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One for the Zipper- The quintessential carnival ride must bring chaos to the calm center of the soul

Deadhead Redux - No one knows for sure why Grateful Dead fans have such a drive to communicate with each other but they do-and they’ve turned Blair Jackson and Regan McMahon’s “The Golden Road” into the most successful fanzine in the history of the form.

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Desolation Row -The lonesome cry of Jack Kerouac

Faster Than a Speeding Mythos: Superman at 50 - Superman at 50: The Persistence of a Legend

When Art is No Object -The Eloquent Object - At the Oakland Museum, Great Hall, through May 15.

“He Wasn’t Dying to Live in L.A.” - Intrepid Journalist’s Last Dispatch Before His Collapse

Search for Honesty in Post-war Life - Plenty

Armageddon Averted: Where Will You be on August 16. 1987? - Inside Art Goes to the Frontiers of the Mind

Of Speckle-Faced Rats and Supernovas - Michael McClure

George Coates - The Physics of Performance and the Art of Iceskating

No Escape from the SOUNDHOUSE - Maryanne Amacher

A Pynchon's Time

Grants - State of Art/Art of the State

Poetry from Outside the Pale - Allen Ginsberg

Once Upon a Time - In Berkeley

The poet from Turtle Island - Gary Snyder

Noh Quarter

Joyce Jenkins and the Language Troubles

Philip Whalen

George Coates
The Physics of Performance and the Art of Iceskating

November 22,1985

George Coates, the mastermind behind George Coates Performance Works, the world-renowned mixed-media music theater aggregation, is an adaptive Berkeleyite through and through, having lived here since 1974. His pieces, with their baffling and beautiful projected images, actors and singers floating through space, and flowing, trance-like music, are classically home-grown Berkeley products-idiosyncratic, democratic, psychedelic, and radical. Although Coates travels all over the world with GCPW, he still resides in Berkeley, and so I was a little taken aback when he told me one evening last week that if I wanted an interview I should meet him the next day in Iceland.

George Coates

Noticing my confusion, Coates explained that the Iceland of which he spoke was a skating rink in Berkeley. He gave me the street coordinates, and the next afternoon I arrived there to find him swooping in easy circles over the ice. He caught sight of me, waved, came to the side of the rink, and screeched to a stop. He suggested that instead of retiring to the coffeehouse for our confab we sit in the bleachers there beside the rink. Luckily l was wearing a heavy jacket and a scarf. It gets cold in Iceland.

These days, George Coates is full to over flowing with two subjects-the extended run of his piece RareArea that opened last Friday night at Theater Artaud in San Francisco, and the fate of Iceland and other skating rinks in California. It seems that the insurance rates such recreational centers are obliged to pay are about to go up drastically, forcing them to close down unless local and state government comes to the rescue. Coates is adamant in his feeling that the city of Berkeley is faced with the moral necessity of making sure that Iceland doesn’t go the way of the trampoline parlors of the early '60s. This is no small issue for Coates, who said, “Iceland closes down, I'm going to move out of Berkeley.

This city may use this incredible community resource,” he went on, "because it sees the ownership as bad, evil Republican business interests that should only be rescued by right wing, profit-oriented cartels. They'll let thousands and thousands of children go without their Saturday skating," he laughed, abruptly lampooning  his own earnestness, "with their families not to mention the dates as they mature to puberty and need the opportunity to skate with someone, with another warm body next to them.”

"It’s a nice clean activity," I suggested, struggling to recall the last time I had twirled around on sharp blades.

"Lets not talk about the bad parts, okay?" he admonished me humorously. "It maybe a little wholesome, but .. .”

“Yesterday you said you get your ideas sometimes when you're ice-skating, “I reminded him. "How does that work?”

"Thats on a bad day. If I’m not able to still my thoughts and I'm getting a lot of ideas, then I probably haven't been here for a while. But it’s a shorthand; when you say I get ideas, that’s not really what happens. You don't really get ideas, they don’t come to you like a bag of ideas; they’re not objects, really - they’re just thoughts. Thoughts are inherently derivative; they can be attractive and fun to have. I enjoy them. Choosing some ideas as good and other ideas as inferior is a game that I’m as good at playing as anybody else. But I think it obscures something that really doesn’t operate in those two very narrow polar realities. There are so many more variables. And that how we [George Coates Performance Works] interact – singer to sculptor to painter to poet to light technician, all interacting; so that things are found and happen and are sort of sculpted out of the ambient intersections – a juxtaposition of image and sound that would never otherwise have crossed the creative minds of any of us.”

 “I remember,” I said, "a time when avant garde art was generally regarded as something very stark, forbidding, not particularly palatable, disjunct—“

Coates did not seem very happy with the direction he saw my questions going in. “Those are all great things!” he objected. “I find them very palatable . . .”

“It was bracing, invigorating,” I allowed. "But it wasn't for the squeamish -  lets put it that way."

He wasn't a whit happier for my explication. "What does that mean?” he asked in an exasperated tone. "You mean it had blood in it, or something? Squeamish to me means a kind of fear of something intrinsic to your life, and that's something that's important to confront. Some of the boldest, most creative human beings on the planet now are changing the way people live through time, the way they experience time, to the degree in which you live in a perpetual now that doesn't exist in an artificial linear progression of ‘I’m going someplace, I’ve come from someplace, there is a future, there is a past’ – because these illusions are only that. The power of ideas can exist conceptually as an object when it affects the way you experience your sense of the present. If that freaks you out, if it takes the form of boredom or hysterical fidgetitus--”

“Can you spell that?”

He laughed. "That's a word I've created to describe the affliction that happens when a learned retention diet is not met. People have a habit of allowing their mind, their eyes, their ears, their sense of touch, to experience everything at a rapid rate of ‘Move on the next thing, move on to the next thing, move on the next thing.’ So that this quantification of ‘How many experiences have I had? Means that to have only a few is to denigrate them all as boring, not palatable - all the things that you said earlier. The art of which you speak is art that’s real important, because it helps us have fun and helps us enjoy experience more languidly and perhaps with more depth and greater pleasure even.”

“John Cage, for instance.”

“Yes. Cage is one of the many people who can share that skill; and we really owe him a debt of thanks for opening the doors. He opened a lot of doors for ways to allow things to come in and pass through and turn into things we never imagined.

“Thomas Albright once reviewed me by first saying that he thought all this other stuff that was calling itself performance art was not important, because now we had this thing here. Now, Thomas Albright was a sweet man, a fine writer, and a real friend to today's performance art. But I was very distressed when he said that, because I love those artists’ work. They were important influences. They showed through their work that ideas could be a material to sculpt with — idea as plastic, tactile viscera. That’s a very important thing. Then Thomas says all these nice things about my work; and he didn’t have to mention them to do that.

"Then he goes to the ballpark,” Coates related, "and he writes an article saying now much he appreciated the Giants game as performance art - for all the formal, slow ritual: the laying out of the lines before the game, the quality of attention, the precision of the pitcher. And again he castigated a number of us for not achieving the scale that Mr. Lurie did in his performance art — the largest gallery on the west coast, I guess, is Candlestick Park. But what Albright failed to realize was that it was only because of those performance artists that he was sensitized to perceive the laying out of those lines as a formal, beautiful enactment of human precision in the midst of a completely arbitrary set of rules created for the enjoyment of mass culture. So I guess those artists did their job. When you can exert that kind of influence, then you're on to something.”

Our conversation reverted to iceskating.

"This is like a big block party here,” Coates remarked, looking around placidly at Iceland — the vast indoor space the old bleachers, skylights, a few skaters turning in leisurely circles. “You see old people here, young people  - this is the only place in Berkeley that could be like anywhere else in the country. You could be in Oklahoma here, and you don’t have to deal with the airfare wars - keeping track of how much it’s going to cost you to get to Middle America and find out how far out of touch you are with the rest of the world. Its like 1949 in here.”

"Yeah. it has that massive quonset-hut effect,”  I agreed.

"There's something about this that reminds me of your work - something about the people floating across the space."

"Yes, yes, absolutely,” he laughed, apparently pleased. "It’s an extremely languid way to spend a day. You have everyone here working on overcoming various degrees of vulnerability. Everyone's very close to falling all the time. Speed, gravity - there's natural forces involved in gliding around a frozen bed of water; and to allow the gravity to occur is to make it an effortless experience. If you can negotiate leaning to a fall with speed in the opposite direction so the centrifugal force keeps you from going down but gravity pushing up from the ice propels you, it becomes an effortless experience of flight.”

“And not dissimilar from what you propose doing with the experience of time in your works.”

"Well, I like playing with physics,” he concurred. "Physics interacting with natural forces in the performance space."

A couple of evenings later at Theater Artaud I got a nice taste of Coatean physics and natural forces. Preceded in the Coates canon by The How Trilogy – comprised of The Way of How, Are/Are, and See/Hear, three colorful and spellbinding tapestries of action, music, and image – RareArea had its world premiere earlier this year at the Kaai Festival in Belgium and was also performed previously at Zellebach Hall. Coates had come under some fire during The How Trilogy period for what certain critics regarded as a lack of social content in his work – tantamount, in my view, to chastising Disney for not making an anti-Nazi propaganda film out of Fantasia. Apparently very sensitive to what people say about his work, Coates in RareArea has gone to some lengths to include a wealth of material on an anti-nationalistic theme. All this I knew from press releases and other sources. I was interested to see how he would succeed at reconciling dream imagery with a political subtext.

Beginning with a massive stone archway made of light and four singing figures floating in a dark void beyond, the piece sails intriguingly through such delicious spectacles as a woman clothed in ethereal glow-worm luminescence turning in space and lamenting, a vaguely human form wiggling eerily downward through the air, a ferocious dream battle between a man and two huge, malevolent balloons, a woman bouncing on the end of a rope while image projections coalesce and resolve into the face of a skyscraper up which the woman is trying to ascend, and golden triangles intersecting darkness.

Occasionally the work descends from the stratosphere to show a man commenting dryly on the random pictures displayed on a huge TV screen projection, or a king and a queen saluting the audience with calculated and transparent good humor. (Coates told me later that he was thinking of our President and his consort at this point.) The political statement resides in these episodes, and in the recurring imagery of flags that is stitched through the work. Flags are made to order for a George Coates performance piece — the visual possibilities are endless. In RareArea they work aesthetic wonders. They stream, they transmogrify, they disappear. But in terms of political thrust, I have my doubts. The piece closes in something like natural light, on a bare stage, with the performers breaking flagpoles over their knees. It doesn’t fit. It's a chattering, empty moment after a brief eternity of mind-filling transformations.

Thankfully, though, the political sermon is low-key that it generally fails to intrude on the air borne brilliance of the work. You aren’t distracted from the gossamer enthrallment of the performance by blaring messages. It is a beautiful thing, and well worth seeing.

In the meantime, it is to be hoped that Iceland stays open so that George Coates — an "incredible community resource” in his own right — can see his way clear to remain in Berkeley.

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