By Justin Hayford
Lawrence Steger and I may have gone on a date once, but I can't be sure. We met for drinks about eight years ago, ostensibly to talk shop. As a critic, I tried to maintain a professional distance. But I had to work hard to ignore his sexiness. I wanted to learn more about his artistry.
He'd just finished Worn Grooves, an evening-length solo piece at Lower Links about people trying to generate spontaneous passion in a world offering nothing but sterile ruts. Like all of his work, the show was a sly orchestration of inconsequential fragments; the search for intimacy was comic in the manner of Chekov, both doomed and ridiculous. He performed in his characteristically creepy and seductive manner, a dissipated impresario hoping to dazzle his audience into overlooking the aching hollow in the center of his soul.
Steger was doing the kind of work most everyone on the performance scene was doing in those days: disjointed, heady, aggressively antitheatrical. But while many of his contemporaries seemed satisfied to demonstrate their familiarity with postmodern performance theory, Steger never let theory overwhelm his practice. Despite his daunting intellect and penchant for academic musings, he couldn't help but entertain.
I had hoped to gain some insight into his method that night; in those days I was making performance pieces myself and saw Steger's work as a model of efficient ambiguity. We didn't talk much shop, however, perhaps because we were too busy drinking and sizing up the crowd around us. By the time we got to Manhole, groping our way through the half-light (and pawing my ex-boyfriend by accident), I realized that nothing intrigued Steger as much as darkness. It was in the shadowy realm of unnamed fears and unacknowledged impulses that he came to life. For him, darkness was a portal to a world of creative possibilities.
Darkness overcame Steger last week as he succumbed to an AIDS-related brain infection. As AIDS deaths go, his was merciful. Though the infection that killed him--progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy--is one of the more horrifying of AIDS-defining illnesses, it did its damage in only a few weeks. Aside from a brief bout with tuberculosis in 1995, HIV had left Steger largely in peace for the better part of ten years.
Certainly it hadn't slowed his artistic output, which had always been sparse. A major work came out of him once every five years or so. He began his performance career in New York in the late 1980s, when he formed a company and rented rehearsal space on the sly from a janitor at a public school. After mounting a few pieces that went entirely unnoticed, he moved to Chicago to pursue a master's degree at the School of the Art Institute. He once confided, "I thought I needed the degree to get grants."
The move was fortuitous--he found himself in the midst of a thriving performance scene with an open-door policy. "It became obvious after I moved here that the city was much more embracing of performance artists than New York," he told me in an interview two years ago. "P.S. 122 and the Kitchen seemed off limits because I was too young. In New York, I could do five-minute nightclub gigs and that was about it. But in Chicago, places like N.A.M.E. and Randolph Street Gallery were more open to my doing evening-length pieces, which is what I wanted to do."
He got his first chance in 1988, when N.A.M.E. presented Rented Movies, a guided tour of the back rooms of gay bars. That piece established Steger as one of the city's most thoughtful, mercurial performers, and it revealed his career-long fascination with insufficiency. He described gay worlds where nothing seemed adequate and love lay smothered under a plague, and he did so in a charmingly impotent way. In what would become his trademark style, he tried to pass off a simulation of his own work as the work itself, describing the great emotional moments he planned to put into the piece but never did (but of course, by describing these moments, he did include them in the piece). In a pinch, to generate excitement he hung upside down from a pipe in the ceiling. For his grand finale, he played a Lou Reed song on the accordion.
It was as if the artist couldn't muster enough energy to maintain interest in his own material, making for a ludicrous and lamentable spectacle. That wry ennui gave all his major pieces an alluring sadness, perhaps none more so than his biggest project, The Swans, which premiered at Randolph Street Gallery in 1995 and then traveled to Glasgow. This elaborately hokey semicinematic calamity--a failed movie script onstage-- attempted to tell the stories of Gilles de Rais (aka Bluebeard) and King Ludwig II, men who squandered fortunes hoping to keep themselves forever in a state of artificial ecstasy, only to have their kingdoms come crashing in on them. Steger's fascination with passion's brevity only increased after he learned about his HIV status. "How do I sustain interest in a world that I'm scheduled to not be part of very soon?" he wondered while preparing a revised version of The Swans for the Museum of Contemporary Art in 1996.
A mere month before his death, Steger was flush with projects, overseeing his fledgling not-for-profit production company, the Material Association, as well as presiding over his monthly variety revue, the "Faux Show," at HotHouse. Taken as a whole, his body of work stands as a testament to inadequacy, to the failures and shortcomings that make human beings more worthy of pity than contempt.
A memorial service for Steger will be held at 1 PM on Sunday, March 7, at HotHouse, 31 East Balbo.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Randy Tunnell.