James Leonard will be performing WARBONDS, one time only,on Friday, September 12 at 7:30 pm.Free admission
Tell us about "Fighting Forces" and how it led to the "Warbonds" performance?
Fighting Forces is a large scale installation piece that requires 100,000 mouse-eared 4" toy soldiers. In the completed work, these soldiers will be arranged in a variety 12' x 12' formations, laid out side by side allowing audience members to compare and contrast the narratives implicit in each different pattern. For example, there are very different implications in a dense 12' x 12' patch of toy soldiers all facing the same direction versus another arrangement where one half the field faces the other. Beyond these obvious arrangements, there remains a significant number of other possible formations that convey more complex and sometimes ridiculous narratives. I see these explorations into narrative defined by flow as something akin to what Josef Albers accomplished with his square paintings and color theory: revealing patterns of immediate, implicit information rooted in the aesthetics of the work.
How did this project lead to the Warbonds Project as a whole and the Warbonds Performance in particular?
Let me tell you: 100,000 slightly-larger-than-normal mouse-eared toy soldiers are not cheap to produce. Due to the potential political edge this larger work has, I believe this work should be manufactured within the United States. Based on numerous consultations with a variety of plastics manufacturers stateside, I'm looking at a budget of several tens-of-thousands of dollars. Though I've self-funded the production of other works in the past, this project has proven too costly to go it alone. Then it hit me. Why not engage in a little roleplay and sell a fine art print that apes the war bonds of yore. There are a lot of interesting, though admittedly gimmicky, security features used in modern promissory notes and documents and I've always been attracted to these things. Before I knew it, I was off and running designing the Warbond Certificate.
What began with the Warbond Certificate soon snowballed into a larger effort. It became clear that these certificates, though attractive and dense with information, were not going to promote themselves. For the piece to really "work" conceptually, I needed to follow through and sell the whole damn series. And I needed a means to unequivocally connect in the minds of my audience the patterns and notions present in the yet-to-be-produced Fighting Forces installation with the actual gesture of purchasing one of these Warbond Certificates. So in a conceptual gesture of self-promotional madness I found myself in authoring the most auspicious act of bootstrapping since Preston Tucker and the Warbonds Performance was born.
What kind of response beyond general support are you looking to provoke from your audience?
Connection. Throughout the performance, while affecting the persona of some ambiguously-great yet-unnamed military commander, I lay several challenges to the audience. But my penultimate challenge: each audience member should find a moment of clarity. I want people to gain an aesthetic moment of understanding of the much larger whole of our economy and our society that extends beyond the confines of the performance and the venue that night. I ask them to see the connections in their mind, feel them, map them and hold onto the image. This is not easy to do. And it is not that unlike that moment of cosmic smallness one can feel when stargazing. You know, when you can actually feel the curvature of the Earth and see it in your minds eye and you see yourself standing small on the side of a giant blue, green and white marble? I hope that I can bring at least a few members of the audience to that plateau for a moment.
I realize this is a grand challenge. And a rather silly request to make whilst wearing a paramilitary uniform and a pair of mouse ears. What I've invented may prove to be more Vomit Comet than rocket ship. But it is precisely the optimism of this challenge that elevates the Warbonds Performance for me beyond mere entertainment or sales pitch.
Does the performance of "Warbonds" change with location and repetition? Is there site-specific improvisation?
This is a scripted performance, not unlike traditional one-man plays. Or perhaps more fittingly, the script door-to-door salesmen once followed. Anyways, as with any theatre, there is always room for improvisation. I'm still very much at the beginning of this campaign. I await eagerly to see how my performance of the piece evolves over the next few years. I think of some of the modern masters of spoken word and monologue, such as George Carlin and Spalding Gray, and I think how much their work changed over the course of their lives. Often, they were doing the same material decades later, but still discovering new depths! If I could be so lucky.
How have the preceding months of presidential election politics and media coverage affected your performance or the audience's understanding of your performance?
It's difficult to say. The script for the Warbonds Performance has a great deal of depth to begin with. Elements advance and recede in response to current events. I continue to discover new layers of meaning and implication each time I run it. For example, there is a bit that made it into the script about predicting the weather. It begins, "Even something as immense as the weather can be predicted with..." and then I go on to name the three key variables essential to any weather model, the three variables that generate the Lorenz Attractor. This dramatic beat ends with a warning to never turn your back on science, even if it seems esoteric or returns information that scares you. This whole portion of the script was written prior to hurricane Katrina. Needless to say, that disaster lent grave new meaning to this portion of the script.
I can only begin to guess how the coming elections will affect peoples' reads of the performance. I'd hate to coach a response. I'd rather just let it happen. Good theatre and performance often yanks us into the present and makes us pay notice. It's what makes these media special. I'm eager to see how my audience in Minneapolis will respond here at this moment in history to the Warbonds Performance.
Many people will say that they are hesitant to investigate or to discuss politics in public, let alone political art. How do you address this? How, if at all, has this affected your process?
Politics can lead to polemics. For many, feelings are too easily trampled in such debates. I understand this aversion and even share it on some days. They don't call "small talk" small for nothing!
The Warbonds Performance does not require immediate discussion amongst audience members. Much more importantly, the work should stick to the back of the brain, becoming a frame of reference. Much of the work I create functions as open metaphors: very specific cognitive models of situations and dynamics with a few key nouns left blank. In many ways, I see good conceptual art as playground equipment for grownups. I invite my audience to come tumble with the work. Humor and play are key to defusing the often overly combative character and resulting gridlock of contemporary political discourse. I want to extend the horizons beyond the next four months and broaden any dialogue that does take place into a wider historical context, one wide enough to accomodate emotions of awe and respect.
How has the performance aspect of this project informed your other work?
For about ten years now, from treasures to tschochkies, I've been creating hypermanufactured objects: things that might find camouflage in the human world as facts of nature, things you might find for sale in a store or at a flea market. But I've increasingly missed the spontaneity present in my early development of painting and drawing. Recently, I've begun hybridizing spontaneity with the hypermanufactured by creating arenas and frameworks for improvisation, call and response, and gesture. This balance between craft and improvisation has been at the fore in theatre for centuries. So the Warbonds Performance presented a very logical, sound bridge for my work to move in this direction.
What do you enjoy most about performing this piece? What has surprised you most about performing this piece? How has "Fighting Forces" changed in response to the on going performances of "Warbonds?"
As I stated above, I love the moments when I feel myself truly occupying that character on stage--when I'm really in the moment with the audience--alive with gesture and taking us all some place. My studio practice has always been an odd mix of old-school ethos and contemporary pathos. Though the connections are obvious now, I was quite surprised by how much the traditions of theatre and spoken word have helped reinvigorate my work. But I am still very much at the beginning of my life with this performance. And I'm eager to see how the piece itself continues to evolve as well as its effects my larger studio practice.