On Circus Vertigo

From: Youth is an Art Or: Just what is it that make today’s kids so different, so awesome?

By Lise Haller Baggesen, 2011

The following is an example of how two artists, Kirsten Leenaars and Will Goos, have implied ‘Disney-strategies‘ – as we know them from television shows such as ‘Hannah Montana’, ‘iCarly’ and ‘American Idols’, and from the Mickey Mouse Club, whose ‘Mouseketeers’ haveprovided us with such entertainment pedigree as Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Justin Timberlake – and incorporated them into a fine-art setting.
Circus Vertigo

Like an avant-garde Glee club, Kirsten Leenaars’ and Will Goss’ performance project ‘Circus Vertigo’ introduces four fresh-faced teenagers with the following:Say goodbye to your eardrums, and say hello to Chicago’s hottest new punk band: Circus Vertigo! They are mean, they are loud, and they are 13 yearsold! Part live performance/part behind-the-scenes documentary, Circus Vertigo is the biggest show on earth!25 I checked out their virgin performance at the SAIC’s New Blood IV performance festival this November. After a brief video introduction (a‘mockumentary’ of the bands beginnings: part deadpan earnest teenage soul-searching, part playful musical merry making), the band takes the stage: two boys, one behind a drum-kit decorated with psychedelic candy-swirls and one with a saucepan dangling from the neck of his acoustic guitar, and two girls, bookish, nerdy looking types with lanky hair, thick rimmed glasses and bangled wrists, who take place behind the piano and the microphone stand. The knowing non-musicianship of the ‘Circus Vertigo’, Kirsten Leenaars and three instrumentalists supports the lead singers spoken word poetry beautifully. My first thought is: they are not very loud for a punk band, my second thought: hey! They are great, but what are they? And the only word I can think of is: Arty! They are really arty! Having just read Patti Smith’s memoirs ‘Just Kids’,26 a passage springs to mind:
“One Indian summer day we dressed in our favorite things, me in my beatnik sandals and ragged scarves, and Robert with his love beads and sheepskin vest. We took the subway to West Fourth Street and spent the afternoon in Washington Square. We shared coffee from a thermos, watching the stream of tourists, stoners, and folksingers. Agitated revolutionaries distributed antiwar leaflets. Chess players drew a crowd of their own. Everyone coexisted within the continuous drone of verbal diatribes, bongos, and barking dogs. We were walking toward the fountain, the epicenter of activity, when an older couple stopped and openly observed us. Robert enjoyed being noticed, and he affectionately squeezed my hand. “Oh, take their picture,” said the woman to her bemused husband, “I think they’re artists.” “Oh, go on,” he shrugged. “They are just kids.
The couple she so aptly pins down in the passage above, externalizes the internal dialogue, that I, (and I believe a lot of people in the audience with me) was having, watching ‘Circus Vertigo’ perform. It’s a double bind; on one hand nobody wants to be ousted as being gullible, out of touch, un-cool and easily impressed… but, on the other hand: imagine having missed out on an early photo opportunity of a young Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, frolicking around in the playground of ultra-hip late sixties’ New York… The performance was mildly disturbing; because not only did they walk the walk and talk the talk of the avant-garde, they were cute to boot! To top it of, these kids had been brought together for the occasion, by Kirsten Leenaars and Will Goss, to perform their‘teenage angst revisited’. By doingthis, Leenaars and Goss nod to a long tradition within the entertainment industry where bands are tailored to fill the need of a specific audience from the pop- to the sub- to the counter- culture of the day. As well as The Mouseketeers mentioned above, The Monkeys spring to mind, as does Malcolm McLaren’s brainchild The Sex Pistols.
As always, with child performers from Mozart to Vanessa Paradis, the notion of exploitation arises. Only, it is sometimes hard to tell who is being exploited. In the case at hand, the members of ‘Circus Vertigo’ were doing no more and no less than what kids do: writingsolemnly introspective poetry and clumsily orchestrating it. No boundaries trespassed there, they seemed totally at ease with their role in the play, and also blissfully unaware of the reactions they were provoking. Seemingly, of course, and that’s the point! As Leenaars and Goss tell us:
We will script certain actions, exploring the influence that the camera exerts on the behavior it seeks to record and the world it seeks to depict, the volatile and exciting universe of 13-year olds – who are equally keenly aware and assertive as they are vulnerable and manipulative. With a heightened sense of self and very self-conscious at the same time this generation of 13-year olds has an inherent understanding of the workings of the camera and the act of performing. On the one hand the work revolves around the band and its members and at the same time it revolves around the viewer – positioning the viewer as a desiring subject.
Because the language of the ‘avant-garde’ is so painfully close to that of the average teenager this example of art-imitating-life-imitating art became a poignant reminder to the audience (which consisted mainly of artists and art students) of the fecklessness of our position. The joke was on us somehow, and in this light watching ‘Circus Vertigo’ perform became painfully comical, like seeing yourself distorted in a funhouse mirror.                                                          The conflicting emotions being displayed here, are central to some people’s strong reactions to the combination of children and art. In the language of the collective subconscious the term ‘pure’ applies to both the ‘pure innocence of childhood’ as well as the ‘pure artistic genius’. However, the ‘pure at heart’ come in many shapes and sizes, and the thought of them mingling leave many people feeling uncomfortable. There is, it seems, something slightly unsettling aboutit, something inappropriate. Like the classic example of a monkey with a typewriter it questions the origin of artistic inspiration: what if the monkey goes on to write something really great, something you wishyou could have written? What does it say about the monkey, about the typewriter and most importantly: what does that say about you? Even if it was your monkey, your typewriter and your idea (to put them together), you would probably feel a more than faint pang of jealousy (as I’m sure MacLaren did when Sid Vicious’ fame eclipsed his own), you would feel betrayed, exploited even. But, in my opinion, if we choose to ignore the potential children andjuveniles represent as both an audience and as contributors to the contemporary visual arts, it will have dire consequences for not only tomorrows liberal arts education, but for society as a whole. In other words: if we ignore this potential segment of the Art public today, we risk missing out of a whole new generation of visual artists tomorrow.

Hopefully the academic race- and gender- debate of the future will also acknowledge, and include, the interests of children. In the realization that these interests are interconnected the UNESCO international yearof the child (1979) was a successor of the UN’s internationals woman’s year (1975), but I am not only talking about the right not to be exploited, but more broadly, the right to participate in and to shape the intellectual property and cultural inheritance, which is rightfully theirs.