Robert Whitman’s Passport

By Leo Le

“In most of the pieces that I’ve done, I like the idea of people having a specific point of view, and if not one person, it could be a group of people who see the piece in one way and another group of people who see it another way,” highlighted Robert Whitman recently about the experience of his work. Based in New York, Whitman is a pioneer of performance art and multimedia installation since the 1960s. A proponent of experimental theater, along with Jim Dine, Red Grooms, Allan Kaprow, and Claes Oldenburg, Whitman staged performances in nontraditional venues throughout lower Manhattan in the sixties. In 1966, together with Billy Klüver, Robert Rauschenberg, and Fred Waldhauer, he founded Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) and participated in 9 Evenings: Theatre & Engineering, a series of performances at the 69th Regiment Armory.

Often combining specially fabricated props, lights, sound, video, and live performers, he usually collaborates with engineers, scientists, and non-visual arts specialists to creatively integrate technology into his work. With his groundbreaking work, The American Moon (1960), he became the first artist to incorporate film into a performance. More recently, he produced Local Report (2005), a large-scale communications project, which is the latest iteration of a series of telephone works beginning with NEWS (1972), featuring eyewitness reports from participants using pay phones throughout New York City that were broadcasted over the radio. Local Report was a series of performances held on consecutive weekends at five different venues around the city, in which participants used cell phones to send video reports from their locations and these reports were incorporated into a five-channel video installation at the Guggenheim Museum, New York.

Hyped-up and sold-out long before its premiere, Passport (2010), Whitman’s newest, non-narrative, imagistic, hour-long performance piece, presents a continuation of his style, techniques, and ideology. It took place simultaneously at two venues: outdoors at Riverfront Park, Beacon, New York and indoors at the Alexander Kasser Theater, Montclair State University, New Jersey. After indulging in concessions outside the theater’s entrance in Montclair, a my friends and I exchanged our tickets for programs as an usher escorted us to our seats on the right side of the plush, intimate auditorium. As the audience settled, the lights dimmed, the auditorium went dark, and a hush fell over everything. A soft flood-light illuminated an unfinished, six-foot high wall of identical, cardboard moving boxes stretching the length of the stage while a raspy, motorized grumble gradually became audible. A nonchalant driver appeared, leisurely traversing the stage in an electric-powered cherry-picker. Four ordinary workers, casually clad in white polo shirts and khakis slowly emerged to top the wall off with another level of boxes, then receded behind it. At the left and right sides of the auditorium and from behind the wall, three, six-foot long, ethereal, white collared shirts ascended, functioning as screens for video projections of psychedelically colored, swiftly rotating moon-like orbs. These remained in place for the entire performance.

A few minutes later, unexpectedly, two workers exploded through each end of the wall, crashing onto the floor, frantically convulsing and flopping towards the sides of the stage like fish out of water. When they disappeared, three different workers meandered into view, rambunctiously dragging a spartan oak table and two chairs, zigzagging all over, and ultimately positioning the furniture center stage. Randomly, one of the workers then transformed the table into a makeshift volcano constructed of brown tarp, which steadily began to spew primary-colored, latex paint onto the floor. At this point and for the remainder of the performance, Passport allowed the spectator to experience the concurrent events transpiring in Beacon through sporadic projections of real-time video and sound of such disparate scenes as workers rowing a blazing canoe and walking a horse on the banks of the Hudson. Meanwhile, a worker descended upside-down from above the stage to join hands with another worker standing below, and they glided across the floor in unison. Following a moment of inaction, a booming voice suddenly emanated from the back of the theater, haranguing about the linguistics and etymology of the English language, as an attractive girl coyly strutted toward the audience, coquettishly caressing her body and hair. As she withdrew from the stage, the three hanging, gigantic shirts retracted from view and the auditorium lights abruptly came on.

“Is that it? Is it over?” asked one of the audience members out loud and I turned my head to witness the furrowed brows, rolling eyes, open mouths, and shaking heads of the remaining bewildered people around me. A quarter of the audience had left early. A baffled drone of ranting and giggles ensued, as people started leaving and complaining that they had wasted money and time on a show to be utterly confused. Undeniably, Passport was a work of technological virtuosity, assimilating a slew of electronic media and theatrical techniques that effectively aestheticized the performance with visual stimuli and provoked me to think about the work. While Whitman encourages subjective experiencing of his work, I grew frustrated and eventually disheartened by my inability to produce any interpretation of Passport. Perhaps I am analytical, searching for hidden meanings: Do the oversized shirts signify an autobiographical framework? Do the video projections of orbs and primary colors suggest the fundamentality of life?

Although Passport’s simultaneous performances emphasize the possibility of being in two places at once, this idea is not very novel; it is an experience that advanced communications technology helps people achieve on a daily basis. Moreover, it does not facilitate interpretation of the work’s overall meaning. One could argue that the enigma of a work of art is what makes it appealing and gives it staying power. In the case of Passport, its visual elements and ideas are just too disparate and incongruent to sustain prolonged interest and, in turn, the struggle for meaning.

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