Opening night of My Barbarian's new show, Broke People's Baroque Peoples' Theater, artist Anna Sew Hoy rolled and writhed on the floor while a backup band played. She'd been selected from the audience along with at least 15 others, costumed in a togalike, patterned gown and given a card with a "personification" on it. Her card said "Iraq and Afghanistan" and the writhing was an attempt to "personify" just that. "You dropped your phone in Afghanistan," acting MC Jade Gordon told Sew Hoy.
Gordon and artists Malik Gaines and Alexandro Segade have been performing as My Barbarian since 2000. "We're always trying to find ways to have people act out complicated cultural ideas," says Gaines, and it's taken years to achieve what they did that night: create an energy that compels an audience to dance, sing and willingly personify overseas conflicts.
"We've found that if you tell [your audience] what the rules of the game are, then they can play along," Segade says. "The result is sort of like court entertainment, only we don't have a king."
The performance was tied to the group's exhibition at artist-run Human Resources gallery, based in what used to be a Chinatown movie theater, which feels like a contemporary, shabby-chic idea of a royal court. Riffs on Greek theatrical masks hang on the wall. "Oracles" in the form of monitors stacked on speakers stand throughout the space. There's a wood model of a baroque theater and videos projected on swaths of decorative cloth, to resemble tapestries. The centerpiece, a lush film shot in two days but developed over three years, references Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, Native American myth and modern finance. Characters wear white masks and draping gowns and embark on lofty, poetic monologues, though they keep getting tripped up by trivial concerns. At one point, a speech on truth's essence transitions into a discussion of hair care economics: "How many hours of labor do I pay per follicle per year?" All the work in the show is presented as if it were created by an imaginary theater troupe, also called the Broke People's Baroque Peoples' Theater.
"There are hints of intriguing conceptual issues," wrote Holly Myers in an L.A. Times review of My Barbarian's last L.A. gallery exhibition, at Steve Turner Contemporary in 2009. "But it would take a good deal of concentrated effort to draw these threads into a meaningful order." This wasn't meant as a compliment, but the need for meaningful order is what the group is especially good at diverting.
Painters often say, "I work intuitively," meaning they rely on years of schooling and hours spent looking, to decide, in the moment, where to put a brushstroke. My Barbarian are the performance-art equivalent of this: All their cultural, theoretical, historical references spill into their work in a way that feels intuitively right.
The collective has been together 12 years. Segade and Gaines met as undergraduates, and a mutual friend introduced Gordon to them soon after they graduated. The three began collaborating almost instinctively.
First, they formed a band. "It didn't necessarily work," Gordon says. "We were confusing."
They found themselves in the art world almost by default. "It's where people can understand what they're getting from us," Gaines explains. "In the art context, you're always acknowledging that you're performing. There's no illusion."
Over the past decade, My Barbarian have exhibited in two California Biennials, at the New Museum and at the Whitney.
"Collectives don't last this long," Segade says. "But theater troupes last forever."
The inspiration for the Broke Baroque show came during a visit to Lithuania for the 2009 Baltic Triennial, where the group saw a scale model of an Italian baroque theater, before they were asked to participate in a show at Kansas City's Grand Arts center. They appeared as Broke Baroque performers there for the first time.
The narratives that run through the troupe's performances seem to be about a negotiation among wealth or excess, poverty and creativity. "During the baroque period [17th and 18th centuries], all this amazing money was being poured into the arts, but most people were poor," explains Segade. "It sort of parallels today's problems." Adds Gordon, "We were interested, aesthetically, in what happens when you have too much stuff that's not valuable."
In the upstairs gallery, on a small monitor, Vicente Colomar, a Golden Age baroque-style actor My Barbarian met while holding a workshop in Madrid, performs the show's theme song, acting out gestures and mantras for the destitute creative. "Upward mobility," the screen says, as Colomar makes a diving motion, "means having a friend who has a swimming pool." Actors mimic that diving motion in videos throughout the show, and each time it's optimistic: Maybe sustainability means repurposing your expectations.
My Barbarian will hold a performance Sat., March 3, 9 p.m. (doors 8:30), at 410 Cottage Home St., Chinatown; free; exhibition runs through March 11. (213) 290-4752, humanresourcesla.com.