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‘This Book Saved Me From Mental Suicide’: Semiotext(e) Channels Schizo-Culture at MoMA PS1

A multigenerational assemblage of aesthetes gathered under the “VW Dome” at MoMA PS1 on Sunday, November 16, for an afternoon of performance, screenings, music, and readings in celebration of the 40th anniversary of the influential independent press Semiotext(e).

Kim Gordon. Photo by Charles Roussel. Image courtesy of MoMA PS1.

Kim Gordon.

CHARLES ROUSSEL/COURTESY MOMA PS1

The day’s program attempted to evoke Semiotext(e)’s legendary 1975 Schizo-Culture conference, turning the dome into a battle royal of cross-platform performance, allowing each participant a mere 10 minutes before moving on to the next one (the staff at PS1 fervently attempted to adhere to these guidelines: when a performer’s 10 minutes were up, they shined a flashlight onto the stage, making the whole thing feel a bit like an avant-garde awards show).

Perennial downtown fixture Penny Arcade MCed the event and used every act break as an excuse to hawk the two-volume Schizo-Culture book set. She operated with a gusto only rivaled by the host of a PBS telethon, although it would be hard to find a public broadcasting announcer as misanthropic as Arcade.

Highlights of her relentlessly bleak hard sell: “[This book] completely saved me from mental suicide,” “the world is a horrible place filled with horrible people,” and, simply, “get the fucking book.” At one point, Arcade offered up her personal email address with the promise of refunding the book if it “doesn’t blow your mind.”

Kicking off the afternoon, Pharmakon—also known as Margaret Chardiet, one of the leading lights in the contemporary American music underground—offered up a confrontational set to the earlybirds who decided to take in some industrial noise in lieu of brunch. “I don’t belong here,” repeated Chardiet as she drifted off the stage and onto the floor of the dome. She sounded remarkably crisp through the high-end sound system, no doubt facilitated by the good folks at Volkswagen.

In a post-show interview, Chardiet seemed happy with the performance. “It makes you go outside of your comfort zone, when you’re playing at 12:30 in the afternoon and you only have a 10-minute set and you’ve barely even had your morning coffee,” she told ARTnews. “You have to somehow go into that mental place that it normally takes a 30-minute set to get into.”

Pharmakon. Photo by Charles Roussel. Image courtesy of MoMA PS1.

Pharmakon.

CHARLES ROUSSEL/COURTESY MOMA PS1

Although Pharmakon’s aggressive set felt like a modern manifestation of Semiotext(e)’s original ethos, there were noted differences between the recreation and the original, which had a revolutionary spirit and famously hosted Deleuze’s first presentation on the concept of the “rhizome” and Foucault’s introduction of his History of Sexuality project.

For one, the “VW Dome” at PS1 felt more like a convention-center showroom than an alternative arts space—all carpeted, heated, and professionally lit. In a speech that day, Semiotext(e) founder Sylvère Lotringer stated that the 2014 version of the event was “really different than in ’75,” and admitted, “There’s no more purity, there’s no more avant-garde.”

With that said, the day did offer some spontaneity in the form of performance. New Zealand-transplant David Watson’s ecstatic bagpipe performance was accompanied by the violist Tom Chui in a last-minute collaboration.

“We found out we were both on the Schizo-Culture list of artists, so we just said, ‘Hey, why not, let’s do something together,'” Chui explained between sips of wine. When asked if he was happy with the (all-improvised) performance, Chui could only answer the question with a question: “Were you happy? What did you think? I agree with you.”

“Goddamnit that light is so blinding,” said Richard Hell, performing during an extended block centered on spoken performance, which included John Giorno and Alan Vega. Hell then launched into a few chapters from a forthcoming “cold-ass genre novel” that contained pulpy, plainly graphic depictions of overlapping drugs, sex, and death, and was met with scattered applause.

More enthusiastic was the crowd for the second-to-last performance of the day, former Sonic Youth member Kim Gordon, who came into the dome directly from the airport and wore an orange mini-skirt and heels. Gordon first performed a poem that served as a dry play-by-play of male rock-and-roll heroics before launching into a choreographed reenactment of said poem, which methodically went through the motions of a climatic last-song freakout.

Although the piece’s intention was in no way concrete, it was hard not to think about Gordon’s former husband and bandmate Thurston Moore when watching her slow deconstruction of iconic male rock gestures.

Earlier in the day, Lotringer spoke of Semiotext(e)’s desire to connect high and low cultures, but most of the action on Sunday rested in the upper register. That’s fine, but in 2014 any sort of real Schizo culture should probably include a little bit of reality television or something, or at least some rap music. That sound system was too good to not play a little rap music.

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