In some sense, the avant-garde has always claimed an ideological place in the art world analogous to that of science fiction — a perspective just ahead of the mainstream that simultaneously points forward to the unknowable future and backward to what is already tried and true.
Our best bet for glimpsing this art of the future is currently at cutting-edge multidisciplinary performance festivals like Live Arts Exchange/LAX, the annual Los Angeles showcase that brings together the coolest, most forward-looking names in that heady fusion of technology, performance, installation, music and dance that LAX creator and programmer Miranda Wright calls the “contemporary live arts.”
But what if this year’s LAX could muster the technology to actually beam a universally trusted and respected art authority from the 23rd century who already knows that future first-hand — someone, say, like that redoubtable and philosophizing space voyager, Captain James T. Kirk from the Star Trek TV show of the 1960s?
That, at least in the epistemological sense, is what is at the playfully emblematic heart of festival highlight An Evening With William Shatner Asterisk, the weirdly haunting and wittily accomplished piece of tongue-in-cheek video puppetry created by stage provocateur Phil Soltanoff, writer-sound designer Joe Diebes, video designer/programmer Rob Ramirez and performer-“puppeteer” Mira Akita.
Laboriously cutting and pasting together a poetic manifesto about the future of art and science from every available filmed image of Kirk, and every syllable of his dialogue, turns out not to be a simple challenge.
“We went through months of trying,” Soltanoff recalls. “And it’s funny, because after I cut up all the samples, there was a very limited [vocabulary] that Shatner actually said. The episodes really follow this formula, and he really always says the same things. And then there’s a couple of million-dollar words — like he says, ‘impossible!’ or ‘scientifically!” But for the most part, he’s not saying those things.”
It took the team three months just to get William Shatner Asterisk to speak his first line, Soltanoff says, and five more months to get a draft of the show pieced together for its 2012 Austin Fusebox Festival premiere. (The rewritten and re-directed LAX version premiered at New York’s COIL festival in January.)
The results are as hypnotic as they are hilarious, with the disjointed cuts uncannily approximating the famously emphatic Shatner delivery, even as the piece spins the delicious web of retro-representational ironies one might expect of a fictional character resurrected from 50 years out of the past to speak about art 200 years into the future.
Which is not to say that William Shatner Asterisk is simply a one-trick genre satire.
“I like to make theater for anyone but not everyone,” Soltanoff says. “In other words, … the piece is a demanding piece. It involves concentration — and it’s great fun — but it does involve concentration. I think the payoff is quite rewarding; if you stay with it, it is pretty amazing. And I can’t say that about every piece that I’ve seen. Some pieces ask a lot of me, but they don’t deliver very much; I feel like I just crossed the desert with you, and you gave me a cracker. But Shatner has a great deal more to offer people. I can’t really explain what that thing is, but I can point at it.”
“It’s one of my favorite pieces, I think, anywhere in the country over the past two or three years,” agrees Wright. “I saw its premiere at Fusebox a couple of years ago, and then I saw it actually at COIL last year. So I’m just excited, and think L.A. audiences will really like it.”
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Other festival highlights, according to Wright, include Jennie MaryTai Lieu’s Actress Fury, a movement-based collaboration with Hannah Heller and Alexa Weir that Lieu is staging in the Bootleg Theater’s basement dressing room; Dedicated to a True Lover, L.A. director Zoe Aja Moore’s kaleidoscopic homage to the life and work of the late German director, Rainer Werner Fassbinder; and Holcombe Waller”s Surfacing, which Wright describes as “a staging of a really smart, witty music video that’s really compelling and fun to watch.” Wright has selected Surfacing to launch the festival next Wednesday.
But her secret dream for this year’s LAX, Wright adds wistfully, is to watch William Shatner watch An Evening With William Shatner Asterisk.
“I don’t think he’s seen it yet,” she says. “But we’re going to try to make that happen. We’re reaching out on Twitter — that’s the most direct contact I have with him. But I would love to watch him watch the show.”
Live Arts Exchange/LAX 2014 kicks off on Wed., September 10 at Bootleg Theater.