While not the most exacting analysis of Marxism, performance artist Ivo Dimchev’s interactive P Project offered a cordial, gender-fluid, and energetically participatory opening night welcome to the Karl Marx Festival: On Your Marx, at the NYU Skirball Center.
Entry to P Project was free, though donations were accepted (“from each according to his ability,” as Marx wrote). Dimchev’s most radical concept was that he would pay audience members to perform. A Bulgarian whose work tours regularly on the European and American festival circuits, he appeared in what seemed to be just a dancer’s belt, with buttocks bared, wearing women’s shoes, heavy makeup, and a flesh-toned male breastplate. The stage was likewise bare, with the exception of laptops on three tables with chairs, plus one electric piano keyboard.
The show was modeled on old-school anti-theatrical art performance and happenings (a script of actions to be carried out without rehearsal), with Dimchev singing and playing the keyboard throughout. At the opening, he spoke candidly about the genesis of the piece and its initial funding of 30,000 Euros by a festival in Brussels; the written program detailed the budget for this presentation, plane fare and hotels included. In the same vein, Dimchev’s Fest, presented at the Abrons Arts Center in 2015, was a partially fictional narrative about the negotiations for the production of a performance piece at a festival.
After the initial chatter, audience members were invited to participate and, in many ways, determine the content of the rest of the show. For each section, he invited two people onstage to write whatever they wanted on the laptops; the two texts were streamed to him via Skype as he improvised a song out of them and accompanied himself on the keyboard. In all but the first section, he also chose one or two people to perform a specified simple action for the duration of the five-minute impromptu song, though for two sections the instruction was to do whatever they liked.
The directed actions progressed from the mildly humiliating (dancing alone in front of a large audience of strangers) to nude performers simulating “fucking.” Volunteers were so eager to perform that they vaulted over the lip of the stage and appeared willing to do anything he asked. Dimchev gave one audience member a cashbox with $1000 to pay the writers and performers. (The writers were paid, as usual, less than the performers. Dimchev repeated several times, “It’s not about the money.”) In the final round, two writers were chosen to draft critiques, one positive, one negative. By this time, the cash was gone and audience donations, collected on the spot, were paid to the critics.
Dimchev sings both tenor and countertenor comfortably, laying on the vibrato as thick as his makeup. His performance recalls the gay piano bars of a bygone era, with someone tickling the ivories as volunteers warble show tunes. (His piano-playing is nimble enough, but I wasn’t tempted to buy the CD.) Though generally friendly, he didn’t hesitate to bark instructions to the writers and performers, and, like a cranky vocalist in a rundown club, complain about the defective sound system, all as part of his act.
The crazed alacrity of the young audience was morbidly fascinating. I suspected that many were students in NYU’s various performance programs, and that many had found online videos of other presentations of P Project and knew what to expect, which made me wonder all the more about their fever to participate — perhaps the uninhibited young crowd was conditioned by the boundless sharing on social media.
Participatory events can invite sharing and community — over-sharing, in some cases, as here. Dimchev’s use of audience volunteers and discussion of funding upturned the usual performance etiquette. The volunteers didn’t run the show, but they did have a lot of influence on the content. While it is novel to pay the audience to attend a performance, Dimchev was still paid respectably, yet the audience members who humiliated themselves took home relatively little money and nothing for their resumes.
To his credit, Dimchev discloses the pay disparity and speaks with commendable candor. Highlighting the funding mechanisms for performance sheds some light on that labor market and its commodity fetishism, and to an extent on the bigger picture of cultural production.
The conditions of employment in theater, as elsewhere, are undergoing new scrutiny as part of the #metoo wave. Mount Olympus: to glorify the cult of tragedy (a 24-hour performance), a production later in the Skirball season and not part of On Your Marx, is by Belgian Jan Fabre, who is being investigated for sexual misconduct toward the members of his company.
Among the other events in On Your Marx are dance by Luciana Achugar, a Brooklyn-based choreographer from Uruguay; a talk by Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek; and a choral performance of the Communist Manifesto, which concludes the festival. The festival flyer includes “Book Marx,” a heavy-duty reading list with Marx, Marcuse, Adorno, Virno, among others, to catch up on your Marx between shows. With corporate neofascism triumphing in the U.S. and around the world, On Your Marx is a good opportunity to revisit an ideology that focuses on the welfare of workers and society as a whole and promotes equality and a sense of community.
Karl Marx Festival: On Your Marx continues at the NYU Skirball Center (566 LaGuardia Place, Manhattan) through October 28. See website for the lineup.