By Helen Stuhr-Rommereim
Irony and sincerity are like evil twins, partners in crime, acting as inexpertly guided ping-pong paddles in the game of cultural commentary, knocking back and forth the ball of collective response to art and experience. The ball’s always flying off in unexpected directions, not following the proscribed paths it’s being shunted towards.
There’s been frequent effort over the last decade or so to make arguments for the prevalence of one over the other as the dominant tone of culture, and these arguments often end up a version of either “nobody cares anymore,” or “we really mean things now!” Any declaration along those lines becomes reductive, but the question of how one approaches art and what kind of relationship is established between work and viewer is important—and moves in both directions. The right combination of irony and sincerity can create something irresistible, and the way they operate can tell us something about what we humans might be looking for when we come to art. Sometimes a little winking self-consciousness can allow appreciation for something that might initially inspire skepticism. What you find once you’re paying attention might inflate all that knowing detachment with undeniably real feelings.
In 2006, Jesse Thorn wrote in a short essay entitled “A Manifesto for the New Sincerity.” “Just think of Evel Knieval… There’s no way to appreciate Evel Knievel literally… But by the same token… Evel is, in a word, awesome. His jumpsuit looks great. His stunts were amazing.” Evel, says Thorn, has a sheer affective power. He means it, and even if you can’t quite believe that he really means it—it’s so over the top – it’s also clear that he could only really mean it. To hurl oneself in the air in a spangled jumpsuit requires full emotional and physical commitment, and to be in the presence of such unlikely, unbelievable commitment inspires actual awe.
Teena Geist is also awesome—in that more literal sense of the word that describes something exuding such spell-binding power as to leave you helpless in its presence. Geist, a spectral drag character created by Philadelphia-based performing artist Mark McCloughan, is otherworldly and inhuman. When McCloughan put on a leather mask that he’d picked up on the side of the road in Spain and started speaking through a voice distorter, Teena was born. Her persona emerged fully formed and took on a confounding material reality. Her physical presence is striking, at once haunting and undeniably seductive. Her voice is childlike, but with a deep, staticky rumble. She wears nothing but a flowing skirt and black curly wig, chest bared, lithe and gangly. The mask that covers most of her face leaves McCloughan’s occasional beard to poke out from beneath a plane of flesh-colored leather that, save for two eyeholes, is insistently undistinguished by recognizably human features. She sprang from an impulse and remains in the ether, conjured like a spirit from a few talismanic elements.
McCloughan, working in collaboration with Rosie Langabeer and Spencer Sheridan under the auspices of their company, No Face Performance Group, developed a series of three set pieces for Teena Geist, two of which have been produced and performed. While the first production, “The Beautiful Refrigerator is Empty,” is primarily a monologue, executed as a relatively straightforward stage performance, the second, “The Stairwell Symphony,” takes the form of a combined séance and guided meditation, a panoply of new agey proclamations woven together with the final chapter of Teena’s twisty coming of age story.
The performances are all pieces of an elaborate tale, inspired by Edmund White’s series of autobiographical coming-of-age novels from the 1980s and 90s. But while McCloughan, like Edmund White, is a young gay man, Teena Geist is a shadowy child-woman. Her coming of age story is a carful mix of trite and disturbing, involving girlish intrigue, stolen boyfriends, and a dead body in a fridge. Her auspicious emergence from the performative womb carries a tinge of conjurer’s animism, and she operates in the world with uncanny agency. McCloughan describes the experience of performing Teena Geist as something only partially controlled. He explains, “it’s half that I know exactly what I want to do, and half that I’m kind of channeling.” This power flows through to the audience as well.
“The Stairwell Symphony,” which premiered in February of last year in a private home in Philadelphia, is an intimate experience taking place in a tiny pillow-strewn living room, complete with herbal cocktails, a wigged sound operator stuffed into a corner, a life-size painting of Teena on the wall, and the lady herself holding forth in the center of the room. Though you can’t see her face, it’s clear from the beginning Teena isn’t going to let you slip by unnoticed. “I can see you,” she says pointedly, as people sit down and start squirming, reaching for the cheese and crackers, “I’m right here.”
But for all the apparent confrontation at work in the set up for “The Stairwell Symphony,” there’s also something warm and communal about the project, something that actually operates almost exactly like more sincerely intended forms of guided meditation. Viewers are pushed to forget themselves and to connect with each other in ways that would feel pretty hokey if they were happening outside the exceptional space created by Teena’s bizarre charisma. For example, one must overcome quite a lot of skepticism to sit, eyes fixed to those of a stranger, shouting with conviction, “I am you! You are me! I am you! You are me!” But that particular episode from “The Stairwell Symphony,” is exemplary of the kind of participation that Teena requires: she knows you’ll feel silly, but she would like you do it anyway, no excuses. Because she asks, you cross boundaries you wouldn’t normally cross, and the result is as weirdly moving as it is painfully awkward. “It feels powerful to set up a situation where people are going to do this thing, even if they don’t believe it,” says McCloughan of that moment of the performance, “I can barely say it without laughing.” Of course this trickery is itself similar to personality-driven collective delusions, and that tension between dark seduction and collective connection is a driving force in the performance.
Teena is a character, a fiction; she comes with the promise of fabrication and the acknowledgement that none of this is real. But like Evel Knieval, Teena casts a spell, making it difficult to maintain an interpretive distance. The thing that’s happening is just a little outside of what’s possible to fully grasp, and it’s easy to give up then and let go — releasing oneself from the need to find a critical position, or to understand how you are appreciating the thing you are appreciating.
The accidental therapy that happens in the course of Teena Geist’s performance has something in common with the very intentional, although still self-conscious, therapeutic works of formerly Pittsburgh-based and now Los Angeles-bound art collective The Institute for New Feeling. Their project at Practice in Philadelphia in May, “Walking Together,” forced attendees into a strange and uncomfortable social arrangement, requiring both physical and emotional engagement. Visitors stepped onto two side-by-side treadmills, and right there – exposed in the crowded gallery space – were asked by a soothing woman’s voice piped through headphones to look into each other’s eyes via strategically placed mirror, and glide through space together. Crossing over into this minimalist and highly aestheticized set-up means quite tangibly and decisively making yourself the art object, with participation as a performance. There is a moment of awkward bonding between strangers, but like the beholden members of Teena’s audience, taking to one of the Institute’s treadmills means surrendering your will to the voice coming through your headphones.
The Institute for New Feeling was established with the intention of merging parody and imitation with actual therapeutic practice. They call their works “treatments,” and their material is primarily human relationships and experiences. Later this year, the Institute will open up an “Art Spa” in Los Angeles, making a storefront home for their projects and moving further towards becoming as much a wellness institution as an art project.
One treatment instructs participants in performing mouth to mouth with a loved one over a cell phone. Another involves a collective sweat lodge experience engineered with individual sweat-pods. Everything they do is a little bit absurd, but also directly addresses some ailment of contemporary living: the anxiety surrounding simulated experiences, digital disconnection, the dearth of communal physical togetherness. At the same time, each treatment creates a space of exceptional and forced sociality. In an interview for Full Stop magazine, the Institute’s Nina Sarnelle explained their beginnings: “We wanted to create an institution that offers a similarly physical individual experience [to more straightforward wellness practices], but blurs the distinction between ‘imitation’ and ‘real’ institution in the world.” But their treatments, in their strangeness, are as unsettling as they are soothing. Says Sarnelle, “I think leaving participants with some lingering questions (Do I need this? What’s wrong with me?) both reflects mechanisms inherent in the wellness industry and may also offer a valuable moment of reflection. Maybe there is something wrong with you.”
The critical distance implicit in encountering a work of art is part of what facilitates the generation of this tension, but the immersiveness of the created experience also goes some way towards removing the possibility for criticality. Sarnelle intends to allow for, “an interesting conflation of sincerity and play,” that “sets up two distinct ways of consuming a piece. The first is a conceptual framework or idea, and the second is a direct — and often physical — experience in time.”
In her book Cruel Optimism, theorist Lauren Berlant details the burden of attachment and self-sovereignty at work in our contemporary reality. She explains: “The body and life are not only projects, but also sites of episodic intermission from personality, the burden of whose reproduction is part of the drag of practical sovereignty, of the obligation to be reliable.” Part of that reliability is inherent in forming an opinion, establishing a position towards a given assertion or phenomenon. While the Institute for New Feeling has set out to engage art as therapy, Teena Geist grows as a mysterious and ungraspable entity providing perverse and mostly unintentional moments of catharsis. Both of these performance-based projects take the experience of living as material, becoming escapist in a surprising way. Rather than forgetting oneself in a story, these projects allow for the momentary release from ego that meditation actually intends to cultivate. In being housed under the roof of art, however, they provide a different pathway, an acknowledgement that this is all kind of crazy, but also feels really good.
But there’s also a sense of need that emerges here. When people come to Teena Geist performances and come away feeling healed, it seems clear that a specific hunger is being inadvertently fed. Yes, I want to see some art. But really, I want to feel more connected to others, a little different from my usual self, a little better. As Berlant writes, “People are worn out by the idea of life-building.” Being a person is exhausting, and Teena and the Institute for New Feeling might both be taking advantage of your vulnerability.
Of Teena’s weird power, her shadowy undertones, her cultish draw, McCloughan says, “The darkness is like a tool that I can use in the performance to say ‘You think you know what this is, and it is not what you think it is,’ and that’s when Teena has the most power, with regard to the audience—tapping into something big and scary….”
At the Institute for New Feeling event “The Cloud,” a quiet voice whispers in your ear, “Sip, you are evaporating…. Sip, you could lose everything…. All that was once yours, is becoming ours.” It’s both soothing and disturbing, enchanting and unnerving.
Leaving Teena’s house, like dismounting a treadmill at Practice, leaves one with that queasy feeling brought on by sudden stillness after motion, when a powerful propulsion has been removed but its after-effects remain. Some boundaries have been crossed, some connections have been forged, and as much as it was a relief to let go, it’s also a relief to have your feet back steady on the ground, your mind and body once again your own. And though the ride is over, you might walk less steady for a while, not left entirely unshaken.