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Monday, January 4, 2016

"Total War Puppets" demilitarize the Mudlark Theater

Posted By on Mon, Jan 4, 2016 at 4:18 PM

click to enlarge Sandy the Slut, one of the Total War Puppets
  • Sandy the Slut, one of the Total War Puppets
In the years I've been acquainted with the woman known as Nyx, she has been not only a very solid poet, artist and anarchist-feminist theorist but an outspoken and unstinting critic of what she perceives as weak or regressive creative endeavors here in New Orleans.

After a sojourn abroad, she and her new collaborator Ben Bornstein are returning to town Jan. 9, 10, 12 and 13 with their project Total War Puppets, in a production at the Mudlark Theatre titled "Fire with Fire."

I spoke to Nyx and Ben about their puppet show, its ideological underpinnings, and what Nyx finds lacking in the New Orleans DIY art scene. One of the most principled and least cowardly New Orleans artists I know is back with a vengeance, and I couldn't be happier about it.

What's the origin of "Total War Puppets?"

I left New Orleans to go to Bread & Puppet in Brattleboro, Vermont for an apprenticeship. I met Ben there and we had more political affinity than I had with most of those people. I'd had the idea for a show about militarism and its connection to my family. A few months later I was working on little scenes, and I had enough to make a show. Ben joined me and we spent a month doing nothing except building the puppet show. We both wrote different scenes and then heavily co-edited them.

BEN: The name of our troupe addresses how a militaristic culture isn't relegated to statist violence like the police. Total War is the current doctrine of war, including citizen non-combatants — Total War throws you into the context of war simply by being alive.

And this show is called "Fire with Fire." What's it about?

NYX: It's a series of vignettes that circle around the idea of militarism being ubiquitous in our daily personal, political and sexual lives. We take on cybernetics, free-market capitalism and occultism. Someone who saw it earlier on the tour described it as being like a mixtape with a theme. It goes quickly from being really funny to really disturbing and back again. The Pharaoh appears, the founders of PayPal appear. My now-dead '96 Toyota Tercel is a prominent character.

Why puppetry?

BEN: I think puppetry is important because you can't deal with this many aspects of fascism with human actors in such a short time; watching people do that would be exhausting. It's easier and less taxing to believe a puppet is in all these extreme situations.

NYX: This type of puppetry appeals to me because it's a combination of every art form: theater, construction, sculpture, drawing, bondage... and if you have a good story, you can bring even a low quality of those skills together as a successful puppet show. In contrast, free market capitalism and fascism are very concerned with expertise. So our approach is stupid, but stupidity is a tool against fascism. Most of our puppets were made out of trash and really cheap art supplies. Probably $150 in supplies. Not even. Most of our money has gone into fixing the car we're driving on tour.

What is the ideological critique behind this? Where should I be looking for militarism in my personal and sex life?

NYX: One example is basic normative gender roles. Patriarchy is a peer of militarism. It goes hand in hand — hypermasculinity is used to motivate people to go to war, to valorize and validate it: "Even if I got my legs blown off, at least I'm a real man."

While "women's work" also goes into the war effort — cooking, cleaning and doing domestic work — the hypermasculinity and trauma of warfare comes home and becomes, for instance, domestic violence. Drawing on thousands of years of patriarchy we can see that feminine people, including most women, are conditioned to accommodate and accept violent masculinity as our part of the war effort. "My man really loves me, and that's why he's possessive and telling me what to do — he's looking out for me, just as he's looking out for the country."

How do cybernetics and free-market capitalism tie into militarism?

NYX: Well, that's what the show is about. We draw the connections between militarism and techno-utopianism, which is this idea that development of technology is gonna save us... this totally ahistoric idea very popular among techies that free-market capitalism and tech will solve everything, that we need to "hack" everything about ourselves. Hack our bodies, hack enlightenment, hack immortality.

BEN: The techno-utopianism Nyx is describing is part of a long history of transhumanism, which is a predictive ideology about the ways identity can be reimagined with technology. The goal for tech-industry types is the creation of a "tech world" that's on top of the world and solves the world's problems, making everything more efficient to prepare the way for the coming singularity: the moment when artificial intelligence supersedes human intelligence.

NYX: The techies seem progressive and believe in gay marriage or whatever, but they're just very rich people executing their vision of the future by throwing tons of money at projects that fit their ideologies. Think of Bill Gates, or how Zuckberg gave $45 billion to charitable causes. They believe in innovation because they believe nobody as smart as them has ever tried to find solutions for world problems.

A big part of techno-utopianism is forgetting there's a historical and economic basis for the current reality. We're not lacking technologies or apps, we're lacking freedom and territory. The reason we don't have resources is because rich people have taken all of them.

click to enlarge Nyx and Ben Bornstein
  • Nyx and Ben Bornstein

How does any of this stuff relate to New Orleans?

NYX: The show is influenced heavily by Naomi Klein's [book] The Shock Doctrine, which I think is essential reading for anyone in New Orleans. Klein talks about how in order to institute free market capitalism, whole societies have to be shocked to the point of bewilderment so they'll be unable to resist these "reforms." Klein addresses the role militarism plays in that: the use of mass torture in South American dictatorships in the '60s and '70s. Torturing people en masse is not about getting information, it's about traumatizing a population to the point where they can't react to economic changes they know will be bad for them and good for rich people.

And Klein draws a direct line between that and the federal flood in New Orleans, which provided followers of [economist] Milton Friedman the opportunity to institute free-market reforms — privatization of schools, replacement of public housing with market-rate apartments, and this new sharing economy extending the terrible working and living conditions that already existed. Newer arrivals and investors aren't affected the way poor people are by the lack of worker protections and affordable housing. These changes have kicked the city while it was down — they're killing New Orleans and exploiting every single part of it to death. Now you have these Chewbacchus people coming in with an ahistorical, capital-worshipping take on Carnival. They're all Burning Man types, and Burning Man is total techno-utopianism.

Ok. How have your years as an artist and critic in New Orleans influenced this show?

NYX: In ways that might get me in trouble for saying. Seeing so much really great DIY theater and perfomance art [in New Orleans] and being in some of it was really exciting, especially how communal the making of it was, but while there is some very political DIY theater, there's also a widespread, creeping docility among the fringe artists in New Orleans. "I'm gonna get my own, I'm gonna have my career." I admire their work, but DIY art is like an open pit mine for mainstream culture.

I worry about a widening split between political and artistic communities. I want to push discourse around what role, ideologically, artists play in gentrification: the ways we gentrify ourselves, including through professionalization. There are increasingly these huge, spectacular art and performance projects that appropriate DIY culture and production processes but cost a lot of money and sell expensive tickets. They're spreading the idea you must have outside funding or be apolitical to make worthwhile art, and I think that's tragic.

But surely most of "DIY" or punk is just a style or mode. You think you can create art that can't be recuperated by capitalism?

NYX: There are no aesthetics that are recuperation-proof. You can be a strung-out accordion player who lives in a pile of trash and still be recuperated. What's important is what you're saying. You can't just make a pretty thing with a novel aesthetic and say, "This is radical." You have to be actively saying, "Capitalism sucks."

[New Orleans philosopher] John Clark talks about this being a landscape of disintegration, an apocalyptic landscape. Among most artists, I think that's taken as feeling that everything's gonna fall apart at any moment, so let's just party as hard as we can. And that's beautiful and wonderful, and being decadent is great, but when that's uncoupled from politics or communal action against the forces that are oppressing us, then we're just putting on a show for yuppies.

What's inherently conflictual about your puppet show? Are you literally lecturing people on politics? Because that doesn't sound fun.

NYX: No, but I'm only not browbeating people with my politics because talking about politics isn't good enough. And art isn't enough. So we've been touring with a zine distro. Art can be the emotional aspect of the politics, to bring people in. Some of the ideas the show touches on, if people are interested, we have zines that delve into it more. Political education can happen through art, but books and zines and conversations bulk it up.

Earlier you mentioned your show goes after occultism. Why are you hostile to occultism?

click to enlarge Frustratingly hard-to-read flyer
  • Frustratingly hard-to-read flyer
NYX: Like techno-utopianism, like apocalyptic thinking, occultism leaves people vulnerable to giving up political responsibility. "It's in the stars!" The obsession with witchiness among New Orleans punks really bugs me.

Doesn't magic runs precisely counter to the kind of statistical computerized rationalism you earlier said characterizes the tech types?

NYX: Rationalism vs new-ageism is a false dichotomy. You look at what's categorized as rational or masculine vs. witchy and feminine, and to begin with, all that gendered stuff is made-up socialization. Often what's called "rational" is very irrational. Conventional masculinity is very irrational and frequently hysterical. Capitalism is very irrational. Mining everything out of the earth until it's dead is irrational. The financial system we live in is so confusing it's occult. And of course it is actually magical in that it's not based on anything; money is fake. Whereas herbalism, for instance, is based on centuries of study and practice. So that whole dichotomy should be discarded.

Something that new-age and techno-utopianism share is what Nyx was saying about self-perfection taking the place of political consciousness. With both, there's a brilliant future available through lifestyle choices. No proletarian history there, no history of oppression; the oppression you see around you is an imbalance in you.

NYX: We're gonna perfect intelligence, perfect our bodies. We're gonna "hack" our bodies because our bodies are inefficient. We'll do enough crossfit and paleo diet and meditation that our bodies will become these perfect machines. In that, I hear echoes of the version of Christianity that says the body is sinful.

The pairing of techno-utopianism and transhumanism backed by money and power is the new hegemonic Christianity.

Can you expand on that gorgeously, almost frameable-y perfect wingnut sentiment?

NYX: Oh, I'm a wingnut! The theory here is that the body is imperfect: we can make ourselves into perfect machines — the subtext is perfect machines to serve capitalism— and somehow be happy. We must do this to prepare for the singularity, "the rapture" in ideology, when God arrives or humans create God as a superior artificial intelligence. When A.I. is created it will start self-replicating and that'll be the end of history. Nothing will ever be the same again, a la the Rapture.

Thus the apocalypse and utopia are basically the same thing: God or A.I. will come about and solve all our problems. At least there's this rapture on the horizon, so I don't have to worry about much or put my time and energy into collective political change. When I see my friends embrace the idea of apocalypse— climate apocalypse, the singularity or the messiah returning— it's to help them feel better about their sense of political impotence. So this new Christianity is one of many ideas that help people feel better about how badly capitalism has [messed] up the world.

"Fire with Fire" will run Jan. 9, 10, 12 and 13 at 7 pm at the Mudlark Public Theater, 1200 Port St.

Admission is sliding scale, $5-$20, with no-one turned away for lack of funds. 

This show is intended for adults and involves a scene of domestic violence. Discussion to follow performance. Visit the tour's Facebook Event Page for the latest information.

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