Thursday, January 23, 2014

Artist Interview: M Lamar

SURVEILLANCE PUNISHMENT AND THE BLACK PSYCHE

January 24-26, 2014 | The Club at La MaMa 



photo by Blioux

M Lamar talks to Sam Alper about performance, comic books and who we really love.


Are you excited for your show? Any feelings about doing it at La MaMa, in particular?

One of the things that excites me about the idea of performing at La MaMa is that when I moved to New York seven and a half years ago it was really to do shows at places like La MaMa, or the Kitchen, or PS122, Dixon Place. These places that have a history of showing work that I thought was really important. Or at least that was important to me, even though I wasn’t born yet when most of that work was made. The history of La MaMa is especially poignant to me because of Meredith Monk's history with the theater.

I’m just so thrilled that I get to have a platform to do work that I think is a little more challenging - where the audience isn’t just getting into this party. It’s not like you get to laugh and have ideas that you believe affirmed. Sometimes a lot of theatre in the downtown context involves a sort of Bohemian sensibility / liberal sensibility where audiences are going to these shows to have their lifestyle and viewpoint reaffirmed. There is nothing wrong with that but I think my works hoovers in a different place where I think you may come away not sure what you feel about a whole host of issues. In my work there are no easy answers. 

One of the big reasons I’m excited about the show is that in many ways it’s the show i always wanted to do since I started performing when I was 19 or 20, but I haven’t been able to do until now because I didn't have enough information or enough technical skills. It brings together so many ideas that have been so central to my work. So I’m really excited to get to do what it is that I do and really get at the core of many of the ideas that have been floating around in my work for over a decade.


It seems like you’re getting at the basic mission of La MaMa - it’s a theatre for the artist. It’s not for the audience, in terms of like, a service relationship. It’s for you to challenge or - do whatever you want.

I completely agree. I always have to be my first audience.  I to be making with what I want to hear and see first. At the same time, I do think there’s something there for the audience - for an audience that wants to think and wants to be moved and go on a different kind of journey. I’m thinking about history a lot - at the core of my work are these historical narratives. And that’s been going on in my work since - When I was making visual art back in art school. So there’s an interest in history - and history is always now -, the plantation is always now,- and having these moments where you get to contemplate that in a very interracial context is very American.


Often the audience is predominantly white and we’re in a fundamentally interracial society, so it’s really all of our history. History is not just this thing which afflicts black people - it really deeply afflicts white people. The ways in which they see themselves - and I guess black people always like wanting to think about their ancestors in some sort of critical way. And I wonder if white people are thinking about the extent to which their ancestors must have been slave owners. Not even just people from the Southern part of the US but also people from the North and the Midwest.

That our ancestors, even if they weren’t slave owners, they were very much implicated. 

That’s not to say “oh you’re bad,” but it’s just to walk us through this thing of ‘Who are we and where are we now with how we relate to each other?” Do you watch football?

No, I tend to watch basketball, if I watch a sport.

I’m a huge tennis fan and a huge basketball fan. I don’t watch football either. But I bring that up because Richard Sherman is this football player who just went off after a game, recently. He just scored the winning touchdown, or whatever they do in football and all these people were attacking him for being this angry negro.

He "went off?” What did he do?

They do these post-game interviews - so he was doing an interview with this reporter and he started talking about the Crabtree guy, who he intercepted the ball from or, again, whatever they do in football. He was trash-talking the guy, and everyone was saying “why’s he doing this angry-black-man thing?” And the Crabtree guy was trash-talking him on the field allegedly. It was just an interesting moment that I thought spoke to a lot of the racial anxiety our culture has. 


I think the racial anxiety thing is a good way to get back into what you were saying before, that you’re trying to walk through a history, not to apportion blame. To acknowledge the history isn’t to blame yourself, but we have a racial anxiety that makes us feel like it is - that to even bring it up is to be blamed. 

Well I mean, that’s what the Right Wing says to us right now. That if you say something that’s at all about race you’re being racist. The Fox News ethos right now is: if we want to be colorblind, we have to pretend that race doesn’t exist. Which is just ridiculous. 

The thing about this show is that - it’s about a man on death row - but what we find out is that it’s really a love story. It’s a fucked up, twisted love story, but it ultimately gets into what it means to love someone across racial lines. Even in a plantation context, in an interracial homo-sex context, what does it mean to be negotiating these levels of power and representation? In that sense the show’s very human. 

Right, that’s a very universal focus.

I think loving, in a society where there’s so much difference, in a society of immigrants where you can fall in love with someone and they’re black, or white or native american - unless you’re coming from somewhere very insular like “I come from a white middle class background and I’m only interacting with people from that background or whatever,” then everyone is crossing culture and class - I feel like everyone is crossing culture these days. People are not staying in one place necessarily. I think it’s an interesting moment - to be able to consider - to what extent do we love black men in this culture? Does the society itself love black men? Does it love women? Do we really love women, in terms of the way we represent them and the opportunities we’re allowing them?

Do we really love them, given the way we treat and represent them, as opposed to what we say?

Exactly. My boyfriend Sabin Calvert makes comic books and so he’s very involved in ‘comics land.’ He also did the drawings and animations, all the visual stuff you’ll see in the show. He’s always wondering, since comics are primarily made by straight white guys who are very awkward with regards to sexuality, why is it that women are raped constantly in comic books? Why is it that in certain films the motivating factor is a white guy having to avenge the rape of his sister, or his girlfriend? How is it that we can continue to represent rape as this plot device? Over and over and over again? So I guess that’s what I mean by this “do we love” thing. Because art isn’t about representing reality, it’s not, it’s about possibility. We don’t have to follow in this whole thing of ‘it’s real, it’s true. it’s a fact that women are raped routinely in our society.’ Because this is really just cultural production that reproduces that. We CAN show other things besides that. So as much as I want to show truthful, real things in my work, I also want to dwell on possibility.


You’re someone who thinks a lot about the larger context and issues around what they’re doing. Do you ever feel like there’s a tension around who you get to speak to in these performances? Do you ever feel stuck on the (relatively) small platform of off-off theatre? Or do you feel happy with your platform?

I’m very happy with my platform because I get to do what I want to do. In order to speak to larger audiences you have to sort of sanitize, homogenize and deodorize what you’re saying, or dumb it down in some way. So I’m very excited that I don’t have to do that. I also think that because of the internet - my work is multi-faceted, and so all these music videos have a pretty active life on the internet that’s separate from the theatre pieces that I do. I also do rock concerts where I open for bands and I make albums that any one can buy at mlamar.com. And I do these interviews. I think that interviews are a huge part of my work actually.  My passion right now are these longer form theater pieces and requiems, more so than concerts, even, or music videos. I love, love, love doing this work. It’s very cathartic for me to move through these particular stories over an hour or 75 minutes. And so I don’t feel limited because I think there are lots of avenues that I have. I’m so alive when doing that work that anything seems possible.

That’s a nice way to think about it - that the work is multi-faceted and each facet reaches people in a different way and that’s fine.

Well yeah. I think it’s just, in my case, true. Whenever I think about, let’s say, the interview I just did on the radio, I know there will be people who won’t come to the show but will have heard that and will maybe begin thinking differently about something. I guess, being a composer of non-popular music, I sort of don’t know what to call it, but I've had lots of opera training and I use that training in my work, that I realize is not necessarily for everyone - though I truly believe the work is universal.  

And I do think that, in the context of my show, multiple audiences with differing contexts and expectations can get a lot out of it because we have so much going on. We have the text for you. We have this whole visual story we’re telling with the show. We have a sonic story with the sound design. Separate from anything I’m specifically singing or saying, there’s a sonic dimension to the story. I think there’s just a lot going on. 


Listening to the music I was struck by how it straddles between being totally beautiful and totally horrific. It’s a really enjoyable thing. I feel the darker stuff slipping in while I’m enjoying this aesthetic beauty.

I like that you say it’s horrific. I love horror films. I’m a big horror film guy. I love slasher stuff. I was just looking at Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the original. I’m obsessed with horror.  And I’m actually making this show into a film that will be working with that horror thing, as well as, hopefully, being extremely beautiful. It’s almost like Goya, that Goya painting of Satan Devouring his Son that is incredibly horrific but also incredibly beautiful.  The phrase I settled on to describe my music is NEGROGOTHIC. Like the gothic novel - combining romance with horror.

I guess I’m involved in a sort of classicism or romanticism in art - which is not a popular thing - We’re so in the hip hop generation with thirty years of hip hops influence on popular culture, which is also a post-modern thing, sampling and referencing other pop culture. So that’s just what we have - and it isn’t interested so much in romantic classical music or romantic painting, like a Caravaggio or something. But I’m very interested in that old old old school shit.

I think I’ve said before that I’m a modernist in a postmodern age and I think that’s not really quite accurate, but I’m definitely interested in a certain kind of romantic classical music along with a certain horrific historical context. I guess I’m just interested in aesthetics. I think that art should be… it should be beautiful and, as much as it can, also reflect the horrific things in the world. Of course we know beauty is a question mark but that’s perhaps the only place where I am a bit conservative. Beauty should, of course, be constantly deconstructed and reinvented.


One thing I was thinking - talking to you, talking to Shane Shane, talking to a lot of the artists coming around, I’m so impressed by how much of an individual journey many of the artists performing in The Club have had. You’ve been in a lot of scenes and been around a lot of different genres but have really tried to follow your own individual artistic desire, muse, whatever. So I want to ask, if you were speaking to a much younger person who can feel that they want to make art but don’t feel at home in any established form or genre, what’s your advice to someone who’s at that point?

It’s a good idea to learn how to do something. I was lucky enough to share a room w/ Penny Arcade in Stockholm in April when we were both doing a festival there. We both agreed that if you’re going to be a performance artist in general it’s a good idea to know how to do something. I know how to play the piano and I took years of voice lessons and stuff. Penny Arcade is also this amazing actor. On a craft level, separate from what she has to say, she knows how to do something. And you can then incorporate lots of other things - collaborators who bring in animation for you - I have a director of photography I work with that I absolutely adore - but it’s a good idea to ground it in knowing how to do something. A lot of what I see, there’s not much craft involved, and that sort of troubles me. 

I think it can be hard, because often you’re being taught a craft by people who tell you that learning that craft means you have to do things a certain way, and so I think it can be easy for people to try to reject everything.


In my case I’ve tried to reject pretty much everything. But I have a reverence for a certain kind of singing.

Right, you still have real training in something - you accepted training.

That’s true. I’m very humbled by the craft of singing and the craft of playing music. It’s this thing that I feel in service of. I think there’s a humility around craft that’s really important. It’s kind of a conservative idea that I’m setting forth - but the people that I love in the downtown world - I’m a huge fan of John Kelly and he’s a trained dancer, he’s a trained singer and he puts them together in this poetic way. And Penny Arcade is a well crafted actor. It takes time, and people are very impatient. You owe it to the public to have something to give them, beyond whatever you have to say. If people come to see you in a theatrical context or a venue or whatever they should be getting multiple kinds of things, not just what you have to sa,y but also an exciting way you have to say it.


Anything you want to leave us with? Inspirations? Thank Yous?

I’m super excited that I get to work with my sound designer Bryce Hackford and my art director Sabin Calvert, Gigantic is doing live camera feeds throughout the show. I’ve been really lucky to have great collaborators over the years and I’ve had ongoing relationships with my collaborators. So this is an amalgamation of a lot of the theatrical work I’ve been doing, the concert work I’m doing and the videos. It’s an amalgamation of all the work I’ve been doing over the past ten years. I feel really excited about that. A lot of things are coming together in a wonderful way.