DORNING A BARE brick wall somewhere on Ninth Street NW is an insightful piece of graffiti trumpting Andy Warhol's dictum: "Art is anything you can get away with." A few blocks away, a group of artists are attempting to prove it.
Beginning last night at the Pension Building with a scheduled concert by internationally known composer Philip Glass and continuing for the rest of the month, "9th Street Crossings" will be presenting a brash and eclectic collection of visual manipulators, dancers, composers and musicians at various locations. In addition to the performances, there will also be a symposium with several of the artists today at 6 p.m. at the Hirshhorn Auditorium, a series of lectures, classes and workshops at the Washington Project for the Arts, and related exhibitions at the McIntosh/Drysdale Gallery, the Diane Brown Gallery and d.c. space.
And what kind of art are these artists trying to get away with? It has been called Performance Art. Or Modernism. Or, better yet, Post Modernism. New Art. New Music. New Dance. Not to mention, New Wave. And, No Wave. Art Rock. Rock Art. Techno Art. Constructivism. Minimalism.
Mostly, "it" is art attempting to shake free of theories and analysis; coming to grips with changing attitudes and mushrooming technologies; climbing down off the high horse of high culture and mingling with the masses; art, marching, groping, stumbling its way into the final quarter of the 20th century, knocking down barriers and crashing through labels as it goes.
"Are you a classical composer or a pop-music songwriter?" someone once asked Glass. "Yes," he replied.
Glass' music is an odd concoction of popular and classical forms -- the block-like chords and straightforward harmonies of rock are set in a rigid structure of repeated patterns, variations of which evolve slowly, not unlike a kind of frozen Bach. While his sound may be regarded as either mesmerizing or tedious, it does manage a fairly impressive leap over stylistic boundaries; it is avant-garde dance music, or "trance music" or . . . although Glass has been rather well known for the better part of a decade, critics and scholars are still coining names for his music.
The same could be said, in varying degrees, about the other artists in "9th Street Crossings." While their work does not fit into any particular style of art, it does, in its offbeat way, have a style of its own -- what might be referred to as avant-garde with sneakers. At its most basic, it represents Pop and Classical, fighting it out in the Culture Sweepstakes with these artists at the front lines; only no one (including the artists themselves) seems to be sure which side he or she is on.
Performance artist Laurie Anderson's "United States III & IV" (Pension Building, Saturday) goes after the subjects of love and money American-style with a verbal, visual and musical attack that is alternately delicate, wacky and filled with a pop-ish hyperbole. David Behrman describes the music he will be playing at the Corcoran Auditorium (Friday) as "music for homemade guitar," while Maida Wither's "Stall" (Pension Building, Oct. 20) features dancers interacting with a "revolving sound sculpture." Choreographer Lucinda Childs has set a score by Glass to dance, with hypnotic movements that reflect the repeating musical patterns (Oct. 29 and 30, Lisner). The lead characters in Robert Ashley's "Perfect Lives (Private Parts)" (Oct. 24, Pension Building) are Isolde, the sheriff's daughter "who's getting on to 30 and 'never been propositioned,' " and her little brother, the captain of the football team. A poster from a previous production proclaims it to be, "a finger-popping, mouth-watering, boogie woogie, new wave, epic opera."
To help them bring these works to fruition, the artists are bringing along all of the accoutrements of their craft. Video cameras and monitors. Light-emitting diodes. Mutant violins. Portable groupings of electronic instruments. Abstract dance diagrams. Possibly, a woodwind or two. Perhaps, a flowing gown. And, one trusts, the inspiration that will make it all work.
Inspiration, in this case, is aided by invention. Behrman's music is, in part, "homemade" -- he dreams up sounds and then constructs instruments and devises electronic setups to realize them. Anderson does some inventing of her own, fashioning violins from phonographs, elliptical styluses and the like. Childs literally draws her dances, creating patterns on paper that are then emulated on the dance floor.
These inventions are allied with a creative spirit that is alternately overbearing, self-serving and not a trifle pretentious -- but also, at its best, surprising and refreshing. In "Perfect Lives (Private Parts)," Ashley creates a three-ring circus of activity, with live actors emoting playfully, a piano player improvising madly and up to 20 video moniters spewing out multiple images of midwestern farm life. Anderson recites monologues in which phonetic rhythms play straight man to anecdotes so dry that the wit is practically parched. These are delivered through a synthesizer that alters her voice -- at times, it barks out lines in the best tradition of telephone operators, while at others, it assumes the timbre of a truck driver's baritone.
What sets these artists apart from the avant-garde crazies who have become so predictably unpredictable over the past few decades? Artistic oddities of one description or another have, after all, been piling up -- all usually wrapped neatly in a "revolutionary technique" and rounded off at the rough edges with an appropriate "ism."
Yet for all their label-busting, eye-popping, ear-itating similarities to the avant-garde, these artists have added a new element that imparts a sense of energy and life that has been sorely lacking in art for some time. This is due more to intent than content. While the avant-garde and the academics have retreated from the masses, this art has headed out into the streets for its support. Unlike many of his classical counterparts, Glass performs with his own ensemble, at places ranging from Carnegie Hall to the Peppermint Lounge. Anderson has released her own single. Ashley has edited his work down to a version suited for television. When it comes to these artists, their heart may belong to Dada, but their eyes are set on the public arena.
And while they have not achieved mass acceptance just yet, they have certainly struck a responsive chord.
"This is the most amazing bandwagon effect that I've ever seen," says Alixandra Cohn, co-director of the festival. "From the first day, there has been a deluge of volunteers -- professional and government types, students, artists, business people and civic leaders, they all want to help out. I get the feeling that there is a strong undercurrent in this town that has been waiting for this festival to arrive."
The me'lange of supporters has extended to the local arts establishment. In a display of collaborative spirit, a wide range of organizations is pitching in, from the Smithsonian Institution and the Washington Performing Arts Society, to the more humble District Curators and Washington Project for the Arts.
This unusual mingling of individuals and organizations was nowhere more apparent than at the reception at which the festival was announced. Held last June at the 9:30 Club, that bastion of punk rockers and other less describable denizens of the local pop culture, the event was nothing short of a pajama party for strange bedfellows. The likes of Mayor Marion Barry, Anne Richardson (wife of Elliot) and WPAS managing director Patrick Hayes mixed with characters dressed in leopard leotards and purple hair.
"I'm proud to be a part of '9th Street Crossings,' " declared Hayes, as he perused a poster advertising Tony Perkins and the Psychotics. "This art is new, it is young. I feel like we are -- what is it they say about surfing? -- catching a new wave."
This art is a new wave of sorts -- it is rather like New Wave rock, in fact. Just as that impish genre infused rock with a renewed sense of excitement and brought it back to a more personal level of commitment and appeal, so these artists are attempting to lower a few high brows, to produce serious works without being too serious. They certainly have their own pretentions -- they could be accused of trying to out-avant the avant-garde, of rebelling against the rebels. But at the same time, they are, in a sense, bringing art back into the real world. They are not above competing in the marketplace with pimply rockers and pop-star smoothies, giving interviews to underground journals and posing for Life magazine spreads, philosophising about art and handing out 8-by-10-inch glossies. In other words, trying to get away with it.