FH Why the title LevelFive?
BC It’s a generic name that I felt simply worked. In normal Landmark Education or Forum seminars, and especially Scientology, there are “levels” that one ascends to while rising in the group hierarchy. Fancy titles and special powers often accrue with level advancement—not so different from level advancement charts in fantasy role-playing, or the Masons.
FH You have different groups coming together in LevelFive.
BC At the Hammer there will be three seminar leaders, people with experimental theater experience, a small group of 10 volunteers (advanced performance art people, LARPers) and the trainees—the 50 people who show up and do the workshop activities.
FH So could I show up and be a trainee?
BC You could sign up, but you’d have to come to the workshop the Wednesday before. The performance starts Friday afternoon or evening, then goes all day Saturday, and until Sunday afternoon.
FH What, exactly, is the museum sponsoring? I mean, LevelFive is a closed event.
BC This is part of a larger discussion that’s going on right now, especially in L.A. Which is why I like being in L.A.—there’s work happening there that I don’t see anywhere else. New York is still “participatory lite.” The understanding in New York of participatory performance in a public space is still based on a relational esthetics model from the ’90s. I hate to use that term, but you have completely new participatory models coming out of L.A. and the Nordic countries. And new pedagogical models for creating work. There’s just a different community in L.A., more involved in sharing—Dawn Kasper and Human Resources, Mark Allen and Machine Project, Adam Overton and artSpa. And it’s not just those individuals. There are whole communities based around them.
It’s a constant struggle for us with museums. Their model is that viewers walk in, there’s something for them to see for 30 seconds, and then they walk out. We are trying to reeducate cultural institutions about the potential of participatory performances without viewers. What’s more interesting: an intense, three-day performance for a group of participants, who are some portion of the public after all, or a thousand people walking into the space and having an experience for 30 seconds, not quite understanding what’s going on and leaving?
FH But surely you can understand the problem.
BC I think there are ways to convince them that a larger-scale participatory project has more cultural impact, and that there are residues that can be useful. The compromise we’ve made at the Hammer is that the performance will take place in a conference area in the museum, with the theater live-streaming it as a public event. Some time afterwards we’ll do a panel about participatory performance, and show the film we make, in the museum.
FH In their spasmodic movements, the people in the footage shown in Curtis’s BBC documentary look a little like some of the participants in your work.
BC You see why I get so excited about the LGAT seminars. In the ideology of EST, you break people down. They start shedding all these layers, until you get them to nothing, and then you build them back up to be new, self-actualized human beings. One of the main trained actors in LevelFive, who’s a seminar leader, went through a CEDU high school [the acronym stands for Chuck E. Dederich, after the founder of Synanon], a type of progressive school that used the techniques of self-actualization movements. They were all over California and Idaho in the ’70s and ’80s, maybe even into the ’90s. They’ve been shut down now. As soon as you arrived, they strip-searched you, then you lived out in a compound with other students and teachers, and you were subjected to lots of very brutal exercises over the course of a year or two. Students couldn’t talk to anyone outside; they had no newspapers. There were 24-hour endurance sessions, in which students had to scream, and do gestalt therapy, and other exercises, and listen to songs over and over and over again, John Denver songs, for example. I showed the Curtis documentary to that actor, and when we got to the segment with John Denver, who was into EST, she just freaked out. She’s going to be pretty amazing, because she’s been through so much of this.
The structure of our event is similar to that of a self-actualization seminar. It goes from a speech that the seminar leader makes, to a question-and-answer period, to a “process,” which includes some rather violent exercises. Then it starts again. Speech, Q-and-A, process; speech, Q-and-A, process.
FH The idea being that the players get so involved in it that they experience what actual seminar participants would have experienced?
BC Yes and no.
FH When does it break down into where it’s not role-playing anymore?
BC Well, that’s a question we have, too. That’s where it gets interesting or twisted for me. What is it like to go to one of these things and not be self-actualized? What is it to role-play a character that’s being self-actualized?
FH It’s one thing just to go for a few hours, but three whole days?
BC You are supposed to be in character the entire time—when you go to eat, when you go to your hotel room—though there are no guarantees, of course. During the performance, we have a room where people can go if they can’t take it anymore. There are agreed-upon signals to indicate trouble. There’s a cut and break system, for example. A break is where a person just can’t take it anymore. The play doesn’t stop, but everyone leaves that person alone and the person walks out. Or a cut, which means severe trouble—someone breaks an arm, or is having a complete breakdown. Everything stops, and you talk about what happened. That’s really extreme.
LARPers have been trying to figure out the exact nature of player versus character. They’ve just started to use the term “bleed” to describe this experience. When does a character begin to bleed into your lived experience, and vice versa? They’re designing events based on how much bleed they want. Or if they want these events to affect their outside lives. This is very strange for me, coming out of performance art. I’ve never considered creating a piece that didn’t involve bleed, or that wasn’t explicitly about bleed.
FH How did you feel doing the Without Sun performance in the theater at MoMA?
BC I liked it. They were very supportive. But that theater was the wrong environment for the piece. I wouldn’t do that again. It’s not a work meant for viewers in a theater. At the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art a smaller audience could just sit right there, close by. The dancer’s movements are really clear, crisp and in your face. You can feel her body when it hits the floor. This is the environment that the piece was meant for.