Posted by Michael Woolley on December 20th, 2017
Two wooden folding chairs sit abreast and encircled by a collection of six space heaters. An audience faces them, waiting.
Kai Villneff and Sarah Ormandy—Pest Control—enter upstage left. They each turn on three heaters before taking their seats, Ormandy on our right and Villneff our left. A low, barely audible hum drones out of the now-energized heating coils, and several fans innocuously whirr. The reflector of the centremost heater glows a pale orange, but its heat does not quite reach the back rows of the audience. The artists both wear blue jeans and boots, and Villneff has a grey sweater while Ormandy wears a blue blouse with white polka dots. They sit placidly facing us, hands folded quietly in their laps or placed on their thighs, with glasses of water resting on the floor next to their feet. We wait.
Soon enough, their own voices boom from speakers behind them. What does it take to achieve success? Success! of course, they tell us. Like a self-help audiobook had a lovechild with a late-night infomercial, Pest Control begins elaborating upon the steps to achieving success in your professional creative career. SUCCESS is of course an acronym detailing the path to success. First, you have to be Superficial: being beautiful is the first step to success. Then you must Undertake the task of researching your successful interlocutors and social betters (but if you forget to do your research, just remember a few easy phrases, like “I’m a big fan of your work!”). To Connect with others, it is important to maintain eye contact and have a firm steady handshake. And in order to Control the situation, you must be able to make a graceful exit (“Excuse me, I have to use the bathroom”). Then, get ready to Start all over again, because the journey toward success is never-ending. And finally, don’t forget Success! That’s right, the final step toward SUCCESS is Success!
While their pre-recorded voices wryly elaborate in slow, deliberate and redundant but humorous detail the keys to success, Villneff and Ormandy sit stoic as ever in their chairs, maintaining their composure as the heat bears down upon them. They both sweat, and from time to time sip water. It is not until the recorded performance goes through the entire acronym, followed by a few helpful tips, that the artists actually speak. Ormandy speaks and Villneff repeats: “Success!” “Success!” “S” “S” “U” “U” “C” “C” “C” “C” “U” “U” “S” “S” “S” “S”. All they while they maintain their cool-blooded composure in spite of what I can only imagine must be oppressive heat. And as abruptly as they began, Villneff and Ormandy stop, stand up, turn off the heaters, and exit upstage left. The audience is left in silence to wonder, is it over? There is some murmuring, and people chuckle to themselves while looking around. Meanwhile, Pest Control have snuck in behind us. They re-enter the gallery space, wearing demure turtle-necks and brandishing fizzy drinks in fluted glasses. Their cold demeanor is gone as they enter the room beaming, putting into hyperbolic practice their own advice. “Hi! How are you? How is your project going? I’ve heard so much about it! That’s fantastic—oh, excuse me I have to go!” They meet and greet and schmooze and shake hands and make eye-contact with just the right amount of cheerful disingenuousness. At one point, I find myself shaking Villneff’s hand vigorously, goofily smiling in response to his candour and charm, all the while stammering as I realize my mind has gone completely blank in the moment and I have no idea what to say. I look “quite the fool,” as Ormandy had warned I would if I did not stick to their steps to SUCCESS only minutes prior.
Pest Control blurs lines between scripted theatricality and live performative presence: they layer the performance art trope of the affectless-artist-is-present-in-absurd-situation underneath a droll and self-aware pre-recorded audio performance; this contrasts sharply with the lively and responsive denouement of the work. It was unclear to me at the time—and it remains so upon reflection—whether the fun performative payoff at the end of the work is helped or hindered by the lengthy diegetic buildup that precedes it. I suspect the work might function more effectively were it formally split into two ‘parts’. The pre-recorded theatre seems better suited to live separately, accessible like an actual audiobook or ‘how-to’ video online, and serving to inform the more performative ‘conclusion’ of the work in the gallery. Irrespective of how it might be reimagined in future iterations, however, the work nevertheless pokes and prods anxiety and insecurity in a peculiar way and you are left unsure whether you’ve learned how to bamboozle your way through high society or if you’ve just been bamboozled yourself.