HAMTRAMCK, Michigan — Artists Mark McCloughan and Leslie Rogers set the scene for their scripted performance at Public Pool art space, You Are Next to Me, much in the spirit of a campfire tale, for an audience assembled in sets of seats facing each other with a performance corridor down the middle. The handful of live performances are just one aspect of a gallery installation that re-stages, retells, and reimagines a shared encounter between McCloughan and Rogers, and two residents of an unnamed town in the Wisconsin Dells, which the pair encountered on their way to ACRE residency last summer.
Over the course of their 2018 residency, McCloughan and Rogers found themselves rehashing the experience, which plays out as a psychological drama between two ambiguous couples — Rogers and McCloughan, who both consciously cultivate non-normative approaches to the gender binary, and “Marty” and “Lisa” (whose names were changed in character form to protect the privacy of their real-life analogues). Marty and Lisa seem to have carved out their own pocket of alternative sexuality and gender warfare within the constraints of rural Wisconsin. The result is a show and performance that deal with heady themes of identity, sexual agency, gender, power, perspective, and freedom — all expressed through the comical tag-team and multimedia efforts of McCloughan and Rogers, whose performance history together lends them an air of a couple, able to pick up unspoken cues and tell the story of each other as easily as themselves.
Where the story gets a bit interpretive is in their collective parsing of the subtext in the evening of exchanges that unravel between themselves, Marty, and Lisa.
“I know that you understand the dynamic, and are not stupid, but I also know there is a different type of knowledge that comes from an intimacy with that type of violence,” reads Rogers, in an early section of the performance that introduces a scene at a bar called Chasers, where they encounter the hometown couple. Rogers is recounting her internal monologue, concerned that her friend’s long hair and short shorts might stir the locals, currently preoccupied with watching MMA on television, to direct some recreational abuse their way. “I am unsure in this moment if you have that knowledge, only because you’re not afraid enough to avoid engaging them at all costs, in a group that size, that drunk, and high on yelling about tits and sports. I am afraid that you’ll summon them by accident, instead of on purpose.”
Rogers is familiar with small-town bar dynamics, having spent various stints bartending to support herself, and the PTSD of those experiences radiates throughout the piece as it unfolds, evident in her reflexive gauging of the setting, the exits, the occupants, the level of their sobriety — noticing how much everyone in the situation is aware of each other. She and McCloughan provide a tenuous kind of social protection to each other. McCloughan reads, in this situation, as male (rather than as trans, but uses they/them pronouns), but even as male, the possibility of being homosexual is complicated by the presence of Rogers — who in turn is buffered from the verbal and physical encroachment that would doubtlessly be directed at her in this situation, were she to enter the scene as an unaccompanied female. It is in this environment of hyper-vigilance that Rogers and McCloughan end up in conversation with Marty and Lisa.
The dynamic unfolds as follows: Marty, in his 40s, a strip club owner with flashes of brash, engaging humor but also alienating disrespect for women, wants to fuck Rogers. His predatory stance is tempered by the presence of Lisa, a somewhat older wayward housewife who “blew up her family to be happy” by leaving a marriage and children to shack up with Marty. She might be interested in fucking Rogers and McCloughan — or neither — but mostly is a gamely attendant to Marty’s prerogative. Rogers, more or less definitively does not want to fuck Marty, but seems compelled to continue to engage with the pair, driven by a conscious sense of curiosity or non-sexual interest — but perhaps also by an unconscious desire to play with fire in a situation where she has previously been burned. McCloughan does not appear to have an explicitly sexual agenda within this foursome, but understands their role as protector and wing-person to Rogers’s exploits — as she has been, in the past, to theirs. After McCloughan and Rogers leave the bar unscathed, they find themselves in deep deliberation about taking up Marty’s offer to come over to the house “for a swim.”
Having successfully poked the bear and lived, the two decide to venture further into the cave, for a second, more private, round of human connection vs. objectification and forced sex. This includes a tour of Marty’s home, a dip in the above-ground pool, and a play-by-play analysis in retrospect of the psychosexual subtext to every point of interaction throughout the night. There are ways in which this is a gripping tale, and simultaneously generates the kind of exhaustion familiar to those who present with extreme social anxiety or ambiguous identity markers that require hyper-awareness of one’s surroundings.
The gallery is populated by recreated objects from the bar and Marty’s house, which serve as the rough set and props for the performance, but also as standalone sculptural and 2D art pieces. These works, which include a series of “soft guitars” rendered by Rogers in fabric and droopingly wall-mounted, a shelf filled with “Vinyl”-scented Yankee Candles, a trio of withered sausages on a long fork, representing the trio of “maybe-cops” watching an MMA fight at the bar, a kind of impossible sex-bike furnished with a dildo (represented in simulacra by a naughty cookie), a set of “family photos” hanging on Marty’s wall that were redrawn by McCloughan, and a mysterious ladder to an attic trapdoor — into which Rogers was invited, but declined, understanding this to be a place of no escape. Although in most cases, these represent literal objects, they are pulled through the filter of McCloughan’s and Rogers’s minds, creating ideas out of real objects, even as they create objectified characters out of Marty, Lisa, and themselves.
You Are Next to Me is a dense and complicated ongoing work that manages to be funny, human, and spontaneous, about interaction and healing in the face of very present danger and trauma. The themes are multitudinous and play like the program of a televised fight event — sex vs. refusal, objectification vs. self-expression, us vs. them, props vs. sculpture, control vs. abandon, man vs. woman, awareness of others vs. awareness of self — and all the while, Rogers and McCloughan, rather than taking a specific side, are working feverishly to carve out a space between these opposing forces, that give in to neither.