Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Strip Poker, Art, and Cultural Commentary

Warning for 'I'll Raise You One...' performanceThis week I’ve seen a number of articles about this performance art happening up in New York City involving a strip poker game. You’ve probably seen stories about it by now, too, if you spend any time on the poker news sites. Or even several non-poker news sites where the story has proven attention-grabbing enough to rate a mention.

Zefrey Throwell is the artist behind the performance, titled “I’ll Raise You One...” All week at the Art in General studio on Walker Street in Tribeca, a group of 48 people are playing an ongoing game of strip poker. The game is taking place from 10:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. each day through Saturday in the studio’s front window, meaning passersby can look in and watch the game as it proceeds.

According to a report in the Village Voice, the performance is meant to offer a commentary of sorts on American culture, a commentary which seems to either have some affinity with or to have been inspired by the “Occupy” protests in New York and elsewhere.

“Throwell sees strip poker as a metaphor for the economy, with clothing symbolizing money,” the article states, quoting from the studio’s explanation of the piece. “While skill can help, the people who show up with the least clothing are in the worst shape, and no one can control the luck of the draw.”

from 'I'll Raise You One...'Like I say, there’s plenty online already about the strip poker game. Here’s a short video put together by The New York Post presenting it, and here is the page on the Art in General website explaining it further.

Throwell was in the news back in early August after another of his performance pieces, also involving public nudity, was swiftly shut down within minutes. That one also had an awkward title -- “Ocularpation: Wall Street” -- and involved 50 people suddenly stripping on Wall Street. Was sort of a visual pun, I guess, on the “flash mob” idea.

A few were detained for disorderly conduct, the others quickly put their clothes on, and that was that. Other than the news articles, that is, which helped spell out the artist’s intended message “to lend more transparency to Wall Street, a street which is so damn mysterious.”

I was intrigued to hear about this performance piece thanks in part to the fact that last month I’d written a short piece about strip poker in American history and culture for the Epic Poker blog. But the more I read about “I’ll Raise You Once...” the less enthused I am about the piece.

Like that “Ocularpation: Wall Street” performance, this one, too, seems to be delivering a not-so-interesting political message, in this case regarding the unequal distribution of wealth and material goods. And again, public nudity gets the piece extra attention, thereby extending the reach of that message.

But I dunno... can’t say I’m all that inspired by it.

Maybe it’s because as a poker player I am already too well acquainted with the message. We players well know that having more chips gives a player more options and thus an advantage over his or her shorter-stacked opponent. And sure, we’re also well aware that we’re all subject to luck, and that while having more chips makes it easier to absorb potential misfortunes, there are no guarantees.

Poker is unfair. Life is unfair. Being good doesn’t guarantee reward. Got it.

from 'I'll Raise You One...'“Using the language of small stakes capitalism mixed with America’s favorite gambling pass-time [sic], and the flirtatious teenage party game of strip poker, Throwell draws a fluxus parallel between what we consider winning and losing in the world today.” So explains the studio.

“Fluxus” refers to that category of experimental art across a variety of media usually designed to deliver various kinds of cultural commentary -- including commentary on art itself -- often with an emphasis on humor. Sorta big in the ’60s, it was. Think John Cage or Yoko Ono.

The strip poker piece reminds me of a similar but more interesting work, a short film titled “Naked” in which poker pro and chess champ Jennifer Shahade plays chess against a nude male amateur, Jason Bretz. That piece plays off of a famous photo of Marcel Duchamp (a big influence on the Fluxus crowd), reversing the roles of the man and woman to make a comment on the relationship of the sexes.

In Big Deal, Anthony Holden famously observed that “whether he likes it or not, a man’s character is stripped bare at the poker table.” Holden’s point was to emphasize the inescapability of “exposing” oneself (figuratively) at the table. And the need to appreciate that fact if one hopes to endure as a player. “Unless he is both able and prepared to see himself as others do, flaws and all,” says Holden, “he will be a loser in cards as in life."

I suppose strip poker kind of weirdly literalizes this process of being “stripped bare,” although losing your clothes needn’t signify much in particular about your character. (Other than perhaps a willingness to party, that is!) Nor does it say too much about your abilities as a player, either. Not in the short sample size marked by a few garments and a pair of shoes, anyhow.

Does it say something about the U.S. economy? Or the unequal distribution of wealth in this country? Or “a world where money has taken supreme importance and all functions of life are commoditized”?

Eye of the beholder, I guess. Or of the voyeur.

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Blogger bastinptc said...

The piece has a very thin premise for some really big issues. For one, the game is voluntary; two, whether the artist likes it or not, the work is a spectacle. That being said, it is opportunistic, which may come as close as it gets to relevance, but does so as a meta-critique at best. It is getting virtually no coverage in the art media, for good reason.

11/16/2011 10:30 PM  

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