Theater Of Pain: The Knicks As Performance Art

What kind of person suffers through a performance specifically designed to create a very specific type of discomfort? A Knicks fan can tell you a little something about it.
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If you'd attended a performance called Accidens (Matar Para Comer) at the Prelude Festival five years ago, here is what you would have happened: you walk into a bare, stage- and set-free room—this is at the City University of New York—to find a man sitting in a chair and smoking a cigar off to one side, with a large griddle warming up on a table at center. There's a tub of water next to him. There are no seats (save for his) and it’s unclear if the play has started. So you would stand there and you wait.

After a stretch of time that seems to border on both the brief and the interminable, the man reaches into the tub and produces a live lobster, which he hangs from a microphoned wire suspended from the ceiling; he uses two other cords to splay the crustacean’s arms out. The lobster hangs there, at first motionless, then writhing and kicking, as the microphone and two speakers pick up and amplified every little sound the creature made. This is horrible, and it goes on for a while.

You would stand there, watching what is, yes, a performance, but also an actual event in which a living thing was suffering. Or you would walk out, repulsed.

Some people did. Others were angered or shocked or fascinated and stood there.

Then, after again a chunk of time that seemed eternal and oh-so-brief, the man brought out a serious pair kitchen scissors out and began poking and prodding at the lobster. There was no denying it. He was torturing the animal. You could hear its heart speed up (or at least, that’s what it seemed/felt like was occurring), as the animal seemed to be trying to escape this man wielding the knife.

Here’s a clip from an earlier production where he cuts off one of the lobster’s limbs. (Warning: It’s real.)

The audience watched.

Then he took the poor creature down and placed it next to his tiny grill. With one quick blow, he cleft its head in twain and placed it on the heat, cooking it.

It smelled delicious.

More people left, some stayed, and then he cooked it and ate it, while continuing to smoke and sipping champagne; and the audience watched.

While the performer consumed his meal, a video played behind him, explaining that what they’d seen occurs thousands of times a night, in restaurants across the globe. If you were offended or appalled or repulsed, perhaps it’s time to ask yourself about where your food comes from, and what measures are taken on your behalf in the process of growing, cultivating, killing, processing and presenting it.

You do not need to be a screeching Vegan to have a very strong emotional reaction to this. It was a play, a construct, but what was occurring onstage was undeniably also very real. A living creature, one that certainly seemed capable of experiencing fear and pain, was tortured and killed. It was clear that to a certain degree, the director/creator of the piece wanted to make the members of the audience miserable.

On the surface, that may seem odd; that an individual would willingly to fork over currency in order to be abused, or at least purposely made to feel and think unpleasant things. This sort of performance art is not for everyone, and—you could quite reasonably think—not really for anyone. But, of course, there are also the New York Knicks.

***

Basketball is fun to play and fun to watch, but for people who pay to watch the Knicks, pleasure is presumably derived from watching them win, and secondarily in enjoying watching them try to achieve that goal.

More often than not, they are not doing this. This is nothing new, really. But how they are doing it is new, and they've effortlessly produced a stretch of some of the more surreal moments we’ve seen in the NBA in some time already this season. Want amusing six-second clips of players acting like glitch-ridden video game characters? We’ve got that in spades. Prefer post-game quotes that bear as much resemblance to reality as a full hour of the Alex Jones Show? Yes, the Knicks have offered that up as well.

Or: random firings, terrible coaching decisions, Rube Goldberg-like rotations, bizarre interviews with the team’s Howard Hughes-ian recluse owner, oddly furtive/possibly misleading drips and drabs about injuries that are only slightly better than the conspiracy-of-silence stuff that are habitually kept secret from the public and press, players throwing coaches/coaches throwing players/coaches throwing fans under various forms of public transportation, and endgame catastrophes that make you seriously ponder whether or not the team is shaving points? And last, but certainly not least, Andrea Bargnani. Right, all that.

The Knicks are not the NBA's worst team, but they are the laughingstock of the NBA—more ridiculous than they are bad, although they are also bad, and too sour and paranoid and unhappy in their ridiculous to be worth a laugh. And yet those of us who consider ourselves fans keep coming back, knowing that we’ll be mocked for doing so in various ways. Like Roger Kahn wrote forty-odd years ago, about another misbegotten, doomed franchise, in The Boys of Summer: “We have failed. Everyone knows we have failed. We know it ourselves. We stand naked, before an unflattering mirror, hearing hard laughter that includes our own.”

And yet, no matter what indignities are heaped upon us, when the Pavlov-ian bell of Mike Breen’s weary voice sounds, we return, full of hope/misguided and/or deluded optimism, or possibly just full of shit. Maybe that’s noble, that level of devotion to a thing or a product, especially one that not only does not and will not ever love you back but doesn’t even seem to particularly like you, unless you’re the kind of slick hedge fund bro that can afford the five-digit bill for halfway-decent season tickets at MSG. Although even they will watch this basketball team, and will for the price of their tickets receive the privilege of sitting somewhat closer to the ulcerous owner than the rest of us.

Or maybe it’s just habit and/or addiction and one we’re too dumb or tired or lazy to break, an assaultive and ugly experience that we never quite get around to walking out of.

***

While watching that double overtime “win,” I couldn’t help but be reminded of that dead lobster, and the dancer/performance artist, Ann Liv Young. If you haven’t had the pleasure, her shows consist of purposely amateurish decibel-shattering singing and dancing, technical glitches that occur on purpose—often to give the lead performer the opportunity to tell the audience that she herself thinks the play is terrible, unprofessional, et cetera—and graphic, real enactments of penetration, ejaculation, onanism; you might be lucky enough to have a fish flung in your general direction or have other fluids, both bodily and otherwise spat at you. She's big in Germany, unsurprisingly, but got her start in New York's downtown performance scene.

In 2010, I attended a performance of her piece, Cinderella. Like Accidens, we weren’t in a traditional theatrical setting, but an enclosed space in Brooklyn's desolate Gowanus. It was strewn with a few lights, her iPod and scripts of various monologues. She sat in the center, with a series of knives surrounding her (At one point, an audience member asked, “What’s with the knives?" And she responded that it was for her own protection, because “real” emotions can be dangerous. Ms. Young practically demands this near-constant use of abstracting quotes.)

It felt like we had entered a particularly deranged adult-child’s private room. Part of the show entailed Ms. Young trying to take a shit onstage—actual defecation, although she couldn’t quite pull it off. She was there, though, squatting and straining and going through the whole red-faced, nominally private ritual. She just couldn't make it happen.

(If you think this is where I reference JR Smith setting the Knicks record for threes attempted versus the Bucks and then firing off a series of deranged, swag-filled, rebuke-via-Tweets, you’re wrong. But yes, JR’s had a crap-tastic season thus far. We’ll get to him.)

So Young started asking the audience for suggestions/help. Someone offered her a cigarette. She asked someone to cram a finger in her rectum to assist her in voiding her bowels.

During one particularly harrowing moment, she brought a member of the audience onstage (I’m assuming this was an actual audience member and not a plant. You really can’t tell with Young. The conscious ineptitude and moments when the theatricality either fails or appears to fail are part of her shtick.). The audience member he confessed that he hadn’t been intimate with another human being in many, many years. She asked him why and the individual, clearly embarrassed and humiliated, wouldn’t say. So she asked him if he’d like to tell her in private.

She led him to a room outside of the playing space and closed the door, and he began to explain in excruciating detail the reasons for his celibacy/abstinence. Of course, her mic was still on and so we, the audience, got to hear every painful, oh-so-human word.

And then they returned to the stage, he seemingly unaware that he’d just poured out his heart’s deepest chyme to a group of strangers, and she somehow both nonplussed and giddy at the thought of shredding any and all notions of privacy and decency; reveling in the look that was plastered to our horrified and embarrassed, and still utterly captivated faces.

To be clear, I’m not a fan of Young’s work, although I do find it fascinating. There’s another meta-theatrical level on which this spectacle is occurring, beyond the ugly and immediate one, and the artist is doubtless quite aware of it. She knows that she’s infamous for dong shocking things and that the audience is here to be shocked/insulted/degraded, so that—in a rare moment of catering to the crowd—is what she provides.

But at the same time, the performance itself is, just as Young states, kind of mediocre and even awful. The fact that the awfulness is the "point" (I know, again with the quotes), reaffixing the dramatic encounter within the audience itself, doesn’t change the reality of a shitty (sorry) play.

In that crowd, surrounded by eager-eyed art world devotees, I found that I couldn’t help but loathe them for wanting so badly to attach themselves to an admittedly pretty dated brand of shock-for-shock’s sake, for wanting to be abused or disgusted, just so that they can say they were able to feel something, or commend themselves on their enlightened willingness to be made to see and feel horrible things.

In the end, they—them and also I, who was there and paid in full and as complicit and guilty as everyone else—were celebrating ineptitude, reaffirming the derisive and cruel, and propping up a world in which there can be no greater calling than becoming the center of a sad little cult of personality built around an empty, soulless vacuous core. We let her do all this; we were the reason she did it. And while I guess there’s value in realizing this, at what cost? Why do we need to suffer (presumably) in order to have an experience that feels genuine or real? And now we're back at Madison Square Garden again.

***

What does this say about the millions of New Yorkers—again, including me—that continue to support the Knickerbockers? Here as there, whether there’s a conscious desire to fail or to craft a performance or just one that is the natural result of a terribly constructed and foundering, shitty (again, sorry) basketball team, it doesn’t really matter.

Maybe laboring under the delusion that this particular franchise can and will eventually perform the task at hand—winning basketball games—maybe isn’t the best way to understand what’s going on here. I’ve been holding pillows up to my face to muffle the blood-curdling howls of inchoate rage. I’ve typed my fingers down to nubbins trying to parse out or analyze what might be wrong/what might be done to ‘fix’ the problem with this so-called team. Maybe that’s the equivalent of clutching my pearls in horror when Young tries to take a dump or rips some poor, sexless schlub a new one. I'm still there, either way. But also what if the only way to understand the Knicks is to see them as performance art, somewhat on par with what Young does?

During that Bucks game in which J.R. gunned so wildly and incessantly, a great many of the wise wags who cover and root for the ‘Bockers were thinking in a similar vein. Seth Rosenthal’s recap was entitled "The Knicks Just Painted Their Masterpiece."

Even the coolest cat in the building, one Walt “Clyde” Frazier was so flabbergasted by what was occurring on the court that he began rending his leopard patterned—leopard-skinned?—garments and bellowing, “WHAT IS HE DOING? WHAT IS HE DOING, FOLKS? Why would he shoot the ball? Why?"

Why? Because the Knicks embody the perpetuation of a culture of mediocrity and the gradual substitution of sensation for true experience. They are the perfect avatar for the frenzied and self-centered, the money-centered and sad and venal and awful un-killable present of the world we inhabit in the year of our Lord, 2013.

I mean, look at J.R. Smith. Here he is with the leathery, hyper-caffeinated shill-machine enabler Regis Philbin, blissfully discussing his shot selection and predilection for tripping the lights fantastic.

He’s in on the joke. He knows the part he was cast to play. Why aren’t we as aware of all this? Why don’t we get that yes, his "job" is to put the biscuit in the basket, but that this is just the bare framework for a loftier artistic superstructure. All the gritty think pieces and #HotSportsTakes about his lack of maturity and shot selection, the fans groaning, cursing and impotently shaking their (our) collective fists at his persistent and infuriating JR-ness are missing the point. He’s the desert of the real; he can't hear you.

Yes, you can delight at the gorgeous treys that Stephen Curry nails from incalculable and ever-increasing distances. Yes, marvel at the pellets that Matt Harvey hurls over the plate. Yes, you can gape in awe at Adrian Peterson, running roughshod over an entire phalanx of massive, drooling, bloodthirsty linebackers. You can celebrate all of these individuals for their talent and their brilliance and their ability to bring us to a place where anything is possible, where we can say that we have seen true greatness, and that’s a good thing.

But the Knicks are a reminder that those moments, for most of us, are few and far between. More than a reminder: they are insistent, and at times insulting, proof of it. This can be enraging; it is definitely unpleasant. It's honest, though. It's real. You will feel something, even if it is the urge, rising until you either do it or don't, to leave.


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