Point-Counterpoint: What’s Julie Andrée T. Up To at On The Boards?

Julie Andrée T. in Rouge

StefanRouge (through May 6 at On the Boards; tickets) starts out full of promise. The stage at is all but bare. A few wires hang from the ceiling and stretch across the space. Wide rolls of paper are set up on high stands, their contents neatly spooled out toward the audience. A large black trunk waits nearby. This is a space full of possibility. Before the houselights go down a hush falls on the audience as Julie Andrée T. walks out on stage. Her eyes feign innocence and her manner is casual. Clearly she is up to something. But what it is that she’s up to is not remotely clear.

Rouge may move some, but this is pretty varsity as performance art goes and may frustrate or bore all but the most honestly artier-than-thou. Julie Andrée T. does not work for her audience. She does not fear our boredom or disgust. She does not pander to our desire for play or beauty. Narrative building is unheard of in this world. There are moments of extraordinary elegance mixed in with the general louche vulgarity. Julie Andrée T. inspires determined chuckles scattered around the audience. The emotional associations with the color provide some provocation and viscera are never far from the mind. At times she seems like an ADD kid let loose on the set of a commercial for Target.

There are times when the repeated phrase–“What color is this?”–loses its syntax, thus changing its meaning, but mostly the phrase just loses its meaning. Intense sound kills the audience response. The performance keeps its distance. Its structure and scoring don’t crave sustained intimacy but the presence of the live performer begs for constant attention. The abortive moments, which are used to cram as much stuff as possible into the piece, determinedly fail to reciprocate the audience’s attention. It comes to feel like a logrolling contest between Julie Andrée T. and the audience: if we don’t retrace our steps at top speed we are sure to be left behind. Julie Andrée T. has compared Rouge to channel surfing. This seems apt.

MvB: I’m such a determinist that when I hear that an artist is from Québec, I anticipate rebellion, and look for coded rebel-talk. Julie Andrée T. isn’t all that coded, but her Rouge does require you to remember that it’s called Rouge, and to wonder why, then, she insists on using the word “red.” Imagine this work performed anywhere in Québec–with its secessionists and general prickliness about assumptive English address–and then her soliciting the audience to agree with her that “this” is “red” will regain its provocation. A Native American gone to a “white” school will know what she means. Other Americans? I think it may slide right past. Of course it’s red. What else could it be?

It’s not just a question of a word, it’s about colonization of the spirit, the inability to articulate in your own words what’s wrong. So Julie Andrée T. turns to her body, often, to express pre-verbally a panoply of responses, at varying levels of comprehension. At the outset, she might be a little girl obediently, naively, taking in language instruction. But then she–and the audience–are forced through a linear tube of conformity.

The question is repeated: “What color is this?” It’s pre-school, it’s a signifier of knowledge (Yes, you know what the right answer is!), it becomes a nagging question, it’s fully annoying, you become entangled with your preoccupation with its Orwellian preoccupation with you. You try to subvert it, you piss on it, you notice how you’ve internalized it, how you can’t avoid it, because just holding up a red object brings “red” to mind. Every aspect of your life is described in an alien term. You can’t have sex in your own language.

There’s a Franco-clownishness to Julie Andrée T.’s performance (at one point, she’s wearing a red nose) that combines pathos with a giggle at the absurd. She is letting loose on “Target”–applying graffiti, reframing it. It’s the prerogative of a minority to dislike being logrolled by the majority, and to say so (or moon you). But as the performance goes on, she’s more and more fatigued, more lacerating. Later, she recruits Native Americans through imagery, perhaps as a paradigm of unbending (but bent) resistance. You don’t have to be Québecois to appreciate this struggle to be authentic, not to be painted over.

It may seem a small point, “red.” But in Julie Andrée T.’s hands, it explodes and gets all over everything. It’s a credit to her that Rouge isn’t a polemic–it’s too artistically open for that. You can think of artistic resistance either way: cast as resistance, cast as art. It’s a shift in the lighting. Rouge is about the color red, about physicality, sexuality, carnality, the nexus of visceral association that marketing is so fond of hijacking. But it also tries to remind you that it’s not a word. It’s yours.