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Jean Baudrillard performing at CHANCE Seminar (1997)

A House of Cards Collapsing in a Casino

Art issues. Jan 1997

One would think, from the weight given to Jean Baudrillard's speculations amongst swingin' academics, that a deeply revolutionary perceptual and cultural shift was implicit in his philosophy. Whether or not this is the case, one would also expect that, given the opportunity to organize a weekend seminar around this conviction, said swingin' ac's would try to materialize a convincing experience somehow analogous to this nouveau paradigm. Would one not?

Based on the promotional materials for filmmaker Chris Kraus's "CHANCE: Three Days in the Desert" (produced in conjunction with Art Center College of Design and occurring from November 8-10), it appears that there was some effort to package the event as exciting and unusual. It was tagged as "a philosophical rave and summit meeting between artists and philosophers, chaosophists and croupiers..." and "a CHANCE to redefine this century's romance with randomness and synchronicity less innocently for our era," with ads designed to echo dance-club listings, a roster of speakers conspicuously devoid of academic credibility, a clutch of un¬familiar bands, modern dance troupes, and trepanation films -- plus M. Baudrillard on the mic for Mike Kelley, Tom Watson, DJ Dave Muller et. posse. All of this took place at the scurrilous Whiskey Pete's Casino located in stateline Primm, Nevada; the marketing seemed to hint at ecstasy-fueled, multi-media transformational romps in a desert Garden of Praxis. Perhaps we'd all wind up staying there, like characters in a J.G. Ballard novel, incorporating a simulation of virtual Utopian collective Otherness or something very like it!

It was not to be. With few exceptions, the attractions were remarkable only for their dislocation, the novelty of which wore off after the first of however-many jangling and hyperoxygenated hours. Even if they'd delivered on the trepanation films, CHANCE resembled nothing so much as a liberal arts college's annual Festival of Cultural Backwash, with its committee-cooked grab bag of Learning Annex circuit riders and iffy bar bands. I suppose, after all, that CHANCE was just that — and not an unpleasant thing either, as such. Proceedings were marked by an encouraging drift toward the corporeal, and the oddness of the enterprise — constructing what amounts to a progressive pop-journalistic academic conference circa 1979 in a Vegas-style ballroom in the late nineties — added considerable entertainment value. The sight of Native American activist Calvin Meyers telling an opulent ballroom full of 19-year-old students that "white people are hairy because they come from monkeys, I am brown because my people come from the earth" is one that I'll cherish forever.

But such easy surrealism betrays a tiresome condescension toward low culture, and that became the unspoken conceptual sore point of the event. The plodding inevitability of the scripted and scheduled diversions, along with their utterly deadpan infomercial didacticism, left no room for surprises, let alone sudden breakdowns of osmotic barriers between the real and the agreed upon. Apart from a couple of stabs at improvisational music and an inexplicable crowd-control experiment called "Suicide Motel," it didn't seem to have occurred to anyone to incorporate a single element of risk in the actual structure of the presentations. Particularly cloying was the glut of bush league alternative bands — couldn't they find an Ornette Coleman acolyte or some music school flunky to perform one of Duchamp's strangely beautiful aleatory compositions? (Not to mention the work of John Cage.)

Aesthetic quibbles aside, what's really at stake here is the ability of the arbiters of social and cultural criticism to galvanize their audience with an engaging and revelatory mode of being-together-in-a-group, which would present a convincing case to their presumed constituency that they are, in fact, onto something new and urgently different. To fail spectacularly at this would be something. To not bother even trying leaves us with merely another, less well-crafted symbolic code competing among those the Baudrillardistes claim to expose. Just because this dog and pony show falls flat does not indicate that the circus will be folding up its tents and leaving town anytime soon.

Doug Harvey blah blah blah blah Los Angeles.