Society of the Semiospectacle


My editor said that I only have 600 words here. I’ll be brief. How to limit discussion of Semiospectacle, a “literary review” premised on verbal embellishment? Footnotes aside, this amply titled variety show performed Monday night at P.S.122 was the thesis of Columbia University curatorial studies graduate Mashinka Firunts and included 18 performers who tampered with text in a boudoir-style salon lit low with classic banker desk lamps sitting among the audience.


The show began with some curious questions from the Steno Pool, a group of individual performing artists who asked open-ended questions of the audience at a preceding reception. One charming Nicole Abahuni asked me to smell her wrist and then her neck, with the command of a secretary. She then queried as to what the scents reminded me of; these responses were diligently recorded on a pad. The time in between my response and her recording left for other questions: Why was she writing this down? Did I adequately describe the fragrance? What else did I smell? 

These interstitial moments informed many of the evening’s performances.  In her “micro-lectures” and introductions Firunts alluded to the liminal spaces between comprehension and speaking while bombing the audience with her own neologisms, sometimes seconded by the brass and bass of the backup band, Grandpa Musselman & His Syncopators.

So what happens in this space between words?  It’s filled with more words, according to artist Daniel Scott Snelson. In his piece, Testimony, Snelson was accompanied by heavily pixilated films of Mormon missionaries and other visual ephemera as he recited his combination of the two Mormon texts of revelation, Testimonies of Three and The Testimony of Eight Witnesses in the world’s 12 most popular languages. The effect was one of a polyglot preacher running into starts and stops with a meditative, trance-like cadence, that merging into some new language worthy of Joseph Smith’s surreal divinations.

Shonni Enelow took up translation from a similarly obsessive standpoint: a posthumous literary crush. From commanding positions at two lecterns, Enelow performed an abbreviated version of My Dinner With Bernard Frechtman, pleading her infatuation with Jean Genet’s translator and marginal literary hero. Enelow built clever, cinematic fictions of her interaction with Frechtman and his former lover through real and imagined correspondence (and a sung Serge Gainsbourg interlude) charging translation with the not-so-easy task of rendering love as a welcome miscomprehension. 

Out from the Pine Barrens with a mustachioed flourish came Lord Whimsy, whose succinct baritone boomed a lesson in personal appearance, Chimes From A Tin Chrysalis, worthy of an encore at the Paul Stewart corporate retreat in Newport. In a strident speech peppered with idioms and forgotten turns of phrase that were splendidly tangled, Whimsy challenged the oft-recited mantra, “Be yourself” with overwrought diagrams and two live play-actors who personified the most uncouth and well-kept of the genus Homo.

At its best, Semiospectacle melted the boundary between pedantry and stand-up comedy without sacrificing a genuine love for words and their power to effect and affect. Certainly, Vaginal Davis was able to do both in Hippo Narcissus, with her short and potent readings of Theodore Adorno and Georges Bataille. It was more singing than reading, with Davis in drag, calling up issues in aesthetic dialectics through a tremorous operatic exorcism, using her body just as much as her voice to convey the frisson between, for example, the expressive parodic relationship of “coitus and crime.” Davis’ end to the evening was a fitting one, and reduced the heady and at times esoteric conversations that preceded her to the loaded gestures of a knowing wink and a sultry hip thrust.