Karaoke(ART)

What would you think if i sang out of tune?

Karaoke. For those of you not particularly fond of wannabe rockstars or drunk birthday parties, the term reeks of sad desperation, at best stirred with a touch of perverse enjoyment. Maybe this is because you were born far away from the hipster performance practices of puppeteer karaoke-ists from Portland, or never experienced a Japanese pornaoke event. Be that as it may, the term somehow seems to lack a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’, this x-factor of arty appeal that would make you run up the stage and perform to your heart’s desire.

In that sense karaoke seems to take up a dubious position in our cultural understan- ding. On the one hand the seedy, needy practice of self-fulfillment through interpas- sive reenactment of prepackaged emotions and images, makes any critical consumer wince. On the other, karaoke in a lot of ways represents a belief in a kind of self-made, decentered, and potentially subversive recuperation of fame and fortune. Like anyone can be an artist, in karaoke anyone can be worthy of generous appreciation, with an (often acquiescent) public of accomplices as a witness.

Karaoke is an unapologetic practice of enthusiasm and embarrassment, of ecstasy and fragility. It brings out the best and the worst in all of us. In the glee of the onlookers, the hubris of the performer, the suspense of seeing a live car-crash or an unexpected rocket launch.

Karaoke(ART) somehow redraws the territory of the karaoke practice every so slightly. In everyday karaoke events, the videos are no more than placeholders for the artist’s brand: a kind of illustration, a shorthand of cultural references that situates the song on the map of symbolic (and entertainment) capital. In the Karaoke(ART) event, the images start to play quite a different role. Separated from their need to affirm and underline the melodic message, they now start to free-float, reconnect, comment and critique. A greying Stones’ song like Paint it Black regains its political potency in Tim Etchell’s performance of oblivion. The Eurythmics’ songlines gain an uncanny alien quality in the work of Laure Prouvost. An eerily beautiful view of a boat trip on the water resonates with memories of the Portuguese dictator António de Oliveira Salazar.

In that displacement of cultural regimes, something weird starts to happen. The in- terpassive orgy of self-identification seems to become interrupted, suspended. Where most karaoke is used to take on the skin of the other, to borrow the poetics of the Artist to say what otherwise seems impossible to express - because too high-strung, pathetic,romantic, or naïve -, here this emotional-cultural grid of mutual recognition becomes muddled up.

Things no longer seem to mean what they mean. A heartfelt love song gets re-arranged through the video into a nightmarish delirium. A pathetic cry in the dark becomes an intimate huis-clos. At that point the most potent element of the karaoke, its en- dless capacity for reviving and reenacting emotions, safely sealed in songs rendered harmless through time and forgetfulness, enters into a danger zone. Since the spectator can only discover the video through the performance of the song, he/she is no longer sure of what is going to be produced in doing so. Only through the spectator’s enga- gement, the work comes to life, for himself as well as the rest of the public. And there is no way of telling what it will be about. Instead of an interpassive re-enactement of cultural anthems, the karaoke machine here starts to produce ever changing patterns of comments, ironic side remarks, political rearrangements, or aesthetic flights of fancy.

Karaoke(ART) produces a truly interactive experience, that breaks the mold of the identification brand, and invites the public to become performers of an unknown, unfolding now. The co-authors of a work of art that differs through every single performance. The redefining of a shared cultural heritage, and the problematic ‘we’ it presupposes, which we somehow have to come to terms with. Karaoke(ART) produces a cultural context tinged with some feminist ghost notes or post-colonial syncopes. The blind enthusiasm of the performer getting tackled by the artistic tension chords, by quietude, madness or seemingly unrelated chaos.

But just as the group identification is interrupted, the shared experience of karaoke’s ground emotions - the verve and the vulnerability, the emotional patina - enters into the theatre through the back door. Because there is no way these songs can be perfor- med without awakening a dormant memory somewhere in the performer’s and the public’s body. Without a tinge of nostalgia, of remembrance, of desire.

In Karaoke(ART) these two worlds collide. The regime of aesthetic criticality and the one of the embodied histories of everyone there. The ins and the outs of personal sto- ries, remembrance, and reinterpretation. And there is no way a collision like that won’t produce a couple of false notes in the process.

Elke Van Campenhout