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Taiwanese Surf Rock Puppetry?! Yes, Please.

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Tue, Apr 3, 2012 at 11:43 AM

click to enlarge Car Martin and Linda Wei's puppets perform folk tales of transformation while Dzian! rocks out with surf and garage rock as heard in 1960s Asia. - ANDY ROBERT
  • Andy Robert
  • Car Martin and Linda Wei's puppets perform folk tales of transformation while Dzian! rocks out with surf and garage rock as heard in 1960s Asia.

Concord, in Cypress Park, is not your typical performance venue.

Lining the hallway as you enter the space are wooden shelves covered in colanders, plates, pots, peanut butter, dried beans, hot sauce and the like, sorted and labeled: "Joshua," "Collective," "Marco," etc. Long fluorescent bulbs hang from the rafters, haphazardly rigged with wire, chain and hooks. "New bills $41 each" shouts the whiteboard on the fridge. "Whomever has used the sink - CLEAN IT ☺"

Established last July by a group of CalArts grad students, Concord was inspired by the discipline-blurring mayhem at Echo Park's Machine Project. In addition to hosting weekly free performances, screenings and interactive events, this 3,000-square-foot warehouse provides sleeping and work space for four to six artists in residence at a time.

"One night it's a literary circus and the next it's two academics talking about film," prose-poetry writer and artist-in-residence Marco Di Domenico says. Fellow resident Andy Robert makes small mixed-media sculptures where "giraffes become meteors" and elephants take on the patterns of zebras and the structural integrity of Swiss cheese.

Canadian architect and designer Car Martin moved in last fall and organized last Saturday's jubilant concert called "It's playback time!" featuring "shape-shifting puppets" and "Asian garage-pop revivalists" Dzian!.

click to enlarge Dzian!, led by Wendy Hsu, rocks out at Concord on Saturday, March 31. - ANDY ROBERT
  • Andy Robert
  • Dzian!, led by Wendy Hsu, rocks out at Concord on Saturday, March 31.

In the center of the room sits a mobile home with black sheets draped around the long, narrow window that will serve as tonight's stage. The first puppet creaks down a jerry-rigged red pulley and the show begins, alternating between a song from the band and a scene from the puppets. In the condensed folk tales performed by Martin, Linda Wei and the occasional guest voice, heroes undertake quests, demons mutter curses and magical transformations abound.

Dzian!, which means "supercool" in Chinese, formed in 2009 to play at a benefit for the victims of a typhoon in Taiwan, where lead singer Wendy Hsu was born. In their quest to examine the Asian reverberations of American surf and garage rock sounds, Dzian! covers everything from Taiwanese nursery rhymes to Thai disco to a French song about Mao Zedong. Hsu croons and cavorts behind her keyboard, letting the dreamy bounce of the music move her body and the complex cultural resonances move her mind. Hsu finished her Ph.D. in ethnomusicology at UVA last year and now is a post-doctorate fellow at Occidental College in the Center for Digital Learning and Research; at times she vacillates between performer and academic.

"Are you guys ready for a go-go?" Hsu asks.

"Yeah!" cheers the crowd.

"Do you know what a go-go is?" she asks. Nobody does. "I'll just show you," she says, donning sunglasses and tossing a white and red boa over her bright turquoise blazer for the next number, yipping and yelping as she sings in Chinese.

"I definitely get geekier than most people," Hsu says before the show. "The band is a playground for me to experiment with the critical concepts related to race, ethnicity and the postcolonial conditions that I formulated in my dissertation," she wrote in a blog post last year.

According to Hsu, vivacious, burlesque performances of Nakasi-style puppetry enjoyed on the streets of Taiwan in the 1960s often came with a garage-rock soundtrack. Twenty years after Chiang Kai-Shek and the Chinese nationalists took over Taiwan, American culture was seen as a radical, sexually charged alternative to the government's attempts at sinicization and censorship. Hsu compares how American surf rock band The Ventures performed their music, "prim and proper ... in concert suits," to how songs like "Pipeline" trickled down to the streets of Taiwan, often accompanied by firecrackers and signaling a fight scene between puppets.

Martin and Hsu met a few times before Saturday to match the folk tales with appropriate tunes, thematically, but in the spirit of experimenting with new forms, the show was far from polished.

A few of the puppets are gorgeous, morphing origami-style before our eyes from a pinwheel samurai to a globe, for example, but most have indistinct features and nebulous emotions. None of the puppets' mouths move, making it somewhat difficult to tell which one is supposed to be talking at any given point.

But you have to admire the artists' commitment to immersing themselves in the source material; it's not difficult to notice that most people in the room have graduate degrees.

"We spent a few months reading, like, just folk tales from all over the world. We probably should have spent more time building," Martin says, explaining that she and Wei had only begun constructing the puppets the week before the performance.

The audience ripples with appreciative laughter when a fluorescent orange plastic cup falls off one puppet and a graceful hand replaces it.

click to enlarge Puppet in closeup - ANDY ROBERT
  • Andy Robert
  • Puppet in closeup

"As a designer you have a certain level of expectations about quality of craftsmanship and, like, rigor, and when you're working with people from different disciplines that have different ideas of what they want to happen, it's a little hard," Martin says. "Things can't really be as beautiful and pristine as you want them to be."

Regardless, the mood is youthful and the music exuberant. Concord's events rattle with spontaneous electricity. Back in December, video artist David Ross and CalArts professor Allan Sekula lectured while cooking and serving a spaghetti dinner. At "Enter>Text," on Friday, March 23, Di Domenico and writer Henry Hoke invited participants to become more involved in a text than the typical reader by presenting written works in intimate installations, or as "semi-contrived narratives," as Martin described it. For example, two people would enter a car parked in the living room and ask each other the questions written on slips of paper they picked out of a small box. Intimate poetry readings, some for only one audience member, took place in various rooms.

At the concert, once Martin and Wei run out of scripted scenes, they lift the puppets up one at a time to gyrate to Dzian!'s rollicking, playful tunes. The 40 or so members of the audience swell with asymmetrical hair, Tecate, spectacles and plastic cups of cheap wine.

"So the puppets are dancing... I think you all should, too," Hsu implores. She herself starts to twirl and rock more aggressively, and when two guys get up front and oblige her with a herky-jerky dance, the rest of the audience starts to loosen up and move to the music.

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