Character Creation and Brody Condon
by Lap Le
A review of
LevelFive by Brody Condon
On Stellar Rays
Rainer Maria Rilke once wrote about "inseeing". He wrote: "Can you imagine with me how glorious it is to insee, for example, a dog as one passes by. Insee (I don’t mean in-spect, which is only a kind of human gymnastic, by means of which one immediately comes out again on the other side of the dog, regarding it merely, so to speak, as a window upon the humanity lying behind it, not that,) — but to let oneself precisely into the dog’s very center, the point from which it becomes a dog, the place in it where God, as it were, would have sat down for a moment when the dog was finished, in order to watch it under the influence of its first embarrassments and inspirations and to know that it was good, that nothing was lacking, that it could not have been better made."(1)
2 - The Village
Back in September of 2011, Brody Condon's LevelFive took place at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. It was a layered performance where the participants were instructed to create characters (role-play) that would be involved in a series of seminars inspired by Werner Erhard's est (Erhard Seminar Training) events from the 70s. Erhard's seminars were processes that guided the deconstruction of one's personhood and self-concept to a point where societal constructs and fantasies are stripped away to reveal that everything is "empty and meaningless" - which, Erhard contends is an "extraordinarily powerful place to stand"(2). The goal was to reach this point as a foundation for self-invention, or reinvention. It is important here to disclaim that I did not attend Condon's original performance. My experience with it is exactly how it is presented at the Lower East Side gallery On Stellar Rays, the lvl5.org website, and any meta-conversation I have access to on the internet.*
The video playing at On Stellar Rays is an edited, slightly stylized documentation of the performance. It is made to look just dated enough - with awkward lighting, some strategic discoloration and glitches, and an era-ambiguous cast of volunteers (at a glance they could be from the late 90s I guess). A lot of the footage from the Hammer performance closely resembles scenes from Erhard's own documentation. The players are at times awkward, at others vulnerable, compelling, and self-conscious. They wear name tags and are sheepishly aware of the camera from time to time. As a piece of documentation the video does its job very well, but there is also a lot more to it.
Let's take a step away from the presentation at On Stellar Rays and focus on the structure of Condon's piece. For our purposes let's partition the work: First, we have the role-playing element where the participants were coached by game developers and LARPing experts Bjarke Pedersen and Tobias Wrigstad to create characters that will participate in the seminar. Then, we have the actual performance itself where Erhard's themes are played out. Last, we have the collateral which exists as the community, which is "real", created by the performance; where the players and the player characters are now a part of. I emphasize real because the fecundity of Condon's work is that even though it is synthetic it actually works - it is still real.
3 - The Aegis
In 2012 the average lifespan of an U.S. citizen, male or female, is predicted to be about 79 years. During this time your body will go through a number of what can be described as cellular generations. This occurs because every cell in your body has a varying lifespan; 7 years being an understood threshold. Once a certain amount of time passes - say, twenty years - there will be a point when you are biologically made of entirely new matter. The cells in your present body would be different than those twenty years past. Of course its a bit more complicated than that - a person is more than clay and stardust - but it ties in notions of character creation to the body, the material. It also provides a literal and biological basis for transformation. The implications of this shouldn't go unacknowledged.
“My fundamental premise about the brain is that all its workings – what we sometimes call `mind´ – are a consequence of its anatomy and physiology and nothing more.”(3) Here, Carl Sagan's form of reductionism explains psychology through our essential biology. He emphasizes how utterly preconditioned the former is by the latter. This recalls central ideas in Buddhist and Hindu philosophy as well - mostly, that there is a requisite connection between mind and body. Self-actualization seminars and much of the dialog in LevelFive draw from this relationship. The transformation those seminars and LevelFive refer to, and the flashier "transcendence", requires that both are attended to.
Traditional role-playing, exemplified by Dungeons & Dragons, also follows a similar form of reductive logic. What we have in D&D is a system whereby the whole of individual agency is reduced to a human matrix that consists of 6 essential traits, 3 physical and 3 mental. These are Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Wisdom, Intelligence, and Charisma. The balance between the mind and body here isn't arbitrary. Every action and potential a character has stems from these attributes; each is affected not only by a value but also by their inter-relationship and application. These traits, as a character develops, can be modified depending on the player's experience and achievements. On top of illustrating the mind-body relationship we begin to see that this underlines a few things: that you can change who you are, that such changes take effort (or energy), and that the core structure remains unaffected, that is, the logic whereby you (or your character) exists. This is where self-actualization training and the mechanics of role-playing become important.
Erhard's training, akin to many meditative practices, relies on a reductive process. The goal was to break things down, peel away layers, and simplify in the hopes that the reduction yields something that is more honest, substantive, and essential. From that Truth you can create, become, invent. By contrast, character creation is an additive process. You begin in a state of balance (governed by the respective game mechanics) then build and develop your character, defining yourself through achievement - an external vector of development rather than est's internal. In practice, it ends up being a series of layering and trial-and-error processes. By mixing the two, Condon creates one hell of a mind fuck. For instance, if B (the player character) is participating in training seminars in the pursuit of self-actualization, what happens to A (the player) if B (the player character) succeeds?
Role-playing games are by and large about self-improvement. Condon essentially conflates Erhard's seminars with this juxtaposition, a pretty funny parallel. If we look at the seminar itself, you will continually find that the exercises are as physical as they are psychological. There is a particularly compelling scene in LevelFive where Dean, a trainee, struggles to rise while outnumbered by other trainees pushing him down. "Rise Dean!" they yell as they prevent him from obeying that very command. You can see the struggle in his face as he pushes himself upward with arms and legs against the overwhelming force. Eventually he succeeds and they all hug it out. The physicality and the metaphysical dimensions this exercise addresses is exactly what defines ritual and why ritual is so powerful. The action is as important as the thought, but the practice of it is what binds them together. It is what codifies and structures the ideas into communal ideologies. The process is essential. The community is essential. I think this is what makes Condon's work so compelling. Ritual is the engine of his work. On a topic as delicate and encompassing as self-actualization, nothing could be more appropriate.
4 - The Spear
My interest in Condon's work isn't because its about self-actualization seminars or anything that specific cultural phenomenon means politically or ethically. Rather, LevelFive is more about an interrogation of the self in lieu of larger structures. He uses the seminars and role-playing as the framework for this interrogation. Aside from the hilarity of having the participants create characters to undergo something rather personal, including role-playing in his work does something great. It sets up a structure that acknowledges the possibility for the displacement of a Self while reaffirming the very notion of Self to begin with. It establishes a logic that allows for A to equal B to equal A without anything as forfeit in the process. The sentiment that "It's just a game," ultimately colors the experience and provides a safety net. Whatever happens to B literally happens to A and vice versa, but whether B's actions matters to A is completely controllable because of that net. You can decide whether that experience jives with the internal logic of either A or B respectively. This control is an extremely powerful mode of operation. In practice, it provides a layer of mediation where a person's inhibitions can be manipulated or discarded as needed. By building psychological filters for yourself you can emphasize or direct specific dimensions of experience. The magnitude in which you are willing to give in to those filters dictates the efficacy of your character; the ratio of A to B at a given time (or a gamestate). It opens the gates for you to "fake it until you make it" - as the catch-phrase goes. Role-playing is a form of actualization through ritual.
In theory, it can achieve much more. I believe the human race to be an empathetic species. In fact, I believe empathy over all things defines our species. Our achievements, advances, and creations seem to lead us to greater and more advanced levels of empathy; it's as if that need lies beneath every motivation, every earthly hunger; to connect and try to "know" someone, if only to truly stand side by side as equals. The end of solipsism would be an achievement indeed. For this we have television, literature, smartphones, the internet, games of all kinds, stories, songs, tweets!, music, dancing, sex, alcohol, etc! In hundreds of years that list will grow - and its effects on our minds and bodies will also grow. In thousands, who knows. But perhaps the endgame will be a species that doesn't have to learn or decide to be empathetic, but is preconditioned by it and exists with it in the core of their logic. Or a species whose biology is finally capable of complete empathy. Such a being would be able to actually become someone else - not a copy of someone else, but entirely of someone else. The ratio between A and B can finally reach 1:0 and then return back to 0:1 at will. You would finally be able to experience another person's thoughts, sensations, loves, pains, longings, and loneliness - oh God, the loneliness of our species, tens of thousands of years of solitude, of never knowing another's thoughts or having felt the full weight of their love.
Role-playing is the first tiny step in a cosmic journey that will span millennia. However, it's strategies and mechanics have long been utilized by artists. To name a few that immediately come to mind: Cindy Sherman in her rather literal role playing up at the MoMA right now, Slater Bradley with his doppelgänger, Mary Reid Kelley in her theatrical videos seen at her recent show in Chelsea titled The Syphilis of Sisyphus (which was awesome), Duke Riley in his myth-building, Warhol in just about all that he was. The list goes on and on in as many ways. Brody Condon takes the subject pretty much head on, not only interrogating its structure but supplanting it into two specific cultural zeitgeists to illustrate the point in action as well.
5 - The Crown
Tributaries between fantasy and reality are enabling us to slipstream (in the more fantastic sense of the word) our way through life. While it is hard to say what parts of us are anted in this evolution, I'd think it definitely starts inside - deep, deep down where a person's worldview contrapuntally pulses with societies'; they are part of a similar motion with what was labeled as counter-culture providing any major reprieve and dissonance. But even those distinctions are being perforated by postmodernism's enervating phallus. Subsequently, fiction begins to become an increasingly powerful mode of operation because it gets harder and harder to check or justify the alternative. Especially when the jump from fiction to reality becomes decreasingly difficult as technology advances and social mores are equivocated by a global paradigm. Add in anonymity, technological agency, and accessibility and we have the brick & mortar for a very confusing, but awesome, next three hundred years.
The Media-dragon had already constructed some kind of Vahalla around us and the tired conversation about identity in a media saturated, consumer driven culture was quickly usurped by social media's complicated relationship with de-individuation. It simultaneously declares war on it while using it as its primary methodology - but this is a larger conversation trying to tackle the crisis of self in lieu of postmodern thought and cultural forces like Snooki's pregnancy (she is one of us after all). More to point, what is emerging is exactly the destabilization of concrete realities. Ideal worlds, paradises, dark lagoons of unfathomable depths - the internet provides any kind of terrain for existentialism to run rampant (almost irresponsibly). Which is great. It also provides the mediation needed for these processes to become digestible.
The onion Erhard was peeling wasn't an onion at all, but a beautiful, succulent pomegranate. Who we are can be compartmentalized, fragmented, rearranged. The displacement of a single identity from person to archive highlights the potential that role-playing has as a principal ideology. Your entry in the Great Archive will someday be strong enough to compete with your soul for authorship, but hell, you can be anyone you want. You are a thousand people in one, bound together only by what the internet will slowly intimate to be the human soul.
*For a wonderful article about the actual event and its background please read Jennifer Kransinski's piece Character Development: Brody Condon's "Level5" and the Avant-LARP of Becoming Self
We may never never never come home
But the magic that we’ll feel
Is worth a lifetime"