Following the 9/11 attacks, the Age of Irony was said to have ended. The pronouncement was premature; the increasing absurdity of American life has jacked up our wry, tongue-in-cheek, dripping-in-sarcasm response. No wonder many Americans rely on their nightly news fix from "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report."
Into the fray arrives the timely Serious Laughs, a three-week festival (April 20 through May 12) whose subtitle promises "Art, Politics, Humor." Paintings, drawings, sculpture, video, theatrical performances, and multimedia art installations will be mounted in venues throughout Kingston. It is the opening salvo of a planned year-long celebration created by Chris Silva of Bardavon and scheduled for both Ulster and Dutchess Counties.
Assembling the Serious Laughs festival is Daniel Mason, a polymath (arts curator, writer, and lecturer) with degrees from both Yale and Bard. The goal of this sprawling event, the Kingston resident said, is to examine the role of humor as a balm for our current welter of everyday malaises, be they personal, political, or economic. "So in a time of crisis," Mason says, "how is humor used for entertainment, but also for more political and more aggressive ways?"
The centerpiece of Serious Laughs is a pair of concerts by Kathy Griffin (April 21) and Lewis Black (April 28), both at UPAC. While markedly different in their over-the-top approaches, Mason suggests that the comedians attain the same goal in their respective acts: an acknowledgment of—and then respite from—daily instances of madness. "Through the use of comedy and humor, they find a common ground," he says. Additional guest comics will headline nightclubs and restaurants across Kingston.
Once the tent-pole acts were booked, Mason built exhibitions around them. Having curated gallery exhibits around the country, he leveraged his influence to bring art from masters as well as mavericks, internationally known figures as well as regional artists on their way up. Visual art exhibitions will be mounted at UPAC and the Kingston Public Library. Among the artists represented: Cindy Sherman, John Cage, Nina Katchadourian, William Wegman, Kevin Frank, Alison Bechdel, Sanford Biggers, Ward Shelley, Josh Shaddock, Olaf Breuning, Ken Landauer, Kalup Linzy, William Pachner, Pat Oleszko, Liliana Porter, Tim Davis, Ariel Schrag, Myra Mimlitsch-Gray, Bob Snead, Lisa Sanditz, and Dana Schutz. The unifying motif of these pieces, Mason says, is the use of humor in contemporary art. (Expect interpretations of those guidelines to vary from raucous to vulgar to rueful.) Gallery show admissions are free.
For the first time, UPAC will be transformed into an art space. Mason promises interior and exterior installations that are provocative and challenging. In fact, he refers to the works as "interventions" or "transgressions" that will force attendees "to look differently at "the architectural and social dynamic" of the familiar space.
Serious Laughs is also interactive; free workshops at UPAC and the Kingston Public Library, open to teens and adults, will guide you in creating comedic masks and developing your own act. Participants will take part in "an absurdist improvised performance."
Mason has much more to say about the role of comics as theatrical actors and can expound at length on calculated self-portraiture on the stage. But it's probably best to leave the heavy intellectual lifting to Mason and jump in. When it comes to Serious Laughs, all you really need bring is your funny bone. But don't be surprised if you happen to stimulate your cerebral cortex.
Serious Laughs: Arts, Politics, Humor takes place at venues across Kingston from April 20 through May 12. (845) 339-6088; Bardavon.org.