Review: 'Babbel' an ear-opening experience

DOWNEY - At the Stay Gallery last Friday, the crowd overflowed onto the sidewalk. The attraction was the world premiere of Roy Anthony Shabla's multimedia performance piece "Babbel." With this amazing event, Downey blasted its way into the history of avant-garde performance that began when Dada was launched at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich in 1916, changing the face of art forever.

After a few preliminary words from Shabla, his intrepid band of performers, masked and dressed simply in black pants and t-shirts printed with "babble" and a triangle enclosing the text message "I L Y 2," launched a show calculated to blow the audience's mind. Great art is not in the business of delivering a message but instead, through skillfully structured sensations, offers an experience that opens us to one or another segment of our human world, one we too often take for granted. Shabla's title points to the segment he is exploring: language, the most human thing of all, the babble of language, language as babble.

Shabla's show begins with saxophonist Alexander Vogel improvising, soon joined by Isaac Takehuchi on cello at the other end of the gallery. The musical dialogue between these voice-like instruments is not yet articulated language but anticipated the theme of communication. All the world's a stage, and Steven Armenta and Terry Walker enter and sit at the corners of the little world of a raised stage. They begin slowly saying "thank you" back and forth, and they continue unflinchingly through most of the performance until they've said "thank you" a thousand times (mille grazie, as the Italians say). It is as though they are the first human beings, and their litany of "thank you's" sustains a dialogue of gratitude for the gift of existence, the gift of companionship, the gift of language.

Lana Joy and Nick Holder then enter slowly and begin drawing slips of paper from a stack on a table beside the stage, a deck of poetic wild cards. They move to randomly chosen positions in the room, read the text on the paper aloud, then return to the stage and tape the paper to a large black and silver painting at the rear. The texts range from short poems or statements in many languages to nonsense syllables drawn from Roy Anthony Shabla's own name.

Shabla himself takes a seat at stage center, like the creator god of this microcosm, the pantocrator in front of the painting that suggests the dark chaos from which the world emerges. He begins reading a poem layed over the couple's dialogue of gratitude, playing with words, turning phrases this way and that, letting language itself create an echo chamber in which meanings suddenly flash out without the traditional supports of plot, character, description, or conventional lyricism.

Meanwhile, four hour-long CDs, each with a multi-layered recording of poetry, play in the four corners of the room, growing gradually louder and louder. What could be the music of many voices in harmony becomes instead the cacophony of a chaotic babble of words-harsh and overpowering but never losing its human connection. As that tape rises to deafening volume it drowns out the litany of the primordial couple, the poet's play with words, the performers who never give up reading and disseminating the written texts.

We begin to imagine what it would be like if we could hear every word uttered at every moment by every one of the seven billion people on the planet. In its very humanness, it would transcend our human capacity. This deafening uproar is on the edge of painful, but that just testifies to how aggressive a contemporary artist has to be to tear our attention away from the distractions that dull our minds and to shake us out of our habit of listening through language to the so-called "messages," overwhelmingly superficial and banal, that clog the channels of communication, instead of listening to language, to the rare and fleeting words we encounter beyond any expectation and that touch our emotions and minds deeply and with the force of a revelation.

Joy and Holder continue drawing slips of paper, reading the short texts, and attaching them over the painting. When they have exhausted the stack of texts, they begin taking down the slips of paper one by one, moving slowly through the gallery and attaching them to walls, furniture, even to members of the audience. Their action suggests the dissemination of written language, which sometimes connects with some unknown person, sometimes reaches a dead-end. They then move among the audience, taking this or that person by the hand and leading him or her to a different place within the gallery, where they can hear the piece differently, from a different angle. As the recorded CDs reach thunderous volume, the performers withdraw, until the recording ends, and a struck gong marks the end of the show, as it marked the beginning.

Shabla has found precise and provocative artistic devices to remind us that we must learn and relearn over and over to talk with each other and to listen to each other. The digital tsunami that floods us with words and at the same time debases them needs a counterweight this intense to wake us from our everyday obliviousness. With this piece, Shabla has created a powerful, indeed a great work of art for our time, a work that simultaneously challenges and stimulates body and mind. It offers an unforgettable, profoundly moving, deeply human, and permanently ear-opening experience.

Stay Gallery has succeeded beyond the ambitions of its supporters. Skeptics always found the phrase "Downey art gallery" a contradiction in terms. But Stay has overcome doubters the only way possible-by gradually and deliberately building a space, a site, a matrix in which art can be nurtured and brought to the light of day. They have filled the gallery with remarkable shows, such as Cristian Castro's awe-inspiring industrial sculptures "Bones of Steel," as well as this historic performance of Shabla's "Babbel."

Instead of bringing together a lonely crowd of people for the commercial satisfaction of economic needs and consumerist desires, they have made it possible for people from Downey and surrounding cities to gather as an audience together with the artists in our midst to experience the fundamental work of the creative spirit. Stay's community forms a polis, a politics, a city eager to explore through the arts the fundamental question of who and what we are as human beings.

One can only hope they will continue to flourish and that the people of Downey learn how to exploit to the hilt the amazing opportunity, the gift they have been offered.

********** Published: Jan. 30, 2014 - Volume 12 - Issue 42