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Accidents to Happen, Perchance

The arts: All bets will be off when an eclectic fusion of performance, philosophy and more takes place in the Nevada desert.

November 07, 1996|MARK SWED | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

Chris Kraus has written and directed an independent feature film, a comedy about flying saucers called "Gravity & Grace," that will open at Laemmle's Grande on Dec. 6. But this story has nothing to do with that.

At least it doesn't seem to.

It has to do, instead, with French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, the darling of university critical studies departments. It has to do with what's billed as the world's tallest and scariest roller coaster. It has to do with butoh, avant-garde Japanese dance. It has to do with gambling. It has to do with the I Ching, the ancient Chinese book of oracles. It has to do with chaos and Wall Street. It has to do with experimental rock, New Age philosophy, nuclear waste and ecology.

It has to do with chance, and an event this weekend called Chance that Kraus is producing at Whiskey Pete's, the casino in Primm, Nev., a stone's throw over the California-Nevada border on Interstate 15.

So what exactly is this event? Is it a conference or a happening?

"It started as a conference," Kraus says, "but it has turned into a festival."

Before moving from New York to Pasadena last year to assume a teaching post in fine arts at Art Center College of Design (which, along with the French Cultural Services, is sponsoring Chance), Kraus, an experimental filmmaker and writer, had worked as an editor for Semiotext(e), a hip, postmodern imprint that grew out of the cultural studies curriculum at Columbia University. Semiotext(e) is one of Baudrillard's American publishers. And Kraus wanted to bring Baudrillard to the West, to the desert.

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Few can actually explain Baudrillard's abstruse apocalyptic concepts about the way capitalism and modern culture (one and the same, but that's a long story) have "murdered" reality. But many in the academy and the art world are under the spell of his thinking. He is a cult figure, in constant demand for interviews and conferences. One search engine on the Internet, for instance, listed 2,587 sites when fed his name.

Kraus, however, thought she would try something a little different. Baudrillard happens to be infatuated with America, the tackier the better. So knowing of Baudrillard's particular fascination with Las Vegas and being, herself, multifaceted in her enthusiasms, she thought the subject of chance was a good way to bring those enthusiasms and Baudrillard together.

It also turns out that the whole notion of chance is in the air. When she approached Baudrillard, she says, he told her that, by chance, chance is just what he had been writing about for the past year.

There is an orthodoxy of chance theory. It is one that extends back, in music at least, to experiments in medieval and renaissance times. A couple of centuries later Mozart fooled around with making music using dice throws.

In our century, the discovery that the universe is not deterministic has been said to be the defining concept of modern physics. French visual artist Marcel Duchamp created a whole aesthetic around chance occurrences in art. Following his example, composer John Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham have built major oeuvres using chance operations. So, too, have poets from Mallarme to John Ashbury.

Kraus takes note of all that, but times, she says, have changed. "We now have a less innocent take on chance. Now we talk about how to live with chaos theory in the world. A rock group like the Chance Band, which is coming together for this occasion, uses chance elements in a less precious way. Take DJ Spooky, do you know who he is? He is this young DJ who is also the great multicultural theorist Paul D. Miller in his other life. All of this shows how chance can be reborn with a harder edge."

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So, with a "keynote address" that consists of sampling by DJ Spooky on Friday afternoon, chance's rebirthing will occur in Whiskey Pete's 500-seat black-box theater, nestled somewhere between gaming tables and the famous roller coaster. On hand will be Marcella Greening (whose specialties include chaos theory, semiotics, roller-blading and massage therapy) and Allucquere Rosanne Stone (a well-known postmodernist concerned with cyberspace and gender identity and performance). Baudrillard will speak on chance and butoh (a surprising passion of his, it seems) and the Japan-trained, Los Angeles-based butoh dancer Oguri will perform with his troupe, Renzoku.

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