BY Dan Fox in Interviews | 16 JUN 13
Featured in
Issue 156

Act Natural

David Levine, whose work embraces theatre, performance and video, discusses acting and identity

BY Dan Fox in Interviews | 16 JUN 13

Dan Fox Why does acting both attract and repel us? On the one hand we admire certain mem­bers of society for being good actors. Yet, on the other hand, nobody likes a faker. 

David Levine Distrust of actors has existed since Plato. To the extent that people are identified with their jobs, the actor poses a real social problem: how can you ever trust someone whose job is to be a fake person? And yet, how can you give up your unquenchable need for entertainment? The real question is: do we mistrust mimesis in general, or actors in particular? Or is it that we only mistrust ‘accurate’ representation? Since acting is a skilled job – with a union and controlled work­ing hours – it allows us to examine these questions in a more specific way. 

Character Analysis, 2013, performance at Radcliff Institute for Advanced Study, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Courtesy: the artist 

DF     Does this relate to the recent trend in television and film for using the language of documentary in order to tell a fictional narrative?

DL     This is a paradox that comes up repeatedly. Actors are people who have the technique to seem realistic under phenomenally arti­fi­cial circumstances; civilians, who always perform convincingly in their daily lives, tend to freeze up in a spectacle. This is where I start to wind up in an argument with a lot of performance art that has traditionally favoured amateurs because that is seen as somehow more ‘authentic’.

DF     Can you explain?

DL     Well, it’s changing, but performance was really the last genre of contemporary art that was hooked on an idea of authenticity in production. I’m thinking of Allan Kaprow or Marina Abramović, but I’m also thinking of John Bock or Tino Sehgal.

Artists use amateurs precisely because of that mistrust of actors: amateurs lack technique; therefore we can trust them more; therefore using amateurs is both aesthetically and politically more legitimate; but amateurs are generally not accustomed to having scrutiny put upon them. They start overperforming and seeming twice as fake, and that just highlights the artificiality of the whole thing in ways that seem to me both self-celebratory and tautological. For performance to have any political value, I have to feel like it’s not just entertainment; I have to feel like this might be actually happening.

When I go and see a conversation piece by Sehgal, I talk with his ‘interpreters’ about very serious things. I like his work because he cares about very serious things. But, when I leave, I feel as if I had just had a real conversation; I don’t feel as though I have actually had a real conversation. The whole thing is bracketed as an event – partially because of the exhibition circumstances, but mainly because the performers are obviously on-script. But the thing that actors can do, is improvise while staying in character. Once they know their roles well enough, they will never hit that point where the performance becomes recursive – as it does when you try and break out of script with a performer in a Sehgal piece and the performer ‘resets’ the conversation or denies that conversational path. And yet, to get that insinuation into the real, you may also have to eliminate the frame of an event altogether. This is why I’m so moved by infiltrations into everyday life, such as Lynn Hershman Leeson’s alter ego Roberta Breitmore or Tehching Hsieh’s outdoor piece [One Year Performance, 1981–2], and why so many of my performances wind up being invisible, or about invisible performances.

DF   Is that why you prefer working with trained actors?

DL     Acting is an antiquated technology of representation, but it’s a novel technology of artificial intelligence. I like using actors who have prepared and rehearsed because they don’t have to default to a script and they don’t get freaked out when you double up on a question; they’re experiencing reality as someone else.

DF     Can you tell me about your current work-in-progress, Character Analysis?

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DL     There are seven actors, each of whom is paired with a subject. They meet with their subjects three times a week for three months. During this period, the actor uses all their techniques for understanding characters to analyze their subject, and then all their tools for building characters to reconstruct that person’s subjectivity in their own bodies. The goal is for them to understand their subjects so profoundly that they can experience the world as they do, which is kind of the litmus test for how well a Method actor plays a role. 

Acting prior to Constantin Stanislavski – from the Renaissance to the mid-to-late 19th century – was based on a repertoire of gestures and a kind of externality. A classic example would be Shakespeare’s Richard III: a virtuoso performance of Richard cycles through a set of gestures that indicate villainy. Another classic example is the sketch with the cruel landlord and damsel in distress — ‘I can’t pay the rent.’ ‘You must pay the rent.’ ‘I can’t pay the rent!’ ‘You must pay the rent!’ – which is all about how well you faint, and how well you twiddle your moustache. Some twiddle virtuosically. Some do not. And that’s the difference between a great actor and a bad actor. It may send chills down your spine, but that’s only with the force of villainy projected by a villain who knows he is a villain.

Somewhere around the mid-19th century, however, the agenda of drama started to shift towards psychological realism; people start probing more deeply into characters, and by the time you get to Stanislavski, he shoves acting over the edge. He starts to develop a drive-based theory of character, at roughly the same time that Sigmund Freud is coming up with a drive-based theory of personality. There’s a line I read once, that I’ve never been able to find again: ‘Nothing was ever accomplished except under the auspices of good,’ which is to say that pretty much everybody thinks they’re doing good all the time, even when they’re incidentally doing villainy. It’s a total shift in understanding morality. Stanislavski insisted that you need to play characters through their own eyes, subjectively, and not externally as you might judge them, objectively. Everybody has aims. Everybody has needs, and a ‘good’ for you, is the satisfaction of those needs.

With a character such as Richard III, you start wondering about how it would feel to grow up a cripple, to be the least favourite son? How do I put myself into situations where I can access that subjectivity? That’s the revolution in realist acting. And if you can improvise a response to unscripted circumstances – say, how would Richard respond to someone offering him a wheelchair at a benefit gala? – then you have your character down persuasively. You can start imagining an entire life for this character, in order to inhabit short snippets of that life onstage. I have always been fascinated by this premise – that a character has an autonomous existence beyond what’s predicated in the script. I use that idea to explore phenomena outside the theatre.

DF     How does your work diverge from conventional uses of the Stanislavski system?

DL     Well, Stanislavski’s techniques were already pushed to extremes by the Actor’s Studio in New York, which was where ‘Method’ acting originated – I just push those extremes to their logical conclusion: how good are these techniques? What can you do with them if you apply them to something other than representation? If an actor can fully experience the subjectivity of a fictional character, can they fully experience the subjectivity of an actual person? Is this, then, a technology of empathy? Can a character actually be a person? Character Analysis falls into two halves. The first half takes place in my studio and it’s modelled on talk therapy and portraiture. In both situations, the analyst or artist is, initially, trying to get at what makes you you. Method acting, or post-Stanislavskian realism, is supposed to be about essence. It’s about having the character inside you. So to favour understanding over mimicry, I paired the actors and subjects solely on the basis of their scheduling compatibility, which means, for instance, that I am being ‘acquired’ by a 23-year-old African-American woman and I have an 18-year-old actress who is acquiring a 43-year-old man with a different sexual orientation. In one case I have two actors acquiring the same person, just to see what happens with that. All the sessions are documented on video. 

Habit, 2012, performance at Essex Street Market, New York. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Julieta Cervantes

The 18-year-old actor is an undergraduate at Harvard, five actors in their 20s are from the American Repertory Theater Institute for Advanced Theater Training, who study in Moscow with Stanislavski’s company, and then there’s one Boston professional who’s 48 years old. What ‘makes’ an individual will be very different for a 48-year-old than it would be for an 18-year-old, so they all attack it in their own ways. To that extent, Character Analysis is a portrait of the portraitists as well.

The actors drive the sessions, and they use amazing techniques. For example, they’ll ask you a very personal question early on, but then it will turn out they don’t necessarily care about your answer. What they care about is how you move when you evade the question. It’s hard to lie to them, because they also observe how you lie. They’re watching a thousand things, because Method actors tend to work ‘from the outside in’, which is to say they’re trying to figure out first how it feels to have your body. Then, once they know how it feels to have your body, they have a better sense of how it feels to be you. Early on, they don’t even care about the psychology. Later, in the second phase of the project, the original gets to ask their surrogate to ‘pass’ or to experience things as them out in the world.

DF     How do you document that part?

DL Very much in the manner of the invisible street interventions of early 1970s conceptual performance – by bad surveillance photography. Hershman Leeson, Hsieh, Vito Acconci, Adrian Piper’s Mythic Being [1972–6]: these are huge influences for me in the way they just create these little nodes of insincerity floating around the city. They’re performing, but no one knows. They’re not really there; their bodies are just shells moving through the streets, projecting a subjectivity different from the one that’s actually at work. It’s like Edgar Allan Poe’s The Man of the Crowd [1840] or W.H. Auden’s Gare du Midi [1939]. I find that notion incredibly moving, and also a little paranoia-inducing. How can we know other people?

DF     You often seem to couple this question to your work, asking what labour is – especially creative labour. Would you say that interest is at the core of what you do?

DL     The thing about work, which acting makes excruciatingly clear, is that the more skilfully you do your job, the less anyone knows you’re doing it. I would say my work is about examining aspects of job performance that are so virtuosic as to remain invisible and trying to honour them in some way. Conversely, it’s also about what happens when performance becomes your job (I’m working with Joe Diebes and Christian Hawkey on an opera about the 1980s pop group Milli Vanilli). Character Analysis is not as explicitly labour-orientated as Habit, Actors at Work or Bauerntheater, but it certainly is about investing huge amounts of work in an unseen endeavour. I’m equally interested in catching – and occasionally reconstructing – moments of casual professional performance. It’s an idea that Michel de Certeau wrote about in The Practice of Everyday Life [1984] of la perruque, or ‘the wig’: when you are at work and you are doing everything to look busy, but you are not actually busy. You are actually surfing the Internet, but you look busy; that’s la perruque. When a client is yelling at you and you mentally go elsewhere and revert to a customer-service script, that’s also la perruque. It’s a performance you have to give, because you authentically need to not be working at that very moment. So instead of working at work, you work at performance. Our culture demands total transparency, at the same time that it demands near-constant performance. So, again: how can you know a person? That’s the question I’m really consumed by.

DF     It reminds me of Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959), in which he uses the metaphor of theatre. On stage is your acting self. You’re trying to present the best view of whatever it is you’re supposed to be doing. Then there’s your backstage, which is all the neuroses and anxieties you keep away from the audience – society – watching you from the stalls.

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DL     Right. And I’m trying to say that that’s not necessarily a false front, or even a problem. One reason Stanislavski came up with his technique was because becoming someone else is impossible. As with any job, you can’t be in the zone all the time. You’re going to drift, and all of these ‘character’ techniques are designed both to keep you from drifting too far, and to hide the fact that you’re drifting. It’s a perruque for the job of acting. If you ask any actor if they’re ‘on’ for an entire performance, they will say no, but the audience member may never know when that ‘off’ point is. That’s what Habit was about, in a way. How do you contain mental drift when you’re working? How do you phone it in when you’re bored, but still make it convincing? When does inspiration suddenly seize you again?

DF     Were you educated in theatre or art?

DL     I grew up in a visual arts-heavy household. I then began a PhD in English Literature – I was interested in the idea of character in the novel, and then I wound up leaving that programme to direct theatre for four or five years because I thought that was what I was interested in. I eventually realized I was probably approaching theatre from more of a conceptual point of view and that was exactly the problem with how I did theatre.

DF     Do you come up against any issues when working between art and theatre? Are there advantages or disadvantages to the way theatre and art audiences read your work?

DL     When I first moved out of theatre, I remember being aghast to realize how much theatre had been held up as an object of contempt by the visual arts. Theatre – typically, with all of its sunny cheerfulness – had absolutely no idea. None. But theatre was a material I knew really well. I have always tried to blur the artistic divide between theatre and visual arts, because if you come from theatre you can actually see how deeply infected by its claims the visual arts are, even though visual arts performance really has a big investment in disavowing it. The idea of gathering people at a certain time to watch a performance, of applause, selling tickets or growing ceremonially silent when the event starts. That, to me, is theatre. Both theatre and visual arts like to pretend the genre of a piece is determined solely by its content, but that’s not it at all – what makes it theatre, or what makes it art, is how you watch it. If you show up on time and sit still and watch it, it’s theatre; no matter whether it’s at MoMA or the Whitney; no matter how authentic the abjection, or how campy the delivery; it’s theatre. There’s nothing wrong with that – but the intensity of the disavowal infuriates me.

DF   Why do you think visual art audiences are attracted to certain forms of performance but allergic to others?

DL     In certain types of theatre or dance in art contexts, there’s still a very Modernist ideology at work. Richard Maxwell, whose work I like a lot, is an easier fit in the museum because his actors’ delivery tends toward affectlessness. Dance is more readily accepted in the art world because it’s so abstract. What one absolutely does not want in an art context is a fully committed non-Brechtian, realist performance. I’m generalizing here, but visual arts performance is fundamentally Brechtian. It’s interested in social analysis, critique of institutions, alienation of the spectacle (in favour of process), and the position of the spectator. I believe in all of these, actually, but the one thing that is absolutely intolerable is a really persuasive mimesis. It’s ok, for instance, for the artist Phil Collins to do a good telenovela, but at some point the camera has to pull back in a Godardian reveal to show you the means of production, because otherwise it would be considered unacceptable. And yet that move is so pro forma at this point, so expected in an art context, that I feel the only way to examine these questions is actually to dare us to be seduced by the melodrama – not to frame it in advance. If you walk into a gallery expecting to see the usual alienated spectacle, and instead and you see a bunch of people acting out a straight drama in an utterly realistic environment, then you find yourself in this strange scenario where, ideally, you become engrossed by the melodrama in spite of every Brechtian frame I – and the gallery – throw at the piece: you don’t sit down; you don’t buy a ticket; you know it’s on a loop; there’s no illusion of a unique event. There are gallery benches; you can check your phone; you don’t feel responsible towards the performers. And yet you still end up chasing the action around the outside of the house, even though you know better, just because it’s well performed. So now where are we? Now what’s our relationship to spectacle?

One of the last things that hasn’t quite been recuperated by visual arts performance is the committed actor, well directed, who believes in their role. That remains really distasteful in profound ways for visual arts audiences. But I think it’s necessary if you want to wrestle with the reality we often, for better and worse, are seduced by. If you want to just stand aside and indicate your superiority to the perfected spectacle, by all means go for Godard.

DF   Many people, though they may deny it, rely on the permission an institutional context gives in order to value certain types of art. For instance, Kraftwerk’s concerts at MoMA in 2012 were called a ‘retrospective’ because they were supposedly ‘curated’, whereas in a music venue it would simply be regarded as a gig. What may be celebrated as a groundbreaking performance monologue in an art context might equally look like a pale imitation of Spalding Gray or refried Samuel Beckett to a theatre crowd.

DL     Yeah, I know. It’s strange how indifferent each discipline is to the other’s history. But it’s also bizarre, and destructive, how snobbish each discipline is vis-à-vis their own turf. Ultimately, I think different institutional architectures satisfy different needs. It’s harder to follow a story in a white cube. Auditoria are really good for that. All those little extras – tickets, a fixed time, the way the seats aim you at the stage or the screen – are designed to focus your attention. You get much more out of watching Matthew Barney’s ‘Cremaster Cycle’ [1994–2002], for instance, when you buy tickets to a screening than when you see it as you drift through a gallery. But what contemporary exhibition spaces are really good for is distributed attention; feeling more in control as a spectator and, as a result, more autonomous, more critical, what Brecht called the attitude of ‘smoking-and-watching’. You go to a theatre to give yourself over to it; you go to a gallery to keep your circumspection. What I want to create is a situation in which every member of the audience has to confront each other’s expectations of what a spectacle is. 

David Levine lives and works in New York, USA, and Berlin, Germany. His performance work has been seen at MoMA, New York; Mass MOCA, North Adams, USA; Tanya Leighton, Berlin, Germany; Blum & Poe, Los Angeles, USA; and Gavin Brown’s Passerby, New York. Recent projects include Habit (Essex Street Market, New York, 2012); Durance (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, USA, 2013); and Square of Paranoia (Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Cambridge, USA, 2013). Upcoming projects include WOW and Character Analysis.

Dan Fox is the author of Pretentiousness: Why It Matters (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2016) and Limbo (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2018). He co-directed the film Other, Like Me (2021).