Special America

Description (in English): 

In 2008, in Providence, RI, a strange melancholy pervaded us to which we hesitated to give the grave and beautiful name of SPECIAL AMERICA. It began amorphously. Badges left in a hallway, flash rallies alongside the insinuations of handbill slogans, an ambiguous slideshow. Over the years, SPECIAL AMERICA appeared untroubled, yet in solitude we penned personal, soul-bearing texts, melancholy slogans that made us weep whilst inducing within us a perverse sense of comfort. Composed in corporate network space, our glum poesy set the tone for a new tale of longing and loneliness. In the past, the idea of calling this melancholy SPECIAL AMERICA always appealed to us; now we are almost ashamed of its complete egoism.

SPECIAL AMERICA (Claire Donato & Jeff T. Johnson) is an exercise in and an exorcism of American Exceptionalism, based on the spirit of intellectual play—semiotic, humorous, and performative. Incubated in the electronic literature community and spread to the New York City Poetry Industrial Complex, SPECIAL AMERICA presents itself as an analog hack, a gesture toward embodied viral media. Since 2008, SPECIAL AMERICA has incorporated a variety of topics, including ambiguous political speech, American Exceptionalism, adjunct labor, genre and gender politics, 21st century literature, and e-poetics. SPECIAL AMERICA has been described as "the internet," "always new!" "shouldn’t be necessary, but is," "another freakin’ marathon," "singularly unhelpful," "heavy," "beautiful," and "fucking boring."

On stage, SPECIAL AMERICA consists of multiple digital projections presented alongside musical loops and remixes that propel the performance through various scenes, acts, and interludes. Our script—whose language has been appropriated from sources as wide-ranging as Robert Burton, Jacques Derrida, Andrew Lloyd Weber and Rosmarie Waldrop—is delivered using high-affect character voices inspired by politicians and CEOs, game show announcers, motivational speakers, old- school professors, new-age gurus, angry neighbors, and cocktail banter. Staging, choreography, and costuming embody our theoretical and theatrical concerns. We recently donned all-black evening wear and mounted a “shitty internet disco,” complete with sound art installation, wine tasting, yoga demo, stump speech, PhotoBooth selfies, and various dance routines, including a rendition of the Twin Peaks character Audrey Horne’s infamous solo slow dance. In the future, we plan to pump up this disco mix alongside homemade set pieces and lighting, built from recycled technology like obsolete laptops, telephones, and computer speakers.

SPECIAL AMERICA aims to imbue humor and play into academic conferences and other historically wearisome spaces, without sacrificing the rigorous exploration of its theoretical framework. We enact what Florian Cramer refers to as the “post-digital,” or the cultural circumstance in which “digital technology is no longer a revolutionary phenomenon but a normal part of everyday life.” We engage remix and social network culture, elaborating Kenneth Goldsmith’s concept of the writer as meme machine. Over the course of a site-specific installation, the phrase “Special America” accumulates significance just as Internet memes do. For example, at the 2012 Electronic Literature Organization (ELO) conference, attendees alluded to SPECIAL AMERICA in their presentations, and in turn, SPECIAL AMERICA implicated and absorbed aspects of other presentations.

In all of its manifestations, SPECIAL AMERICA aims to explore American Exceptionalism in the hope that the literary communities in which we perform question their own modes of community-driven exceptionalism. We take part in communities as we deconstruct the assumptions and contradictions that animate them. In this sense, SPECIAL AMERICA is a complex grassroots effort in the tradition of Antonin Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty. While invoking and problematizing literary communities’ values and false realities, SPECIAL AMERICA seeds the communal discourse with theoretically engaged humor and the shared experience of live performance.

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Scott Rettberg