October 21st, 2013 · Interview by Performa
Ecks, Ecks, Ecks
Performa and Interview magazine launch the commissioned film Ecks, Ecks, Ecks by director Pierce Jackson. Performa 13 Commission artist Ryan McNamara’s performance for Performa 09, Ecks Ecks Ecks — AKA —Sacred Band of Thebes —AKA — In Memory of Robert Isabell — AKA — Any Fag Could Do That, is re-imagined and recreated specifically for film. Offering an intimate glance of McNamara’s live performance, which is based on a historical fourth-century Greek army battle, Ecks, Ecks, Ecks serves as an original trailer for McNamara’s forthcoming work for Performa 13, MEƎM: A STORY BALLET ABOUT THE INTERNET, which will premiere on November 8 at the Connelly Theater.
Inspired by the accomplishments of the Sacred Band of Thebes—a small brigade of homosexual lovers that crushed the Spartan army in 375 B.C.—and the haute-glamour of the late Robert Isabell—the innovative event planner who once flooded Studio 54 with four tons of glitter—Ecks Ecks Ecks was a half-hour-long extravaganza performed by forty toga-clad young men who enacted McNamara’s vision of the ancient Band mixed with iconographic imagery from contemporary gay culture.
For artist Ryan McNamara—obsessed with what he calls "the emotive power of pop music" and the flashy stylishness of early MTV videos such as Michael Jackson’s Thriller—Ecks Ecks Ecks was an assault on the indifference of history to gay culture and achievement. His camp-infused performances, which since 2005 have taken forms including a stage musical, a TV variety show, and a public dance-training workshop in galleries throughout New York, expanded in this work to mix ideas of of clubbing and war. A flute-accompanied procession, led by McNamara, began the piece; performers sashayed and snapped their way into the space and, in choreographed pairs, demonstrated classic combat moves, which evolved into feigned erotic acts and disco dancing, performed to a techno house beat. Following a writhing climax the performers collapsed to the floor, leaving a field of immobile bodies amongst which audience members had to tiptoe to reach the exit.
—Kevin McGarry, Performa 09: Back to Futurism
Performa: Why did you choose to film a performance of Ryan’s 2009 piece, as opposed to a brand-new performance, as a trailer for his upcoming work?
Pierce Jackson: I like entering the debate about how to document, archive, and conserve performance.
When you watch this film, you can’t watch it without thinking about the original live performance. It is the difference between watching something live and watching a film: When you’re watching something live, you see the action from only one angle, but when you watch a film you are omnipresent in the world that the film creates; you’re at character A's hands as they grab the car door, you’re at the their feet as they touch the ground, you’re inside the house where character B, expecting character A's arrival looks up, and then you’re at the front door as character A knocks. You, the viewer, are everywhere at once. I like the idea of providing that to the Performa audience.
Lastly, and most humbly, I am likely one of the most prolific film-documenters of performance art in recent times [Jackson is the director of Performa TV]. As a documenter, it is a treat to be able to produce a piece in a way that’s similar to the way that I see it when I am documenting.
Had you seen Ecks Ecks Ecks live before, or had you just seen film footage? What made you focus on this piece?
I first saw Ecks Ecks Ecks during Performa 09 at X-Initiative in Chelsea. I came to document the piece for Performa TV, so my introduction to the performance was through the dual lenses of live, in person action, and also through the single eye of the camera I was carrying. I wanted to capture footage in a way that would allow for a virtual, YouTube audience to experience the piece as if they had actually been there at X-Initiative that day, and were remembering it later on for themselves.
What’s interesting is that when you are documenting a performance, you look for the most composed and cinematic angles. That year, I visited and documented nearly eighty performances and exhibitions during the biennial. This year, when I was mining my archive of performances to find a piece that would translate well to film, the memory of my Ecks Ecks Ecks documentation stood out. So in a fun, "meta" way, what you’re seeing on screen is me trying to recall a video I made in 2009.
What about this performance made you want to turn it into a film?
Immediately, the wardrobe stood out. The dramatic draping of the fabrics used I thought would look great on camera with the right kind of lighting. I loved the music when I first saw the piece, I’ve been a longtime fan of house music going back some sixteen years. The soundtrack made me want to dance. Put it all together, and the idea of a crowd of men, wearing togas, wrestling, to house music, was irresistible.
How was Ryan’s work modified for recording? What was the difference between documenting this piece as opposed to making a film of your own using the performance as your material?
The two biggest differences are the changes to the sequential order of the original performance and the ability to start, stop, and re-do movements as we recorded the action. This is not documentation, this is a performance re-imagined.
Another difference was that we had Ryan involved, thus lending authority to any production choices we made. An important part of the archival process.
How is this work related to Ryan’s Performa 13 Commission, MEƎM: A STORY BALLET ABOUT THE INTERNET? How is it a trailer, since Ecks Ecks Ecks is an unrelated work?
It’s a reminder that Performa is coming, and what better way to do that than by highlighting a great performance from Performa’s past via the medium of film?
Ecks, Ecks, Ecks was made with generous support from Friends & Family. Commissioned by Performa and Interview. Read more about the film in Interview.
Learn more about Ryan McNamara’s forthcoming Performa 13 Commission, MEƎM: A STORY BALLET ABOUT THE INTERNET, here.
Watch Performa TV here.
Photos: Pierce Jackson, Ecks, Ecks, Ecks, 2013. Film stills.