Approaching Assemblage Nov 20, 2011
by Caitlin Sullivan
Much has been written about Temporary Distortion's now signature form. Those who come to Newyorkland for the purpose of seeing an assemblage in action will not be disappointed. A director's note describes assemblage as "the artistic process of putting together found material in such a way that a new unique artwork is formed." Here the installation includes cubicles, flourescents and coils of cords, four actors giving restrained physical performances mediated by glass and sound, rapid fire video that is part docudrama-part-cop-genre throwback and a truely transcendant sound design and score that begins with a blast and ebbs, flows and drones along through the evening. Often these elements meet each other to truly stunning aesthetic effect- I certainly audibly gasped a time or two. Still I came out of this dreamscape feeling largely hollow.
Newyorkland aims to address the subject of police work and more explicitly to examine the experiences of those who serve. It is most effective in isolating the officers relationships to the objects and procedures that define their day to day- phones, manual typwriters, radios, reports, lists of location after location, the uniform- the presentation of which has a cumulative effect for the viewer. Watching I could begin to feel the slow crushing clausterphobia that these objects and the expectations around them bring.
The cops themselves become objects too: performers often watch their characters giving videotaped interviews and testimonials and it is here that Newyorkland left me wanting. I desperately wanted to experience the dissonance between these people and their icon selves and while the materials of the show seemed set up to do that, its questions rarely felt rigorous enough. A series of presentations of firsts (when you first realized you wanted to be a cop, first realized people hate you, first put on the uniform, first shooting) did little to illuminate and so while the form of the piece presented an abstract, dissonant, poetic space, the content rarely filled it. It's been said that Newyorkland is also a deconstruction of the public's perception of cops, but the work there felt underexamined and underdeveloped. "This work is hard," it seemed to shout and "cops are people too," assuming that THE problem is that somehow we've forgotten this. It simply wasn't enough.
Timing, of course, is everything. And here the timing is hard. In the interest of full disclosure, I walked into On the Boards almost directly after first viewing videos of officers dousing proesters at UC Davis with pepper spray. It would be unfair and unfounded to ask Newyorkland to be topical in that way, nor do I believe that to be where art is most effective. But the brutal excesses of our police force are nothing new and I believe they demand a deeper series of questions. In an early video interview, a rookie cop describes that he got in to the force because he believed in good people and bad or evil people. "My job," he explains, "is to stop the evil people." He goes on to describe looking in the mirror and wondering "is there evil in me," before noting "but there is a difference." This observation is abruptly interrupted. The thread left hanging feels like the important one. What is the difference? What happens when we start to imagine ourselves as seperate from and in opposition to a whole? How did we get here and where do we go? Waching Newyorkland I got the distinct feeling that no one was implicated, that a simple lack of understanding is to blame. Watching those videos I get the feeling that the stakes are too high, that simply bearing witness to each other is not enough.
The successes of Newyorkland, and there are many including the sound design and a core of quiet, desperately, beautiful performances, reminded me that our tools are unmatched in their poetic ability to uproot and unsettle and that in this moment, we must demand nothing less.