The Mystery of Habitus

I don’t know what to say about Habitus, a “living installation” by VECTOR now at Manbites Dog Theater (the event repeats Jan. 15-17) , which described it as “an interactive installation/performance.” According to materials in the theater, it is “an installation around anger and violence.” The same materials gave a laundry list of trigger warnings–but there was nothing there to trigger anything except mild irritation, and a wonder at the slightness of the thing. Leah Wilks, the artistic director of VECTOR, said in an email that the installation is “about exploration of this world and themes and visuals and gathering from audience as well as the performers…also part of our process in developing/exploring this landscape and the questions inherent at the heart of this work” prior to a stage work of the same title to be performed in March as part of the DIDA season.

Intake card from the Habitus experience.

Intake card with unanswerable questions from the Habitus experience.

 

I know Leah Wilks can choreograph and dance; I know her partner in VECTOR Jon Haas can make interesting video. Unfortunately, the video in the installation is not interesting. There is no dance. Upon entry, one is handed a clipboard with papers to fill out and given various directions. After waiting in the lobby, which has been made over into a theater papered with mainstream magazine images, many of violence or its outcomes, and in which rows of chairs sit before a huge screen showing a loop of blown-out video from TV news and sports, you are called up to the Intake Desk and “processed.” From there you move on to a photo station, where you are robed and photographed with another person. I completely failed to grasp the boxing theme here until I saw a photo of other attendees the next day on Facebook. I guess this was supposed to put us in a pugilistic mood, but I missed it.

Inside the theater proper, the space is divided into rooms and corridors in which various scenarios are sketched. There are several people doing odd things, and attempting to engage “the audience.” Dana Marks marches around in a vaguely fascistic uniform, barking orders; Nicola Bullock trails around charmingly in a long backless dress, channeling Billie Holiday and offering “pills” to strangers; another woman works out; yet another tries to escape invisible chains holding her scantly-clad self to a stool. You are given chalk and told to draw around another person, as if he were a body on the ground. There’s a display where you are asked to rate the various items as to their relative violence (I was unsure it this meant the object’s capacity for use with violent intent, or its association with violent acts in the viewer’s mind). One is encouraged to write on the wall in various topic areas. Every thing I could bear to read was a cliche.

It is possible, quite possible, that I have passed over the far edge of the age group for whom this would be interesting. The collaged images and the chalked walls seemed particularly middle-schoolish from my point on the time line. I long ago opted out of life with television and glossy magazines full of fake female beauty. I’ve experienced or observed various kinds of anger and violence firsthand, and the fast-cut mediated version presented here did not inspire the powerful feelings I associate with those experiences. As I began to grasp the set-up, I thought at first that Habitus was a parody of interactive installations, but when I entered the interior, I realized it was completely in earnest.

It is also possible that this installation is merely an early messy stage of art making–one that ordinarily is not publicly shared. Perhaps Wilks, Haas, et al will take this chaos and give it dramatic form in an artwork actually about anger and violence. We will find out March 5, when VECTOR will present the staged work at a location yet to be announced.

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