PLEXUS Part 1
Today is Columbus Day in the United States. It’s not surprising, then, that I find myself thinking about Plexus. Cristoforo Colombo Viaggio nel Pianete Arte (Christopher Columbus Voyages to the Planet Art) was the last show I did with Plexus.
We did the show in Rome and Sardinia in the summer of 1989. Our hope had been that, in 1992, we – a consortium of performers, artists, and scientists, all from New York and Italy -- would be able to add the collective voice of Plexus to the 500 year anniversary celebration of his voyage. Unfortunately for us, larger forces were at work and a furor of political correctness made Columbus an impossible figure symbolic of the genocide perpetrated against Native Americans and the horrors of slavery. Our Columbus had little to do with the historic Columbus but that did not matter.
If you search the internet for Plexus a plethora of groups, companies and projects are listed in the search results. The Plexus that fascinated me for half a decade can be found at http://www.plexusforum.net. That site is maintained by Sandro Dernini, who brought our Plexus into being. Current manifestations of Plexus activity are nothing like the performance spectacles of the mid to late 1980s, when I was active with the group as dramaturge, and eventually impresario.
In 1985, I saw a Plexus event titled “Goya Time” at C.U.A.N.D.O., at the corner of Second Avenue and Houston, which immediately intrigued me. At that time, the theories of Antonin Artaud strongly influenced my thinking as a playwright. While the renunciation of text seemed to portend an end to dramatists, other elements of Artaud’s approach were intellectually provocative and artistically attractive to me.
For the previous 5 or 6 years, my plays were so text-bound that the only productions were staged readings, a format I have come to detest. Staged readings are, to me, the theatrical equivalent of a whore’s beckoning coo to passersby from a dark doorway. Publicly presented readings promise revelation and art when really they are staged to get money from potential backers. In not-for-profit theaters, the reading is sometimes used as a consolation to a playwright, when a rejection letter simply won’t do.
In any case, Plexus was clearly anything but conventional theater, and that appealed to me. Soon after seeing Goya Time, which appeared to me to be a tableau vivant infused with creative chaos, I met Sandro. As it happened, I was living in the back of a friend’s art gallery/studio on East Sixth Street between Avenues A and B, and Sandro was living in the building full of squatters next door. After a disastrous attempt at suburban living in New Jersey, which led to the disintegration of my marriage, I fled back to the Lower East Side; where, despite the horrific losses and absence of wet sex that came with the AIDS onslaught, a blossoming of gallery spaces was in full fecundity, while performance art had yet to be co-opted, codified and made arid by academe.
The first show I did with Sandro, and the hundreds of other artists who gravitated to the energy we created, was The Artificial Time of Purgatorio on the Night of No Moon. This was basically a happening on a grand scale. We took over most of the C.U.A.N.D.O. building – a former school that served as a community center – and we assigned artists spaces from the subbasement to the roof. Each artist was to interpret some portion of Dante’s Purgatorio. I wanted the spectators to follow a musical ensemble of some sort through the entire installation. This musical element never came together properly for a variety of reasons. The roof of the building was Paradiso – that’s where the bar was located – and the show ended there.
The absence of musicians leading people made the event seem a failure to me. As far as I could see, it was a bunch of artists showing their work in an alternative space. While Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty called for exposing audiences to the idea of participatory experience, our effort lost cohesion, and any sense of theatricality, to my mind anyway. The after party, though, was great and I did get laid.
A couple weeks later I got hired to write my first screenplay. I moved into a great apartment just off Gramercy Park. I counted Plexus as a noble failure and put it behind me. Or, so I thought. The siren call of Plexus would prove irresistible to me again, soon enough.