On a recent Sunday, Ei Arakawa and several actors were pretending to farm artichokes on an island in the Pacific Ocean. An actress suddenly looked stunned. She asked, somewhat rhetorically, what a secret door was doing on the island. As it turned out, the people on the island were not just organic-food farmers. They were also a data farmers. What ensued was what may be the only song that has made a bubbly, catchy refrain out of the phrase “data farmer.”
This is one of the last scenes in Arakawa’s latest project, a musical called How to DISappear in America (2016), which premiered two weeks ago at Reena Spaulings Fine Art in New York’s Chinatown. (Its third and final showing will be this Sunday.) The performance features music by Stefan Tcherepnin, the lyrics were cowritten by Arakawa and Dan Poston, it takes its title and concepts from a Seth Price book from 2008, and it’s entirely lip-synced, with monitors facing the audience displaying the entire script. I sat on the stage at the premiere and watched Arakawa and his crew acted out a drug-fueled rave, a cross-country search for a couple on the run, and a carnival for outcasts. (I also had long-grain rice thrown at me.) Later this year, the musical will be performed, with a new cast, at the Berlin Biennale.
A few days after the musical was first performed, I caught up with Arakawa at Reena Spaulings. It was late in the afternoon, and gallery staff were typing away on their laptops. Arakawa was milling around, waiting for the next performance of Nightmare of Gallerists: SP Press Release 2004–2013 (2016), a 10-minute affair that occurs a few times a day on the hour. In the work, releases for Seth Price shows are sung as a series of rapid-fire musical numbers. With everyone casually lounging, the gallery felt a lot like a group hangout—a place where artists got together and formed a community outside the confines of the mainstream art world.
“I’ve been showing with this gallery since 2004, which is also when Seth Price started showing here,” Arakawa told me. He pulled his chair close to mine, and, as he spoke, his black mop of hair bounced slightly. “Already, there’s a network of artists. We know each other, and also, often I incorporate a group of people from a different part of my social network.”
Featuring a cast that includes Real Fine Arts dealer Ben Morgan-Cleveland and the singer Miho Hatori (of Cibo Matto fame), How to DISappear is about a man and woman who are both involved in the arts. He’s a video editor, she’s a painter. Unsatisfied with their lives, they run away together, fall in love, get chased by their partners and a private detective, and, in the end, disappear in America, only to accidentally become data farmers.
This is not Arakawa’s first musical. He told me that the genre appeals to him because viewers experience “esoteric information, which people normally have a hard time accessing, through the melody.”
But How to DISappear is hardly a typical musical production, since it’s entirely lip-synced. “In a way, this is a readymade musical,” he said. “We’re not real actors, and memorizing is very hard for us.” He added that he sees the work “in the tradition of the Wooster Group, letting the machine mediate your expression creates distance. Whatever things we do, whatever’s expressionistic, there’s a technical distance.”
Arakawa’s work has been compared to the 1950s and ’60s avant-garde, which, through happenings and performances, sought to bring the everyday into the field of art. He thrives on collaboration. Past Arakawa performances have involved paintings by Amy Sillman, Jutta Koether, Kerstin Brätsch, and the Gutai artists, who remain important inspirations for him. In this case, Price was a central inspiration. “It’s like an appropriation of Seth’s work,” which has text that Price appropriated from the Internet, Arakawa said. He directed my attention to some banners, one of which was laid out on the floor—they had on them the cover image of Price’s book. During the performance, a LED screen features an animated envelope, a reference to Price’s works envelope works.
In Price’s latest book, Fuck Seth Price, the artist looks at the concept of disappearing identities—the way that Jeff Koons and Richard Serra have somehow buried their true personalities by producing art. “[Price] was questioning, Can we honor the possibility of disappearance in a positive sense?” Arakawa said. “I was still wondering what it is with this musical.”
Arakawa also took from Price an interest in bodies, production, and the digital. Throughout How to DISappear characters fail to completely fall away from society because they leave behind search histories and data—technology makes them forever present. “The past two musicals I did had something to do with video art or LED screens and animations,” he said. “The musicals reexamine a connection between bodies and a technological environment.”
It was now 5 p.m., which meant it was time for the day’s final performance of Nightmare of Gallerists. I sat on a couch, along with one other gallery visitor. “We have two audience members!” one Reena Spaulings staff member exclaimed. Arakawa quickly donned a suit jacket and, with Reena proprietor Emily Sundblad and several other staff members, assumed his position on stage.
Sundblad then led the troupe in lip-synced song and dance. They sang press releases, sweetly intoning the phone number for Reena Spaulings Fine Art four times over the next ten minutes. By the end, it was slightly melancholy—press releases began to allude to the fact that artists like Price and Josh Smith, who became famous while showing with Reena Spaulings, had moved on to bigger things. (Price now also shows with Petzel, a decidedly blue-chip enterprise in Chelsea.)
Still, Arakawa, Sundblad, and the rest of the staff kept the mood light. For one press release about old Price works, Sundblad twirled a plastic umbrella and lip-synced, “When he did them / he had no gallery, / and when he had one later on / he was doing something else.” With the last press release, from 2013, having been sung, the cast took a bow. Arakawa, Sundblad, and the rest of the cast stepped offstage, disappearing back into their work.