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Hundreds, by Design, Weigh Role of Chance

Philosophy: Gathering at desert casino examines chaos and its effects on the world.

November 11, 1996|MARK SWED | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

PRIMM, Nev. — "Mr. Baudrillard, Mr. Baudrillard, can you now approach the stage?" the laconic voice requested over the loudspeaker in the showroom of Whiskey Pete's Hotel and Casino, an oasis of gambling and cheap food and lodging just over the California/Nevada state line.

The rock band noodled as rock bands will while they wait. And finally Mr. Baudrillard appeared, in a silver jacket with lapels of sequins. It might have been any Saturday midnight on Interstate 15.

But it wasn't. The special guest vocalist happened to be Jean Baudrillard, whom many consider to be the most influential French intellectual and postmodernist philosopher of the last 20 years.

And most of the 400 or so who assembled over the weekend to hear Baudrillard read a difficult, fatalistic text about humankind's loss of destiny--shortly before exchanging his blue denim jacket for the silver lounge-lizard number--were young artists. They had gathered for three days in the desert to do what artists have done throughout the ages: try to come to terms with the chaos of the world.

The event, titled "Chance" and sponsored by Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, was an attempt to look at the ways chance has affected not just this century's visual art, but its poetry, music, physics, philosophy, financial markets and even weather forecasting.

It hoped to grapple with what Baudrillard, in his late 60s, suggests is the end of reality. Organizers enlisted the help of a stockbroker, a gambling instructor, a chaos theorist, a devotee of the I Ching (the ancient Chinese book of oracles), a noted beat poet, a spokesman for a local Native American tribe, a Los Angeles butoh dance troupe, a sampling deejay, rock bands and performance artists.

Answers to deep questions about the nature of reality were intentionally sought in a place where most people go to escape reality--a casino plopped down in the middle of the desert. No clocks. No windows.

In the end, "Chance" and its leading lights at Whiskey Pete's conjured a general mood of millennial foreboding: Civilization as we know it is coming to a scary demise that we've got to talk about, but we don't know how. The solution offered at Whiskey Pete's was to leaven the doom and gloom with regular bursts of entertainment, partying and an occasional turn at the slots.

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The idea of chance has long been on artists' minds. The discovery, early in the century, that the world is not in a physical sense deterministic has reverberated through modern civilization, its impact felt in everything from religion to the futures market.

John Cage, the late composer who elevated the use of chance operations in the creation of art to a full-fledged aesthetic, liked to say that although anything goes, that doesn't mean you can do anything you want. It was one function of the "Chance" conference to challenge that orthodoxy and dismiss Cage as a control freak.

"Anything goes and it goes quick," Shirley Tse, an artist from Hong Kong who uses plastic in her work, told the assembly Friday afternoon.

A chaos theorist with a passion for skating at Venice Beach, Marcella Greening, then explained how interactions in physical states always lead to greater turbulence, which means you can't plan for the future but just act in the present.

Another theorist, Allucquere Rosanne Stone, whose work concerns what she calls "technology and the transhuman," used her time Friday night for an elaborately produced 70-minute performance about how we, at the end of the mechanical age, need a new language of the body to realize ideas that cannot be quickly explained.

But however symbolic and serious her intention, the crowd couldn't resist taking her at face value, hooting her along when she flung on boa and sang, to a Cole Porter tune, "I get a kick from Jean B." Things became downright rowdy when she simulated wild orgasm and asked the audience to encourage her with noisemakers she had passed out.

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Whether it was chance or control that the participants worried about, paranoia loomed. Douglas Hepworth, who was introduced as a stand-up stockbroker, summed up his experience of trading using methods from chaos theory by advising investors not to think about risk due to chance: "You are much more at risk for what they do to you on purpose."

Chance, however, is always a good party tool. It brings together people who might not ordinarily meet and has the liberating effect of letting happen what will happen. The gaming instructor, for instance, never showed up and wasn't needed: As always, some won and some lost at the tables (Baudrillard claimed to come away with $100 from the slots on his first night).

And some chance discoveries paid off. CDs by the sampling artist DJ Spooky rapidly sold out after his "keynote address" of an hourlong mix made from spinning LPs that sounded like complex electronic music made from sophisticated machines.

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