"Grab the nearest stranger..." Oh shit. Here we go.
This is how film director and artist Miranda July chose to begin her performance piece Auction last night at Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA's Freud Playhouse.
Where we were sitting, the nearest stranger didn't want to be touched, and the next-nearest stranger, a winsome elderly woman, was a little too cool with it.
July then proceeded to list all of the things that may or may not happen with this stranger, everything ranging from the possibility that we may end up dating one of their friends, to losing this person to the ravages of drug addiction. We were certain she had all of it wrong with our particular next-nearest stranger -- until she got to death. "This person may die soon..."
Then we had to sit there for the next 90 minutes thinking about how our nice elderly next-nearest stranger might actually get there sooner than everyone else in the room. July asked us all to squeeze that person who we'll one day let go of.
We'd already let go. Physically.
In some ways, last night got weirder than stranger-squeezing. Over the course of about 90 minutes, July brought up three unassuming strangers and emotionally undressed them in front of about 500 people. She picked out meaningless items from their person and auctioned them off.
Her first guest, a colorfully dressed woman from Ohio, played along to the point where she was answering questions about her late husband's cancer and her bouts with loneliness. July then sold the woman's brush/comb combo to an audience member.
Ok, we get it -- reify the mundane, charge-up some meaningless object with someone's life story, sign it and sell it. This is what human beings do with things -- brands, celebrity, etc. Things have no meaning or value but what we give to them, yadda yadda.
It would be too easy to categorize July as a vintage Manic Pixie Dream Girl. But, rest assured, she is her own trope all by herself and she isn't there to validate anyone. At her best, July thinks in infinite dimensions -- turning the workaday world at a 64.3 degree angle. At her worst, she's just plain manipulative, even if she is fun: an emotional surrealist whose canvas is her crowd.
At each juncture of her performance, she used the process of elimination to include the audience in her schemes. She winnowed the crowd down to about seven "in love" couples, whom she then dubbed her "Knights of the Round Table."
The definitive moment, the perfect Miranda July moment, came when she left the stage, taking her "Knights" with her, only to be replaced by a video version of herself projected onto a screen.
Her video self spent a few minutes playing space-time traveler by sitting in the theater's empty seats before the show -- imagining who would be sitting there at the moment her video is playing. She even played space-time matchmaker -- sitting in two random seats and trying to set up their future occupants.
July's final quarry pulled from the crowd, a woman who does PTSD research, began confidently, only to be carefully dissected and dressed down. She asked the woman about her own experiences with PTSD and got even more personal.
"Who do you kiss?" asked July
"Well, that's awkward Miranda..." the woman answered.
"Oh, sorry, let me rephrase that...[laughs] I can't!" July quipped. "Oh...that person is here?"
July then tried to make sense of this woman's on-again off-again relationship with her in-crowd companion, only to get awkwardly nowhere. Then she sold the woman's chapstick for $68.
Her auction proceeds, $188 for three useless items imbued with stories and verified notarization (July, the giver, and the receiver all signed papers of testament), went to an anonymous person in the audience. The grantee of the $188 had to be someone who really needed it, "We've all been in places where this money would be a windfall," July told us all, "So please close your eyes ... and raise your hand if this describes you." That was her worthy cause: a stranger in need.
The evening closed with a full playthrough of Leonard Cohen's dreary apology ballad "Bird on the Wire." July's "Knights of the Round Table" of seven couples took the stage. While the group essentially self-selected, they represented an eerily ideal cross-section of the crowd -- there were two same-sex couples, an older couple, a middle-aged couple, a student couple and then hipper mid-20s in between. Individuals moved around the stage slowly, separately much like an Acting 101 exercise ("Explore the space...") before settling on their beloved. The couples then made out on stage for the duration of the song and departed one-by-one. The end.
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July then signed copies of her 2011 book It Chooses You in the lobby. The book, similarly themed to Auction, explores the stories behind item-for-sale ads in the Pennysaver.
As a bizarre testament to the power of July's manipulation of reality -- we just happened to see her final stage guest after the event, lip-locked with her part-time lover in one of UCLA's more remote parking lots. No joke. As if still part of the spectacle that July created, we wanted to sit and watch this play out, but we were reminded that emotional surrealism should probably stay on stage.
So we thank July for that dose of twee-steeped surreality. But we're still thinking about our next-nearest stranger whose arm we squeezed and when she's going to die.