The author, director, and performance artist Derrick Ryan Claude Mitchell and his group Saint Genet create visually stunning environments in which the performers transgress physical and psychological boundaries. In his Theater of Cruelty, he creates associative mythological spaces and overwhelming beauty which at any moment can tilt into pain, hysteria, and extreme emotions.
With Saint Genet, Derrick Ryan Claude Mitchell has presented works at Frye Art Museum (Seattle), donaufestival (Krems, AT), Works and Process Festival hosted by the Guggenheim Foundation and in numerous abandoned buildings, alleyways and other secret locations. Most recently he participated in the Wiener Festwochen, where Saint Genet put on the culmination of a three-year work process which depicts a society on the edge that breaks taboos but also provokes radical acts of caring.
Amar Priganica and Marie-Claire Gagnon met the artist to talk about opulence in today’s society, the secret languages he uses on stage and his wide-ranging influences - from Joseph Beuys to Rocky Balboa.
Amar Priganica and Marie-Claire Gagnon: A lot of your work deals with people destroying themselves because of wanting things a little bit too much. We were wondering why this topic is relevant to you, your work and ultimately to all of us these days?
Derrick Ryan Claude Mitchell: A lot of my work is pretty misanthropic. I think we have to accept that we live in a capitalist culture and it affects everything we do. For example: I was a truck driver for a super long time and I delivered produce. People in Seattle want 50 cases of raspberries in February. That’s insane but they can have it. You start getting the idea that you can get anything you want at any time. That’s our privilege as part of being in the empire. That’s our white male American privilege. I can get raspberries anytime I want and therefore I can do anything I want. The first time I didn’t get what I wanted was when I wanted to get latex for Saint Genet. I was shocked when the company told me that latex couldn’t be shipped because it would freeze and crumble. This completely broke my world view. So we live in this super-capitalist society and everything that we have on us is about opulence. Vegans are tweeting about the terrible animal industrial complex without realizing that the materials their smartphones are made of have been harvested by children under terrible conditions in the Congo. So no matter what you do, you are always bound to being an insane hypocrite. And if you’re aware of that you can start manifesting it, which is what I’m trying to do within my work.
Amar Priganica and Marie-Claire Gagnon: When watching Saint Genet perform, it seems like all of the people involved share a very special bond. How do you manage to control the madness on stage? How much of what is going on is based on chance?
Derrick Ryan Claude Mitchell: Actually a lot of it is a surprise. When people see these projects they often think that we are just getting wasted and try to be as extreme as possible. But in reality, we have to be super disciplined. Every day, we’re starting at 9 am in the morning to rehearse and to learn the choreography. There are so many things that need to be discussed and planned with a clear head. In the beginning, I’m the only one who sees the whole picture. So my duty is to create a methodology of discipline. But when we all come together and the performers feel liberated to exist in the project, it isn’t about me anymore, which is really beautiful. So, in the beginning, the performers have no freedom but then all of a sudden - when it all comes together - they have all the freedom in the world. And they have to decide what to do with it. So what binds us together is the secret language we share on stage. Even though the audience doesn’t know the words, they can tell that there’s something special going on.
Amar Priganica and Marie-Claire Gagnon: It must be physically and mentally draining though. How do you manage to keep on going?
Derrick Ryan Claude Mitchell: I’m a monomaniac, I get really intense obsessions. Moby Dick is one of my favorite books. After going through that intense storm, Starbuck, this super thug dude suggests that the crew should just go home and be safe. But Captain Ahab is like: "You can go home and you can take anyone you want. But I? I can’t go home." And I think that’s how I feel about making pieces. If I say I will do something, I will always do it. I also love Rocky Balboa and he once said that it’s not about how hard you can hit but about how hard you can get hit. So getting hit and moving forward is part of my process. And maybe that’s why people are attracted to it. It might seem aggressive but it’s actually about protecting people. What I don’t want to do is let anybody down - ever.
Amar Priganica and Marie-Claire Gagnon: During your performance at the Wiener Festwochen, some of the audience members left. How do you feel about that?
Derrick Ryan Claude Mitchell: To be honest - I don’t give a damn. We’re starting the piece when no one is in the theater. I’m already drinking and doing leeches when no one is around yet. So the audience comes into a place that I own. Part of why people left this particular performance is the change in the Wiener Festwochen. These things are what’s happening now, the old structures are crumbling. Tomas Zierhofer-Kin didn’t just buy my project as some odd spectacle, he actually invested in progress. For me, theater should be something that holds the fabric together. If you don’t like it, leave. But a lot of people are going to stay and they’re going to talk to you about it. It’s about your neighborhood and community, not about being art stars. This piece is a communal dance, it’s about people coming together and changing. I also think that it’s important to not think of audiences as better or worse - my pieces should affect everyone equally.
Amar Priganica and Marie-Claire Gagnon: We’re interested in the materials you’re using in your pieces - they are mostly organic. Can you tell us why that’s important to you?
Derrick Ryan Claude Mitchell: What Joseph Beuys says is that things have to be alive. That’s why I like to work with honey, latex and blood. Everything we put in the installation at Wiener Festwochen is decaying - except for the lights by Ben Zamora. That’s the antiseptic part. The thing that is the most seemingly stunning is actually antiseptic. And everything else is actually decaying, actually dying, actually beautiful. I love Joseph Beuys, I love art history, I love Bob Wilson. There’s homage everywhere in this show. It’s not always obvious, I just like to drop little hints everywhere. The elements are things that have been established, I’m smart enough to understand art history. But if you really believe in the poetics of Beuys, you should be able to reappropriate them appropriately.
Amar Priganica and Marie-Claire Gagnon: Talking about blood - before the performance at Wiener Festwochen started, the viewers were invited to walk around the installation. You were placed in it with leeches on your arms, which was quite intense.
Derrick Ryan Claude Mitchell: Leeching is part of an American tradition. Back in the day, every American president was leeched because it pulls out your bad blood, your bad humor. When you had an illness they would put leeches on you to make them heal your body. And to a certain point, it’s medically legit. Like if you get your finger cut off and they reattach it, leeches provide circulation. So they literally pull out the bad blood. Before the show, I like to get rid of the bad parts. It looks really intense because leeches put a little thing in the wound so your body won’t be able to heal. That’s why you see these bright red streaks of blood. And even after the show, I keep on bleeding. It doesn’t hurt though. I hate pain, I would never get cut on stage for example. But with the leeches it’s like a psycho-sexual relationship - they’re beautiful.
Amar Priganica and Marie-Claire Gagnon: With "Promised Ends: The Slow Arrow of Sorrow and Madness", a three-year work process has come to an end. What’s next for you?
Derrick Ryan Claude Mitchell: I don’t know man, that’s it. I don’t just do projects, projects simply come to me. Ideas of destiny are more interesting than ideas of chance. It’s a little esoteric. But isn’t it a little essentialist, too? In Saint Genet itself, you have the existentialist Genet and the essentialist Genet. They battle but they’re in love with each other. This project has been really hard to me. It’s Lily Nguyens’ last project so the whole thing is like a farewell and it hurt my body to do it. But it ended up being the way I wanted to say goodbye to someone. And the next project…who cares? Being an artist isn’t important. Being human and having engagements is. I’m always sketched out by people who always have the next step. If you already have the next thing, how can you do the thing you’re doing right now?
Featured image: Derrick Ryan Claude Mitchell - Promised Ends: The Slow Arrow of Sorrow and Madness. Photo by Nurith Wagner-Strauss.