INTERVIEW WITH PROFAILURE CREATORS: Lilah Friedland and Rachel Wohlander
What are your backgrounds as artists?
RACHEL: My focus has been directing theatre, and I often produce my own projects. Most of what I’ve done has been site-specific and audience interactive, utilizing music, dance, film and multimedia. Much of the work I’ve directed and produced has involved the audience traveling to different locations and playing an active role in the unfolding of the story. I’ve also always been a writer, but more in the fiction/poetry realm.
LILAH: I was a theatre major in college, and then moved to NY and thought of myself as a poet for a while. Eventually I started making objects and performances that orbited in the contemporary art world, and more recently a return to what I think of as *theatre*… Overall I have an interest in an audience/participants experience of *Reality* and often work at manipulating that experience. This attempt to *fuck with* reality can present itself in both the physical and narrative space. The heart of ProFailure is the recreation/creation of a history and an event. The device of re-making a truth in the present (different than lying only in intention) or the re-imagining of previously occurring events is a tool that I use in most of my projects. I like to involve the viewer’s desire to concurrently believe and disbelieve. This concept of belief, particularly as it pertains to the creation of reality is fascinating to me and relates directly with my interest in cults and *charismatic leaders.* The cause and effect of language in these relationships allows an audience to really experience how language creates reality. For me, the overarching question of what is REAL, or what is TRUE, always remains. So, I care about the experience of Authenticity, and what it does to ones view of reality. I’m always *playing* with that in my work.
How did you come to work together?
R: Lilah approached me about working on our thesis project together, because we had worked together before on previous PIMA projects and knew we had a good rapport and communicated well. When we started talking about the importance of humor in whatever piece we created, Lilah suggested bringing in Jeff, who’s a very skilled comedic performer. Throughout PIMA, I had really admired Jeff and Lilah’s work and had them pegged as people I wanted to work with from very early on, so it worked out well for me. They’re good at doing great work while not taking themselves too seriously, and I think that’s really important. I knew I had a lot to learn from both of them about their aesthetics and wonderfully kooky ideas.
L: The PIMA program at Brooklyn College requires a collaborative thesis. We all know this going in, so its hard not to think of who you may ultimately want to collaborate with from the get go. At the end of the second semester I approached Rachel and Jeff. I don’t think I can tease apart the exact reasons why I wanted to work with these two over the remaining six months. After a year of assigned collaborations I could imagine working with any of my seven classmates. The broad stroke would be: I think Jeff and I have a similar aesthetic and Rachel has an ear for language and a frame of reference that is different from mine and quite thoughtful. Collaboration is challenging in so many ways, and the idea of having to choose from a small pool of people is daunting. Under *normal* circumstances, one would come about collaboration in a more inspirational way. The condition of required collaboration has a variety of pluses and minuses, obvi. That being said, we worked exceptionally well together and I think the choices we made individually made the work stronger. The fact that our collaboration was the product of an assignment was never an issue.
What inspired Pro-Failure?
R: When we were throwing around ideas and concepts, deciding what our project would be, we were interested in big questions about morality and how to behave in the world, and how these ideas are dictated and decided. We talked about wanting to be political without being preachy and spiritual without being religious, and we ended up turning that on it’s head and going all-out, over the top crazy cult-religion preachy. Humor was an important part of the piece from the beginning, which turned into satire. Various movements, (artistic, social and political), inspired ProFailure. We did a lot of research on famous historical cults and cult-like groups/movements. We started dreaming up ProFailure in Spring 2011, but when the Occupy Wall Street movement gained momentum in the Fall, I’m sure that had an influence. Jeff, Lilah and I had worked together on previous projects where we had begun to explore the beauty of failure, and happy accidents and what we deemed a garage band aesthetic of intentionally janky, though lovingly thrown together sets and props and assemblages. (In one of our past projects Jeff, Lilah and I played family members in a side-show family who were always messing up their act and arguing on stage, but the genuine love they had for each other showed through their quirky sabotages).
L: have always been interested in art that fails. The happy accident. Beautiful Losers. RACHEL addresses exactly how the idea germinated. We were interested in the having a message, but not preaching. We were talking a lot about art movements and the ways in which they splinter off and then oppose themselves…but we didn’t want to make something too insular… art about art. We struggled with what the *big picture* might be, what exactly was the message. We began to imagine how ‘giving up’ could be translated into a manifesto. People would follow an everyman sort of leader, some combination of Osama Bin Laden, John Wayne Gacy, Alfred E. Newman. Our leader would be benevolent and dangerous. Jeff began making videos that were sent from a remote location where our leader was hiding. We used our cohort to test methods of indoctrination, each week utilizing a new procedure. We began to experiment with cult meeting structure, the rules and responsibilities of our willing and unwilling followers. We experimented with notions of ‘who is IN, who is OUT,’ observing how these designations affect perception, even the experience of “entertainment.” We tried to play the line of humor and fear, reality and fiction. Eventually we made reality fiction and named our leader Jeff Alan Wood, the same name of the person speaking the scripted words written for our “Leader.” Once that clicked in, the character development came more easily, and with that, both the narrative past and present.
We discussed the importance of language and vocabulary in radical communities: the secret password, the secret gesture, unique definitions given to everyday words. By the end of the third semester, the language of our mission flowed into place. The ProFailure Press morphed into The ProFailure Experience as we began to gravitate toward the idea of Failure in general, and the accelerationist ‘rabid nihilism’ of Nick Land, where an ‘anthropomorphically scaled, predominantly vision-configured, massively multi-slotted reality system is obsolescing very rapidly. Garbage time is running out’ (Nick Land, Fanged Noumena, Urbanomic & Sequence Press, 2011.)
What are your influences?
L: Charlie Sheen. 24/7. The character of Charlie Sheen is so captivating. He is an accident in motion, human nature gone off the rails and flourishing in freefall. I don’t even want to pretend that I don’t want to look. I want to look. I want to long and hard. Other than Charlie… a laundry list in no particular order…Marina Abromovic, Vito Acconci, Joseph Beuys, Fluxus, Adrian Piper, Rirkrit Tiravanija, AA Bronson, Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, Andre Breton, Bertold Brecht, Marcel Duchamp, Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, Lilly Tomlin, Mike Kelley, Raymond Pettibon, Dan Graham, Krishnamurti, Cindy Sherman, Tony Oursler, Werner Erhard, Keith Richards, Leonard Cohen, Madam Blavatski, Anne Bessant, Marina Sabina, Beatrice Wood, Alan Kaprow, George Bataille, Hunter S. Thompson, Elias Canetti, Philip Guston…. Pop music. Memes. Linguistics. The Real World. Carl Sagan.
What was your process in creating the work?
R: We would meet at least weekly and just throw out a ton of ideas. We started bringing ideas into our thesis class and experimented with our classmates as audience/as participants in a ProFailure meeting. It was important to treat them like insiders, and to assume they were privy to lot’s of secret information that they of course had no idea about. So we started coming up with our ProFailure insider vocabulary, behaviors and rituals. We started developing our characters and experimenting with different ways of coaxing the audience’s participation and loyalty. As things began to solidify, we looked more at narrative and started to do some writing. Once we recruited collaborators and the key roles were cast, we did a lot of the writing specifically for those actors.
L: For a while just got together to talk about what ProFailure actually is/was… Worked on assignments, discovering how deep ProFailure could go. Eventually we had a group of people who were interested in participating in what would ultimately involve a great deal of improvisation. Our *rehearsals* began as just a group of people riffing on ideas of ProFailure, coming up with physical and narrative expressions of our growing ethos, making it real for themselves. These rehearsals had little to do with a script, and more to do with a story and a belief system. We focused on making ProFailure itself as real and believable for ourselves as it could be, rather than perfecting ‘characters.’ In the end we were able to see this was both beneficial, and necessary. At times there was anxiety around the rehearsal process. Our differing relationships to theatricality were a dance between Rachel, Jeff and myself. My desire to underthink and non-rehearse, pressed up against their desire to do the opposite. In the end, we were mostly successful, each of us offering much needed solutions to unforeseen problems. I was very interested in the cast living ‘a ProFailure life’ which would in turn yield a believable ProFailure Experience. While at the same time we were working with serious actors who approached the performance from the other end, wanting the scripted parts to yield a path to character generation. I think that even though we had divergent views of the rehearsal process the dynamics of this within the collaborative was a great help, offering the cast various ways into ProFailure. In the end I think we were rehearsed enough to give structure, while leaving room to let the actors have spontaneous input and feel comfortable delivering ‘off the cuff.’ Because The ProFailure Experience was both scripted and interactive the cast had to give the audience both the structure and permission to participate, while at the same time presenting an authentic experience.
R: Jeff and I were continually trying to make ProFailure real in the past to inform the present. That was particularly challenging, especially given the timeframe. We gave each other assignments, and doled out responsibilities in order to get as much done as possible. Sometimes we would edit or transform each other’s work, and sometimes not at all. We didn’t have too much ego around the editing process. Big ideas came and went, and we honed in on what we could actually accomplish: a traveling interactive performance with a cast of twenty and musical score.
How did the piece evolve? What were the challenges? What were the surprises? How did the audience respond?
R: The audience had a really strong reaction to the moments in the piece that were really real. Like when we turned on the faucet full blast while we ran an empty microwave for the length of time it takes to bake a potato, or when we asked people to stand up and give testimonials, or when we staged a kidnapping out on the street, or when we put paper bags over the audiences’ heads and made them hold onto a rope while pulling them into a dark basement. Some people got angry or emotional about things like that. One night the audience tried to stop the kidnapping ––they stood in front of the car to stop it form speeding away, and some people even got in the car with the kidnappers.
L: The piece was whittled away from the big big big picture. What we thought we would accomplish vs. what was going to be possible. Time and scheduling were the major challenges, like anything that gets done in NYC, mostly everyone you work with is working on another ten projects. People don’t move to NY to enjoy the trees. The major surprise for me was the dedication from our unpaid actors. They made ProFailure actual…same with the audience. There seemed to be enough room for the audience to both participate and spectate.
We had beautiful moments of realness in the unreal: a cyclical kidnapping draws the audience into participation before they know ‘the show has begun.” They experience real discomfort listening for too long to the white noise of a microwave and running tap water while hearing of earth’s ultimate demise. They put bags on their heads, and hold on to a rope that leads them toward their own confessional Failure Testimonial. They sing from hymnals, and participate in a group marriage. They are both a part of, and outside of ProFailure, and this is, for the most part, entertaining.
Where do you see contemporary performance at and where do you see it going? What do you think the next generation is looking for in a performance?
R: I think audiences are really craving these types of interactive experiences that leave room for the possibility of actually having an adventure, or at least a damn good conversation with a stranger-–something that has real potential to bring people together for an intense, shared experience that they won’t forget. I think we crave that sense of excitement and danger, and with ProFailure, we want to walk that line where it almost feels dangerous, and is full of surprises. I also think it’s great to get outside of theaters. I don’t think audiences are as physically or intellectually lazy as performance has previously presumed them to be––I think they want to move around, interact and be intellectually challenged. I think performance should be a much more social experience (and also a social experiment).
L: I’m not sure I even know what *contemporary performance* is. Since the early 90’s when I started doing what was considered *performance art*… few people in the contemporary art world were interested, it was still passé…and difficult to monetize. Now performance has become pervasive, popular and perhaps over-saturated with people who do *performance art* because its the thing to do…. these days, installation often comes with a de facto performative element. Artifacts are then sold, and coveted as art objects. Lately, I think much of what is presented as performance lacks the critical eye necessary for time-based work. What is interesting to me is the space between performance art and theatre… still a grey area, and I like that. Theatre that is rehearsed, combined with a method of ‘performance’ that is not. I think audiences enjoy the unpredictability of an unscripted performance. We love Live TV, even what we call reality TV caters to our desire for authenticity, and is perhaps closer to what this grey area may actually be. Reality TV has a scripted element offered under the auspices of spontaneity. Applying this to performance, when the *actors* and the audience are in the same place at the same time the structure and safety of a script can help an audience feel secure enough to––let go––even when the overall structure seems to fall apart, or when that structure seems to depend on the audience itself.
It seems like almost every movie that comes out now is about Armageddon, or life after the end of the world. We seem to produce and devour stories that describe what happens when everything falls apart…sort of. Hollywood style. Maybe contemporary performance will echo this cultural obsession, or maybe offer some relief.
What are your plans for the future?
R: We plan to remount ProFailure this summer! We’re still figuring out details. But we want to keep the best parts, and improve the parts that didn’t work as well as we hoped. We want to condense it into a real power-packed performance and a tighter narrative with a lot more room for individual/personal discovery, and a more visually interesting experience.
L: Yes. Ditto to what Rachel said…. We are interested in another go around. This time we want to invest more time in the aesthetic component. More objects to support the narrative past and present. Creating ProFailure in the physical realm is the top of the list.
Meanwhile Profailure will next be seen at the Scope Art Show. March 4-10. Members will be leading tours of the fair and selling snow globes.