A planet of stuff from Craiglist onstage at OtB in SBCs To Be Determined.
  • A planet of stuff from Craiglist onstage at OtB in SBC's To Be Determined.
The last time Stranger Genius-winning artist trio SuttonBeresCuller made a theater show that I reviewed at On the Boards, this is what I wrote:

SBC’s piece was like a puppy alternating between licking the audience’s face and licking its own balls.

That was one of the nicer sentences in that review. Yes, I do stand by that review. That was one review. This is another.

After that review, the artists told me I'd missed the point of what they were doing: They felt they were trying to do something unusual in theater, and that I'd been reviewing them as visual or performance artists. This time around at OtB, they've taken that premise and made it plain: They're not calling To Be Determined theater, or even art. They call it an "event," opening up the categories wide enough to make them meaningless.

Categories are for dresser drawers. The real question is, is what you see original, surprising, fresh? Does it build on what they've done in the past? How much more life does what you experience give your life?

Lemonade clown!
  • Lemonade clown!
I arrived at the theater to find OtB artistic director Lane Czaplinski sitting outside, leaning on the building, smoking a cigarette. "Part of the performance?" I asked. Of course, he said, laughing.

At the door, the artists' dealer, Scott Lawrimore, let me in by pulling aside a velvet rope (a version of a trick he did at Art Basel Miami Beach in 2007, where I found it more interesting because an art fair is a more pronounced example of a nightclub pretending strenuously not to be). Inside, I immediately ran into past fellow Stranger Genius Award winner Susan Robb and artist Jed Dunkerley, who got right up in my face. "I'm the close talker!" he said. "I'm the animal!" she said. I don't know what kind of animal she was. "It's part of the art!" they said.

This theme would repeat.

A man in dark glasses, wearing an equally dark expression, stood guard at the elevator doors, under an awning that read "Stompy's," and behind another velvet rope. Mafia. I immediately wanted to go to Stompy's. But instead I was taken aside by the very nice and helpful press person at OtB, who offered me a schedule of all the events. Except the artists had told me it was important to them not to publish a schedule. It's weird being press sometimes. Should I look at the schedule? In the spirit of outsourcing answers to open questions—as SBC did, by creating this series of unscripted performances and sculptures using talent they found on Craigslist as well as materials and discarded objects from Craigslist—I began asking other people what to do. "Should I look at the schedule?"

"Yes!" said a man standing with another man near an Italian clown who was running his own lemonade stand. "Lemonade's a nickel! Nickels are a dollar! Don't have a nickel, I'll sell you one for a dollar!"

"But really?" I asked the man. We both had lemonade, thinking maybe it was magical lemonade. It was lemonade. Tasted good. "Like, do you only want to see the schedule because I have it and you don't, or do you really want to get all Bumbershoot-scheduley?"

He grabbed the schedule from my hands. This would also happen repeatedly. The people who wanted a schedule were, I think, dissatisfied with what they were finding by simply wandering around.

The plane crashing into theater seats.
  • The plane crashing into theater seats.
I could relate. Taken individually, many of the acts and objects were disappointing. A planet of objects all tied together and strung up like a (reverse) hot-air balloon (stuck to the ground) was dull to me. A whole bunch of theater seats thrown into a pile on the bleachers with a plywood plane appearing to crash into them—another pointless spectacle. Pointlessness has been a strength and a weakness of SBC over the years. Sometimes they're marvelously, lightly, pointless, sometimes they go pointless while the associations their works make (plane crash) go heavy. They can come across as tone-deaf, living down to the dumb nickname people sometimes use on them, calling them "the boys," as in, dudes living in a world without consequences. (People often accuse art itself of being a world without consequences, and maybe I'm reacting too strongly against that.)

Something awful was going on in one corner of the stage: It was community theater-meets-makeover-reality-TV.

It was a relief to be drawn away toward a crowd starting to gather around a young guy in an easy chair, dressed up as an old tweedy guy with a pipe named Captain Trendo. He wore eyeliner—theater!—and spoke into a mic, pretending to be the hoary host of a radio show for old white conservative sticks in the mud. He read a letter from a listener who wanted to hear some hip hop. He scoffed. He carried on for a bit and I had to agree when someone asked me, "Is this about proving that Craigslist performers are bad?" "Not nice!" I said, my skin crawling at the thought, which had also occurred to me.

I escaped back out to the lobby, but when I made a circle back to the stage five minutes later, I found the same young guy, shirt ripped open to reveal an insane pec-ular situation and gold chain, freestyling on the mic. And he was pretty good.

Can I get to Stompy's already? In the elevator, just as the door closed, I caught a glimpse of a poet under an "OPEN" sign back in the lobby I'd just left. So I rode the elevator down but didn't get out, and rode it back up to hear the poet, whose name was Fathom. He made the three of us who were paying attention recite "Welcome to the Northwest." I made sure I smiled through the entire performance, swimming in awkwardness. Fathom came off the mic and went down to Stompy's with us.

Stompy's was a dance party. I made the mistake of picking up a flashing lighted rainbow hula hoop and attempting to use it. The owner of the hula hoop was very nice. But she informed me that it was, in fact, her hula hoop, and it was really for her to perform with. I danced with only my own body very briefly. I was starting to feel scattered. I had tried looking at the schedule, but I didn't know any of the names, so it made little sense to me, and I couldn't help noticing that while I was looking at the schedule, I was missing a performance somewhere.

At which point I ran into Trimpin. Trimpin is the Macarthur "Genius" Award winner who builds instruments as sculptures. He believes that all music is live, and that recorded music is not music. (It is something more like sculpture or architecture.) I love Trimpin.

I told him I was having a hard time getting my To Be Determined to be either determined or indeterminate, that it was sort of sliding by in unpleasant ways, that it felt too much like the rush of my regular life. (Maybe this is what I was supposed to feel. Life is just life, lemonade is just lemonade, the rest is up to you.) Trimpin told me how to do it.

"You have to keep moving," he said. "You watch something, you go get a drink, you come back and watch something else, you go for another drink or a smoke. It's great. I've been here since the beginning."

Wait: Trimpin, are you part of the art?

"I am not! I paid 15 dollars and I'm glad I did!"

At this moment I began to feel that it was me, not the "event," that was the problem. And in some ways, that's because TBD was designed to be critic-proof. (Aha! SBC one, Graves one.)

Community-theater-meets-makeover-reality-TV situation.
  • Community-theater-meets-makeover-reality-TV situation.
Like the setup of Oliver Herring's Task performance that took place over the course of an entire day at the Seattle Public Library a few years ago, ideas of "quality" are mooted in the service of something more important: true, open collaboration and an experience that is different for every person. You basically can't compare your experience of To Be Determined to anyone else's, and each night (it runs through SaturdaySunday) is also different.

The fact is, while it may seem condescending to say so, there's kindness in SBC's turning over the program to artists who have to hawk themselves on Craigslist rather than getting invited in by a fancy theater.

It's a little like the power-sharing that Wynne Greenwood did when she used her solo exhibition at Lawrimore Project last year as a venue for conducting public interviews with other artists whose work she admires and respects. In Greenwood's case, she exhibited more political commitment, selecting artists whose works are not often seen in the official venues of the art world (as SBC did at OtB)—but also supporting artists whose bodies and personal presences are not part of the cultural mainstream: queer artists, outspoken feminists, artists with physical disabilities. Yeah, I'd rather see more of that than more of To Be Determined.

But it's also true that the desire to be open is a humble, peaceable act that can begin to combat divisions between people. To the extent that just being social is a good thing, To Be Determined was good. (On a scale of irritating "relational aesthetics" experiences, it ranks on the very low end of irritation.) It included clusters of eventness with clusters of emptiness in between, where people clumped. Conversations ranged from concentrated little mini-reviews of what you'd just seen to hey, what's up. It was true what Trimpin said: You just have to keep moving.

I walked away from Trimpin to get a better view of a guy very intensely singing "I Can't Make You Love Me"—this year's Stranger Genius DK Pan said the performance was so intense, it made him sweat—which felt like the anthem of the night. How does love get exchanged between artists and audiences?