The problem of presence
Presence wracks the contemporary artist’s existence. Take, for instance, Marina Abramovic’s 2010 retrospective, The Artist Is Present, during which the artist famously sat in the gallery for the entirety of her exhibition’s run at MoMA. In her essay “‘The Artist is Present’: Artistic Re-enactments and the Impossibility of Presence,” critic Amelia Jones argues that the very fact that Abramovic was there, in the live act, “destroys presence (or makes the impossibility of its being secured evident).” But what about the audience? Is the fact that they are also there, bearing witness to the live act a destruction of presence?
Level Five (2010–ongoing), by Berlin-based artist Brody Condon, challenges the structural relationships between audience and performer, testing the artistic impulse to be live. Condon’s tactic is Live Action Role Playing, or LARPing, in which the performance itself is distributed across non-actor “participants” playing within a constructed scenario. LARPing hinges on participants’, not audiences’, very presence. It is not reality, but space where temporary rules are set; players need not believe in their acting, and their subjectivities as both character and themselves can mix. In an art world obsessed with presence, can LARPing open up new possibilities, shifting the meaning of presence and theater in performance art?
Brody Condon, Level Five, 2010–ongoing. Courtesy of the artist
In contemporary performance scholarship, presence often translates to a synonym for “Present” (temporal), or in the case of Jones’ aforementioned criticism, “live.” We seem to have a proclivity for the live, to be in front of bodies who are performing the very “contemporary” so pervasive in categorizing art today. As Michael Fried writes at the end of his essay against minimalism, “presentness is grace.” He was talking about a type of subliminal experience one experiences in front of the object that unfolds, not over time, but in a live manner. There is something in Fried’s “Art and Objecthood,” written in 1967, that we are still living out, perhaps translating, and of course bastardizing.
In art’s social and relational turn, social projects often get ridiculed precisely because of the paradox of being live, always present. Amelia Jones argued that Abramovic’s obsession with photo documentation ultimately destroys her ability to be present within the space. Striking a different tone, Jacques Rancière criticizes participatory art’s political tendencies as resembling an anti-comedy of errors, referencing the genre where 18th century audiences watched characters act out moral woes. Political art has developed a sort of fetish for live action: being present or live, has become a default aesthetic when it comes to representing collective artistic labor, with many artists making visible their play behind the activity of their works.
Making LARP an art form
Thus, we approach the tipping point that many artists, performers, and musicians have been toying with: the fine line between play and acting, and the distribution of intellectual and performative labor as it shifts from the director to performers to audience members.
LARP, like Condon’s Level Five, is one approach artists use. LARPing is an informal tactic, something like a rehearsal, where communities take on characters and then imagine themselves in these roles. In 1999, with the aim of developing LARP as “a medium and a form of art,” Scandinavian LARPing communities developed a manifesto called Dogma 99, accompanied by a ten-point “Vow of Chastity.” Inspired by Lars von Trier’s filmmaking manifesto, Dogme 95, which insisted on minimal lighting, on-set shooting, and no post-production, the vow laid out rules for LARP playwrights and organizers to follow.
What is often considered a recreational activity for genre fandoms—think, Harry Potter or Dungeon and Dragons—is, for these practitioners, an exploratory dramatic practice working toward radical presence and dismantling barriers between actors and audience. Equality and transparency are paramount; no characters have “supporting roles” (Vow #3) and playwrights may not influence the event after it has begun (Vow #5). Furthermore, LARPing is not gender restrictive: men can role play women and vice versa. There is an insistence on this mutability. LARPing is often like a utopian construct, for it allows for a dual subject to take hold (character and subject) instead of the typical split subject, which is often the case in acting where actors “become” the characters they are acting.
Learning about the present by playing the past
Condon’s Level Five was first performed in 2010 at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, and will be staged this week at the 9th Berlin Biennale. The scenario in this LARP is modeled after 1970s seminars on self-actualization, like the Erhard Seminars Training courses, which were documented in Adam Curtis’ documentary series Century of the Self. Hundreds of thousands of ordinary people gathered to “free themselves from the restraints of contemporary society,” as Condon describes these events. Attended by the original neoliberal counter-culturists, they were the precursors for modern day self-improvement seminars, which are now appropriated by late capitalism—e.g., the Landmark Forum, marketed worldwide for “personal and professional growth,” and business retreats in the woods, where companies encourage employees to bond by doing activities like trust falls and rope courses.
Condon’s LARP becomes even more politicized when framed by the Berlin Biennale. In his studio in early June, Condon explained that both he and the collective DIS—the Biennale curators—are of the generation that is living out the neoliberal promise of hyper-individualization. Unfortunately, the future—our present—isn’t what was projected, but something like a consumer hell. Condon’s work thus reaches back to a time when this neoliberal mentality was being created; the self-actualization seminars taught people “it was ok to be selfish.” Countercultures of the 1960s and 70s are rarely questioned or held accountable for today’s hyper-individualistic mentality. What can be learned from revisiting these origins in the present?
Condon assembles ordinary people and facilitators through an open call. These participants—who are not audience members, though BB9 visitors will be able to observe the closed performance from outside the room—get assigned a character, or a role. There are seminar leaders, who act as paternal psychoanalysis figures, instructing participants into relaxation and ideological awakenings.
The dual subject: Between a player and character
Instead of acting, which pushes subjects to “get out of themselves,” these performances counter this mantra. Instead, the players bringing something of their intra-subjective residue to the LARP, which makes Condon’s work of a very different genre than normal theatre. For instance, a woman acts as a suburban mother who is burned out and suffering a psychosis. The participant is then instructed to role play certain aspects of her persona, ad-libbing at times.
Says Condon: “You can immerse yourself within a temporary commune, but you don’t have to believe in it. The other ones are limited by reality in a way.” This reality factor is crucial, as LARPing is something where temporary rules are set and observed for a small period of time. It is not reality, but a sort of placelessness, a utopia.
In his recent book, The Exform, Nicholas Bourriaud reminds us that “Althusserian materialism rests on the certitude that reality has no double: everything is right there, before our eyes. The struggles are concrete, the forces at work stand in clear array.” This notion is echoed by the “reality” of the LARP (Vow #8: “No object shall be used to represent another object”), materially, and emotionally. For Condon, LARPing doesn’t function so much as an escape into the past, but as a form of open psychoanalysis, art-working the repressed and bringing pasts—which are not past, but still very much present—to light.
Jeremy Deller and Mike Figgis, Excerpt from The Battle of Orgreave. Footage: Mike Figgis
Condon explained to me how he began his interests in LARPing communities. After producing net art, he decided to take his work into real life as, perhaps, a way to occupy some type of political sphere that approached the social and personal physically. Jeremy Deller, whose Battle of Orgreave (2001) shares an affinity with Live Action Role Playing, also made this performative turn. Deller used actors and non-actors to reenact the bloody confrontation between the police and picketers at a British Steel Corporation plant in Thatcher-era Britain. Deller’s work has a cathartic function: the people in the project actually experienced the period in the 80s—200 of more than 800 re-enactors were former miners—and their involvement in the reenactment at once served personal, political, and artistic agendas. The 2001 reenactment was filmed by Mike Figgis for Artangel Media and Channel 4, and the final film included documentary photography and testimonies about the original battle.
The residue of the self
LARP blurs the boundaries between what is actual labor and what is immaterial, affective world. The actors are often not paid but gain an experience, offering up their own subject to the work. In a Frieze feature article “Stage Craft,” Matthew McLean and Stephen Squibb consider the work of Sarah Kane as an example of theatre performance, which uses “behaviors that can never really be acted.” Instead, to play her plays, the subjects have to offer up themselves, consequently sharing their subjectivity in the process.
Like a Wild Beast's Fur, Performance of Sarah Kane's PSYCHOSIS 4:48, Berghain Kantine. Courtesy of LAWBF. © Marijana Verhoef, 2015
Kane was part of In-Yer-Face Theatre, a movement in the UK that often dealt with psychological themes and pushed the emotional limits of the actors, almost to neurosis. Like a Wild Beast’s Fur recently staged a performance of PSYCHOSIS 4:48, Kane’s last play, which had no character distinctions, no set cues, and no staging. For the 2015 production at the Berghain Kantine, the collective split the narration between a young woman, Jasna Fritzi Bauer, and the 77-year-old actor Volker Spengler, making a sort of dual subject split between two genders and generations.
Standing, speaking the exasperating text, which was a meditation upon dying, depression, and suicide, Bauer came up against her body’s natural limits. One could visibly see her struggle to speak the lines, retaining something of her own persona. Spengler was instead lying in a bed. It was unclear if he was delivering lines about death, or if he was also dying himself. He was acting, as Sarah Kane. Yet in his old male body, he was also performing an aspect of himself, and this residue seeped through the lines. He appeared as the ageing theatre star on his deathbed. One got the sense that there was an active transference happening between the two actors, the young girl and the old man.
Miguel Gutierrez, Age & Beauty Part 1: Mid-Career Artist/Suicide Note or&:-/, 2014, Performed by Miguel Gutierrez and Mickey Mahar.
Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Ian Douglas
Miguel Gutierrez’s Age & Beauty Part 1: Mid-Career Artist/Suicide Note or&:-/ (2014) confronts the limits of the choreographer’s aging body, paired with that of the younger dancer Mickey Mahar. Within this piece, Gutierrez plays with the suspension of disbelief, creating a type of endurance performance that talks about his aging body but also the aging body of a younger, queer male dancer. The performers’ bodies, which are highly skilled, come up against the limits of their training and mortality. The subjects’ reality meets the performed.
LARPing in the spheres of everyday life is typically imagined as an escape from reality; it’s a retreat, perhaps to build a utopia. However, it is utilized in art with an opposite agenda: not as an escape, but as a tactic to access the real that is often repressed or not dealt with. This is the case with the hanging cultural referent of the entire Berlin Biennale, which is, as Condon’s work seems to posit, the neoliberal past conditioning that has given us our present moment. Through the live, LARP event, Condon engages this past in the present; he facilitates a layered environment of critique, play, and therapy to develop between the collapsed categories of audience/participants—a type of layering that is different than what we see in typical theater. The audience doesn’t see themselves in the mirror of virtues, but instead present within their own bodies and still very much connected to their own subjectivity.
Brody Condon’s Level 5 will be taking place at the Akademie der Künste, September 17 and 18.
Vanessa Gravenor is an artist and critic living in Berlin. She is a DAAD (Deutscher Akademisher Austausch Dienst) scholar from October 2015 to December 2016 and a candidate for a Diploma in the class of Hito Steyerl at Universität der Künste, Berlin.
 Jones, Amelia. "“The Artist Is Present”: Artistic Re-enactments and the Impossibility of Presence." TDR/The Drama Review 55, no. 1 (2011): 16-45.
 Rancière, Jacques. “The Parodoxes of Political Art,” in Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics. Translated by Steve Corcoran. London: Continuum, 2010.
 Bourriaud, Nicolas. The Exform. Translated by Erik Butler. London, 2016: Verso Books.
(Image at top: Brody Condon, Level Five, 2010–ongoing. Courtesy of the artist)