“You don’t want to be 30, man,” one hippie tells another in Dan Graham’s rock ‘n’ roll puppet show Don’t Trust Anyone Over 30. “30 is death.”
It was fitting, then, that last night, at The Kitchen, many of the people in the audience for a screening of a video of Graham’s puppet show were under 30. In fact, Graham, the 73-year-old artist, was the oldest person in the room. Known for his environments that involve mirrors and video, Graham has been working in New York since the late ’60s, but he is still young at heart. He dresses his age—he wore a brown plaid shirt, matched with brown corduroys—but he was as cheerful and excited as anyone else in the room. Don’t let his thin grey hair distract you.
Before the video, Graham explained that what we were about to see was recorded from a 2006 performance at the Walker Art Center. (First performed at Art Basel Miami Beach in 2004, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30 was also revised as an abstract video installation for the 2006 Whitney Biennial.) He wanted to do a live performance at The Kitchen, but “the producers screwed up,” he said. Graham wryly noted that the performance involved “a very amateur group, like the Beastie Boys,” with video projections by Tony Oursler and live rock music by Japanther. (To further underscore the irony, Graham noted that the puppeteers were “among the best in the world.”)
Graham went on to explain the show’s story, which takes place during the ’60s and involves a 35-year-old presidential candidate named Neil Sky. Modeled after Neil Young, Sky represents everything a ’60s kid could want. (The title of the performance is borrowed from Jack Weinberg, an activist at UC Berkeley during the ’60s and a member of the Free Speech Movement.) Notably, Sky will put everyone over 30 in a rehab facility where they’ll get LSD in their drinking water. The plot is loopy and absurd, and Graham said it was inspired by Billy Wilder’s comedies. Mostly, however, “I did it just for fun,” Graham said. “All art should be for fun.”
The lights dimmed, and the video started. The quality of the video itself was disappointing. (After the 55-minute piece finished, Graham, too, mentioned that he was unhappy with the picture quality. “I guess on a smaller screen everything is clear,” he said.) The camera was positioned all the way in the back of the Walker Art Center theater, in the left corner of the room. Occasionally, the camera would zoom in to a rectangular slit in the lower left of the stage, where the puppets would interact. To the right, Japanther performed in a cube that would erupt with light during the louder moments.
Even with Graham’s summary of the video, I wasn’t ready for what I was going to see. The work includes several puppets taking LSD, a fairly graphic puppet sex scene, and a dog named Eisenhower running around with a cardboard sign that said “HIGH” on it. (Yes, that’s right—Team America: World Police wasn’t the only work in 2004 to include puppet sex.) It was weird, and it just kept getting weirder. By the end, Sky is elected president, and he moves the White House to Camp David. His 10-year-old son, David, hatches a plan to become president and put everyone over 10 in a rehab center. And so, while Sky is tripping on LSD, Dylan and his friend Zena trick him into signing over the presidency. A 10-year-old becomes president, and Japanther rocks out while a rectangular Oursler projection of puppet eyes moves across the set.
Don’t Trust Anyone Over 30 is a satire of ’60s youth culture, but it’s also strangely genuine. Early on, in a flashback, a younger Sky becomes frustrated with being told what to do and leaves his family’s home. He presses the detonate button on a bomb, and vinyl records explode out of the house like confetti. It’s both ironic and honest, not unlike Todd Haynes’s Karen Carpenter biopic Superstar, which was also staged with puppets.
After the video, Graham came back for a few closing remarks. He said that this recording was confusing because it was truncated. “Japanther took over and stole the show,” he said, “but I guess young people do this.” He clarified some plot details, but it barely mattered. The incoherence of Don’t Trust Anyone Over 30 is part of its charm. He then added that the script for the performance will come out as a book very soon. With that, he was finished talking, and he took a sip from his water bottle. Realizing the audience wanted more, Graham added, “Oh, and, uh, support The Kitchen.”