Performa Playbill: Frances Stark


Frances Stark’s “Put a Song in Your Thing,” a one-night-only performance on Nov. 4 at the Abrons Arts Center, combined many disparate elements without synthesizing them.

Without fanfare, the curtain rose to reveal a scrim and giant white speakers. A cartoonish computer-generated avatar was projected and began to speak. In a jumbled succession, various unidentified texts were projected while bits of Haydn, Mozart and an anonymous “piano improv” played. Origin or authorship of the texts was not identified during the performance or in the program. Some of the projected prose texts sounded like Stark’s writings, possibly recycled from other projects. Transcripts of Internet chats or text messages might have been recordings of Stark’s experiences, or not. Interspersed with the projected texts were several videos and numerous appearances by Stark in a black dress with a large rotary telephone dial attached to the front, sometimes accompanied by a couple of assistants, also in black.

Frances Stark, Put A Song in Your Thing (featuring DJ Skerrit Bwoy and Mark Leckey), 2011. A Performa Commission. Photo: Paula Court. Courtesy of Performa.

At one point, a few images of Stark’s collages on paper were projected on the scrim; the same few images cycled through several times. Collages and writing are available on her web site for viewing and have been published in several collections. Like her performance, Stark’s writing meanders, randomly and abruptly combining quotations and names from literature (Goethe, Dickinson, Alasdair Gray) and references to philosophers (Hegel, Adorno, Horkheimer), with letters from friends, but her writing most often logs her worries. The defense of such a writing style might rest on the high/low mix or gender theory or discursive intertextuality, the easy excuse that after Benjamin’s Passagenwerk anything goes, or the unsurprising idea that in autobiographical writing the self is a fictional character in a story. These well-worn theories work for some writers, but with Stark the mishmash of things feels pretentious and self-indulgent.

What we glean is that Stark is insecure and unhappy teaching. “Put a Song in Your Thing” begins with an animated character speaking. She fears that she’s “untalented and undeserving” yet is “plagued by a monstrous ego.” The personality and themes portrayed in her print writing are the same as those in her performance.

The best thing in the show was a very funny video in which Stark gives a lecture in an auditorium, the usual artist talk with slides, but here everything has been edited out except when she says “um,” “uh,” or “oops.” It’s classic comedy, laughing at someone slipping up over and over. Thematically, it’s the best capsule of Stark’s self-involved program, her anxiety about whether she can say anything at all.  But once the gag is received, the video goes on much too long.

A recurring series of video projections of what, judging by the form and content, is a transcript of an Internet sex chat between an American artist and an Italian was sometimes funny, and always banal. It included revelations like, “Internet changed our life.” Answer: “yes.” Reply: “So much.” This seemed to be Stark chatting after having internet sex, but there were no names or source attributions. The texting often involved “hahahaha” or “ahahahah.” In one chat section, the different parts of the message exchange appeared on opposite sides of the scrim. In another, different typefaces indicated different participants. This created a slight visual dynamic.

If the show is about “the artist’s life,” as the piece is described by Performa, a found video of “daggering” (dry humping on a dance floor), which seems to be about “them,” is almost offensive. It’s hard not to notice that Stark is white but everybody in the daggering video is black. In the all-black night club in the video, dancers grind sexually, always crotch to crotch or crotch to ass, humping hard, flipping around to different sexual positions, partners hopping in and out in rapid succession. It looks uncomfortably like voyeurism and an attempt to appropriate urban black culture, but to no discernible end.

Toward the end, she “performed” a two-part (and quite dated) homage to Lady Gaga. Stark appeared once again in her telephone costume, an unremarkable, puffy black dress reminiscent of a 19th-century ball gown with the rotary dial attached. She stood still, facing away from the audience and toward the speakers, while they made booming noises for several minutes. In the next section, she held her finger to her laptop while the speakers played Gaga’s “Telephone” hit from last year and the lyrics scrolled by on the scrim. The lyrics of “Telephone” are about neediness in a relationship, fitting for the needy Stark, who needs us to follow her into her self-obsessed world.