Los Angeles visionary Asher Hartman is an artist as unclassifiable as the city in which he works. Billed as both a psychic and a multi-talented writer and performer, Hartman seems to soak up influences everywhere from Greek tragedies to reality television, distilling them into a single vision of chaotic theatre. In his latest play, Purple Electric Play (PEP!), produced for Machine Project, Hartman also throws in some puppets and black lights.
Czech theatre artist Jiri Srnec is perhaps the most widely known for his black light theatre techniques, which involves blacking out the stage and performers with thick black material, then costuming objects and actors in shades of white and multicolored fabrics that will glow at varying degrees of vibrancy under UV lights.
Hartman remarks, “I was interested in the black light theater as I am interested in all entertainments that appear to be conduits to political or social messaging. For instance, I’m interested in the way that the black light theater is said to have facilitated aspects of the Czech revolution.” Rumors have it that during the communist occupation, Czech artists transmitted messages critical of the government through their black light performances. Hartman was inspired by this history for the Purple Electric Play but was also particularly inspired by the French Revolution, as well.
“I’m interested in our fears, what we don’t talk about, our varying political positions, our unspoken alliances, and in the ways we service institutions of power,” Hartman says. The French Revolution had a host of nobles and clergy “catalyzing and opposing the Revolution.” And Hartman’s entire body of work—be it silly or seemingly convoluted—is actually quite focused and almost obsessed with class struggles. Purple Electric Play only further builds on that idea.
How Hartman differs from his contemporaries is his approach to the medium for the message. He’s really not too cool for school and somehow accessible, even with all these thoroughly researched elements in his work. There are overt statements of a class consciousness and revulsion for the privileged few, but Hartman will still console the audience with adorable moments and aesthetic beauty. Take, for instance, his puppets.
Created by artist Patrick Ballard, the puppets—Donkey (a box of popcorn), Starvation (a package of ramen), LoPhat, (a boom-boxing yoghurt) and Salad Bar (a mix of lettuce and kale)—are innately humorous and also emblematic of the creative class’ daily consumptive habits.
“They are iconic foods that stand in for features of our contemporary lives,” Hartman says. “They message various political and social positions: youth, health, upward mobility, malnutrition and weight gain, the film industry, and visual culture. We identify with them, I think. They are innocent objects, and as characters are both the youthful evacuated cartoon characters we depend on for comfort and jaded actors who have various political and apolitical positions.”
Hearing Hartman’s impetus for the project, it’s no surprise that Purple Electric Play was developed specifically with bizarro-magnet Machine Project in mind as the initial venue. Hartman and Machine Project have teamed up before, most recently for their takeover of the historic Gamble house, where Hartman gave a salient psychic reading of the architectural treasure. Machine Project, located in Echo Park, is the kitchen sink of artist spaces, inviting scientists, poets, technicians and unclassifiable artists like Hartman to collaborate. In short, they’re your strange best friend who will call you up out of the blue to ask if you might want to figure out what’s on your official FBI files together.
Machine Project and their programs could be called strange, yes, but there’s inherent real meaning, knowledge, and cultural context in everything they do; it’s not merely art for art’s sake. And for a creator like Hartman and his multi-faceted black-light romp through the world’s most violent political revolutions, it’s a match made in arty heaven.
Purple Electric Play (PEP!) runs from October–December
Machine Project 1200 N Alvarado St, Los Angeles, CA 90026