Notes on an evening with Ian Pai, Charles Playhouse, Boston, September 28, 1999, sponsored by IDSA/AIGA.
The idea for the Blue Men came out of a series of salons that he attended where the thing to do was to “bring something you thought was cool” and discuss or share it with others. From this series of salons and “watching lots of bad performance art” Ian and his friends decided to start working on something that he described as “having a better relationship with the audience.” One of his first performances was called “Funeral for the 80s” because, as Ian explains it, ” the 80s were a bad time for art.” Then they created “Club Nowhere” across the street from the Copacabana in New York. They put up some velvet ropes in front of a door, the Blue Men stood there, and people began to line up behind the velvet ropes as if it was a club. Ian claims to have made $50 charging people to be let into the velvet ropes as people danced in the street. The people who were let into the door “had no idea where the door led to.” These two events caught the attention of the press, including MTV and Details, and Blue Man Group began doing the show at small venues in New York. The rest is history. Blue Man Group has opened shows in Boston and Chicago and still plays at the Astor Place theater in New York. Ian and his partners are currently working on a Las Vegas show to open at the Luxor.
Blue Man Group deals with several themes, primarily sensory overload, and chaos theory. As Ian describes it the inspiration comes from “Burning Man, pop culture, and looking through Granger catalogs.” Traditional forms of classification, especially with music, are less distinct and less relevant. Consider music today that mixes so many different styles. Look at the recent popularity of Buena Vista Social Club. Click, click on the remote. Now we’re used to it and understand it and dance around the boundaries. Art and creativity are found everywhere. Inspiration comes from “watching lots of TV, walking down the street.” Ian particularly loves the recent GAP commercials, in these times when people are trying to do more and more sophisticated commercials, Ian says “the GAP commercials focus on two things: they look good and they sound good, they accomplish simple things.” The technology behind them is completely hidden. Sensory overload is over. Will simplicity makes a comeback? In every stage of art evolution there is a period of mannerism that follows after something people are looking back using all without the same sensory overload. Blue Man Group does “out of control” and “crazy,” commentary on information overload and chaos theory. Ian suggests, “do it and later find the meaning in hindsight, try it now, the explanations come later.” Ian suggests that artists should work on simple things and allow people to attribute more to the actions. It’s all about context.
Good thing Ian started off his talk with clips from Blue Man Group performances, it’s much easier to show it than to describe. Ian feels that art is social commentary, and “it’s cool, lots more people are doing it”, today “there are no rules,” and he says that “I watch TV, and what I see is great,” then he’ll go to an art gallery and think “that sucks.” Ian suggests that art is now “four dimensional,” something to see, feel, emotions, sound, It gets harder to categorize, it gets harder to know where something comes from, there is a change in the craft, people are coming into their own earlier, and this is great, Ian believes “Art students no longer spend lots of time drawing letters, the tools empower you.” In an age when everyone has access to the tools (for example, to do layout), education then becomes a life long process, as Ian says, “education, it’s all around you every day, commercials, Tae Bo, television, video games, they are all sources for my work.” Asked what kinds of things he and his collaborators likes to go see, he replies “we like things that are kick-ass and dumb!”
Why blue? Apparently from a cartoon that one of them drew as a child. Ian explains that Blue men are easier to identify with, without the racial, religious, and political implications of other colors especially red, yellow, black, greeen. Blue, as Ian describes it, is the” most neutral of the color options,” the personalities of the Blue Men are not spelled out. In this manner you can read more of yourself into their gestures, no speaking, but these guys are not mimes, you relate to them at an emotional level. Blue Man Group is in some ways is a return to the tribal experience. People are isolated with their TVs in their homes, there is a need for community experiences. Blue Man Group is here to provide it.
If you’ve not yet seen Blue Man Group at the Chalres Playhouse, I recommend it. Another performance that eschews traditional “forms” of theater and provides a rich context for discussion is De La Guarda: Villa Villa currently playing in New York.
Photo by Kent Dayton, Copyright 1999, courtesy of AIGA/IDSA, used with permission. This article was originally posted manually on my web site and rolled into the blog chronology when the site was uograded to Movable Type and later WordPress.