with cornstarch glue onto clay forms covered with more recycled plastic. They’re finished with paint much of which has, notoriously, gone bad, its oils rancid enough to smell sort of like raw beef but still good for making faces and bodies, buildings and landscapes of abstract capitalist destruction and transgressive revolutionary joy.
We were performing Faust 3, a show written by Peter Schumann and developed by his vast, amorphous company over the course of 2016 and 2017. Its series of scenes take up motifs of light, the movements of refugees in crisis, the surveillance state, the strange emotional relationships we as observers have to international crises, the idea of vacation and play as banal or revolutionary responses to capital’s exploitation of workers, and other stuff. In the show I was a door, a refugee, a two-dimensional horse, a snob, a gargoyle, a proletarian hand puppet, two gods, and a lower-middle-class un-employee.
I especially liked being a gargoyle. It’s pure rough kinetic pleasure. In Faust 3, the gargoyles are figures for state surveillance and law enforcement. On stage, I shielded my body with the giant cardboard face and comparatively little naked cardboard body of a big-eared, bright-eyed, lump-featured fellow, jumping, screaming, and body checking at full-speed the gargoyle trainer, who informs the audience that gargoyles are “excellent fearmongers,” ideal for instilling in the populace “manageable, custom-tailored satisfaction” during times of unrest. At the end of the scene we drop our faces on the stage for later. Painted side down, the gargoyles become a pile of trash: sticks, staples and wires, leprous layers of cardboard torn and patched and re-patched every afternoon with cracked grey pools of wood glue and staples that glint like piercings at the corners of their torn mouths in the lights.
As trash, even when they’re piled center stage, the audience doesn’t see them anymore. Most of the time it seemed to genuinely surprise the crowd when we lifted and flipped the faces and became gargoyles again, hooting and jumping behind the gathered masses and terrorizing everyone off the stage.
The difference between a puppet and a pile of trash is movement and sound. As you create that movement and sound day to day, learning the subtle difference between demure gliding and sluglike trailing, or real horse and mechanical horse in your muscles if not in your mind, you get deeply familiar with your puppets—the angle at which you must hold the head so that the eyes are looking at something, the weight distribution of this gargoyle, the place not to put your hand on that one if you want to avoid arm-slicing wires, the heft and sightlines. In the show, for example, the blue mama was an enormous and regal or sometimes ragged and silly six-person puppet who carried us all offstage repeatedly in her healing arms. For the blue mama, the difference between a tower of rags that set the audience giggling and the compassionate world mother who made people cry was all about wing span and movement.
Then sometimes the difference between trash and art is lighting and space. I saw a lot of transformed trash on our tour of the east, which was also incidentally a tour of east coast college art-school student shows. A barrel of bottles and electronics glued together with spray-foam in Maine, for example, reminded me of WEE Man, the giant tech creature at the Eden Project in Cornwall. It had a similar understory about the abundance of trash we produce, its plastic barrel spilling up bottles and foam, the art transforming the valence, but not the sheer material there-ness of the trash.
But trash art also creates a striking awareness that when we’re talking metal and especially plastic, this iteration of objects doesn’t stop the cycle. What will this student do with their art when the exhibition is over? Keep it in storage for a while? Decide it’s too huge and chuck it? Chip off the detritus and spray foam and turn it back into a rain barrel? What happens to the WEE man when Cornwall is under water? Art doesn’t suddenly create a final and coherent meaning out of an assemblage of trash. It’s a rephrasing. Trash art gives trash identity, but like a body made of immortal molecules, the art will eventually break apart. The bottles and rain barrels and computer monitor cases that make it up keep circulating forever, making new assemblages that may have to be interpretable—as shelter, as tool, maybe again as art, by other eyes after the human ones are gone.
Of course, there’s nothing new about art as an inadequate tool for self-preservation. The relationship between art and immortality is one of those great themes. Shakespeare’s sonnets are all about it, following an artist’s effort to preserve in language the beauty and selfhood of a love-object who is ultimately completely eclipsed by the artist and his art. “The young man” as he’s often known in scholarly essays, ends up going down in history as an object without a name.
Shakespeare’s sonnets undo the self at the center of the idea of immortality—they’re concerned with what it means to represent a self in the first place, let alone preserve it forever: “Thou in this shalt find thy monument,” he insists in 107, right after admitting in 106 that the artist has already failed to preserve the object’s beauty: “these present days, / Had eyes to wonder, but lack tongues to praise.” At least Shakespeare lived in a moment when there was probably some chance of a human future. Even allowing for the apocalypse (always popular), there was still supposed to be some universal interpreter, a God that sees us and preserves us in his eye/I. Art right now is grappling with an end of interpretation altogether. What’s the point if there is no posterity at all? In that context, the stakes for making work out garbage that will ultimately just turn back into garbage seem higher. A barrel of bottles and tech things and foam feels like an exercise in pointlessness. Just circulating stuff. Like breathing.
In her most recent performance art piece, “The Ship is Sinking,” Emma Sulkowicz asks a basically identical question inspired by Berthold Brecht, and maybe also by the great twentieth-century film Titanic: What’s the point of art if it’s hanging on the walls of a sinking ship?
Our world is the ship of course, sinking under the weight of people, carbon, plastic, capitalism, fascism. In her performance, she combines the imagery of the ship’s female figurehead with the practice of BDSM. And if you watch the video, you see that as much as it’s concerned with a coming apocalypse, it’s also about a more immediate kind of endurance: what it means to the body to be a figurehead and representative for women in art. Sulkowicz’s art (she first became well known for “Mattress Performance,” her performance/demonstration against Columbia’s handling of her rape complaint) is masterful at projecting shame all around it. It makes viewers squirm: “Is she bothering you”? asks the dom Master Avery (playing “Mr. Whitney” in the show) of audience members who try to talk to her. They do shameful things—Master Avery’s looking away when an audience member asks to slap Sulkowicz on the face. She requires bodily endurance of herself and her audience, who have to figure out what to do with their bodies in the demanding space of the real-world room. So there’s the endurance of the artist’s person and personhood in the real world then there’s the endurance of the artist’s personhood as art, and that brings up the big Brecht question—why bother enduring so much when the ship is sinking and there’s no future to preserve you? “Aw you can’t take it? She can’t take it, she’s had enough. You don’t want to be an artist?” he lets her down.
Performance art exacerbates that question. Time-based and ephemeral, for most of us, performance art only exists as leftovers—bits of video, stills, online discussions and anecdotes from those who were there in the room as they process their own immediate experience into a narrative they can hold and tell. It’s an art form that’s recirculating as new gatherings of reassembled bits and pieces even as it’s created. The people who were there walk away with some version of it in their minds. The rope and rig come down—a group of people, interestingly including the slapper, untie her body. The rope and rig go—somewhere else, too. Midway through the video, we see Sulkowicz arranging them, her eyes going over them with the confidence and experience of a person who has chosen these pieces to practice with, has been through this with them many times, knows how they work.
At the end of the tour, we unpacked the bus. Everything must go. The show was essentially being retired, the frenetic ever-changeful pace of productions at Bread and Puppet means it will rarely if ever be performed again in spite of all the meaning we’d packed into it. If you saw Faust 3, you are one of the few hundreds of people who ever will, no matter its creator’s storied centrality to modern political performance. No matter the show’s implicit grandiloquent claim to pick up where Goethe left off. Last year as we began the process of performing it, I remember another apprentice telling me that this was Peter’s opus, the work that draws a straight line between Peter Schumann and Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe as unsatisfiable makers of light. But like all Bread and Puppet shows it was written in a couple of weeks, performed for a year, and scattered.
Late the final night of tour we executed our last duties for the theater, helping to vet potential summer apprentices ahead of the deadline for acceptances. Essentially, we were upcycling ourselves, performing one more act towards the theater’s future before the touring company disassembled. In one letter, a potential apprentice delighted me by describing her art, in which she rearranges trash on the streets and then leaves it there. Sometimes it’s recognizably altered into art, sometimes, she said, it still resembles trash. There was a time when I would have considered those methods pretentious. Why make art no one knows is art? I remember, for example, feeling moved to enraged derision in an artist’s retrospective at the Whitney when a tour guide paused to discuss the meaning of a partially inflated balloon affixed to a wall some feet above a vertical line drawn in pencil. That didn’t feel like art to me. You couldn’t even see it if nobody pointed it out.
But now I know that interacting with things enlivens them, and leaves something behind—not a trace, not your name, not immortality, just a new assemblage. The garbage artist who rearranges and then leaves piles of trash is only acting as another anonymous agent. And while we could read her intervention, if we wanted to, as a kind of desperate human ploy to insert our agency everywhere, including into the apparently random distribution of objects on the street, I can also see it as an acknowledgment that human acts aren’t fundamentally different from other kinds of forces. In the long, long game we don’t control the effects of our arrangements any more than wind or water do.
How do we see ourselves as agents? That’s a central concern of protest art. I missed the climate March in April for the tour, but I hear it was a glorious event, especially as far as art, trash, and paper go. Enormous paper mâché puppets, masks, mobile parachute performances, and our now-requisite hordes of witty signs tweeting analogically at the lenses and the heavens. After the march, apparently, marshals went around with bullhorns encouraging people to throw their trash away, but as always, not everyone did. Part of this response, very likely, is that people are not quite ready to see their statements slough their meaning. An attribute of the ephemeral, singular and repetitive nature of protests, which like new cars, depreciate the moment they’re off the lot, is that their participants rarely seem prepared for this moment of abandonment. Hence shoals of placards and stranded mobile sculptures left speaking out in national mall spaces zoned for more durable monuments expressing more sanctioned sentiments.
And in response to all this matter out of place, like the dark twin of my mother in law (who always, every time, comes in with the “lettuce eat” pun whenever we have salad), right wing news outlets trotted out their perennial response. There were pictures of overflowing garbage cans and signs arrayed on the street. There were articles about how hypocritical leftists want somebody else to come clean up their mess. Indeed, the strategy itself is recycled, from as recently as the raids on the camps at Standing Rock, and as distantly as the first big climate march in New York City in 2014. Back then, Jeff Spross, writing for Thinkprogress.org, took note of the right-wing garbage angle by drawing a parallel between it and right-wing attitudes toward climate change. Spross wrote that,
“This line of reasoning is basically individualist: it says that combating climate change and moving to an ecologically sustainable society requires adding up hundreds of millions of changes in individual habits and values. Under this frame, when the People’s Climate marchers demand policies to combat climate change, they’re seen as demanding more virtuous behavior from their fellow citizens as individuals. Which makes all their trash evidence of their hypocrisy.”
On the contrary, Spross continues, it is the fossil-fuel embedded systems that Americans inhabit that need to change, not so much the individual Americans. Even the least thing-dependent American has a greater carbon footprint than a wealthy European. Not littering can’t change the trajectory of climate change. Switching away from fossil-fueled agriculture and methane producing beef, from dirty engines and fracking as a society, can. This is not something that individual human agency can accomplish, no matter how virtuous the doer, except by insisting on a changed system overall.
That offers a little moral solace in its way, right? We ourselves did not travel particularly light on tour. After the suitcases, sleeping bags, food, books, knitting projects, games, instruments, and set pieces came off the bus, we unpacked the puppets. I had a gargoyle over one arm, the other holding one end of the blue mama’s central pole, with her cloth body and long hair wrapped around it. “She goes up in the loft,” our tour director told us, “you’ll see the place for the gargoyles. The blue mama goes with the other blue mamas. You’ve seen the brown papa, right?”
I hadn’t. Indeed, I’d always thought of her as a single mom, totally directed towards the nurture of frail humans, no time for a mate of her own kind. We carried her huge body as a series of sticks, mâché and rags—two other puppeteers having preceded with her great blue hands. We marched across the muddy springtime paths of the farm and back up through the winding stairs over the dirt-floor theater. There, sure enough, two other puppets in the same style leaned against the rafters. Back in the context of the storage spaces you can see it—a whole wooden rack of gargoyles, a colloquy of mamas and papas. There were some other shows for which these were conceived, their new context in Faust 3 was a reuse, another life. We broke them and put them back together again with salvaged boxes and paper bags from the co-ops and groceries we visited along the way. Some of these puppets have been around for twenty years or more, getting this treatment from generations of puppeteers. They aren’t trash up there, they’re honored configurations, waiting for their next context. Even here, it’s a matter of time. And if you’re imagining a wavering mountain of decomposing cloth and cardboard, clotted together, growing mushrooms, full of rat shit and mouse shit in the wind and rain, I am too, I am too, there’s nothing wrong.