Art in America’s October issue sees Fay Hirsch interview artist Brody Condon about the sub-culture that is LARPing. Here we bring you an exclusive video featuring the artist’s performance at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles.
In Summer 2008, for the 10th Sonsbeek International Sculpture Exhibition in the Netherlands, Brody Condon invited 80 players from the Live Action Role Playing (LARPing) scene in Denmark to help him create a new piece, Twentyfivefold Manifestation. Living on the grounds for several days as though in a future era, and remaining in character throughout, the players invented rituals for the other artists’ sculptures on view, which they treated as avatars of gods. Viewers are normally excluded from LARPing events, but Condon accommodated the “viewership structure,” as he puts it, by casting (unwitting) visitors in the performance as ghosts wandering in a kind of purgatory. Thus began Condon’s public involvement with LARPing. It is the latest expression of his lifelong effort to explore the permeable nature of self, the social dimensions of creativity and the potential of the individual to access alternate states of being.
When I met Brody on July 7 in Long Island City, he was preparing for a multiday performance that was to take place over Labor Day weekend at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles and at the 01SJ San Jose biennial two weeks later. Based on controversial Large Group Awareness Training (LGAT) seminars, most famously EST, which developed in the 1970s, LevelFive was to incorporate LGAT’s techniques of breaking down participants, sometimes violently, in order to release their full potential to “self-actualize.” Some of the 50-plus players would again be drawn from the LARPing community in Denmark; others would be actors from experimental theater, performance artists and volunteers from the public. Following the rule of live-action role-play, there were to be no viewers in the room; at the Hammer, the event would be live-streamed in the museum’s Billy Wilder Theater.
The subject of New Age excesses is a resonant one for Condon, who was born in 1974 in Mexico to counterculture Americans, and raised in Missouri and Florida in a home life shadowed by drugs and violence. As a teenager, he immersed himself in Dungeons and Dragons and, self-taught, wrote the program for a text-based computer adventure game based on the 1985 movie Gymkata. His earliest artworks took the form of performance, but shortly after receiving his MFA from UC San Diego, he also began creatively modifying video games, often with collaborators. In Velvet Strike (2002), for example, produced with Anne-Marie Schleiner and Joan Leandre, players “spray” the urban wasteland of the popular first-person-shooter game Counter-Strike with peace messages. (The work was featured in the 2004 Whitney Biennial.) Condon has continued to produce highly inventive, sometimes subversive computer games, mainly modifications of or riffs on existing games, though his recent series “Youth of the Apocalypse” (2006–08), which he calls a “non-interactive game,” repurposes Northern Renaissance paintings by Hans Memling, Gerard David and Dieric Bouts as trippy looping animations.
Our conversation focused on Condon’s performative efforts, among them Without Sun. Having created a video with that title in 2008, in which he montaged excerpts from online videos of people high on hallucinogens, Condon then invited an actor and a dancer to re-create the stuttering monologues and spastic movements in a performance that premiered at the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s Time-Based Art Festival 09 and was reprised at Machine Project in Los Angeles and, during Performa 09, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Also for Performa 09, and more in keeping with his interest in lengthy endurance pieces, Condon produced a multiplayer, 6-hour-long reading of William Gibson’s cyberpunk classic Neuromancer (1984), with Condon’s stepfather, Ray “Rad” Radtke, playing the main character, Henry Dorset Case. The piece, called Case, also entailed a large gamelan orchestra noisily striking up whenever Case “jacked into” hyperspace, and 23 colorful movable cubes derived from Oskar Schlemmer props for the Bauhaus theater. (The cubes are on view in MoMA PS1’s “Greater New York” survey.) A reprise of Case is scheduled for May 2011 at a site near Columbia, Missouri.
This interview began with Brody explaining the LARPing subculture to me.
BRODY CONDON Scandinavia is 20 years ahead of the States in having the most progressive live-action role-playing scene in the world, hands down. Here in the U.S., it’s more people getting together out in the woods in a kind of epic medieval fantasy hero-worship. It’s called “boffer” LARPing. The players bash each other with fake weapons and pretend to cast spells on each other, throwing little packets of flour and stuff like that.
FAYE HIRSCH What’s the difference between LARP and historical reenactment?
BC For one thing, LARP is focused role-play. Each person invents a character that evolves. There’s a game designer who builds a world in which the players can have a first-person immersive experience. In historical reenactment there’s not generally as much role-playing, in terms of falling into a particular character or allowing a character to grow with other players. Historical reenactment is more focused on the external manifestations of a particular event—accuracy of costume, or how a particular battle played out. It’s much more rigid. LARPers take on a role that has no basis in fact or history and explore that role as deeply as they can. And there is an intricate set of rules that don’t exist in reenactment.