Kosmic Inflation
Rachel Valinsky, Artforum

“YOU HAVEN’T GIVEN UP / ON A WORLD HAVE YOU?” asked Bernadette Mayer in the epilogue to a slim volume of poems titled Utopia (1984). “You know traditional utopias are no place / as ours will ever be,” she continued, entreating whomever so wished to “add all you would to / what is already here / together we will put / things on paper that / ‘ve never been there.” Mayer found utopia in social formations, love, and friendship, playfully staging its trials and tribulations in the pages of her book. Utopian thinking, both as narrative conceit and as practice of social imagination, similarly informs Seattle-based experimental playwright Kristen Kosmas’s The People’s Republic of Valerie: Living Room Edition.

Since its first ensemble production, in 2017 at On the Boards in Seattle, the play has undergone major revision, reemerging as a monologue performed by Kosmas in collaboration with visual artist Leon Finley, who accompanies her by creating live drawings on transparencies and animating them on an overhead projector. Since 2018, Valerie has been performed in living rooms around the country to raise funds for Path with Art, a Seattle nonprofit that offers art classes to “people recovering from homelessness, addiction, and other kinds of trauma.” In New York, the “Living Room Edition,” commissioned by The Chocolate Factory, coincided with the release of the script from 53rd Street Press. (Kosmas encourages readers to stage their own version of her piece at home to fundraise for an organization of their choice).

We gathered in a Fort Greene brownstone—I’m told a shared cooperative home. The setting was intimate: An audience of fifteen to twenty slouched on floor pillows or sunk into well-worn couches. The scents of recent cooking lingered. There was seltzer, cheese, and crackers for the audience. “Intimacy,” writes performer and director Daniel Alexander Jones in his introduction to the published play, “has always been Kristen Kosmas’s primary medium.” The décor was constituted simply by what idiosyncratic collection of objects regularly occupies that living room: a slathering of rugs on the floor, and as a backdrop to Kosmas and Finley’s station, two large bookshelves holding obsolete electronics, assorted books, and board games. Kosmas opened with a casual though scripted announcement that only four out of the play’s six parts would be presented that night—the skipped sections aren’t in the book and are thus presumably fictional, existing only in their scripted précis. Kosmas read skillfully and decisively from the text—no words were extemporaneous or improvised—while Finley populated a set of window curtains with drawn motifs (aggregates of lines, rectangular tubing, and small pebble-like enclosures) and biomorphic forms, evoking abstract cosmologies and organisms in transformation.

Part One, “Surveillance,” stages a female character’s plummet at a party. The when and where of this seemingly mundane event are at once specific and ambiguous in equal measure. Yet Kosmas has mastered an exacting prose that sets and resets in a kind of Steinian present which continually begins again, cleaving a new present to the one that immediately precedes it. In this “mental theater,” as Kosmas calls it, each sentence might spatialize and temporalize a branching universe of possibilities. Enunciation, Kosmas reminds us, is a powerful medium. Hers is both affable and rigorous, attentive to its capacity to produce the slightest shifts in register, address, and affect. Hypothetical scenarios proliferate. She has fallen to the ground and lies splayed on the grass, a man comes to offer assistance; or, “in yet another version, / the one which is happening / NOW” she has fallen and no one comes; or, she has fallen and all partygoers watch, with cinematic attention, the spectacle of her plight and paralysis amid the evermore stimulating natural phenomena of light and grass and landscape, experiencing an overwhelming feeling of collective simultaneity. In the scene, she doesn’t so much rise up as out—outside of herself, eventually glimpsing instants of other peoples’ lives from the removed position of an omniscient narrator who is not sure what to do with this faculty. She’s there but not there, an ineffectual witness.

The play shifts into a speculative, science-fictional dimension in Part Two, “How it Happens,” as Kosmas recounts with insistent precision her spontaneous projection onto an asterism. “There’s a flash, / a blaze a / coruscate / Then there’s a / dis-integration a / shattering a / splintering a / smithereening / It sounds terrible, and it is / kind of terrible / It’s complete physical rack and ruin / But it’s also kind of beautiful.” This elated, elating scene culminates in the fantastic description of her body scattering into billions of specks of glitter and reconstituted as matter, her consciousness occupying more of its potential than ever before, as she reemerges in the People’s Republic of Valerie. In the People’s Republic, she is enlisted into a cohort of “well-meaning but ineffectual people” who are instructed in the skill of visioning and envisioning, presumably so that they may have more of an “effect” when returning to Earth: “If you can see things as they are / then you might be able to see things as they should be.”

If surveillance features centrally in the Republic’s training program, it is recast as an embodied personal project of retuning attention and awareness, rather than as a positivistic tool of disciplinary control. Yet Kosmas does not easily do away with this contradiction; her script’s insistence on tracking and assessing the continuously renewed present, occasionally bracketing it even, flirts with the groundlessness of amnesia, its relinquishing of history to oblivion. And even as The People’s Republic of Valerie: Living Room Edition lingers on crises familiar to us and contemporaneous to the writing and production—police brutality and escalating POC death tolls, transphobic violence, environmental crisis, and pervasive social atomization and anomie—it also hovers in abstraction. Is this a prerequisite for utopia?

PRV: LRE ends in the “Bright Future,” a projected state of resolution. In the Bright Future, Kosmas intones, “your worst nightmare is behind you.” Violence has become unattractive, oppressions of all kinds are routinely punished, climate catastrophe hasn’t or won’t happen, suicide rates are down to zero, elections won’t be rigged, and food is ethically farmed. Yet, halfway through this catalogue of statements, it became hard (as in, with full heart) to stay with it. . .Perhaps this aspirational recitation merely cast the insufficiencies of the present and the daily barrage of cynical outlooks on the future into too stark relief. Or was it that the discrepancies—between fantasy and reality, desire and possibility—seemed only to widen as Kosmas inadvertently showed up the limits of the power of enunciation to instantiate? In that gap, she drew us back to the question, central to the piece, of what it means to be an “effectual” person. Kosmas gave herself and her audience license to imagine the world otherwise, but this question—as critical as it is unresolved—presses on us all outside the suspension of hypothesis.

Rachel Valinsky for Artforum – November 11, 2019