Sandro Dernini could keep people involved, no doubt. When there was no new art opera in the works, he would leave for Italy or Senegal, or disappear into the academic world of New York University. He was a doctoral candidate in art. He already had a doctorate in biochemistry but found his true calling in Plexus. Then, when apparently enough time has passed that a hunger had grown in the community, he would reappear.
Sandro’s technique was to announce an Open Call. Group photos were most often the reason. It always amazed me how many people would turn up in a vacant lot turned sculpture garden, or in the empty swimming pool in the basement of C.U.A.N.D.O., simply to have their photo taken among a huge group. But it worked, and out of these photo ops grew the art operas.
Plexus was about community as much as it was about art. Squatters, electricians, plumbers, musicians, poets, artists and scientists all were treated more or less equally. When Sandro wasn’t around, the energy that propelled Plexus was dormant. The community still existed but the catalyst that compelled us to work together was Sandro.
David Boyle, who was part of our core group through my years as an active Plexus participant, once remarked to me “You know, we’re all just fodder for Sandro’s PhD dissertation.” There was more than a little truth to that statement. Yet, I was conducting my own theatrical research and if Sandro got a doctorate in art along the way, all the better.
Don’t ever let some smug journalist convince you that everything that deserves to be covered gets covered. The New York press diligently ignored Plexus. We were the antithesis of the ethos of greed that passed for culture in those days. America, and New York in particular, was all about art stars and the art market. Certain dealers were deemed important by virtue of how much money was behind them.
By the end of Reagan’s two terms as President, even the general public bought into the idea that if an artist – meaning actor, musician, painter, sculptor, playwright, poet, et al – was not a millionaire by the age of 30, he was a loser and not serious, and her or his work would never have value. In youth-obsessed America, the European tradition of growing and maturing artistically was replaced by money-fueled hype. The most important substance to any work of art of any kind was the price tag or the profits it generated.
Sandro’s theme for Plexus was exposing and ending “art slavery”. We openly denounced the art market. The explosion of art galleries in the East Village was about gentrification and real estate, not about art or community. To indulge in understatement, the driving philosophy behind Plexus did not emerge triumphant -- yet.
While I was certainly sympathetic to the community mindset, I was primarily interested in Plexus as an avenue to create shows. The show I threw myself into with the most gusto was a year after the Purgatorio show. Titled Eve, it deserves and will receive an entire post later this week. Suffice it to say for the moment that the Plexus experience taught me two things that were very important to my growth as a theater artist. One was about myself and the other was more of a general overview.
The first lesson was that I thrive in a production situation. What goes on backstage fascinates me. It also can drive me nuts. The end result may not be to my satisfaction – as in the case of the Plexus production Il Viaggio del Serpente (The Voyage of the Serpent) -- but the end result is always a show, and I am always a better artist for helping to deliver the product.
The other thing I learned is that the non-textual approach espoused by Artaud, and others, works when the troupe is comprised of genuine artists. As soon as the door is opened to the community, you’d better have a strong story line at the very least. Civilians, for lack of a better term, get lost in theory and experimentation. This is not a bad thing. It’s simply the way things are.
That was how Sandro kept me involved as long as he did – group photos and letting me find myself as an artist, even if it appeared at times that I might overshadow his efforts. Plexus was the most interesting and enduring artistic collaboration of my career. It made me a showman.
Tomorrow -- Plexus and the firebug