text > Brody Condon’s Level5 at On Stellar Rays Gallery

On Stellar Rays gallery has put on display two video works by Brody Condon. The videos are projected on two separate walls of this dusky and cozy space. Upon your arrival you may discover that your gaze begins to wander from one wall to another, trying urgently to decide which of the two works you would like to watch first; then, your gaze will involuntarily stop inside the gallery office that corners these two walls acting as a mediator between these two projections. The videos address the same topic: group therapy, or to put it other terms, two ways in which contemporary Americans try to cope with the privilege of inhabiting a civilized and free society – a task which, judging by the events on the screen, at times seem overwhelming. Both works are complex enough to require separate elaborate discussions, and for this short review I have chosen to  comment on only one video, entitled Level5.[1]

Level5 presents the viewer with a documentation of a performance that took place at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. The work draws upon a method of group therapy popular during the 1970s and known as Erhard Seminars Training (or est – written in lowercase). “The est Standard Training” was a two-weekend course initiated in the early 1970s by Werner H. Erhard with the purpose of assisting individuals in their integration within the fabric of the post-World War Two contemporary Western society, or (and I quote now from Wikipedia) of helping “transform one’s ability to experience living.” In another jargon, the seminars can be understood as tools for assisting people to live through and within the post-war mode of capitalistic production with its stress on laissez-faire economics, continual technological advancement, passive consumption and a universal concern for gratifying newer and newer desires – all of these leading to social alienation, frustrations and feelings of falling behind in life. In forging this new tool for confronting alienation its inventor has selectively borrowed from various religions, spiritual practices, philosophies and psychologies of the time, proposing short, direct and at times rather abrupt answers to a series of questions that humanity has been asking itself for ages: “What does one want?” or “What is the meaning of life?”

One can find answers to these eternal questions by watching Level5: “Life has no meaning”; “I accept what I am”; “I am and I always have been O.K!” The spectator may have the impression that he or she is offered a chance to taste the extreme bitterness of some of those who resort to Erhard seminars in order to overcome anxiety and depression or seek a path to enlightenment. But the work is more complex. The performance documented by Condon is a game. He invited volunteers to stage such a training through what has become known as Live Action Role-Playing or LARP – a form of collective game in which players impersonate characters and events of the past or from fiction. In its most common form, LARP is known for multiple historical impersonations or mock battles in which two group of opponents (players dressed most often as Vikings, Mongols, Nazis or Soviets) face one another in a staged fight between the eternal forces of good and evil. The same principle has been incorporated into Level5, only that those who agreed to participate in this performance seem to have impersonated a group of characters from the 1970s engaged in therapy training.

For the performance the artist commissioned two game designers from Scandinavia – where, as rumors have it, LARP games have followed a more complex pattern. When one finally grasps the structure of the work one may think that Level5 seeks to look at the world of post-war Baby Boomers through the eyes of their children, of those whom sociologists have baptized Generation X. This generation (to which most of the organizers and participants in the performance belong) impersonate – with a portion of well-concealed contempt and maybe even ridicule – their fathers. The work – it seemed to me – carries out a well-camouflaged critique of the Baby Boomers, a critique of their New Age naiveté, of their self-deceptive ways of connecting to reality, of their grappling with the possibility that life has no meaning and that their suffering has been the result of their personal failures. Moreover, it is a critique of how various modern psychologies and spiritual practices have been incorporated within modern capitalist society in order to produce collective mass deceptions, which in the case of the Baby Boomers came to fill a void that emerged when their revolutionary aspirations fell through. But the work reveals yet another layer of interpretation. It comes to suggest the ways in which two generations of Americans experience reality: while the Baby Boomers directly – at first through revolt and social engagement during the 1960s and then in the next decade in their desperate search for ways to deal with their frustrations – their successors the X Generation, stage performances, play someone’s else roles, seek newer and better characters to reenact, as if today it were not possible anymore to resort to direct action, as if authentic experience could be achieved only within the confines of a LARP or a video game.


Octavian Esanu, Published in ArtExperience: NYC, Spring 2012, Vol I, No. 7

[1] For a more detailed and engaged discussion of this work see Jennifer Krasinski, Character Development: Brody Condon’s “Level5” and the Avant-LARP of Becoming Self at http://www.eastofborneo.org/articles/character-development-brody-condons-level5-and-the-avant-larp-of-becoming-self [accessed April 16, 2012].