In the Studio: Brody Condon

New York

View of Brody Condon’s 6-hour performance Case, 2009, showing the artist (left) and Ray Radtke (center); at the New Museum, New York.
Photo Kristianna Smith. All photos this article courtesy the artist.


In Summer 2008, for the 10th Sonsbeek International Sculpture Exhibition in the Netherlands, Brody Condon invited 80 players from the Live Action Role Playing (LARPing) scene in Denmark to help him create a new piece, Twentyfivefold Manifestation. Living on the grounds for several days as though in a future era, and remaining in character throughout, the players invented rituals for the other artists’ sculptures on view, which they treated as avatars of gods. Viewers are normally excluded from LARPing events, but Condon accommodated the “viewership structure,” as he puts it, by casting (unwitting) visitors in the performance as ghosts wandering in a kind of purgatory. Thus began Condon’s public involvement with LARPing. It is the latest expression of his lifelong effort to explore the permeable nature of self, the social dimensions of creativity and the potential of the individual to access alternate states of being.

When I met Brody on July 7 in Long Island City, he was preparing for a multiday performance that was to take place over Labor Day weekend at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles and at the 01SJ San Jose biennial two weeks later. Based on controversial Large Group Awareness Training (LGAT) seminars, most famously EST, which developed in the 1970s, LevelFive was to incorporate LGAT’s techniques of breaking down participants, sometimes violently, in order to release their full potential to “self-actualize.” Some of the 50-plus players would again be drawn from the LARPing community in Denmark; others would be actors from experimental theater, performance artists and volunteers from the public. Following the rule of live-action role-play, there were to be no viewers in the room; at the Hammer, the event would be live-streamed in the museum’s Billy Wilder Theater.

The subject of New Age excesses is a resonant one for Condon, who was born in 1974 in Mexico to counterculture Americans, and raised in Missouri and Florida in a home life shadowed by drugs and violence. As a teenager, he immersed himself in Dungeons and Dragons and, self-taught, wrote the program for a text-based computer adventure game based on the 1985 movie Gymkata. His earliest artworks took the form of performance, but shortly after receiving his MFA from UC San Diego, he also began creatively modifying video games, often with collaborators. In Velvet Strike (2002), for example, produced with Anne-Marie Schleiner and Joan Leandre, players “spray” the urban wasteland of the popular first-person-shooter game Counter-Strike with peace messages. (The work was featured in the 2004 Whitney Biennial.) Condon has continued to produce highly inventive, sometimes subversive computer games, mainly modifications of or riffs on existing games, though his recent series “Youth of the Apocalypse” (2006–08), which he calls a “non-interactive game,” repurposes Northern Renaissance paintings by Hans Memling, Gerard David and Dieric Bouts as trippy looping animations.

Our conversation focused on Condon’s performative efforts, among them Without Sun. Having created a video with that title in 2008, in which he montaged excerpts from online videos of people high on hallucinogens, Condon then invited an actor and a dancer to re-create the stuttering monologues and spastic movements in a performance that premiered at the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s Time-Based Art Festival 09 and was reprised at Machine Project in Los Angeles and, during Performa 09, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Also for Performa 09, and more in keeping with his interest in lengthy endurance pieces, Condon produced a multiplayer, 6-hour-long reading of William Gibson’s cyberpunk classic Neuromancer (1984), with Condon’s stepfather, Ray “Rad” Radtke, playing the main character, Henry Dorset Case. The piece, called Case, also entailed a large gamelan orchestra noisily striking up whenever Case “jacked into” hyperspace, and 23 colorful movable cubes derived from Oskar Schlemmer props for the Bauhaus theater. (The cubes are on view in MoMA PS1’s “Greater New York” survey.) A reprise of Case is scheduled for May 2011 at a site near Columbia, Missouri.

This interview began with Brody explaining the LARPing subculture to me.

BRODY CONDON Scandinavia is 20 years ahead of the States in having the most progressive live-action role-playing scene in the world, hands down. Here in the U.S., it’s more people getting together out in the woods in a kind of epic medieval fantasy hero-worship. It’s called “boffer” LARPing. The players bash each other with fake weapons and pretend to cast spells on each other, throwing little packets of flour and stuff like that.

FAYE HIRSCH What’s the difference between LARP and historical reenactment?

BC For one thing, LARP is focused role-play. Each person invents a character that evolves. There’s a game designer who builds a world in which the players can have a first-person immersive experience. In historical reenactment there’s not generally as much role-playing, in terms of falling into a particular character or allowing a character to grow with other players. Historical reenactment is more focused on the external manifestations of a particular event—accuracy of costume, or how a particular battle played out. It’s much more rigid. LARPers take on a role that has no basis in fact or history and explore that role as deeply as they can. And there is an intricate set of rules that don’t exist in reenactment.

FH Who are the players?

BC It’s a wide demographic at this point, and very well organized. I call it Nordic progressive role-playing. They still do medieval fantasy LARPing, except in Scandinavia you can buy the weapons in supermarkets. It’s one of the most popular youth activities, especially in Denmark. They get government grants. Schools do it; there are television shows based on it.

As a result of that strong history with the form, the community I’m involved with can pull off more complex and mature games—well, events. At this point they’re not really games any more. Imagine you have these people who are in their late 20s. They did the medieval stuff, then they went to college and did vampire role-playing, which is less about the fighting and more about interpersonal interactions. Then they shift and start to do science-fiction pieces. They are from all different walks of life, and are savvy and smart in lots of ways. Think about it: Lars von Trier is in Copenhagen; they’re in Copenhagen. I think it’s a hidden influence on him, but he’s not going to admit it.

FH Are there LARPers in his movies?

BC He uses their techniques. And the LARPers themselves took the Dogme 95 Manifesto [of principles for progressive filmmaking] and began to apply it to their events. They created their own manifesto in ’99, going down the list. There’s to be no more [prescribed] plot, no more genre, no more simulation—if you hit somebody you have to hit them. Everything is what it is. A foam item can’t represent something else. There are rules about violence and sex, and you have to design your event with that in mind. Since there’s no more simulation, there can’t be a murder. The designer just sets up an event and lets it run. He can’t intervene and have demons come out of a portal at midnight.

FH What happens at the role-playing events?

BC Well, for example, the activity designer that I work with, Bjarke Pedersen in Copenhagen, created a piece in a decommissioned Russian sub from the ’60s. They had authentic Russian costumes of the time, and they wired the sub with electronics, but it was not a reenactment. They were there to have an experience for three days of what it was like to live in a sub. At these events, they devise internally generated conflicts and build up scenarios, sort of improvising off each other. They extensively workshop beforehand. They set up who takes on a particular role ahead of time. The characters can be very complex, with long personal histories.

FH Why would they allow you to record the event if this is supposedly a pure, experiential thing?

BC The LARPers are beginning to understand the importance of what they’re doing, and that unless they document these pieces in some way for the outside world, they are going to continue to be marginalized. Though when you’re immersed in the event, you don’t realize that it might not necessarily be very interesting to watch from the outside. Certainly there is a contingent that’s resistant to the idea of being recorded.

FH So people can’t just stand by and watch.

BC No. There are no viewers in a true LARP event. So there’s a problem in an art context. How do you build on the type of event that requires participation only, and then bring in a viewer without disrupting the event, or so that the players don’t just feel like monkeys in a cage? At Sonsbeek it wasn’t too hard to figure out how to bring viewers into the pieces as unwitting players, in a sense, even though it was very subtle. At this point, though, I think the video that documents the event is a failure.

FH How so?

BC The Sonsbeek event was the first one I filmed. The event itself was one of the best works that I’ve ever made. I learned a tremendous amount that I could use later. But the video doesn’t immediately convey everything that was happening. It’s getting about five percent of what actually occurred. We just did not shoot enough footage. Plus I didn’t know what to shoot, or how to shoot it. Making the Sonsbeek performance was hard enough. Creating a film of it was a whole other monster. I was trying to run the event, play a character and shoot video at the same time.

FH What was your role in Case? It seemed like you were directing it, but then others at times appeared to take the initiative.

BC Realizing what my role is in these events, while they’re happening, is something I’ve grown into. What should I be doing, what do I enjoy doing? My role is to guide the event in a particular direction with the help of game designers—people from the LARPing community who are very skilled in game mechanics. There are all kinds of techniques designers use to make an event flow in certain ways. I manage the event as a whole, but the designers carefully watch the players’ interactions. I’ll say, I want this particular thing to happen, something to occur here, or here, so that the characters wind up with, say, three conflicts and three outcomes. The designers predict the outcomes correctly every time.

FH In Case, it didn’t feel like you were outside the piece.

BC That wasn’t consciously planned. I was just there, and I was guiding the readers around—not so much as a character or a player, but as a non-player character. It comes out of the performative structure that I grew up with, which was the Dungeons and Dragons stuff. There is a game master or a dungeon master who creates the world and the rules for that world, and then 10 players come to play out their roles, with the dungeon master’s consent, based on the world he’s made for them. That’s what I did, from age 15 to 25.

Role players in general are extremely adept at cannibalizing anything they can. Coming out of the academic training that I have, and this being my job, I feel a certain responsibility to account for the references I pick up. LARPers don’t need to do that. They’ll grab anything and everything, from performance, anthropology, sociology, just about any piece of history.

FH Is it something like appropriation?

BC No. Appropriation is more a modification logic. This has gone beyond appropriation. It couldn’t have happened without appropriation, but appropriation is more objective and critical.

FH It’s as if the borders kind of melt away.

BC What we’re doing now is finding our way out of a black box by simply consuming all this stuff. There’s a younger Norwegian guy, Eirik Fatland. He saw a Terence Koh piece in Tokyo—a “Powder Room” performance. Fatland had no idea who Terence Koh is, but he made a powder room. He put his friends in it, in their underwear, and they did a role-playing game inside that powder room, for four to six hours, based on cancer patients interacting with each other. He didn’t know the name of the artist when I asked him. In an attempt to become less marginalized, and make what they consider art, the LARPers will grab from the visual circus of performance art and make a role-playing game based on it. They’ll role-play being artists.

FH So, LevelFive.

BC LevelFive is a three-day, live role-playing event based on self-actualization seminars from the 1970s. Like Werner Erhard Seminars Training [EST], Lifespring, Exegesis Britain—I don’t know, there were hundreds, if not thousands of them. Sociologically, the term is large-group awareness training [LGAT]. Acccording to Adam Curtis [in the 2002 BBC series “The Century of the Self”], all the strategies in the seminars came from the Human Potential Movement of the ’60s. Erhard and others offered self-actualization tools to the masses, but in a way that was no longer socially or politically conscious. Instead of aiming for a more open, communal society, LGAT created a generation of selfish consumers.

FH Given your history, it seems this might be something rather personal for you.

BC Well, it’s part of a larger investigation into the history of the New Age movement. I’m trying to understand the cultural context in which I grew up. My dad was in Vietnam. He was a gunner in a helicopter, and I was named after his captain. After Vietnam, my dad got a master’s degree in civil engineering from Princeton. He wasn’t a privileged kid, and tried to become a socially progressive civil engineer. He was designing public transportation for the city of Newark, which was no small job. But the system was corrupt, so he left, and went to California with my mother. Eventually they landed in Missouri, where my mother’s relatives were family farmers for generations. Then they divorced. It’s a long story.

FH The essential thing is that you grew up in something of an alternative environment.

BC Yes—well, my religious education was my mother sitting down with a joint when I was eight and saying okay, now we’re going to talk about the planes of existence. I remember my stepfather telling me about lucid dreaming. The first book I recall seeing was Ram Dass’s Be Here Now [1971]. And my stepfather and my father were narcotics traffickers. I grew up with pipe bombs in the house. I remember Ray, my step-father, who was in Case, coming home at night bleeding.

FH So Case was more personal than I realized.

BC Yes. Ray’s an old activist. You have to understand that in the ’80s in Missouri there were all these people around trying to live alternative lifestyles. There were Vietnam War vets living out in the woods, and bikers and old hill- billies out there, too. One way people made money was by growing marijuana—the largest cash crop in Missouri at one point. Guys from California would show up in the middle of the night and harvest it, pay a thousand dollars and walk off. My father, who grew up in New Jersey and had Mafia connections, would sell pot in Jersey—that was my family vacation—and then go to Florida, to the Keys, to pick up cocaine and bring that back up. All this money began to flood in—and then the coke flooded in, and all of a sudden everyone was freebasing. So this thing that had started out so wonderfully—the ideology of the ’60s—well, I grew up in the drug-addicted aftermath of it. People like my stepfather were throwing down remnants of it to me, but he was very bitter that things hadn’t turned out the way he had wanted them to turn out. I just saw a lack of discipline in the people surrounding me when I was a kid. There was simply too much distance between them and the intellectual sources of the movements they were following. There was bound to be an eventual breakdown.

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.

FH Describe Untitled Movement (after Trisha) [2010], the piece you were invited to do at Saks Fifth Avenue this past spring.

BC We started with a Trisha Brown movement from her 1971 piece Accumulations, and then the dancers shifted to the floor, where they proceeded to perform seizures. The choreographer, Stephen Lichty, actually has seizures himself. We performed the piece on each floor of the store just before it opened one morning. We had an hour and a half to shoot. I liked this piece. For me it was a performance for the staff, in a way—the people getting the store ready for opening.

FH How many were involved?

BC Five dancers, two camera people, a clothing and hair stylist, and me.

FH Did Saks let you use their clothes?

BC Yes. And then they projected the video in their window for a few weeks, so people walking by could see it.

FH The piece raises some interesting issues about consumption and fashion.

BC I guess this is a question I have for myself right now: where does fashion come into my work? The Saks video is my most recent, and I was working with a camera person, Marco Roso, from Dis, which is an experimental fashion magazine. Just the quality of the video, how slick it is, changed everything remarkably, you know? There’s this stylish layer to the video that I could never achieve myself.

FH Do you want that?

BC I think I need it. I have a huge problem. I’ve developed a performance structure that works so great. The problem is, how do I have this film afterwards that can actually function on its own? Here we return to the issue of the Sonsbeek video. Even though it’s amazing for me, it’s not working for the public. All this stuff we’ve talked about? It’s not present in that video. If that video were shot correctly, with the visuality of the Saks piece, I would have something. With the LevelFive piece we’re trying to solve this problem. You have to realize, with something like LevelFive, or Sonsbeek, I have to make three pieces simultaneously. One is for the participants. That has to be solid, or they’re not going to show up. The second is for the institutional viewer. They have to be able to come in and get some kind of experience—a streaming video, or whatever. And then I have to make a third piece, which is the documentary film, or performance footage, or whatever you want to call it. Once that footage functions, then I will really have something. Then, then . . . it will just be fucking nuts.

CURRENTLY ON VIEW Brody Condon in “Greater New York,” at MoMA PS1, New York, throughOct. 18. “Brody Condon andJen Liu,” at On Stellar Rays, New York, Oct. 31-Dec. 19.

LevelFive took place at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, Sept. 3-5, and at the 01SJ Biennial in San Jose, Sept. 17-18.