My Barbarian Brings the Audience into the Fold

My Barbarian, a collective made up of artists Malik Gaines, Jade Gordon, and Alexandro Segade use performance to dramatize past and present problems and imagines ways of being together. Their Creative Capital project Post-Living Ante-Action Theater (PoLAAT) is a public performance and video installation, generated in close collaboration with local participants using techniques developed by My Barbarian as part of an ongoing project. Workshops and cultural research with participating artists have resulted in a visual, musical, theatrical and politically critical public demonstration.  Their project culminates with an exhibition and residency now on display at The New Museum through January 8, 2016, titled The Audience is Always Right.

Hillary Bonhomme: Can you describe how My Barbarian developed PoLAAT, the exchange of ideas between the collectives work and the product of the workshops, and how that helped develop this exhibition at the New Museum?

My Barbarian: My Barbarian’s Post-Living Ante-Action Theater, or PoLAAT, is the collective’s performance pedagogy, built of five techniques: Estrangement, Indistinction, Suspension of Beliefs, Mandate to Participate and Inspirational Critique.  The PoLAAT is a response to, among other things, Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed, Fassbinder’s Anti-Theater, the Living Theater of Juian Beck and Judith Malina, and other theatrical models that attempted to create social change; it is a means of addressing histories, often buried or overlooked, of critical and revolutionary theater from the 1960s and after, while situating its own enactment in (and against) the seemingly anti-revolutionary contemporary moment.  The PoLAAT occupies the space between memory and rehearsal, joke and laugh, commentary and critique; it is the theater that happens after an experience is lived, but before action is taken. It is a rehearsal. The title of the exhibition, which is shared by a recently published PoLAAT manual and how-to book, takes on a critical irony in this dangerous moment of political theater: The Audience is Always Right.” Except, of course, when they are wrong.

After its development at the New Museum during a residency in 2008, the PoLAAT initiated a series of performances in international contexts, including, among many other hosts, the Townhouse Gallery in Cairo, Egypt and the Galeria Civica in Trento, Italy, both now defunct.   In each iteration, the PoLAAT brought together groups of local participants for a workshop period, often involving the translation and transformation of its five guiding principles, followed by a public performance for a local audience.  For the 2016 retrospective, entitled “The Audience is Always Right,” My Barbarian brings the PoLAAT back to the New Museum in order to reunite a select group of former participants from previous incarnations of the project for a new series of performances and workshops.  The ensuing exhibition illustrates the history of the PoLAAT through ephemera and installation, documenting its eight years and the various participants – professional and amateur alike – through an 80 minute single channel video, and a large scale mural, making a work that serves as both a document and backdrop for demonstrations and participatory lectures throughout the run of the exhibition, surrounding viewers with both the pedagogy and history of the PoLAAT. There will be three public performances developed during the course of the workshops: an Intro, a Caucus, and an Outro.

A ten day workshop will result in a public performance of the PoLAAT’s “Intro: Post-Paradise,” which will bring together an international cast of past participants, as well as new invitees, for a master class aimed at considering the legacies of radical theater and politics, set against the current moment of political energy and its exhaustion.  The “Post-Paradise” of the title refers to the Living Theater’s “Paradise Now,” which Fassbinder’s antiteater responded to with their production of “Pre-Paradise, Sorry Now.”  The PoLAAT situates its own introduction in an aftermath.

Is eight years a history?  The PoLAAT began during the Democratic primary in 2008, and returns to its place of origin during the run-up to the election of in 2016: at the time of its primal scene, the PoLAAT was influenced by the idea that democracy itself could be redeemed; in the current political climate, that seems a rather pointed question.  This participatory performance – using games, play, music and consciousness raising – will blur the boundaries between performer and audience, theater and encounter group, as the group considers the democratic process, and the promise and danger of group-building and consensus.

A carnivalesque reverie, a fever dream, a prophecy: the PoLAAT will consider its own end and ends, with the help of a cast of international and local performers / participants from all walks of creative life brought together in search of the dead authors for their unlikely future.  The election will have been decided. What will we do now? A post-mortem, a farewell, a toast, a eulogy?

Hillary: This exhibition is part of an eight-year residency. Where are you guys in this project and how has the project evolved since its conception?

My Barbarian: The project has expanded since the initial request: we had initially planned to make a performance in Egypt and a performance in Israel, and hoped that a museum in the US would be interested in showing the archive of the work. While the return to Egypt has not been possible, with the New Museum’s invitation to make a PoLAAT retrospective there, we have exceeded our goal of finding an enthusiastic and apposite presenter for the work. Shifting gears slightly, since we were unable to work in Egypt, we are using CC funds to bring artists from all over the world to meet in New York, and make new work together at the New Museum.

In 2014, My Barbarian used Creative Capital funds to make a new PoLAAT project and exhibition in Jerusalem, bring Israeli and Palestinian artists together in a workshop and public performance. Over several days, students, artists and community members participated in a PoLAAT workshop led by the three members of My Barbarian, encountering new techniques in group-building, cultural exchange, and political critique through imaginative reenactment.

The PoLAAT continued this April in residence at the Visual Arts Center at UT Austin. At the close of the residency and in conjunction with the Fusebox Festival, an annual hybrid art festival that takes place in Austin, Texas each April, My Barbarian and workshop collaborators presented a final performance as a culmination of the entire week’s events.

The PoLAAT has continued to expand, and will now fill the fifth floor of the New Museum, encapsulating the project in an immersive installation that includes video from all prior iterations.

Hillary: PoLAAT is a pedagogical model and codified technique. You’ve used it with other artists. Is there any interest in putting this model in communities as a set of team building/educational exercises for leaders, students, etc? If so, how would that further this continuously developing piece of work?

My Barbarian: In 2015, My Barbarian collaborated with a non-profit arts organization based in Austin, Texas to edit Pastelegram’s fifth print issue, also entitled “The Audience is Always Right.” The issue is a manual that includes exercises, study questions and sheet music developed by My Barbarian for each stage as well as notes and images from earlier PoLAAT workshops.

As Ariel Evans of Pastelegram describes it, “To move the workshop into text is to disseminate its principles to audiences beyond those who can attend PoLAAT events when and where they occur. The manual offers models for acting in the world, politically and personally, beyond the limits of “theater” and “performance art.”
In 2008, participants of the Trento iteration of the project continued on as the PoLAAT after the three founding members of My Barbarian had left the city. The Italian group, made up of child care providers, bankers, ski instructors, and nurses, formed during the workshop sessions, persisted in creating public performances for their small mountain community, at least for a short period, after the initial spectacle was over.
Hillary: Have you used your grant for this exhibition at the New Museum? How’d it help?

My Barbarian: We requested funding for the Premiere/Presentation and Expansion of the Post-Living Ante-Action Theater (PoLAAT) at the New Museum, New York September 28, 2016 – January 10, 2017. They cover both airfare and lodging for 6 international artists (Vicente Colomar and Mañuel Rodriguez – Madrid, Spain, Naty and Joce Tremblay and Ryan Graham Hinds – Toronto, Canada, and Meir Tati – Tel Aviv, Israel) and 4 artists from other parts of the US (Ginger Brooks Takahashi – Pittsburgh, Jasmine Hughes – Minneapolis, Obehi Janice – Boston, and Amber Marsh – Chicago) to come to the New Museum and participate in the exhibition. While the New Museum and the Crossing the Line theater festival have partnered to support aspects of the production of the performance, we are grateful to be able to use Creative Capital presentation/expansion funds to bring the participants from around the world to co-create a series of performances during the run of the show, the theme of which is collective action and democracy.

“The Audience is Always Right” will run through January 8, 2017. For more information on The Barbarians exhibition and residency, click here.