The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2013

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MAY 2013 Issue


On View
The Kitchen
March 6 – March 11, 2013
New York

Art is at its most truthful when there is a paradoxical sense of open completeness: the infrastructure of meaning is able to contain the vision of the artist as well as a seemingly endless array of impressions from the viewer. Michael Portnoy’s 27 Gnosis is an open-complete system—a game show (or “ontic sphere” as termed by the performers), a set of parameters so hilariously exhaustive that it becomes its own language, activated by participants willing to commit to learning it, but also completely meaninglessa kind of alien hieroglyphics, weighty and foreign.

Photo: Paula Court.

I arrive early to the Friday evening performance of 27 Gnosis. The audience mingles in the foyer of The Kitchen, where we are asked to take off our coats and deposit our bags. At 9 o’clock an usher leads us upstairs to the second floor at a very slow pace. In the darkness, barely visible, what can only be described as a lilac-colored inverted conical enclosure fills the space, resonant humming emanating from within. We line up around the entrance to this enclosure as the usher extends each of our left arms to the left, perpendicular to our bodies, closing our fingers while extending our pinkies, until all of us are “in position.” Then we are led into the space, single file, and asked to “disperse [ourselves] evenly around the lean.” We lean against the sloping wall, feet toward the central “stage,” heads and bodies resting on the structure, exposed and helpless.

In the center of the stage—known hereafter as the “ontic sphere”—are Michael “The Rigid Designator” (TRD) Portnoy, and his wife Ieva “Modifa” Misevičiūtė (“she is here to help you—pay attention to her,” TRD later urges us, “not only what she says but how she uses her words”). Both are dressed in backless, armpit-less, one-hamstring-less tuxedoes, humming to a backdrop of celestial tones, sniffing the air, pulling their sniffs out with their hands, licking and caressing imaginary surfaces. At some point the music stops abruptly: “WE ARE COMPLETE WE ARE COMPLETE,” says TRD into his long-stemmed handheld microphone, while hopping around on one leg and kicking outward with the other. The game show begins.

“This is 27 Guh-nosis,” TRD informs us. “A combinatorial game show in which we propagate ontic spheres, which follow from PROPOSITIONS which are derived through the collision of these 27 guh-noses here, each of which represents a state, heuristic, or conceptual tool.” TRD points to five shelves on the part of the lean directly facing the entrance, which contain 27 black objects, sculpted out of something like putty into strange, totemic forms. In the center of the ontic sphere are two purple podiums—“skews”—with three sides. Teams of three are chosen by TRD while everybody claps. Each team is given a “guh-nose” to help them with their tasks; the objects bear such names as “PUNCTO-GUH-NOSIS—or the knowledge through lancing” and “HOOPBO-GUH-NOSIS—or the knowledge through heaping.” At the beginning of the round an impossible riddle is presented—“A marcessant thing loosens the categorical creance of a guddle”—and then the teams at each skew are given two minutes to solve the riddle, countdown music pervading, Modifa interjecting with pseudo-nonsensical advice while TRD counts down in uneven increments. At the end of each round, responses are heard (one team member answers thoughtfully, “It’s phlegmatic, it sparkles, and it’s not redundant”), and winners of the first two rounds are chosen to face off in the third round.

These uproarious parameters form a baseline of distraction upon which Portnoy mercilessly builds. During the second round, TRD exits and the sound of a rock keyboard on overdrive starts to blast during the countdown. The entrance to the sphere bursts open and TRD enters, playing a tiny keyboard strapped to his arm as he chants, as though spoofing bygone Philip Glass performances from the early days of The Kitchen itself, “One-two-one-two-one-two-one-two-three-four-five-six-one-two-,” while Modifa says to the contestants, “You still have time!” and forces them to continue their responses.

The commitment from both performers is unshakable and the experience is so present and pervasive that it feels strangely like fact. TRD and Modifa could almost be future humans, returning to the present day in their joyful ontic sphere mothership, to show us the next sublimely terrifying step in human evolution, soon to leave us, befuddled messengers, scratching our proto-human heads. Later, after the show, Portnoy told me that they wished there were a club of this kind that they could go to every night. I couldn’t agree more, and I empathize, too—this brutal, clunky world caters poorly to human butterflies.

The crowning moment comes during the third round when, just as a winner is about to be decided, TRD descends into one of his trademark “carrot jokes,” a joke format championed by Portnoy and purportedly first proposed in 1981 by cognitive linguists Chlopicki and Petray, wherein the background details of a joke are expounded upon to the point that the entire armature of the joke collapses. Trailing off to some un-punchline-like place, Portnoy’s carrot joke becomes a meta-comment on 27 Gnosis itself: the structure is designed to provoke laughter, but the mechanics of this structure, when exposed and contemplated, belie a poignantly mortal kind of failure. There is nothing useful here, nothing solid, nothing lasting—much like language itself. To communicate is to follow each other, bleating and bellowing, down darkened linguistic hallways, either to the end of a rainbow or a stinking pile of shit. Miraculous and often funny when successful, catastrophic and often funny when failed, our most profound communicative successes are truthfully a bit of both—a kind of successful failure, pun or paradox, well-illustrated by the end of Portnoy’s carrot joke. “Margaret, we could be anything we wanted to be, if only you would hold onto the air inside living,” TRD says, tenderly holding a piece of air between his thumb and forefinger.

The winning team is announced, and TRD and Modifa gutturally hoot their way toward the exit, leaving the audience behind but suggesting they exit in the same manner. Hooting my way out of the ontic sphere, I bathe in the afterglow of the holistically funny enclosure, already planning my return for another round.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2013

All Issues