Justin McKean is a lot of things. One of those things is opinionated. As hell.
McKean spoke recently in an interview about his upcoming Living Arts show, My Other Country is a Democracy. In doing so, he voiced strong opinions on performance art ("Most performance art that you see isn't any good"), the political state of the union ("It's really safe to do political comedy at this time, because everybody's pissed off right now"), local attempts at global activism ("You can't do a damn thing about what's happening in a country on the other side of the world"), and the president ("Most people who support Barack Obama are racists who believe that because Obama is black, he's a progressive, but he's not"). Yep. He totally said that.
And that's a great deal of his charm: This guy will say pretty much anything that comes to mind. It's as entertaining as it is fascinating, which bodes well for his upcoming performance art piece.
My Other Country is a Democracy is essentially a series of scenes McKean hopes will inspire his audience. And make them laugh.
"It's a series of vignettes that are political and entertaining," he said. "I refuse to do anything that isn't funny or entertaining. There's a lot of angst out there, and I figure: Let someone else do that. People do a thing in the evening either to get away from the angst or to find a way through it. Not to leave more depressed than they were before."
While, on the one hand, he says this stuff about wanting to entertain and avoid depressing stuff, McKean also spins some pretty desperate tales related to our modern times.
"My goal for My Other Country is a Democracy is to excite the audience to take more ownership of their civilization," he said. "We're all guilty of rejecting personal responsibility. We just blame the other side, whoever it is -- if we're Obama supporters, we blame the right wing and the Republican congress."
And how exactly does one take control of ones' civilization?
"Number one, stop posting shit to Facebook," he said, audibly climbing onto a soapbox. It's apparent that this is something of a pet peeve. "People post to Facebook and think they've done something and the world will change."
Having been raised in a fundamentalist Christian home, McKean has a particular view on the idea of worrying about the other side of the world to the detriment of one's own neighborhood.
"We were thrilled at the idea of sending a missionary somewhere else," he recalled. "Or taking a trip to some other state to knock on doors and try to make a difference in any community that wasn't ours. And that is really where we fall down as citizens. Why don't we get the most excited about being involved with our neighbors? Or people that we have a direct influence on?"
With all that said, it may be prudent to include a reminder here that McKean's show is an entertaining show, and a funny one at that. He wants people to wake up. He very much has the disenchanted, angry young man thing going, but he wants them to wake up laughing.
"What I really hope happens with this piece is that people will walk away having had a good time," he said. "Not a full-on party where they're going to get out of their chairs and dance, but I want it to be fun, playful, where people are laughing, even if they are a little offended at themselves, that they're laughing at THAT. That's as far as I want any real conflict to go in the space or in the piece."
Surprisingly enough, this idea leads McKean into another sort of philosophical rant, but one that nevertheless makes sense. And perhaps, more importantly, rings true.
"When people show up and are turned off and don't want to listen to anything I've got to say, I stop being an artist, and then I'm merely a preacher," he said. "If people leave laughing or saying, 'I can't believe that he said that. That was funny,' or 'I can't believe that happened,' even if they disagree with me, as long as they walk away going, 'I had a great time,' then I've done my job as an artist."
Not that he doesn't believe in performance art, but he understands that there is a lot of baggage attached to that particular medium -- and by "baggage," I mean, "A lot of people think it's stupid or pretentious or both."
"I do not like the phrase 'performance art' because, and I get in trouble with my performance art friends when I say this, but most performance art that you see that's any good is either theatre or spoken word poetry or dance or something music-related," he said. "And we already have words for those things, so why do we need the phrase 'performance art'? I have various unflattering philosophies for why we need that phrase, and a lot of it has to do with the fact that most performance art sucks."
"Performance art is typically a theater piece that usually involves some sort of interdisciplinary aspect," he explained. "There's usually a plot, and there's going to be something weird that happens that the audience is free to interpret as it wants to. And whether that interpretation is along the lines of what the artist wants, it doesn't really matter."
It doesn't matter what the audience takes from a work of art? What the hell?
"No, it doesn't, because it's a collaborative creation between a creator and the audience observing the creation," he said, using a lot of alliteration from an aspiring artist. "So when people come to see a performance art piece, part of what they take away has to do with the artist himself. But also, what the audience takes away involves what they bring themselves in terms of their perceptions of the world, their opinions, their prejudices- all that gets imposed on what the artist is doing, and that's in any medium."
If McKean's show is half as entertaining as it was to sit and speak with him and listen to his mind just wander from this thing that bothers him to that thing that excites him to this other thing he thinks is funny, it will be one hell of a night at Living Arts.
My Other Country is a Democracy is presented by Justin McKean on Saturday, August 4 at Living Arts, 307 East Brady Street. Doors open at 7:30pm. Tickets are $10 ($7 for members) and available at the door. For more information, visit livingarts.org, or call 918-585-1234.
Send all comments and feedback regarding Arts to
Share this article: