Culture that Splatters
By Shawn Gerwitz

From Gadfly July/August 2000

The highest art will be that which in its conscious content presents the thousand fold problems of the day...
—Richard Huelsenbeck, First German Dada Manifesto (Collective Dada Manifesto)

Composer John Cage once wrote that "art is the imitation of nature in her manner of operation." Following this logic, the 21st century finds Mother Nature fraught with electronic messaging, vibrant splashes of reds and yellows and endless acoustic possibilities—that is, if you take the Blue Man Group's word for it. This trio of blue-tinged performers has been captivating audiences with its "illegitimate theater" since 1991, treating viewers to a circus of colors, rhythms, tomfoolery and homemade instruments.

The Blue Man Group examines modernity with a bemused curiosity, as a child might. Garbage pails morph into drums and then paintbrushes as the Blue Man pounds the paint-covered lids, cascading showers of color onto a canvas overhead; marshmallows and paint balls caught in their mouths are spit out, transformed into works of art; Cap'n Crunch quickly becomes a Blue Man symphony of call-and-response. Clearly, this is not the theater you're used to.

Driving the show is a support band of percussionists—their tribal rhythms saturating the performance with a heightened sense of anticipation. These musicians are as integral to the performance as the Blue Men themselves. Their driving cadences provide the show with its backbone, complementing the antics of the performers on stage. Since the Blue Men never speak a word in the 75-minute spectacle, communicating instead through gestures, scrolling electronic messages and facial expressions, the music is a necessary tool for the trio—it provides them with a voice.  In fact, communication is a central concern of the Blue Man Group and, consequently, a recurring theme throughout the show.

At one point, the three cobalt figures simultaneously flip through three stacks of posters too fast for the audience to read all the messages. The placards range from trivia as simple as "A weekday edition of The New York Times contains more information than the average person was likely to come across in a lifetime in 17th-century England" to sardonic quips about the information age: "Once again you have chosen the wrong poster to read. While the people next to you read useful information, you are stuck with the equivalent of junk mail." The sketch is especially potent in our Internet-obsessed era—you can get your message out there and scream it till you're blue in the face, but that is no guarantee you'll be heard.

In another scene, a screen shows several connecting tubes while a voice-over talks about the one system that ties the diverse populations of the world together. But it's not the Internet or the telephone—it's modern plumbing. The voice continues, explaining that pressures within the system sometimes send the input back out through the original entry terminals, and only then is the system interactive.

This satire belies the Blue Man's true yearning for community and communication. Accordingly, the trio does not detach itself from the audience. At times, the Blue Men roam through the crowd, exploring the audience, while other segments involve audience members on stage with the performers. There is a conscious effort to "blesh" with the audience. The term, a combination of blend and mesh, was adopted by the group from Theodore Sturgeon's sci-fi novel More Than Human, which is about limited beings with singular talents who combine to form something far better.

The Blue Man Group just might be the longest-running Happening in history. Although by definition a Happening should occur only once, this show has that kind of feel to it. Co-creators Matt Goldman, Phil Stanton and Chris Wink founded the trio in 1987 with guerrilla performances on New York City sidewalks, and the indoor performances have preserved much of that public character. The line separating performer from spectator is successfully blurred. Audience members react to the Blue Men as they roam throughout the crowd, and the Blue Men, in turn, react to them. In a sense, the audience makes its own theater—much like John Cage's audience made its own music in his experimental composition 4'33" (a "silent" piece consisting of four and a half minutes of various spontaneous sounds from the audience).

The group's grounding in the arts is readily apparent. In one segment, a fish skeleton on canvas—reminiscent of Dadaist Max Ernst's Here Everything is Still Floating—is descended from the rafters. The piece then becomes the subject of the trio's high-toned art critique, which scrolls across an electronic message board above each performer's head. The group's allusion to the Dada movement is not inadvertent. They cite Dadaist humor as an influence, and the show parallels the work of their Dada predecessors. Both reject the notion that art can only be created by an initiated few—a piece of art, the Blue Men attest, is only a marshmallow chew away.

The Blue Man Group strips itself of the pretentiousness of art—the ultimate failure of the Dadaists—and what remains is a wholly accessible piece of theater, if it can be labeled theater.  The show delivers serious ideas in a candy wrapping, a hybrid of spectacle and philosophical inquiry, and engages even the most fidgety patron. How often does theater do that?

The show concludes with one last communal ritual. Large rolls of paper tumble into the crowd, accompanied by the thin slivers of a strobe light and the pounding of the support band. The theater throbs with energy as the trio and audience alike clutch the descending paper, spider webbing it throughout the theater. Finally, the music reaches its apex, and the lights come up. The Blue Man's "art playground" is now closed.