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Can Too Much Local Knowledge Be Counter-Productive?

November 26, 2008

Productions that are specifically geared towards a local audience can swing two ways. Because such shows tap into the regional knowledge, culture and concerns of a particular locale, the relationship between what's going on on stage and what's going on in the stalls can be very powerful. Stand-up comedians often emphasize regionalism to great effect as it builds warmth and a common basis for comedy. On the other hand, audiences can also get a bit bored with work that reflects themselves and their direct environment too closely, especially if the artist is simply telling theatregoers stuff about their surroundings and lifestyles that doesn't shed any new light on what they already know.

The latter is the case with the latest incarnation of Blixa Bargeld's long-running global performance project, The Execution of Precious Memories. Since 1994, the postmodern musician (who is best known in his native Germany as the founder of the experimental rock group Einsturzende Neubaten and in the US as guitarist with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds) has sporadically created a series of performance pieces based on the specific cities in which they are staged. The project started out in Berlin. Between 1994 and 2001, Bargeld collaborated on pieces in Osaka, Tokyo, Buenos Aires, Yaounde, Stockholm, London, New Delhi and Krakow. The show in San Francisco, which played last week at Theatre Artaud, represents the first Precious Memories production since 2001 and the first ever in the US.

Bargeld has lived in the Bay Area since 2001 so he has quite a bit of local knowledge at this point with which to create a work that reflects the lives of local residents. Certainly his entrenchment in San Francisco life is beautifully reflected in his choice of collaborators for the piece -- the experimental dance company KUNST-STOFF and the six-member new music ensemble, Nanos Operetta. Nanos Operetta's live musical score is the most riveting thing about the project. A combination of fierce percussion, strident strings and shimmery accordion, the ensemble-composed soundtrack does more to capture the eclectic spirit of San Francisco than all of Bargeld's vague, husky-voiced ramblings about the impact of 9/11 and his favorite local haunts.

In a way, Bargeld occupies a bit of a no-man's-land in terms of his relationship with the city. Because he's lived in the Bay Area for seven years, he no longer has the freshness of perspective of a tourist. But he hasn't lived in the region for long enough to be able to really get to grips with San Francisco's soul. Thus, the production mostly conveys a fairly superficial and standard image of what the city represents to the world and what it means to its residents.

I'm curious to know if Bargeld actually lived in all the cities in which he previously created shows or whether he just visited them. It would be interesting to explore all the pieces in the Precious Memories cannon to date to find out whether being an outsider or tourist inspires a more intriguing artistic take on a city's culture than being a permanent resident.

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