IMPRESSIONS: Royal Osiris Karaoke Ensemble's “The Art of Luv (Part 6): Awesome Grotto!” as part of American Realness at Abrons Arts Center
January 4, 2019
Conceived and written by Tei Blow and Sean McElroy
Directed and developed by Eben Hoffer, Choreography by Annie-B Parson
Original music by John Gasper and Shea Leavis, Video design by Hyung Seok Jeon
Video performances by Allison Kelly, Sifiso Mabena, Tracee Rohde, Erica Sweany and Madeleine Wise
Performed by Tei Blow, Sean McElroy, John Gasper, and Shea Leavis
The Art of Luv is Royal Osiris Karaoke Ensemble's multi-year project investigating what its artists call “mythologies behind normative 21st century codes of romantic conduct.” Awesome Grotto!, the project's sixth iteration, showed at Abrons Arts Center as part of American Realness 2019. An AstroTurf stage and an enormous paper moon hanging from the ceiling form the grotto. Kitschy pink heart sculptures and potted palms complete the scene. A large wooden box housing a camera obscura sits with the audience at the top of the risers to form a temple of sorts.
Awesome Grotto! delicately dissects a shopping “haul” video, posted to YouTube in 2013. The format is simple: a YouTuber describes recent purchases, holding each item up to the camera. He, she, or they details the context of their purchase (usually clothing-related) and the amount of money spent. Haul videos are always shot at home. As of June 2018, YouTube featured 28 million haul videos, many of them celebrating fast-fashion purchases and cheaply made garments. The fashion industry's environmental impact is enormous, yet the most popular fashion-haul YouTubers seem to remain blithely unaware of this. Destroying the planet for poorly made crap is nothing new, but endlessly reproducing the experience of conspicuous consumption across social media is. Royal Osiris Karaoke Ensemble (ROKE) members take on the persona of an officiant or priest during many of their “Art of Luv” shows, treating the symptoms of late capitalism as spiritual questions worth investigating.
The work takes inspiration from the Eleusinian Mysteries, an ancient Greek cult of the goddesses Demeter and Persephone. According to the myth, Persephone spends half the year in the underworld because she ate a few pomegranate seeds before her mother, Demeter, could rescue her. As audience members filter into the theater, ROKE officiants hand out pomegranate seeds, perhaps indicating our descent into an underworld from which we might not easily emerge. A haul video is a perverse harvest — where Demeter's joy over Persephone's yearly return brings abundance and beauty back to the world, a YouTuber harvests attention through consumption.
ROKE looked for the haul video with the fewest views, and they dug up something particularly dismal: A YouTuber shows her assumed audience a discounted mug, purchased from Starbucks, along with a blue polo shirt for her boyfriend, “professional jeans” for herself, a pizza cutter, and other items, all bought at Kohls. She's young and blonde, with a Southern accent. She mentions that she's in Georgia, and that she's writing some kind of thesis paper about Harry Potter. It's no surprise her channel failed to go viral: She doesn't have a mysterious or charming on-screen persona; her purchases aren't especially thrifty, exorbitant, nor organized. She's the definition of basic. The haul video screens in its entirety, with the YouTuber's self-conscious gestures and vocal inflections projected across the moon backdrop.
The officiants found, or reproduced, the exact items displayed in the haul video, and present them to the audience as sacred objects. They hired actors to memorize and speak the lines from the haul video, which they display on TV screens in the lobby. And yet, despite the officiants’ best efforts, a sense of meaning fails to materialize. Later in the work, co-writers Sean McElroy and Tei Blow take turns entering the temple to film confessionals. They reflect on personal experiences of surveillance and self-worth, wondering at the camera's powers of mediation and reproduction. The intimacy of a camera lens, and the exhilarating distance of the internet isn't enough to make them feel unburdened.
Awesome Grotto! could easily mock its subject matter, but ROKE encounters and responds to the anonymous YouTuber, and the vapid quality of haul videos, with compassion. Perhaps, they suggest, detritus from a global system that unequivocally destroys itself is a satisfactory replacement for a relationship to divinity. Rather than goddesses, Americans can most easily access plastic, destined for an eternity in the landfill (or an ocean). We love to watch these objects proliferate in real and digital life. It's not what they are, really, but how much, how many, that captivates us. But every purchase and click holds us a little longer, unsated, in the underworld of false intimacy and excess.