John Malpede is at MIT to learn about free software/ Open Source and related ideas of freedom, responsibility, and community in technology. He'll develop a performance about what he finds, to be presented in 2009 at MIT. His residency at the Center is made possible through grants from the Multi-Arts Production Fund (MAP Fund) and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).
Malpede is an eminent performer, director, and activist who often uses governmental, legal, and media sources as found texts. In 1985 he founded
Los Angeles Poverty Department (LAPD)
, an organization that engages the homeless population of Los Angeles through performance. LAPD’s current touring project,
Agents and Assets
, 2001-, recreates a House of Representatives hearing on the importation of drugs into the United States in the 1980s by Nicaraguan contra rebels with the CIA's complicity. In 2002-05 he performed as Antonin Artaud in Peter Sellars’ production of Artaud’s
For an End to the Judgment of God,
in Vienna, Rome, London, Brussels, San Francisco and Los Angeles. In 2004, he directed
RFK in EKY
, a site-specific regional recreation of Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 inquiry into poverty in Appalachia. Malpede has received the Bessie Creation Award from Dance Theater Workshop, New York; San Francisco Art Institute's Adeline Kent Award; and a Theater LA Ovation Award, as well as numerous government and foundation grants. He has taught at UCLA, NYU Tisch School of the Arts, the Amsterdam School for Advanced Research in Theater and Dance, and the California College of Arts and Crafts, San Francisco.
Perserverance Furthers: John Malpede interviewed by Larissa Harris
JM: In the ’70s in New York, when I hung out my shingle as self-proclaimed artist—only an artist or a preacher can just do that, no license necessary—Bill Gordh and I were Dead Dog and Lonely Horse, a continuous ongoing improvisation, with the idea, which we failed at totally, to be completely non-theatrical, whatever that means. The audience was meant to see two people developing a relationship out of a common history that in our case was made up of things that really happened and of lies. We held our conversations outside, in moving vans, hotel rooms, warehouses….you could make appointments….Michael Smith saw us and said, “That’s not theater, that’s performance art,” and told us to go talk to Stephan Eins. We didn’t care what we were called as long as somebody let us do something. Similarly, when I moved to LA, I arrived as a performance artist, but as soon as the Los Angeles Poverty Department started performing I was a theater director. From that I figured out that theater is something done in a black room and performance is the same thing done in a white room. Or performance is something done by one person, but if it’s more, it’s theater.
LRH: In a 1986 interview you said “It’s really sad when the main focus of the art world is television.”
JM: Well in the ’80s there was the impression that everything in the art world had become bigger, slicker, more identifiably authored, a mega-production if possible, and, yes, work started being a lot about … TV. Some of that happened in the context of a punk scene, but still it was about looking at media reality as opposed to just being in reality. The ’70s stuff (much of "the ’60s” happened in the ’70s) was body-based, about developing your intuition, and having that appear in the form of action in the world. The first performance-type class I ever took of any kind was Simone Forti’s in New York. Of course she never knew who I was because I was bad. I don’t mean impolite, I just mean bad. Then she did some workshops out in LA a couple years ago, and Henriette my wife and I did them for fun.
LRH: Were you still bad?
JM: No, I was good. I was so good.
JM: On Skid Row things were urgent. In the Legal Aid office and on the street, things were very emotional every day. There was very little room for irony….all social firewalls had been taken away. Our second show No Stone for Stud Schwartz was giving in to the chaos. Our storyline was that Stud was on the run from the Teamsters because he’d mistakenly organized the AFL-CIO rather than the Teamsters. I gave the show a kind of Sunset Boulevard wrapper, so it starts with our hero dead on the floor in Union Station, where Jim, who starred in the show, was sleeping at the time. So the dead guy starts narrating the story; and at the end you see him getting killed. Except, in Stud Schwartz, depending on who you were in the cast, you had a different view of who killed him. According to some people it was the Mafia guys, and according to other people, like me, it was a random killing of a vulnerable mentally ill person living outside, which is what was going on. But each night we didn’t know who was going to get there first…one time I tackled one of the performers so he wouldn’t be able to execute his ending. But in some ways Dead Dog and Lonely Horse was much more extreme. In “Stud Schwartz” at least we worked on a scenario.
JM: I was in Oaxaca when Akira Kurosawa died in 1998. A local theater screened all his movies, night after night, and I saw Red Beard, which is about rural poverty and a crusading doctor and his clinic, in Japanese with Spanish subtitles, which I could sort of make out. It struck me that LAPD could bring deep understanding to the text. We found a small meeting room in one of the SRO [single room occupancy] hotels and set up a TV with 11 chairs flanking the TV for LAPD and 22 chairs in 2 rows for the audience, which left a playing area 2 meters deep by 11 chairs and one TV long. We showed Red Beard (just the first half actually) in Japanese with no subtitles, and the LAPD either spoke the lines, or acted it out physically, or abstracted from the action, or did a choral version, where at certain moments everyone was a single character. The TV (as opposed to a projection) allowed for a good relationship between the living people and the image.
There’s often an expectation that people from the community are supposed to tell their stories, while other people watch. First with Red Beard then with Agents & Assets I was trying to construct a situation that wasn’t like that. In Agents & Assets members of the LAPD reenact an actual House of Representatives hearing responding to accusations that the CIA was involved in drug trafficking as a way to fund the Contras. All of them play either a Congressperson or a lawyer from the CIA. In other words, the people who have suffered from the policy are dissecting it and scrutinizing the mechanisms of the government that creates it, which reverses the power dynamic. That’s hugely important and it resonates without any explication in the playing, because of the obvious tension between the characters and the people playing the characters. After the performance, there’s a panel, either about drug law reform, or spirituality and recovery, or what it means when you call something a war, as in “war on drugs,” “war on terror,” etc. This panel quickly gives way to conversation; you can get very personal testimony from someone who showed up from another part of town or you can get very impersonal comments from someone from Skid Row. This construction seems to level the playing field, regarding who can or is expected to tell personal stories. Of course artists, performing and otherwise, often use personal stories in their work, but if LAPD does it, it’s what they’re “supposed to be doing,” or therapy. So the problem is the pedigree, the credential.
LRH: Interesting that personal testimony is what people like the LAPD are “supposed to be doing,” because that wasn’t always the case, right? That’s what was revolutionary about the War on Poverty…
JM: Along with a bunch of other people I was invited to propose a project for Appalshop in Eastern Kentucky in 2000. It turns out that when people want to talk about poverty they come down to Appalachia, then they forget about it. So I put two and two together, not knowing exactly what those two things were, but thinking about Agents & Assets, I decided if I drew on something that already existed it would get around me having a lot of uninformed insights into the situation. I found that Robert Kennedy was the first person to visit, did so just a few months before his assassination, and more than any other, this visit resonated. He was a source of hope and inspiration and fond memory and cultural heritage—very important—to people here. Someone said he was a bigger star than Elvis. And, alongside his simple presence, what he actually said was super powerful and resonated strongly and bizarrely in our day, given the current state of political reality in this country. The issues on the table were the same—poverty amidst plenty, ideologically-driven foreign policy debacles, and environmental devastation—but the level of intelligence brought to the people through his conversation, the notion of what the solution might be, and the government’s responsibility was so different. I drove my car out here and started the research project in September 2001, the beginning of lockdown for the American mind. But a reenactment of Kennedy’s visit worked because it cut in so many directions and lots of different kinds of people, across all kinds of divides, took part.
In 1968 the father of Nell Fields, one of the people who worked fulltime on RFK in EKY, drove her twenty miles to Neon to hear Kennedy talk at the high school but stayed outside in his truck, waiting for her, ’cause he was a Republican. But he didn’t want her to miss this historic event. I heard this story from other people as well. So the effect of 1968 wasn’t limited to the people who were asked to testify, or who were spoken to directly, and in 2004, the conversation went from big to little and big to little and there was plenty of opportunity for all sorts of people to rethink all sorts of things.
LRH: In Agents & Assets the performers stuck to the hearing transcript. How important were “the facts” in this case?
JM: Getting the facts provides reason for inquiry and gives direction to the presentation. It takes care of a lot of questions. My interest with RFK in EKY was in holding an historical mirror up to the present moment—the project was about the resonance of the events now. Important in this enterprise was not collapsing one moment (now) into another (then). And as a director, I'm not looking to collapse or disappear the performer into their character. In RFK, Bobby Kennedy was played by a Kentuckian named Jack Faust, who when we first spoke with him on the phone admitted to looking more like Teddy than like Bobby. He said Kennedy’s words with a Kentucky rather than a Boston accent—which was perfect. The performers play themselves in the situation, and the situation is one they have a personal stake in, which registers in performance.
In our current project Utopia/ Dystopia, which is about the multi-billion-dollar turf war over downtown LA, LAPD members will both reenact testimony from the city council, the mayor, the development interests, etc., and give personal accounts of what it is to be harassed every day by the extra 50 cops they put on the beat to clear up the street. We’ll probably use both modalities in that situation because you know, you gotta keep yourself entertained. I think there’s something really elegant about the RFK solution or the Agents & Assets solution—meaning, a re-creation of a central text, with conversation and reflection supplementing it—but also it’s so elegant it’s not something you want to do every time out. I don’t know if I’ll ever do anything as elegant as that again.
LRH: You’re starting a project with us at MIT that so far has involved meetings with software engineers, lawyers, and librarians—the pioneers behind the GNU license (as in, GNU/Linux), Creative Commons, and OpenCourseWare (in which all of MIT’s courses are available for free online). What’s the connection between the conditions for creative community on the one hand, and social justice, which has been the backdrop for RFK and the LAPD work, on the other?
JM: The intersection is basically about who gets to own what. That’s what social justice is about. I mean, the people at MIT who are concerned about who gets to own what, like Richard Stallman, aren’t suffering so much, but the issues they’re raising affect everyone. In this case, who gets to own ideas? Who gets to own ideas directly affects whether social justice gets spoken about, gets public play.
LRH: You pointed out to the librarians that access to information and circulation of ideas is their whole historical reason for being.
JM: That’s when they liked me.
LRH: But maybe there’s more libertarianism among these people than you normally deal with.
JM: Yeah, I’m just becoming aware of that actually…Fred Turner’s book about Stewart Brand made that clear. I remember living through this. “The computer age will free us, and we’ll all be able to do our jobs from our teepees on the commune” implies that you can just ignore the current structure and “everything will work out.” It turns out that everything will work out, but…not necessarily in the best way.
JM: At one of the Agents & Assets conversations someone said, “Do you think it’s a conspiracy at the moment?” and I said, “It’s like a conspiracy, only bigger.” Like, everyone’s in on this, this is business as usual—and it’s not a conspiracy. To me the situation addressed by Agents & Assets is interesting because it’s a truth that’s also metaphor for all the instances where the well-being of poor people and people of color have been disregarded and sacrificed for other governmental interests. The hearing records state that there were over fifty incidents of Contra-connected people involved in running drugs to support that movement, and they also show the workings of government itself. Any crime committed by people working for a federal agency has to be reported to the justice department, right? Reagan’s attorney general sat down with the head of the CIA, also a Reagan appointee, and together they shrank the definition of CIA employee to include only people qualified for pensions. So now operatives, and other people getting money, and “assets”, didn’t have to be reported. That’s how you get around the law—in this case, a congressional mandate to not fund the Contras. We show you’re inside what appears to be…you know, the law, it’s good, it’s there, it’s objective, it’s a blanket, we’re all under it, it’s cool, but when you look at it, you see it’s more in play, it’s about how things get interpreted and enforced. That’s where things happen.
LRH: Here’s another quote from the ‘86 interview. “‘Do you see social community organizing as the same as performance art?’ ‘No, I don’t. I’m too East Coast for that. I think that when you write a script or something, that’s art, and when you create social change, that’s something else.’”
JM: What I was calling West Coast is the idea that if I, John artist, get up and eat breakfast then that’s part of my art, you know? Or when I’m driving down the road in Kentucky I’m making art. Well in that case maybe I’m in the process of putting the art together. But I think that the process is different from the product. I’m not living art 24/7 just due to the fact that I’m alive.
LRH: But that idea has a long, legitimate history….?
JM: Well your question was, Do I feel differently now? I’ll just say no. Although—I have on occasion described Agents & Assets as a three-act event that includes the performance, the panel, and the conversation. So—let’s say the first act is the art part and the other two parts are part of the strategic location of the art. It doesn’t change the art, but it determines to some extent the charge the art is going to have. I think this is really interesting and important. So Agents & Assets and RFK in EKY had two different emotional charges connected to the communities they were produced in. Their strategic location made them stronger, whether it was strategized or not. Remember, Kennedy’s original inquiry into poverty in eastern Kentucky was a search for place-based knowledge. And we, decades later, ended up choosing the original events because they were significant for the people in the community that would be enacting and watching.
Published in Interviu, CAC Vilnius, Summer 2007