Saturday, February 3, 2018

PuSh 2018: Spokaoke at the Fox Cabaret

Last night concluded at the Fox Cabaret, with the Club PuSh presentation of Annie Dorsen's Spokaoke. Dorsen is a pioneer in algorithmic performance, and earlier this week she gave what was by all accounts a bravura artist talk about the creative possibilities of working with algorithms (I was unable to attend). For Spokaoke, however, it's Dorsen herself, rather than a computer, who is problem-solving the live sequencing of participants' performance operations.

The premise is pretty simple: an evening of karaoke, but featuring speeches rather than pop songs. A photocopied list of options is made available to audience members: a mix of famous political speeches (by Gandhi, Churchill, Lincoln, Harvey Milk, etc.), pop culture memes (excerpts from Game of Thrones or the film Clueless or the Oscar acceptance speech of Michael Moore), and random Internet samplings (a generic eulogy for a friend named Michael, a beauty queen's answer to a skill-testing question). One is invited to put in a choice of speech, with Dorsen mixing the order for counterpoint and contrast. When your name is called, up you go to the stage, grabbing the mike and awaiting the colour-coded progress of the text on the monitor in front of you.

I had gotten there early, and selected Socrates' "Death Before Dishonour" speech at his trial (as recorded in Plato's Apology). I think I gave it the requisite moral weight, even conscripting the audience as my judges and accusers. Of course, any lofty pretensions to profundity were immediately undercut by Hilary Meredith's follow-up Miss South Carolina speech, an unwittingly hilarious and geographically skewed send-up of American exceptionalism. Part of the fun of the evening is the degree to which the speakers choose to "perform" their speeches (the prize on that one goes to the guy who impersonated Il Duce), and also the way in which they either work with or against what they are saying. Then, too, there is the issue of timeliness, with the thought given to how an historical speech from the past (even the recent past) might comment on the present moment often producing wild applause: kudos, on that front, to my friend Alexa Mardon for choosing Bill Clinton's pre-#MeToo apology for the Monica Lewinsky imbroglio. And we ended with a collectively cathartic performance of Peter Finch's "I'm Mad as Hell" speech, from the movie Network.

I absolutely love the concept of this work; my only critique has to do with the content of the speeches. They are heavily skewed towards American reference points, and it would have been nice to have some Canadian touchstones in there for juxtapositional reference/relevance.


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