At the Exponential Festival, Case Studies in Category Busting

You know a show was hatched during the pandemic when it incorporates QR codes.

At the start of Christina Tang’s streaming “Traffic,” part of this year’s Exponential Festival, that code took me from a YouTube page to one where I could pick a screen name and a number. A model of a car with my number was then placed among others on a board-game-like grid filmed from above. Participants could choose from a series of prompts (“pull forward,” “honk,” etc.) and disembodied hands would move the cars, or not, on the grid.

At the same time, a series of messages in another window was going on and on about someone named Angela, who was dead, or not — or maybe a ghost. Since I was simultaneously trying to watch the cars and follow the comments in the chat box, I quickly lost track of the Angela side of things. (It’s best to experience “Traffic” with two screens; I spent the 45-minute running time toggling between my laptop and phone.)

The overall effect was like a puckish re-enactment (with a soupçon of Battleship visuals) of Jean-Luc Godard’s “Weekend,” in which a monstrous, paralyzing traffic jam devolves into violent chaos. Except that 55 years after its release, Godard’s movie remains more trenchant, formally and politically, than “Traffic” — though it ends on a suggestion of existential dread — or any of the other six shows I caught at Exponential.

Unlike its higher-profile January siblings, the Under the Radar and Prototype festivals, which canceled their 2022 editions, the smaller, nimbler Exponential — which focuses on emerging experimental artists — managed to go ahead by pivoting to a free digital format. (It runs until Monday, and most of the programming will remain available on its YouTube channel for the foreseeable future.)

“Traffic” was not the only project to borrow from gaming. In “Still Goes (The Game),” much of the screen is taken up by the explorations of two dogs, Spot and Lysol, who become humanoids and set off to wander in a digital world. The creators, Nola Latty and Thomas Wagner, play the game in a smaller window and comment on the proceedings. “Still Goes” evades deeper issues relating to the differences between species and unfurls like a lo-fi sandbox adventure.

But it did leave me with questions: How is this theater, or even performance? Why do I feel like I could be watching Ryan Trecartin videos instead?

From left, Arjun Dhawan, Nancy Nogood and Anna Dresdale in “Case Studies: A New Kinsey Report.”Credit…Walter Wlodarczyk

I mention Trecartin because throughout Exponential, I felt as if theater was trying to play catch-up with the art world. The performing arts have been undergoing an identity crisis during the last two years, and my lack of engagement with much of what I was watching this past week might have been because I had mismanaged my expectations.

Even after two years of pandemic-related disruptions have forced us to start rethinking paradigms and reconsidering assumptions, it’s still hard to shake habits that were formed when a few Greeks started hanging out in amphitheaters. I had been expecting what Exponential participants might consider calcified (to them) ideas of performances, but the festival appears unconcerned with antiquated borders separating installations, video, live performance, theater, music, movement. Or at least this virtual edition accelerated Exponential’s evolution toward not caring about those borders.

Fine, but if only there had been more wit, style, imagination.

While one of the festival’s most anticipated selections, Leonie Bell with Local Grandma’s “We Live to Die: The Grieving Widows Club” does not open until Monday, the pieces I caught mostly fell short of their proclaimed ambitions. Many show descriptions nowadays, especially on the outer limits where Exponential dwells, tend to read like grant applications promising the excavation of Big Subjects. The reality usually turns out to be merely ho-hum — call it the “all bark and no bite” syndrome.

We were informed, for example, that Joe Hendel’s “Artificial (Man) Intelligence” is about “a menagerie of cyborg males living in the uncanny valley, exposing their cut up, hybrid psychologies to the world in order to gain a sense of control over their cybernetically deterritorialized destinies.” What we got was a shapeless digital montage of anxieties, with many lines pulled from subreddits like r/MensRights and r/CircumcisionGrief. The original posters’ toxic brew of insecurity, resentment and hostility was confounding, but it’s unclear what the show was trying to tell us about it.

Self-indulgence also hampered Braulio Cruz and John-Philip Faienza’s “Flow My Tears,” in which Cruz mused out loud for nearly an hour. Relief occasionally came in the form of electronic-music breaks. The more beat-oriented ones successfully evoked the pulsing atmosphere of a dank Berlin club — the kind of experience in which you can lose yourself, until a guy sidles up next to you to share his important thoughts. “Flow My Tears” went on to display some doom-scrolling and concluded by breezily taking Philip K. Dick’s name in vain.

Justin Halle’s “Case Studies: A New Kinsey Report,” directed by Dmitri Barcomi, took a more playful approach under the glamorous guidance of the drag queen Nancy Nogood — the closest the festival came to an old-school theatrical creation. Like “Traffic,” “Case Studies” incorporates a QR code, but no technology could make up for a rambling script that lacked rigor (a problem that plagued almost every project). Still, it’s hard to be entirely let down by a show that features a dance to Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Emotion.”

In addition to “Traffic,” another work got close to fulfilling its ambition: River Donaghey’s inventive “RecursiveCast,” in which Tad and Tammy (Spencer Fox and the Exponential artistic director Theresa Buchheister) host a podcast dedicated to a science-fiction series titled “Recursive.” The show is structured like a series of podcast episodes, with the visuals duplicating a Spotify page. Donaghey nails the sci-fi lingo, with casual references to a dodecasphere, for instance, adopting as fans’ tendency to assign great importance to details.

“RecursiveCast” shares with “Traffic” a structural descent into uncontrollable disarray, with the world falling apart despite our best attempts at finding some sort of order, whether by trying to escape from a commuting disaster or by scrutinizing triviality. If there’s a lesson to be drawn, it’s that technology may have allowed the Exponential Festival to happen against daunting odds, but hey, we’re all doomed!

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