Elliott Earls is feverish about letting that ungainly guy in him come out. His alter ego is a hip-hop hopeful named Dougy, a bucktoothed and clammy weakling with a dirty sink drawl and about as much talent and insight as a wood-paneled wall. His pleather jacket is loud, and if you got a whiff of him, his sweat would stink sour. He's the American dream backed up in Gatsby's drain, a pathetic NASCAR obsessee with desperate delusions, who's desperately failing.
It's kind of crazy to think that Dougy, the star of Earls' short film The Saranay Motel, was born in Bloomfield Hills, where the artist is head of Cranbrook's graphic design department. That's where Earls has created other characters, such as a tough, poor and pasty Irish street fighter or the world's worst human beat boxer. But walking inside Earls' studio is your first clue that one of these artists is not like the others: It's like entering an electrical abyss. This is the place where Earls' design, video and performance concepts turn into full-blown spectacles.
Earls' space is an audio-video jungle. Black hoses snake the floor and music stands wobble like colts with new legs. Over-the-top icons and fonts so potent they're tribal dance on the walls in the artist's own paintings, posters and prints. Crowding the room are five computers and companion equipment transmitters, towers, decks, samplers, monitors, mismatched hard drives and some "home-brew" equipment most of which is squatting on what he calls the "little desk" in the corner.
This Saturday, ambitious art and music lovers get to check out what such a mess creates. Earls presents the Capacitor Festival, a multimedia technological extravaganza introducing audiences to his weird and wired world, crammed with the highbrow, lowbrow and no-brow references that infest culture, including the short digital film featuring Dougy. There'll be avant-garde animation and infomercials, wannabe rap star crackpots and computer-controlled dry ice pots, strobe lights and spoken word, smoke machines and music machines. There'll be toothless and useless monsters blown up by an oversized Styrofoam revolver, and social and political commentary on America's real monsters. Earls plays live acoustic folk and "newgrass" with his band, the Venomous Sons of Jonah, and treats audiences to synthetic, suburban hip hop. He'll spout off references to Henry Miller and Miller High Life.
Robotic drum kits and 24-karat gold boots aside, Earls' art is so intriguing because it is ambiguous, calling into question our society's preoccupation with authenticity. When it comes to evaluating what's good and bad in art, the critics and the public seem more comfortable deciphering an artist's intentions rather than really looking at objects. And it doesn't even seem to matter anymore if you're truly informed about the world, as long as you're in grad school. In music, it's the opposite but the idea is still the same. There's so much hype about what's "real," as long as you're self-taught or you've got serious street cred, you're golden.
In the Capacitor Festival, Earls plays a few different characters, including himself. He performs as Dougy and as a Dylanesque musician, laying down tracks that critique contemporary society. One minute he plays an ignorant fool, and the next, he's taking himself too seriously, setting himself up to be ripped on with melodramatic monologues about race and the media and somewhat melancholy musical interludes on banjo. So when's he being ironic and what's sincere? What's his m.o.? He makes you realize how much we believe it matters.
Of all places, the Capacitor Festival is being held at Detroit's Music Hall, a venue that for years has presented "lite" acts to appease the masses. (See Ben Vereen's tribute to Sammy Davis Jr. the night before Earls' show.) This event represents an attempt by the Music Hall to loosen up a bit, take some risks and attract a more diverse crowd. If this goes well, there'll be more performance art in future, says Music Hall President Sandy Duncan.
Part of the problem in Detroit is that arts promoters underestimate audiences. The local scene needs more creative people who are willing to really embarrass themselves and to make others feel uncomfortable. Once upon a time, not too many decades ago, society actually relied on artists for that kind of beating.
No matter how impressed you are by Earls' art, and even if you think he's a self-aggrandizing show-off who loves to see his face on screen, at least he's not hiding. (Although he says sometimes his wife wishes he would). It takes courage to allow yourself to be a commercialized caricature of all that is insidiously bloated about America, and to not make it quite clear enough where the gag begins and ends. Courage is the very least of what we should be asking from our artists.
Doors open at 9 p.m., with Pabst Blue Ribbon, hors d'oeuvres by newly reopened Twingo's Euro Café and music in the foyer by DJ Kosta Stratigos. Show starts at 10 p.m. An afterparty takes place at 11 p.m. on the main stage with mojitos, and music by Dorkwave. Saturday, Jan. 28, at the Music Hall, 350 Madison Ave., Detroit; 313-887-8500. Tickets are $12 ($5 for students and teachers with a valid I.D.).
Rebecca Mazzei is Metro Times arts editor. Send comments to email@example.com or call