Seizure of Reality: Kat Sotelo’s ‘The Wild Walls’ at Open Space

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A Liberatory Breath: Black Abstraction at the BMA

I am uncomfortably close to a plate breaking over an actor’s head, seated among the audience on my metal folding chair. The seating is designed for easy movement during the performance to accommodate for the wild moves of the actors—and the walls. A “wild wall” is any wall on a movie set that can be moved for the purpose of achieving a different camera angle. Wild walls are tagged on their reverse, allowing people on set to know which walls might move at any given moment, how any given scene might suddenly, dramatically change. (The shattering of a plate, the fourth wall broken.) Serving as the title of this performance, the concept of a wild wall roots the audience in the unrooted-ness of one reality versus another, a concept that is particularly apt for a performance of collaged scenes that are linked by actors and repeated lines rather than a single, cohesive narrative. 

On the weekend of August 16, New Orleans-based director Kat Sotelo and curator Pete Razon of Baltimore’s Open Space put on “a night of new works in performance art,” titled The Wild Walls. The acts unfolded in every corner of the room, resulting in the constant revolution of stage and audience. This performance was not for the viewer who enjoys their distance; in that moment of the plate shattering over an actor’s head, I was poignantly reminded of a line from the show’s exhibition statement: “better to be sorry than safe.” This “no regrets” attitude seems a nod to the improv quality of performance art—perhaps the only mistake is choosing not to perform (or watch) at all. Both actor and audience prepare to be disturbed.

The Wild Walls opens with a monologue performance by Brooklyn-based performer Jake Dibeler. He assumes the roles of various vapid-yet-educated, melancholic, and emotionally wounded characters. They speak of sex and love with the sadness of Karen Carpenter and playful artifice of Lana Del Rey. These characters are aware of cultural context but also regard facts carelessly; one character seems to envy how Sylvia Plath died from leaping off the tallest building in Manhattan. The emotions are true, while the grip on reality is tenuous at best.

As one scene settles, a tree and a rock take the stage. The audience is now facing the entrance of Open Space. We are ostensibly facing the outside, though we are very much inside, realities transposed. And yet, here is the tree and the rock, represented by actors, with one actor entirely contained within a rock costume about as big as a kitchen oven. A tiny rectangular flap serves as the rock’s mouth, and the rock shouts “Line!” over and over while the audience waits.

I don’t know what line is meant to be delivered, but the scene is stretched to the point that I feel my own agency to chime in. I try to think of the number that comedians reference when a joke is tested for its durability, when a joke is cycled so often that it is funny at first, then loses its humor, and then becomes hilarious once more. I try to recall the side effects of Zoloft, as those lines seem well-suited to this rock that reminds me of the despondent cartoon rock from the pharmaceutical commercial. I wait for dizziness, indigestion, sweating, tremors, whatever else might come.

What does come is not my own voice but an actor bursting through the middle of the scene (from the real outside), exclaiming another refrain of The Wild Walls: “Ahh, the great outdoors!” This is a line we hear earlier in the show, when a panel of actors holds auditions for other actors in the play. One actor is directed to say the line, “Ahh, the great outdoors,” with varying emotional registries. The panel instructs happiness, sadness, joyful crying, paradoxical emotion—while setting a table, while limping, while simultaneously engaging in the physical world. We are meant to see the painful awkwardness that can arise as we try to deliver our own lines under circumstances in which our attention is already divided. We question authenticity. What makes a line credible? How do we know when someone is telling the truth?

After Sotelo gives her own audition (her role of director inverted), the scene shifts to her recounting the experience to a friend at a restaurant, questioning her talent and whether the endeavor of any audition is worthwhile. This is the first moment in The Wild Walls where I think: these lines do not seem believable. Is this bad acting? And the moment I suspect that bad acting might be taking place, diners at another table in the scene direct Sotelo to run her lines again. The roles of actor and director are proven mutable for the audience, and Sotelo weeps through the whole scene once more. Take two.

The scene shifts again: A very tall, very beautiful man serenades the audience with Jennifer Lopez’s “Waiting for Tonight,” a performance complete with backup dancers. The rendition, sung over a karaoke track, is imperfect—which seems part of the point. He sings the song’s first lines: “Like a movie scene / In the sweetest dreams / I have pictured us together.” In a performance that is part script, part audience, and part actors off the street, all a director might do is picture the pieces fitting together—not with a puzzle’s perfect alignment, but with the irregularity of a mosaic that asks rough texture to become an integral piece of a larger, cumulative whole. The song becomes a fraying refrain for the performance, until finally, many scenes later, Sotelo seems to weep the words, lyrics breaking down to a more primeval sound.

We consider the temporal nature of The Wild Walls, the temporal nature of all jokes, and ultimately the temporal nature of the spaces in which these performances take place. The preposterous becomes precarious; the agency we’ve grown to value is proved impermanent.

When we return to the tree, we return to yet another loop for us to consider. Various actors—including the tree herself (played by production collaborator Lindsay Rowinski)—repeat iterations of the conundrum, “If a tree falls in the forest, and there is no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?” This sophomoric philosophical exercise first finds its comedy in the fact that the speaker is a woman “dressed” as a tree. The object-person (part set piece, part actor) is given voice, and since the object-person is herself a tree, the answer to the question seems self-evident.

Later, this tree/actor falls through a window during a storm and lays across a sofa with the stiffness of a trunk, her head/branches resting near the floor, her feet/roots suspended in the air. She says: “If a performance happens, and there is no audience to see it, does the performance really happen at all?” This revision of the original line now transcends the sophomoric. The slapstick comedy of a body falling over a sofa morphs to the tragicomedy of a woman dressed as a tree asking the audience to imagine the absence of the very performance we are watching. We consider the temporal nature of The Wild Walls, the temporal nature of all jokes, and ultimately the temporal nature of the spaces in which these performances take place. The preposterous becomes precarious; the agency we’ve grown to value is proved impermanent.

The nature of performance art is ephemeral, and performance art demands the audience’s presence because what we witness will not be here in the future. Recording performance art is also a tricky matter, as to pull out an iPhone seems sure to alter the moment as it is happening. I pulled out my phone only once during The Wild Walls, in a scene in which Sotelo, wearing an orange top with long hanging sleeves, stood in a corner of orange-patterned wallpapers, looking into a mirror frame that contained not mirrored glass but more orange-patterned wallpaper, holding a real orange up to her cheek. The saturation of monochromatic color, Sotelo’s hand cupping the fruit echoing Hamlet and his skull, and the camp gesture of a woman posing in front of a faux-mirror seemed the perfect condensation of The Wild Walls—a reality that can be both private and public, silly and sincere, just like an audition itself. 

The process of an actor’s audition also mimics the function of the Open Space gallery. Each performance a submission to the public, each performance a request to be seen, to be desired, to be loved, to remain. I love the request, the asking. It is a moment of human agency in a moment when many human beings feel they have very little agency. It is a reminder that when someone—or something—says “Line!” we have the option to break the form of audience and spectacle. We have the option to reply.

For those who are wondering what Open Space’s next “line” will be, the future is uncertain. After ten years of artist-run projects, including six years in their Franklin Street location, the space has received notice to vacate their spot. Open Space’s first step will be a hiatus, as remaining collective member Pete Razon takes a much-needed moment to reflect on all that has taken place.

It is times like these when members of an arts community look to documentation—or perhaps notice the lack of it—to relive, to reimagine, to reconceive. What is remembered? What is forgotten? How should we proceed? It is not only wild walls that prove to be moveable. At a time when maintaining an artist-run collective may be more challenging than ever before, adaptation becomes necessary for success and survival. We ask if we are willing to run our lines again, and we hope the answer is yes.

Images courtesy of Kat Sotelo.

Laurence Ross is a Baltimore-based writer and educator. He received his MFA from the University of Alabama and has published his essays and reviews in literary journals such as BrevityGaga Stigmata, and The Georgia Review as well as The Huffington Post. Ross lived in New Orleans for six years, where he was a frequent contributor to Pelican Bomb, a regional publication dedicated to the Louisiana arts community. He also served as the Director of P.3Writes, an educational program in conjunction with U.S. Art Triennial Prospect New Orleans.

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