If You Are Here, This Is for You

Brian Ora Coya

at Hotel Kafka, July 30 and 31

By Justin Hayford

On the second (and last) night of Brian Ora Coya’s traveling one-man show, If You Are Here, This Is for You, I arrived at Hotel Kafka 15 minutes early–so I had to wait in the kitchen. Hotel Kafka isn’t a place of public lodging, just the name a loose collective of artists has given its sprawling Humboldt Park living space. They’ve been there for three years, content to present dance pieces, performance art, punk rock, and the like in near-total obscurity. Aside from word of mouth and the occasional flyer, they do nothing to publicize themselves, lacking even a mailing list. As one Hotel Kafka regular confessed to me, “If I hadn’t run into my friend on the street today, I wouldn’t have known this was going on.”

Usually events take place in the basement, but Coya–who likewise ended up at Hotel Kafka through extremely informal channels–decided to mount his piece on the roof. And since the door to the roof is just off the kitchen, there I sat, a half-eaten bowl of soup on the table in front of me. Nearly every horizontal surface in the room was an inch or two deep in clutter, the air was thick with the smell of incense. Other theaters may invest thousands to make their lobbies comfortable, but this place is home.

A few minutes before show time, much of the conversation among the clump of artsy alternatypes waiting with me focused on, of all things, hopping freight trains. One middle-aged, affluent-looking woman who introduced herself as Gypsy Moon lamented the fact that every time she’s tried to hop a freight she’s been hassled by the cops. Maybe these folks were Coya-heads, for he’s spent the last five years riding the rails himself. A self-described tramp with no permanent residence, he’s racked up over 16,000 ticket-free miles, relying on the vast hobo network to keep him headed in a useful direction. “At first it was just a practical decision,” he explained later that evening, “a way of touring a performance for almost no money. But now the life feeds me creatively.”

He chronicles that life in If You Are Here, This Is for You, a hypnotic patchwork of poetry, song, storytelling, and–for lack of a better term–discordant recitation. Images of freedom, hardship, injustice, and restlessness appear and disappear as though glimpsed from the window of a speeding train. Like Coya himself, the piece doesn’t head in any particular direction, instead straying through a series of urgent digressions. He takes us through a twilight sideshow where life is as perilous as it is liberating.

The piece is based on the writings of Rob Horn, a fellow nomad who publishes his own zines and who Coya says “gives voice to experiences I have had.” Horn’s zines may be nothing more than poorly photocopied pages of unadorned, typo-laden text stapled together, but they contain arresting imagery. “I have tried entering the gates of the spectacle,” Coya recites from Horn’s zine Voyages, describing an attempt to spend an evening in a crowded bar rather than out under the stars. But he ends up feeling like “a Mongol in a mall, a Haj in Detroit, a flame under water.” He hears only “unsung dirges” that leave him “tired unto wakefulness.” And while he may conclude that he would rather “stand in a puddle of piss” than live among the “dull, deadened dead end heartless chatter of the spectacle,” his poem is more lament than diatribe. Something in Horn is drawn to the spectacle he despises, and it is this tension that Coya exploits throughout the evening.

It’s a tension that produces discomfort, both literally and metaphorically. No matter what Coya/Horn is talking about–his love of night, his run-ins with the cops, his effort to “outrun the tyranny of the practical”–he spends a fair amount of time in uncomfortable positions: stuffed into a tight sleeping bag, sitting on a tiny milk crate, hanging upside down from a hook mounted in the crotch of his pants. He may be “free,” insisting that “the only place I live is in my body,” but he can never seem to relax. Whether bundled up in a boxcar, shivering in a jail cell, or spread-eagled on the hood of a police car, life is to Coya and Horn what the pea was to the princess.

Added to the physical discomfort is a pervasive artistic distress. Much as Horn’s zine looks like something many of us might mistake for garbage, Coya performs on a stage built of wood scraps, wearing clothes so filthy you know they didn’t come from any costume shop. As a posted sign explains, “This show was made possible from things I found in the trash and sold.” Nothing here is “legitimate,” and much of the time the performance was drowned out by roaring traffic and wailing sirens. To add insult to injury, Coya includes a caustic voice-over of a woman asking, “Do you think you have some sort of performance piece going on here? ‘Cause you don’t.”

That voice seems to echo something in Coya. Throughout the evening a deep strain of discontent is apparent in him, a discontent that stretches far beyond the social criticism that permeates the piece. It’s as though If You Are Here is only a shadow of what he would wish. The longing he describes in performance–for warmth, for comfort, for a home–is viscerally present in his yearning for a “real” theater. But at the same time, Coya revels in the beauty of his own meager means, managing to turn a few clamp-on lamps and a jury-rigged proscenium into an endearing playground. Coya’s emotionally ambivalent relationship to his own material gives it a fascinating complexity, allowing him to steer clear of simplistic preaching about the sanctity of life on the road.

At base Coya, like Horn, struggles to imagine ending a journey–or, in psychological terms, arriving at a fixed identity. For both artists, life is always somewhere else, a series of transitions without resolution, leaving them with decidedly fractured notions of self. “I am one hand clapping in a sewer,” Horn writes. “A bird with one wing beating….A sighted man who covets the vision of the blind….A melted candle envious of the sun.” Coya articulates an awesome kind of freedom, one that never allows for permanence. As he confesses late in the piece, “I am the stranger in the night creeping silently up the stairs to poke around in the empty rooms, thinking, ‘I could never live here, no, never could I feel at home here. My way lies further on still, further on.'” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): uncredited photo.