A Simple Meal
Pete & Edie in Conversation
A converted warehouse in Portland's Produce Row is filled with people on a Friday night. At the back of the long narrow room, a video installation quietly loops. A dentist's chair, covered in sterile-looking white vinyl, sits empty and waiting in the middle of the room. In a nearby alcove, a performer on his hands and knees, with a device holding burning candles strapped to his back, silently draws the whispered secrets of his audience on the cement floor. At the front of the room, Pete Kuzov and Edie Tsong sit at a table, each eating from their own enormous turkey.
An unbelievably large turkey leg lies on the cement floor, and spilled wine creates a suspicious puddle in front of the table. They eat with their hands, dipping the torn strips of meat into an unappetizing bowl of gravy. It's a simple tableau. Their jackets are slung casually over the backs of their chairs; they engage with each other and some of the audience members as if this were simply dinner at ma and pa's. A very American dinner comprised of an excessive amount of meat, individually served.
But then the music begins. A banjo player and a fiddler strike up next to the table, playing an old-timey hillbilly tune fit for Saturday night at Rosco P. Coltrane's. Madness ensues, slowly at first, with Kuzov picking the turkey leg from the floor and slapping it on the ground repeatedly to the music. Bits of turkey splatter in an ever-widening arc of shredded meat across the floor, and the crowd backs away slightly but visibly every time the drumstick smacks the floor. Tsong digs her face into the breast of her turkey, alternately biting, chewing, and spitting out bits of debris through her teeth. And they toss disregarded parts away – toward the audience.
The gizzards and livers lie on the ground in puddles, and the smell of undercooked turkey has thoroughly permeated the warehouse. Tsong cuddles her turkey like a baby one minute, and dances with it like a long-lost friend the next. Kuzov laughs loudly, maniacally, as he bounces his turkey on his knee like an uncle playing with a toddler more than a little too roughly. They are a couple consuming a meal together, but each is completely self-absorbed.
Startling, perhaps too interactive for some viewers' tastes, and certainly grotesque, this performance at the second annual Enteractive Language Festival in 2003 surpassed even what Kuzov and Tsong had expected of it. Their concept was of a much more incidental type of performance, the idea being to look at excess and the tendency of Americans to consume beyond what is needed.
"I always think that I want things to be as plain as possible, or not to have a gimmick," Tsong says. "Our original idea was for it to be mundane almost." The catalyst for the change in tone of the piece was the music.
"We thought music would make it more lively or comical," Tsong begins. "Music made it become something rather than just be about something," adds Kuzov.
This flexibility and sensitivity to the environment is key to an honest performance for them. The music affected the audience and the performance, working symbiotically to create an experience in which everyone in the room participated, in one way or another. Interaction with the audience is an important element, as are openness and just being themselves. "There was no pretending what we did," Kuzov says. "You couldn't act like you were doing that!"
"It's an all-American performance," he continues. "We call it 'Chicken Dinner' and it's really turkey – everything about it is so fucking American!"
Tsong adds, "Some guy was asking Pete about the chicken [during the performance]. He said, 'That's a turkey!' and Pete was like, 'No, you're the turkey!'"
Kusov laughs as if hearing a joke for the first time. "I forgot about that!"
Kuzov and Tsong's performances can be seen as a bit antagonistic, but talking with them reveals a couple whose energy and seriousness about their art is inspiring, and in whose company one instantly feels comfortable. Kuzov and Tsong are life and work partners who describe their relationship as being about their art; their life and work together are integral. Their work feeds their relationship, the relationship feeds the work, and one element would not exist without the other.
The couple moved to Portland together in the fall of 2002 when Tsong began a three-month residency at the Oregon College of Art & Craft in the drawing department. Their first performance together was in October of 2002, at the first annual EL-Fest. "I'm the Seagull...subject for a short story" boiled down Chekhov's seminal play The Seagull to its essence and stripped it to its bare bones. Roped together at the ankles, the performers struggled with their bonds, verbally and physically assaulted each other, got up in the audience's face, and collapsed into various extreme physical and emotional states. They communicated using their bodies and only a few selected lines from the famous play itself, repeating them over and over. Though brief, "I'm the Seagull..." created a thrilling, dense, emotionally exhausting experience for the viewer.
The piece was performed six times over the course of a year, and each time it seemed more revealing and personal to Kuzov and Tsong. Such an intense psychological study may seem incongruous with the first impression one might get from them in conversation: they are young, in their thirties, and have a certain boy and girl next door charm, easy with a laugh. But Tsong's energy and capability are immediately apparent, and in Kuzov's eyes one can glimpse the hint of the terrorist – a quality he played up in his "Hand Gun" monologue performance at the Pacific Northwest College of Art as part of the 2003 EL-Fest.
Tsong received her undergraduate degree from New York University in East Asian Studies, and an MFA in ceramics from Louisiana State University. Since graduating she has participated in several residencies in drawing, yet her work has been performance oriented for some time now. While still a graduate student, she once displayed an enormous, intestine-like felt sculpture on her front porch and ran an ad in the local paper inviting people to come by to look at it. This piece is now a part of the permanent collection of the Anderson Museum of Contemporary Art in Roswell, New Mexico. But the act of posting flyers that said "I Love You" on telephone poles in Baton Rouge is what Tsong remembers as her first performance.
"That was the first thing where my body was out there, people could see what I was doing, and that was the first time I felt really vulnerable as an artist," she says.
After finishing her graduate work, Tsong put ceramics aside due to not having access to ceramics facilities, and turned more and more toward working in front of a video camera. As part of her residency at OCAC, she videotaped herself sitting on West Burnside Street talking into a camera with duct tape covering her mouth. Also during this time period, she walked from the OCAC campus through downtown and across the bridges wearing a Ms. America gown and blonde wig.
Performance both Tsong and her partner is not about portraying something stereotypical, but rather about tapping into something that is human and real. "People have this perception that acting is being someone else, but the real thing is that acting is being yourself," Tsong says. "When you're performing, you don't want to be in character, you just want to be yourself. I think it's the same thing as when you are painting or making a book – you always want to be yourself. You don't want to think, 'I'm making a painting.' You're not, you're just making marks. You don't want to think, 'I'm doing the act of painting.' You don't ever want to be doing that, then you're not really painting!
"I've started to feel that performing is about what you're doing in everyday life," she continues. "You're just reacting to everything. If you're not reacting to everything, than you're not quite there."
This feeling is evident in Kuzov and Tsong's performances, along with a strong sense of give and take with the audience. Their work is very ground level, often with little sense of a boundary between themselves and the viewers. Kuzov sometimes directly involves or confronts viewers, "and it's nice when they actually respond," he says. "It gives energy back. There's something about when that exchange happens, it changes things instantly, and those changes are, I think, really beautiful. And they never don't work, I trust them completely."
The night after "Chicken Dinner," Kuzov performed a one-man show at PNCA called "Hand Gun: A Passive Hero," as part of an EL-Fest event featuring Juan Ybarra. Near the middle of the performance – an existential monologue inspired by the work of Georg Bá¼chner – a baby in the back of the audience cried a deep, long wail. Kuzov, his head in his hands, returned the cry, longer and more despairing.
"I think that those are the things you pull out from underneath the audience and put back on top of them," he says. "In a way that indicates that we're all right here, together, all the time."
Kuzov has been acting since he was 15. He received his undergraduate degree in acting from Texas Tech, and a Masters in acting from Louisiana State University. Both programs were based on traditional theatre, and in them Kuzov studied and acted in countless plays from playwrights spanning the centuries. However steeped in tradition his education was, early on as an actor he began stretching his own terms.
"I was always pushing the edges of theatre, and everyone in theatre was always kind of leery of me. I think I was fairly well-respected in the places I've worked, but I was definitely seen as someone who was a little bit hard to work with, or crazy or a little out of control or they weren't sure of me."
Some audience members have felt the same way. Kuzov has physically grabbed or yelled at audience members during performances. Early into "Hand Gun: A Passive Hero," he singled out a viewer and had him sit on a desk facing the audience for the remainder of the performance. But sometimes it's an audience member who initiates the exchange. Kuzov describes an incident that occcurred during a solo tour he made along the California coast when an audience member kept shouting insults at him. The performance was in a bar, and was meant to be a fairly personal, from-the-gut monologue. The heckler was disruptive, a little disturbing even for Kuzov, but became part of the energy of that particular performance, and something to be played off of.
Kuzov describes the relationship with the audience as one of giving and receiving, but conversely, the performer has control and is the one with the advantage. An audience has no way of knowing what is to come next, and in Kuzov's experience, is willing to accept just about anything given to them. And it's all about faith. The willingness of an audience to accept what the artist is doing is why the audience cares about the artist.
"As a performer, you have to hope that it's not a ridiculously idiotic idea!" he says, laughing.
Neither Kuzov nor Tsong ever expected to be involved in a performance like "Chicken Dinner," with meat "being thrown around." But what redeemed the idea was its honesty, despite its tendency toward the obvious. Ultimately, it turned out to be a surprising and enlightening performance for both of them.
"I had this revelation about performance last year," Edie comments about a performance she had seen which dealt with bulimia. "A lot of it seemed really clichéd to me, but it was so amazing to watch, and it just clicked with me that anything you do – if you really go at it – it doesn't matter how many times a thing has been done, it's still a thing that humans do." The fact of the matter is that the audience is experiencing something first-hand: human beings acting out something that they have never before seen, right in front of them.
"I bet that performance makes it into hundreds of turkey dinners this Thanksgiving and Christmas," Kuzov says. He is probably right. There's a good chance that "Chicken Dinner" will come up in conversation between the friends and family of everyone who saw it.
And that's another beautiful thing about performance to the couple, its role as storytelling and oral tradition; the power a performance possesses, having taken place on one night in one room with a hundred witnesses, to disseminate to thousands of people.
"Yeah," Edie laughs. "And if you have a 25 pound turkey in your hand..."