Sunday, May 29, 2022 May 29, 2022
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Interview: How Tom Russotti Creates Art From Drinking, Dancing, and Sports

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This Friday, the Sons of Hermann Hall will host something called “The Dancing and Drinking Competition.” The event is exactly what it sounds like. Participants will gather in the hall’s upstairs ballroom where they will dance and drink, at the same time, while judges rate their bacchanalian multi-tasking.

The game is the brainchild of artist Tom Russotti, currently participating in the Centraltrak artists’ residency. Russotti has developed something called Aesthletics, performance-based art happenings which combine games and sports with conceptual social activities. Aesthletics is both a critique of our sports-obsessed culture and a way of harnessing the theatrical and ritualistic allure of sport. And, truth be told, Aesthletics is easy excuse for a good time.

We spoke with Russotti about his project and his time in Texas, a place he said he has always wanted to visit.

FrontRow: What was the Texas allure?

Tom Russotti: New York is such a controlled city now, you know. Everything is planned out, everything has been commercialized to the nth degree. I’ve been to Houston before, and I remember there being this sense that anything goes, in a way. It is just a random city. There’s this potential. It felt like there was a place you could go out to a field and do anything you want and not worry about the cops bothering you. And I felt that in other places, and I’ve been looking to go to those places.

FR: And that fits into what you are doing with Aesthletics, which is all about finding a space to do whatever you want.

TR: Yeah, totally. And in a different setting too – not just playing a game in Prospect Park every weekend with just the same people, but to go and meet new people. Every event is made of who is involved and where we are going, and it is learning experience. Going to a different place is really important.

FR: Do you tailor each game to each place?

The game "Break a Leg" played in Estonia

TR: Just in terms of using them as inspiration. For example, this event on Friday, I walked into Sons of Hermann Hall randomly and I thought, ‘This place is amazing.’ Going upstairs to the ballroom, it is this beautiful old Texas ballroom. I’ve done this event before, but this would be the perfect place and you could spin it completely differently from what we did in San Francisco — imagine it as a Western swing style event. We are not going to play a lot of Western Swing music, but soaking it in – the space will necessarily affect the experience that everyone is going to have. In terms of participants too — getting people to take part who are going to bring something to the table, bringing their own personalities that you wouldn’t be able to predict. And it seems like Dallas is not short on personalities.

FR: You mentioned the potential of the wide open Texas spaces. At the same time, the space can work against community down here. I’m curious that you found people easily because the opposite is often said. It is all small scene and you can kind of work through it quickly, but then people kind of gravitate apart from each other, whether they are in their studios or doing different things.

TR: I think, from what I’ve heard, is that it has changed a lot, and the state it is in right now is kind of like the best shape it has ever been in. And that is simply in the art scene. I totally agree there is very little public life here. It is not amenable to easy transport; there’s no center; there’s place where people know where you can go and there will be people. You don’t see people walking down the street. And I think that’s really important the vitality of a city. When I went down to Austin, you definitely got that. Even the Sixth St. idiocy. You’re around other people – and you don’t have control over them, and they don’t have control over you. You just have to interact with them. Or Barton Springs or any other places. There were a lot of people out in public. And New York has it to a certain extent. Sometimes it doesn’t and it feels very controlled. Places like Berlin, Berlin is like amazing for that.
FR: Germans, for some reason, understand public space better than any place I’ve ever been.

The game "Mercury" played in Bristol, UK

TR: Yeah. I was there for a long weekend and every day they had some sort of an event at a park, ranging from children’s events to adults to raves on the street. Everything happened outside. Someone was explaining that in Berlin during the division people never stayed in their apartments because coal was so expensive that they could never heat them. So they would just hang out in cafes and hang out with other people, literally to keep warm and survive. The culture evolved from the fact that you never spent any time in your apartment. And it is great; I love that kind of culture.

I think the reason to do something in the social realm now is that America has all these spaces that are inhospitable to that kind of interaction. And also as a whole we’ve just kind of stripped away the social constructs that were always in place — little things, from manners to speaking properly to the right way to introduce someone, to more complex rituals like balls and Masonic societies. All these things had intricate structures in place that would allow someone to be in public and give them some sort of water wings so they could interact. Now we don’t have that.

FR: When ever you raise the idea that there are no communities, no social space in Dallas, there’s no place where people get together, there is a certain group that will fire back, ‘Well, actually there is; it is the churches.’ All of these churches are the centers of community. But that is, almost necessarily, only a certain group of people, and that continues the momentum of a certain type of life here – a privatized public. But there is nothing else that kind of fills in.

TR: And that I definitely understand — the role of the church, and not just in Dallas, but throughout the South. Especially where there is no art and there is no institutionalized culture, the church acts as the gathering point, where you go to meet – the dating scene – it acts as all these things where in another city would not be relegated to just one sphere. The problem with the church is that they have an agenda – not to say that it is bad – but they want you to – the whole purpose is, like, ‘Jesus is my Lord and Savior.’ The secular versions, I think, are more inclusive. Especially in places like Dallas where you have growing ethic multi-cultural communities, that’s not a model that can progress into the future.

But it is funny, there was that Better Block thing a couple of weeks ago which I participated in. and they put in me in the Fellowship Bible Church. And then I didn’t get to do my event because of safety regulations – they weren’t insured to have a random person set up a game. So I said, forget, I’m just going to pack it in.

FR: What game were you going to do?

TF: It was called “Tantalus,” named after the Greek guy who got tortured in the afterlife. His punishment – I can’t remember what he did, it was some horrible sin – he was stuck in Hades on this island with a pool of water underneath him and a tree of grapes on top of him, so any time he reached up the grapes would go away, and any time he reached down, the water would recede. So this was a game to beat the heat. You would have people in kiddy pools, and there was a structure with hanging water balloons on top of them, and you would try to pop the water balloons over your opponents. I actually didn’t work out any more rules than that. When I have these ideas, it is like, ‘Oh let’s have an idea and see how it works.’ We don’t play test it and make sure it is a great game, but have it be so that when you play the game you have to participate in the making of the game, and not just, ‘Here are the rules, go play this.’ It is like, ‘Here is the idea, make something with this.’ That’s just a general idea.

FR: It takes its form solely during the acting out.

The game "Straightjacket Softball" played in Brooklyn, NY.

TF: Yeah, so it gets the people more involved. It kind of deemphasizes the competitive aspect of the game. If you are just a player, you’re only objective is just to play the game to win. But if you are part creator and you are thinking about how the game is structured, then you can take yourself out of that role and have this dual position as collaborator in the event and also as a player understanding the artificial, ritualistic aspect of what you are doing. And that’s kind of my critique on sports culture and business culture, which harbors this mentality in people to not think about anything else except for that role. People rely on the structures that are given to them in society and don’t become creative or inventive. They just play – they just do what they are told to do.

FR: It has always been interesting to me, thinking about sport, that football is the American sport, and of all sports, it is one of the more cerebral, planned out, and militaristic, in the sense of how you go about doing the action of the sport – and also every role is so delineated and specific, as opposed to soccer which is constantly fluid, formations change.

TR: No, it is true, as a soccer player, you have three substitutions, no timeouts – you are on the field and the coach has given you a certain responsibility as a player who can think, who can play the entire game, and not just come in for one specific play and act as a cog in a machine. And football, there is a reason why it is so popular in America, because it mirrors exactly what our society is. You’ve got some guys at the top overlooking – extremely cerebral and analytical – and then a lot of people who are just being told what to do. And it is funny, even this idea that you can’t celebrate in football is so ridiculous. Like you just have to work, just work and that’s your reward, just work and be a tough guy.

It is just one segment of the population, because basketball is totally different. But it is a very dominant form of corporate-ocracy. It works. That is how appropriations work. Sport is society’s flesh. What got me interested in sports is to propose different alternatives for new cultures, new sports – not new, but less extreme ways of playing sports. And also having a society with more room between competition and prioritization. That is the underlying philosophy behind the aesthletics: this is sport for social democracy. It is this mixture. It is not like this hippie, ‘Oh we are all going to collaborate.’ That model doesn’t work. These collaborative games in the 1970s, which were like, ‘We are all going to pass an earth ball around.’ That denies human nature and the reality that we are competing against each other.

FR: And that is what is interesting about all of those communes. Eventually the dominant personalities begin to assert themselves and a natural hierarchy exists because that is how organization happens. It is just part of human nature.

TR: And you can’t say to me, ‘Oh we’re not competing for the same resources.’ People are.

FR: Even if those are emotional resources, which is what happened when you had these open relationship communes all the jealousies and envies rise to the surface.

TR: So the idea for me is that ritual performance and the way it is done is a mechanism for people to kind of be able to work together while understanding the competitive nature of society. It creates this ritual that enables them to see it for what it is and then transcend it – to be able to collaborate by acknowledging that it exists and not by trying to mask it by saying we are all in it together. And, also, not by institutionalizing it, which is what I feel like so many sports in American have done.

Image at top: The Drinking and Dancing Competition in San Francisco. All photos courtesy of Tom Russotti.