Slap the Wave: Online Therapy as Performance Art

 

Last month, I made an appointment to get “wrixled.” I knew little about the practice except that it was a new service available only online. Wrixling.com describes its product with language that is simultaneously straightforward and frustratingly opaque: it’s an “abstract therapy” that draws upon LARP (Live Action Role Playing) and attempts to “rescale” the “self.” Wrixling is a “one-on-one online participatory-psychic scrambling” and “word surgery,” which, to me, suggested that the experience would be invasive, entertaining, uncomfortable, and perhaps therapeutic.

A few days later, at the time of my scheduled appointment, I used Wrixling’s proprietary video chat to log in. It didn’t work: blank screen, spinning pinwheel. A few minutes later, I tried again, this time using Skype (as the site recommended). At twelve thirty-five, I connected with my practitioner, DirB Wentt.

All six wrixling practitioners use the prefix DirB, an abbreviation for “director of behavior” and a self-descriptor that the artist behind the project, Michael Portnoy, has often used in his work. Portnoy sees his primary material as human behavior—his own, his collaborators’, his audience’s—and delights in manipulating it in his performances. His most recent project, Progressive Touch—Total Body Language Reprogramming (2017), involved a private, two-on-one performance in which Portnoy and his collaborator, Lily McMenamy, sang into the pubic bone of a single, naked white man—the only audience member—for forty-five minutes. He did this with twenty men in twenty performances because, he claimed, he wanted to reprogram “the corrupted source code of the white male.” Portnoy’s work often embraces absurdity as its own form of logic and attempts to solve real-world problems—mental health, the distribution of power, the insidiousness of social media—with absurd solutions, blending his own punny humor with his frightening intensity.

 

Michael Protnoy. Photo: Bogdan Kwiatkowski

 

Portnoy spent the early days of his career in New York’s downtown performance and alternative comedy scenes, and he’s since taken on the confrontational aspects of both. In 1998, he famously performed the so-called Soy Bomb intervention. Hired as a dancing extra for Bob Dylan’s live performance at the Grammy Awards, he broke out of his background role and leapt onto the stage, beside Dylan. Shirtless, with SOY BOMB slathered across his chest, he flailed his limbs aggressively, in a kind of angular vogue dance, until security pulled him offstage. According to Billboard magazine, “The phrase became an iconic part of late-’90s pop culture overnight—eventually earning parodies on SNL and The Tonight Show With Jay Leno—and remains Portnoy’s greatest moment of mainstream exposure.” Portnoy has since mostly inhabited the art world, but Wrixling, by virtue of existing online, reaches beyond museums and galleries and back into the public.

As a Wrixling practitioner, Portnoy goes by Sen (aka, Senior) DirB PartanakootiG. Other directors include DirB Romorenge, DirB Kalbish, and DirB Danjtorb, who I recognized as Carlos D, the former bassist for Interpol. My practitioner, DirB Wentt (a pseudonym? a role?) is Jon Wan, “a rising star of alt comedy,” according to Portnoy, and an “expert tidier!” according to Wan’s website. When he appeared on my screen, Wentt looked precisely like he did in the picture I had seen online: bob-cut wig, blood-red lipstick, and dandy-ish attire. Wentt knelt and stared back at me, framed in a kind of bedroom lounge, bathed in red light. The perfection of the cinematically arranged set only exaggerated the unflattering angles and lighting of my own low-res camera.

The session began, like much online communication, awkwardly. Video chat technology remains cruder than our cultural ambitions, and we learn this anew every time we try to use it.  I roamed the house until I found a corner where Wentt didn’t stutter and freeze on every other word. Nevertheless, entire phrases were dropped, obscured, and repeated throughout the session. Disorientation, I realized as the session progressed, was built into the performance. A Wrixling video ad on Portnoy’s Instagram announces, “When the world gets confusing, we get confusinginger … tax pumps!”

If Portnoy’s material is human behavior, his main tool for sculpting that behavior is language. His work explores the spectrum of linguistic abstraction: improvised and crafted, poetic and comedic, literary smart and infant dumb. Recently, he’s been posting Instagram clips of himself speaking in foreign accents. His rants are run through a captioning app he had designed by linguists at the University of Amsterdam, and the resulting translation is superimposed onto the videos in cartoonish speech bubbles. On March 12, he posted a selfie of himself singing, “I’m a sulochrome collector do you have a swimswuit low room for me?”

When he was an undergraduate at Vassar, Portnoy described himself as “a full-on Oulipo and [Raymond] Roussel junky.” He studied literature and theater, Mark Leyner and Artaud. He became attracted to what he calls “parasense poetics,” a “particular almostness of sense, its irresolvable ambiguities and incongruities, its unstable radioactive compounds.” He rejects the term nonsense for its noncommittal definition and its pejorative connotations.

“All the goofy, cutesy nonsense with its wacky images, dumb puns, and loping chimeras, it’s this stuff that sullies the whole field [of nonsense literature],” Portnoy tells me. “I’ve sometimes called what I’m after lutosense from the Greek luto for “mud,” something that’s constantly slipping between frames of reference, semantic fields, abstractions, theoretical terrains, emotional registers, and tongues, where the ‘what’ of the sentence is always being challenged, effaced, rewritten.”

“One of the goals of Wrixling,” Portnoy continued, “is to learn from language rather than putting our learning into it. To experience with another person the collision of those radioactive compounds in the haze—to mainline those isotopes together, and to have those isotopes reshape the self.”

Portnoy’s refusal of nonsense is, of course, his obligation as an absurdist, which requires that the artist push against familiarity. In order to create Wrixling, Portnoy drew upon the hypnotherapist Milton Erickson’s “psychological confusion” technique, which uses a series of contradictory actions and conflicting messages to disarm a patient of their inhibitions. Likewise, Portnoy wants to break down personal boundaries—of intimacy, timidity, identity—by encouraging participants to embrace true bewilderment. In an orderly, comfort-loving society, we tend to reject chaos, but Portnoy argues that it is a primal state of mind. It pushes us outside of systematic, logical thinking into more physical, immediate kinds of behavior.

So, while Portnoy didn’t make my Internet connection terrible, he  anticipated it—he hoped my fuzzy connection would enhance his service of uncertainty.

*

 

My session began:

Me: Hello?
Wentt: [long pause]
Me: Hello? Can you hear me?
Wentt: Yes.
Me: Can you see me?
Wentt: No.
Me: Is this good?
Wentt: Find an area where the light is on your face.
[shuffling sounds]
Me: How bout here? Better?
Wentt: Yes, I —
[connection break]
Wentt: Are you alone?
Me: Yes.

Wentt asked me to clap in all four corners of the screen, as if we were configuring my senses with the technology.

Wentt: Now, when I say bloom, you say leasing. Bloom.
Me: Leasing.
Wentt: Bloom.
Me: Leasing.

Once the connection was stable, we began “infixing modifiers into [my] root-self,” which, like a lot of the Wrixling vocab, gives language a physical presence. We placed petro (the prefix meaning “stone”) into my own name. For the duration of the session, I was be called R-petro-SS. Wentt asked me to repeat the name several times and then revealed that I had placed this “talismanic” rock into my “D.E.F.T.,” which, I learned, is an acronym for “Defenses. Expectations. Fantasy. Truth.” I was told to give the stone a name. I chose Charles.

*

I’ve done enough therapy to be familiar with the basic form of a session:

1) Therapist explains process
2) Therapist asks questions
3) Patient responds
4) Therapist responds

I’ve tried hypnotherapy, psychoanalysis, osteopathy, kinesiology, gestalt, acceptance and commitment therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, Reiki, and talk-chiropractic work, sometimes out of curiosity, sometimes out of need. Many of these practitioners have worked with me over the phone or via Skype, and some have even been effective in doing so. (Portnoy told me he was especially put off by text-based therapy. He’s tried online therapy services, like BetterHelp, with disappointing results.  )

Many of these psychoanalytic-adjacent traditions share a belief that the deepest well of human experience is the subconscious. I’ve always been enamored by the possibility of an underworld inside us, but I’ve also been suspicious of talk as an effective means of treatment. We spew chitchat all day long—it’s how we navigate the waking, monkey-mind world—so how could those same words help us speak to the unknown parts of our selves?

Carl Jung has said that images, not words, are the language of the subconscious, but if you do have to use words, then it makes sense to sidestep the ones with which we’re familiar. The poetry of nonsense can be invoked on the level of story, phrase, word, or even syllable. The latter of these is the approach Joyce took in Finnegans Wake when he depicted dreams by using a vast network of syllabic sounds, simultaneously divorced from and jammed with meaning. Likewise, Portnoy points to the definition of nonsense as not a lack of sense (as the name suggests) but an excess of it.

In creating Wrixling, Portnoy—along with cowriters Dan Fox and Joanna Ruth Evans—culled vocabulary and methodology from his past verbal improvisations. Ultimately, for Portnoy, the single most important requirement of these terms is “good mouthfeel and fecund irresolvability.” According to the Wrixling website, this vocabulary includes phrases like “flirt walling,” “transcursive drawl,” and “shade neglect.”

In my session, Wentt spoke a variety of words at me in a kind of verbal Rorschach test— Klarm, Klornipatrix, Kalakrínsoron, Feethrish, Fakárpsidrew. I responded, as quickly as possible, with the first thoughts that came to my mind: mollusk, drug, island, illness, river. (Many of the words recalled tech companies—Google, Hulu, Kaggle, Etsy, Zynga—who use gibberish brand names to appeal to our infantile desires.)

Then Wentt asked a series of questions, all of them language focused:

What words are stuck in my mind?
What words grate me?
What question keeps me up at night?
Whose name is on the tip of my tongue?
What words energize me?

If I couldn’t come to an immediate answer, I was told to sound out the word with my mouth: physicalize it. Then, Wentt “wrixled in” an “agglutinate” through “rapid guesting,” which, as far as I could tell, meant that my answers were plugged into a formula and assigned a kind of treatment. What followed was a private, dramatic performance.

Wentt began role-playing as my wife, supposedly wearing a smock  to prepare for a party that we were (fictitiously) throwing that night. “These dinner parties are futile! I haven’t showered in five days!” Wentt bleated like a baby goat, then told me that we had moved into a small room with lactating breasts on the walls. They were filling the room with milk, he told me, and I was about to drown.

Wentt switched to the role of my father and began screaming—“Rpetross! You’re just a wipedown wishbone protein!”—and demanded that I respond in a complementary vocabulary. “I’m just an undone Twinkie!” I said.

Then we were, according to Wentt, transported to a paradisiacal landscape where I was forced to give a sermon to villagers. Wentt screamed and, while rolling on the ground, described a “muscled creature, blood dripping from him.” He told me to “stand up! Pull the drain! Slap the wave! Slap the wave!” I mimicked Wentt’s commands, trying to keep up, but was never quite able to follow the motions quickly enough. Wentt began flapping arms, gyrating, and hollering “accept!” into the screen, repeatedly.

Eventually, the fight about the party (which Barack Obama was attending) was somehow resolved. Wentt relaxed back into a kneeling position and concluded by asking me to say my name a final time: R-petro-SS.

*

My Wrixling lasted twenty-five minutes, the standard length of a session. It’s shorter than traditional psychoanalysis (fifty minutes) but the same length as a television sitcom (not including commericals). For Portnoy, the experience is like “Chat Roulette for L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets,” an “immersive telenovela,” a “fever dream you cowrite.” The sessions are just long enough to get a kind of episodic narrative going, something you might consider continuing. In this way, Wrixling recasts therapy as a show. It was something I’d often felt in my own therapy sessions but had never fully articulated to myself.

For me, the most vulnerable, intimate time I’ve ever had in therapy was through past-life regression (a subpractice of hypnotherapy). For this dubiously named practice, the patient is walked through a kind of trance dream. In it, the patient is a different person from a different era, engaging in a narrative entirely of their own imaginative making. Past-life regression is an exercise in storytelling and can be analyzed in the same way as a novel or a dream.

To guide patients through this process, hypnotherapists avoid directives and instead rely on the sonic aspects of language—rhythm, pitch, timbre, delivery. Words become vehicles for sound, and the pace of talk acts as a trojan horse that enables the hypnotherapist to enter the mind of the patient, who is asleep, alone, and unprotected. For me, it was as memorable and affecting and useful as any good story.

Wrixling.com clearly states that the practice “is for entertainment purposes only and is not therapy,” a disclosure that’s issued, I’m sure, for the express purpose of legal protection. Portnoy has said, explicitly, that he wants to “reengineer the logic, language and movements of human exchange.” He wants to get in our heads, and he’s doing it in plain sight, using the sharpest psychological tools around: talk, humor, poetry, intimacy, confrontation, and of course, the Internet. Personally, I can’t say that Wrixling transformed me, but it certainly did something, and I’m willing to admit I don’t yet have the words to describe quite what that is.

 

Ross Simonini is a writer and artist. His debut novel, The Book of Formation, was published last year. 

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