Well, this one was perfectly cast to observe and confront what I call THE COMBINE PLOT. In the late eighties I wrote:
It is important to understand the nature of the general plot of fragmentation, the combine plot. I took the word "combine" from the novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey. In the book, the combine is a fear machine network which secretly installed pacemakers of fear, doubt, and mistrust in almost everyone in childhood. This made people much easier to control. It isolates people into cells padded with fear and doubt, making the people part of the combine. There are some misfits whom the combine missed with its fear pacemakers. In others, the fear pacemakers blow their fuses. These people without the fear pacemakers are very dangerous to the combine because if they are not checked, destroyed, discredited, isolated, or enfolded into the combine, they can show others how to blow out their own fear pacemakers, can show others how to be free humans linked to other free humans. The combine rarely has to directly destroy the misfits itself. Just direct eliminations would reveal the existence of the combine. So such direct eliminations are kept to the minimum. The real tool of the combine is a vague sense of uncomfortableness, of inferiority, and of mistrust within the victims of the combine. The setting of the novel is a mental ward in which most of the patients are self‑committed. They believe themselves weak, unable to cope with the outside world. They believe the fear comes from themselves, not from the pacemakers. They just have to start believing in themselves, and they could pull out the pacemakers and walk out of the hospital. But every time they reach this threshold of freedom, the combine, by clever remote manipulation, turns up the vague uncomfortableness and mistrust. The victims themselves do the destroying of the misfit either in themselves or that con man pied piper who laughs at their fears and limits, who shows them the way to freedom. It is the victims who do most of the censoring.
One of the main functions of art is to be that misfit who reveals and fights against the combine, to show the way back to freedom and self‑trust.
In the audience there were a group of four young psych students who had basically been forced to sign a loyalty oath to The Combine Plot to go to school. They had internalized this as a fear that if they violated the loyalty oath in ways they couldn’t pin down, they would be kicked out of the school. Their fear of undressing me became a tool for examining this box of “PROFESSIONALISM”. Also there were a couple of professors who train social workers. At one point the female professor told us that typically students have to unlearn around fifty percent of what they learned in college after college to live. Also in the audience was a cute lusty pair of lovers who provided the erotic juice for the night. The hot babe turned out to be seventy one years old! Also at one point a family with a kid came in. I just told them there was nudity and eroticism in the piece. They had no problem with that! I have noticed from watching videos of performances in other countries that people bring their kids to edgy performances, unlike in this country.
I had the student who had been a nurse read my poem OUT OF ISOLATION, which is about breaking out of the isolation of PROFESSIONALISM into warm human love. She almost cried.
Early in the piece, I had my poem NO CAN NOTS read. I wrote it for a class of pre- med students. It sums up what I was trying to get through to the psych students. But the reading was garbled. So here is the poem:
NO CAN NOTS
Talking to future healers
& maybe future
muckrakers & troublemakers
Not really future
You are doing IT
I’m not talking to the future guards
Of the corporate normalcy
Armed with can nots,
Limiting futures from birth,
Enforcing coloring only within the lines,
Enforcing doing everything
THE RIGHT WAY
THE NORMAL WAY
To turn the intensity of what had happened in the performance back into the physical intimacy, we did an erotic dance ritual which became more and more explicit, direct, raw. Linda, Erika and I kept falling into prickly rubbing aroused pleasure friction deep as the audience all left. For all you know, we are still at it! Performance art is like that!
Da Boyz and Erika
Well the weather forecast had been saying rain on Saturday, the day of the performance … but then, a couple days before, it changed! They were predicting rain on Friday and Sunday, but not Saturday! Frank’s weather karma! Or so we hoped! In the end, it rained on and off all night, but we were able to avoid the worst of it, both coming and going. And it did not stop a good crowd of people from attending the performance. They arrived earlier than usual, the first coming in out of the rain before 7:30!
We were still setting up when an older couple came in out of the rain. They pulled out some chairs and sat right by the door and looked at various fliers and magazines that were there. Others arrived also before the performance “started”. A young couple was there, and Frank invited them to check out the free stuff that we had laid out … zines, CDs, videos … they didn’t do it however. Although they did look over the table of handouts and Frank’s poetry broadside, paintings postcards, presidential platforms, “magical act of doing” pamphlets … she picked up the platform and was reading it.
More arrived before things got started … a young man who Frank never got a chance to talk to because he left early, and another pair, who we were to later know as Bobby and Caitlin … And as soon as Frank was ready, he asked everyone sitting on the outside edges of the mat to come closer. The crowd inched gingerly toward Frank … “Closer,” Frank said again. A few people moved a little closer. Frank turned to Caitlin, and said, “Yes, I am talking to you!” She inched a few scoots forward!
Frank turned to the older couple, and asked him how he found out about the performance. He said, “My fiancee’ [gesturing to her] told me about it …”
Frank asked them, “When is the wedding?”
He said that they didn’t know yet, that they had only been engaged for five days! Frank asked, “Who proposed to who?”
It was him. It was at a restaurant … they were there celebrating something else, and he said to her that he had something to tell her … but he was nervous. He said he would tell her later. Of course, then she needed to know right away what it was! He said that he whispered in her ear … No, she corrected him, “You looked into my eyes!”
“I want to marry you!” He said. He said that she had a blank expression on her face! He asked her, “Will you marry me?”
She explained that it was like the wind had been knocked out of her! She didn’t know what to think/say … wow … but, yes!
Frank asked how they met. Three years before, at a winter solstice celebration that only 5 people attended. He said he knew that he was going to meet someone that night, which is why he went.
Frank asked, “Why the wait?”
He said that it took that long to get rid of his demons … Frank asked what were the demons. He said, “Fear … and a blocked heart. It took me that long to open up my heart.”
Frank asked her, “Did you say, ‘Finally!!’”?
She said no … she didn’t really have an expectation of where it was going … things were getting deeper, but she was not thinking about that …
He asked her how she found out about the performance. She had seen a flier on a lamppost outside of Caffe Trieste at San Pablo and Dwight in Berkeley. Frank asked her what attracted her to it, and she said that it felt like it was playful, that it had to do with spirit and heart and warmth, which is what she likes … Frank asked her how she got all that from the flier, and they both talked about the artwork of Labash, which was the main thing that gave them this impression. Also, the words … she said it was everything about it.
Frank asked him what he does. He said that he does technical stuff, all things computers, to pay the bills, but it is not his passion. Then he guessed Frank’s next question, “What is my passion?” Everyone laughed. He said that he didn’t want to say what his main passion was, there, now … but he said, “spirituality … I have always been seeking spiritual truths”.
Frank turned to her, who we later came to know as Ariel, and asked what she does. She said that she loves … when she was 16, she learned some kind of Mayan term about living love, loving everyone, even those who do despicable things. She talked about love and playfulness being what she does … She talked about seeing in the Mayan calendar that her particular symbol, in their astrology, is the “Blue Monkey”, which is playful and loving, and about bringing those qualities out in other people. She felt that Frank was probably a blue monkey too looking around at the room and the colors Frank and Linda were wearing … and she had found out that her fiancée was a blue monkey too.
Frank asked her how much of her life was she able to live like this? She said that she was able to do it 54% of the time she would like to … Frank giggled, “You are like me …” Using percentages to describe things. He said, “Not really based in reality, but conveys a meaning.”
When she talked more about play, Frank asked her, “Erotic play?” She said yes … “well definitely later, when we get home!”
Frank asked, “Here, tonight?” The crowd laughed, surprised … She said, “We’ll see …”
Frank turned to the second couple who had come in, and asked him how he had heard about the performance. It was online, they couldn’t remember exactly where … something like googling “fun things to do in Oakland”. Frank asked him what attracted him to the performance, and he said that it sounded fun … the woman with him said that they wanted to do something that they had not done before …
Frank asked him what he does, and he said that he is a professor of social work. Frank asked him, “Can I blame you for my social workers?” Laughter!
He didn’t get it at first … But when he got what Frank was saying, he said that he has only been teaching this year, his first year. He said that he teaches social workers particularly in the field of foster care. She also said that she teaches … in the field of child psychology, prevention of mental illness in children, and research in that area.
Frank asked him if he would read a poem that Frank wrote for a class of pre-med students: “No Cannots”. He said sure. And while he read the poem, Frank asked Ariel if she would undress the camera-man. She said, “Well if the cameraman asks me to undress him …” Frank and Linda turned to Corey … Corey asked Ariel, “Will you undress me?” She said ok, and came over to undress Corey …
The social work teacher read the poem, very quickly … whereas Ariel was undressing Corey very slowly, and then thought that since the poem was over, she was to stop undressing Corey. He said that she could continue, and so she undressed him totally, saying at one point, when it came to taking off his pants, “Well, we are getting very intimate, aren’t we, what is your name?” Corey told her, and she said that she was “Ariel”.
It was at this point that several more people came in … another pair came and sat in front of the pair Bobby and Caitlin, and shortly afterward, a family came in with a little girl, and another young couple came in and joined the young man that we never heard from, since they all left before Frank had a chance to talk with them.
Frank turned to Bobby and Caitlin, asking Bobby how he had heard about the performance. He had seen it on the website “SF Fun Cheap”, and it turned out had only told Caitlin about it an hour and a half before, texting her to come with him to it. He had been attracted by the words “comfortable”, and “comedy” … We were wondering where he got “comfortable”, but Frank just asked him, “Do you like ‘uncomfortable’? He said that ‘uncomfortable’ was good to a certain degree … but then basically described it in negative terms … all of what was negative about being “uncomfortable”. Frank said, “Also, growth and flexibility” were things that came out of “uncomfortable”.
Frank asked him what he does, and Bobby explained that they were all first year doctorate students in clinical psychology at the Wright Institute near Cal … We came to find out that the four of them, Bobby, Caitlin, and the two who had come later and sat in front of them, were all in the same class together.
The family had been hovering by the door, looking at the free materials, and Linda invited them all in … When they sat down near the back of the room, Frank, seeing the little girl, turned to them and said, “Hi … there will be nudity and erotic tonight. So if you are ok with that, with your child...” One of the women in the group replied that it was fine.
Frank turned back to Bobby and asked him if he would undress Erika. He said that he wasn’t ready to do that yet, he needed a second. Frank turned to Alexi to set a timer … Linda said that he was only asking for a “second”! But that was already up, so they had Alexi set a minute timer … Bobby continued, “I need to ease into it …” And Frank said, “One button at a time …?”
Soon the timer went off, but Bobby was not going to be undressing Erika … he explained that basically as part of his “contract” with his school, he had agreed to “uphold standards of conduct and professionalism” at all times. The way he talked about it was at the same time vague and extreme, and generally when Frank would try to narrow in on specific things that he said about this contract, or restrictions Bobby was operating under, he would never really answer the questions in ways that any of us could really understand, and often not answer at all, but say something different in a manner that had the effect of making things seem muddy and unclear, while trying to sound perfectly rational!
But Frank was on the case! Frank asked him if Erika instead could undress him. He said no, and for the same “reasons”. Frank tried to find out what this signed contract really spelled out. Were the students not allowed to be naked in public? There was laughter! At some point, Bobby said something about that if any of his clients found out that he had done this, it would jeopardize the professional relationship, etc. Frank asked him what did “professional” mean. Bobby talked about needing years of experience, building “respect” … “it was important to be respectable and maintain a professional conduct” … these were all his reasons for not undressing or being undressed.
At some point in here, Frank asked the fiancée if he would undress Erika. He said sure, and before you knew it, Erika was nude! It was only three buttons!
Frank asked Bobby, “Am I respectable?” Bobby said yes … but then continued to talk intellectually about operating within this system, and in response to Frank’s questions challenging his acceptance of such a restrictive way of living, Bobby would answer abstractly, framing life in a way that described all of us living in a system that confined us all in some way, and even describing his work in psychology as being about helping people become better adjusted to operating within this confined system.
Frank said to him, “Healing is freedom. How can you heal if you are confined, not free?”
Frank also asked him at one point, “Am I confined?” This is where he answered abstractly that we are all confined in some way … Frank turned to Ariel, “Are you confined?”
She said that she did feel confined at times by her own fears or self-doubt, and it was a process of letting go of those things … Frank said that was healthy.
Frank turned to Caitlin now, and this is perhaps when we heard how she had come to the performance after only getting a text an hour or so before, and that she really didn’t know much about the performance, other than it would be something fun to do with Bobby.
Frank asked her, “Do you like uncomfortable?” She said that it was not something that she necessarily sought out, but that she had been a nurse before starting the psychology program, and thus has often had to be in “uncomfortable” situations with patients, so she has gotten more used to that, to feeling awkward and not necessarily knowing how to respond.
Frank asked her if she would undress Linda. She said sure, and got up and went up to where Linda was, and undressed her. You could see that she was very formal, telling Linda before she touched her that she was going to touch her, etc. When she sat back down, Frank asked her if she didn’t just break this contract that Bobby had been describing. She said that they may have different interpretations of it. She did not necessarily see it the way that he did. She felt that as long as she was acting respectfully, treating Linda with respect, that she was within the contract. At some point Frank asked all of them if they had signed this contract. At first they thought he was talking about the mailing list! But yes, they had.
Now Frank asked Caitlin if she would read his poem, “Out of Isolation”. She came up and sat next to Frank, and read the poem very deeply. While she read, Frank acted out his part as Jim, crying, making sounds … at first, she didn’t understand what Frank was doing … was he trying to say something? The audience did not seem to get it at first either. But then there was a point when it felt like people got what Frank was doing. It was extremely powerful, especially because it felt that it was going into a very deep place in Caitlin while she read. She looked like she was on the verge of tears. When she sat back down, Frank asked her how it felt.
She said that it touched her very deep inside … she said that in her profession as a nurse, she is in very much the same situations, and it reminds her to think about how her patients feel … the medical field objectifies people, and she has been guilty of doing this herself, and doesn’t want to do that. She looked like she wanted to cry. It felt like there was a lot going on inside her.
It is hard to remember the order of everything … at some point, Frank asked a series of people from the group of psych students if they would help Linda undress Frank? Caitlin said that she wouldn’t, and when Frank asked her why, she said first that it was about undressing the opposite gender. But she really couldn’t explain this more than that it was the way society and her work conditioned her to think about things for 29 years. She didn’t understand it, but felt conditioned by it and basically didn’t feel comfortable going past it. Frank did point out at this point that the performance was called “The Uncomfortable Zones of Fun”! He had earlier had Linda describe how/why the name changed from “Reality Playings” because he was asking various people if they liked “uncomfortable”.
Frank asked the other two people from the Wright Institute if they would help undress Frank. First the girl, and then lastly, the guy sitting next to her. First, Frank asked her how the performance was for her so far. She said she liked it … but she wasn’t willing to help Linda undress Frank … she said she was ok with the way she was, not doing what felt “uncomfortable”, although she would probably go through changes when she got home …
Frank asked her to read the warning sign, and she said she had already read it! But she read it aloud again. It was just like what she was saying about herself …
Her friend next to her was enjoying the performance too. He didn’t have a lot to say about it at that time, but he was enjoying it. Would he help Linda undress Frank? No … Why? Because, like the others had said, it was outside his societal conditioning, what he had learned growing up, etc... He also referred to what Bobby had said about their agreement with the school …
Meanwhile, Frank had asked Ariel and her fiancée if Erika could undress them and dress them up in the costumes and jewelry … They said ok readily, and soon Erika was undressing the two of them by the costume area, taking a piece of clothing off from one and then the other. It was very cute, and their willingness was a sharp contrast to the long conversation that ensued with this other psychology doctoral student, which ended up clearing about half the room before Frank had a chance to talk with many of the others who had arrived.
Frank masterfully followed the “logic” of the student. It was a long long conversation. When the student talked about society’s conditioning as if it were the only option, Frank asked him if he liked that. Frank pointed the way down a different road of logic, which at one point had the student saying that yes, this social conditioning creates boundaries which separate people … Do I believe in keeping people separated from one another? No …
“So ….?” Frank asked. “Would you help Linda undress me?” No, he still would not. “Why?” Frank asked.
It was because he had his own personal “code”, but it didn’t really make any sense that he could convey … it was a stance that he was taking and not going to let go of.
Frank told him that he would bet that the student would feel more comfortable five minutes after helping Linda undress him. Frank said, “I am not saying that you would not feel foolish …” But he would bet that he would feel more comfortable. The guy said he didn’t think that was right. He did not think he would feel more comfortable.
Frank said to him, “I will bet you $5 that you will feel more comfortable after you help Linda undress me!” He didn’t understand at first. We were all laughing! Linda explained that Frank is betting him $5! He still would not go for it.
Meanwhile, the older couple looked fantastic, and were sitting down now after Erika had finished dressing them. Frank pointed out that Erika was a “professional”, and had Erika tell everyone what she does. She is an events coordinator at a skilled nursing facility, which has an activities department, in which a number of people work with the residents. Frank also pointed out that the jewelry came from Betty, and Linda talked about our relationship with Betty since they met 15 years ago or so.
Frank turned back to the student, and the following exchange included the student saying something about how he has lived a certain way for 30 years, and that is basically what directs him … the way he was raised, the social norms, etc.
Frank turned to Ariel and her fiancée, and asked them how old they are. Ariel is 71 years old, which amazed everyone. Frank said a little later that she is a hot babe! Her fiancée is 69 years old. Frank said that he is 65. It was a loud hint to the students that they obviously didn’t get!
Frank asked the two of them how it was, getting undressed and dressed … she said that she enjoyed it, but she was a little self-conscious about her socks leaving marks on her leg from the elastic! “Oh vanity,” she said! She said that she kept trying to lean over and get a peek at what she looked like in the mirror. He said that it was fun, that he had gotten a little bored when the undressing was taking a long time, but that he was glad that he had not worn ratty underwear!
Frank asked Ariel if she had gotten to see herself after all in the mirror. She hadn’t, so Frank said that she should take a look at herself. Her fiancée said that she looked really good. She got up and looked at herself, doing a little pose. She liked it, and was having a good time!
Somehow the conversation returned to Bobby, and he came out with the statement that he has to watch everything he does at all times to make sure that he doesn’t do anything that breaks the contract and could result in him being kicked out of the program. Frank asked him if he really lived his life in this kind of fear. His response was another mix of abstract gobbledygook with a rationalization of living in fear as a practical norm that people generally live within one way or another. But Frank’s questions made clear how extreme and restricting this was, and really questioned how anyone could live this way?
Caitlin said that the reality is that if she had come to the performance alone, without the other students, she probably would not have had any hesitation in helping Linda undress Frank. She felt that she couldn’t do it with them there because they do not know each other very well, and she would be afraid of what might be said about her in the context of their school. Frank asked her what they would say about her. She said that Bobby would “rib her” for the next 3 years. Frank asked the other students what they would say if Caitlin had agreed to help Linda undress Frank. The girl said that she would not have said anything … she said that she can understand why Caitlin feels that way, given that she doesn’t really know her very well, but that she would not have said anything. The guy said that he would have said to himself, “Wow, she’s really free/comfortable” … And Frank and Linda asked him what kind of “wow” that was … it wasn’t a kind of negative “wow”, but a kind of surprised, but not shocked, “wow”.
When asked the same question, Bobby laughed and said that it would have probably become an inside joke between them.
We think now that Frank turned to the social work teacher and asked him what he would say to a student who was talking in the way that Bobby was. We think his response was that he challenges his students … Frank asked him to challenge Bobby, but the social work teacher said that he would have to sit down with him and talk through why he feels the way he feels … it seemed like he didn’t really want to get into it, and was also taking the position that everyone has their own interpretation of things, and it’s all valid. And he added that he felt that part of the issue in this discussion was the presence of the video camera, and the internet, and that this was part of the hesitation of people to do things, because anyone could find out about it …
Frank turned to the woman who came with him, also a teacher, and asked her about her students … She said that 50% of her students are concerned about professionalism in the way that these doctoral students have described, while the other half of her students question and challenge these kinds of assumptions. She said that she encourages that kind of questioning, and would encourage her students to come to Frank’s performance. Frank said, “Do!” She said, “I will.”
She said that a lot of what has been learned needs to be unlearned. Frank asked her, “How much?” She said that it depends on the person, but generally most of it!
Frank asked Ariel if she would help Linda undress him. She said sure, and it was over in a few minutes. Ariel said something along the lines of, “Is that it?” There had been so much talk about the students not helping Linda undress Frank, that it was totally anti-climactic! Frank said, “I would have won the bet!” Caitlin and the other female student were nodding their heads yes …
At this point, Frank asked Ariel if she would read his poem “Wrapping/Rocking”. She said sure, and came up and stood next to Frank, and read the poem very clearly and dramatically. While she was reading, the four psychology doctoral students got their stuff together and exited.
After the reading, he asked the two teachers who remained if they would play music. She said, “If you want ‘bad’ music …” In reply, Frank said that they [the students] thought helping Linda undress him was uncomfortable! Linda added that she has never heard Frank say any kind of music was “bad” … he doesn’t think that way.
So the two teachers got up and went over and started playing percussion instruments, really getting into it! Meanwhile, Frank asked Ariel and fiancée if they would rock together like in the poem. They said yes. And while they did that, Frank said that he, Linda and Erika would dance together.
The lights went down, the slides came on, and Frank, Linda and Erika got ready to dance … the musicians started playing a groove on drums and other shakers, etc., and Ariel and fiancée held each other, and rocked, and then danced together …
It wasn’t more than five minutes after Frank, Linda and Erika started dancing, that the teachers put down their instruments, and got their stuff and left. Then Ariel and fiancée stopped rocking and went over to take off their costumes and put on their clothes … slowly … and then got their stuff together also, and left. Frank, Linda and Erika kept dancing as all of this was happening. They made sounds together, very intense, and the dance melted everything into an erotic trance … When they finished, the “audience” had all left, and it was just us!
Linda asked Frank, “The end?” We laughed.
Linda said later that when she told Frank that the musicians had left, she could tell by his response that it didn’t matter, and she really admired how Frank just stayed with “us”. A lot of other artists would care about the audience leaving, might see the comment from the teacher about sending her students to the performance as being something they didn’t want to “lose”, and so might stop the ritual to preserve that.
We talked a lot about the performance afterward. Linda said as soon as the performance was “over”, that “we did our part to change what is wrong with the world!” Frank said he worked hard! Yes! Linda asked Frank if he felt like he was driving a bus, like last time. No, he said it was “teaching”.
Linda talked about how it was almost the perfect play to illustrate the dynamics of the combine plot … the perfect characters had come to show how it works. You had the four doctoral students training to heal people, and bound up in the plot. Then you have the teacher who says, on the other hand, that you need to unlearn almost everything you have been taught! And then in the next corner the two elders in love, living in freedom and enjoying life.
We talked a lot about how Bobby had really set the tone for the rest of his schoolmates. That he was the agent of the combine plot, had the most energy, was the most outspoken, and appeared to know what he was talking about, and they obviously looked up to him. But that you could see, especially with Caitlin, that it was not what was inside her … inside, she rebelled against all that.
We talked about how it felt like everyone there was seriously impacted by the performance. Linda said that it was not a “hot tub” performance night, referring to the performance in 2010 attended by a large group of young artists, who were very inspired by the performance and connected with each other afterward, going to hot tubs and talking all night! In contrast, this was a group of people, with some exceptions, that were very comfortable with how they looked at the world and at themselves, but had that point of view shaken very severely by the performance, and had no idea what they were getting into! Even for the newly engaged Ariel and fiancée it felt like they were given a lot to take in, and that it would have a major impact on them as well.We were also saying that the dance ritual at the end, with the intense sounds that Linda, Erika and Frank were making, was an uncomfortable blasting apart of the combine!
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Last modified January 29, 2012