Weird science

For an eighth grader with designs on coolness, there’s only one peer-sanctioned response to a long lecture on bugs’ mating habits: boredom. Notebook doodling, loud gaping yawns – perhaps even a head slumped on the desk, for good measure – are all effective means of ensuring fellow pubescent classmates there isn’t some geeky girl-repelling chemistry kit in your closet.

But what if that kid somehow becomes an adult, and a hip one at that? Surely his hard-earned savoir-faire would land him at the fourth annual Asheville Fringe Festival this weekend, where headliner Irene Moon will deliver a slide-illustrated lecture on the evolution of cockroaches. And the hip adult’s only legitimate response? How daring! How deviant! How downright cool!

Science mystifies Americans, while art seduces them. It’s a phenomenon that Moon, a professional entomologist who has published such tracts as Attraction of the Bark Beetle Parasitoid Roptrocerus Xylophagorum to Host-Associated Olfactory Cues when not performing her mad-scientist routine in nightclubs and art galleries, constantly confronts. While absurdist theater, with its disconnected imagery and distrust of language, has managed to pervade the media vernacular – “when I watch TV, it all seems like absurdist theater,” Moon says – science is still just weird.

Fact is the new fringe.

Irene Moon, entomologist/artist, with a few of her favorite things

photo by Joe Tunis
Critters buggin’: Irene Moon, entomologist/artist, with a few of her favorite things.

“Entomology is less understood than absurdist art,” adds Moon, who recently took her show to an Entomology Society of America meeting.

Studies bear out Moon’s perceptions. While nobody has yet won a grant to explore Americans’ feelings about entomology, a report issued by the National Science Foundation in 2004 suggests most folks never did sit up in science class. Even the report’s most chipper sections are near-indictments of Americans’ scientific illiteracy: “Most Americans know the earth travels around the sun,” it triumphantly announces. But respondents were murkier on other galactic issues, with a full 30 percent believing aliens have landed on earth. And, according to respondents, earth is a heck of a place to alight: Belief in haunted houses, witches and ghosts has soared over the past decade.

The buzz bin

Even those inclined to place their faith in science have lately been burned by the discipline. But Hwang Woo Suk’s stem-cell findings were shown to be not only wrong but willfully falsified. Hwang wasn’t the first scientist to demonstrate a flair for fakery; perhaps the most notorious cheater in modern scientific history, William Summerlin, was disgraced in the 1970s when an assistant noticed the dark skin he claimed to have grafted to white mice came off in the wash, the result of him using a marker to apply the color.

Even a disinterested eighth grader would expect a failing grade for that particular stunt.

As science has become confusing and unreliable, the rush to embrace art – even avant-garde art that would have been derided in the mid-20th century, when Mr. Wizard ruled the airwaves – makes sense. Art challenges without estranging. It excites without disillusioning. And it makes science go down easy, as in last summer’s blockbuster March of the Penguins or Moon’s PowerPoint lecture You, The Charmer.

Moon, born Katja Seltmann, developed her character while at the University of Georgia. Described on her Web site as “a synthesis of a prescription-addicted high-school-algebra teacher and one of the Lennon sisters in the early days of the Lawrence Welk Show,” Irene Moon is a stiff caricature of the eccentric entomologist so engrossed in her own work that she lectures “for your pleasure, or perhaps only just for mine.”

“Because a lot of it is a little bit dark, it can seem like I’m making fun of individuals, but I’m not,” she insists.

Clarification noted. But is the entomology world really peopled by lecturers like Moon, who pepper their presentations with carnivalesque cockroach dances and musical interludes that cross field recordings with cocktail-lounge beats?

Whether spoken, danced or sung, every tidbit incorporated into Moon’s spiel on the anti-social life of bees, wasps and ants – “most of them are just strange, solitary animals; these aren’t the fuzzy bees and wingless ants you see crawling around,” she says – is true. Prepare for a pop quiz.

“It’s fun and unexpected, but there’s also a lot of information about insects [in my act],” she points out.

According to Moon, some of her scientific colleagues wonder just what she’s doing with her stage show. When they hear the soundtrack of mating insects on a fatal love chase, they don’t instantly think they’ve wandered waist deep into a swamp of ambient experimentation. They’re unclear on how mounting a display of tiny insect costumes in an underground gallery can lead to tenure.

“There’s a little bit of confusion, but it’s not just colleagues,” Moon admits. “I can get it from the dentist.”

Moon’s act Auk Theatre will appear Friday night at the Fringe Festival. Auk comprises short, scary vignettes that represent more traditional expositions of the absurdist genre, linked together in an entirely non-linear fashion. “It’s really sort of a quiet experience that’s noisy,” ventures the scientist, likening the performance to a Kabuki show or comic book.

Compared to Irene Moon’s more scientific shtick, “it’s a lot less learning,” she adds.

Moon joins Dolores Wilber, founder and director of the live art collaborative Wholesale Chicago, as a guest artist at this year’s Fringe Festival, which has usually relied upon local talent for its programming. Festival Co-Director Jim Julien, speaking in terms Moon would appreciate, says their appearances were arranged to facilitate “cross-pollination of art.”

“Part of the reason for the festival is to give artists an opportunity to see other artists perform,” he adds. “I thought of Irene and Dolores because I’ve never seen anything like their work in Asheville.”

According to Julien, the Fringe Festival exists to inspire (and perhaps educate). Entertainment is merely a by-product.

The best gauge of the festival’s success, says Julien, isn’t ticket sales or laudatory reviews, but the number of audience members who decide to become participants, auditioning a show of their own the next year.

“We’ve had a few folks who saw what we were doing and later came and asked to be a part of it. That’s very exciting and fulfilling that people get inspired in that way.”

Never too old for Ninja

Creepy Dolly Dancing

photo by Jim Genaro
Little girl found: “Creepy Dolly Dancing,” a local act, will be part of the 7:30 show at Future of Tradition.

And it’s not just novices the festival hopes to invigorate. For Co-Director Erin Braasch, fringe is individually defined, meaning a traditional ballet could sit firmly on the edge – so long as it was performed by a cowboy poet.

“A key part of our mission,” she says, “is not just asking people to be crazy or avant-garde, but to work across genres. We give artists an opportunity to stretch themselves.”

So at the Fringe Festival, classically trained tap dancers will improvise and belly dancers will do their thing alongside drag queens. Collaboration is also key, with visual artists and dancers teaming up for a performance featuring painted bodies. Braasch and Julien serve as instigators throughout the creative process, matching artists with one another and assigning performers to spaces in hopes of stimulating artistic stretching.

Julien says he’s tried to challenge himself, as well, making a foray into a medium he hasn’t explored for years: puppet theater.

“I’ll be doing a Spaghetti Western, Ninja style. This,” he points out, “will be an entirely new experience for me.”

Fringe Festival schedule

Each show listed comprises a minimum of five separate acts, including dance, video soap opera, music, poetry, and multimedia explorations. Irene Moon presents two shows as part of No Chickens Killed! Really! at Club Hairspray: Auk Theatre on Friday is described as “noisy, short, and simple absurdist theater with only the best topics in consideration”; Irene Moon and the Begonia Society on Saturday is “lecture, multimedia and insects, all tastefully presented.” See for a complete description of the acts presented in each show.

Be Be Theatre (20 Commerce St., downtown Asheville, 254-2621)
The 99 and 3/4 – Guaranteed Show – Thursday, Friday and Saturday, 7:30 p.m.
Oh You, Venus Transect! – Friday and Saturday at 10 p.m.; Sunday at 2 p.m.

Club Hairspray (38 N. French Broad Ave., downtown Asheville, 258-2027)
No Chickens Killed! Really! – Friday and Saturday, 7:30 p.m.

Wedge Gallery (115 Roberts St., River District, Asheville)
The Pure Assault Show – Friday and Saturday, 10 p.m.
• Gallery display of installations from B Love Productions and Dolores Wilber – Saturday, 1-4 p.m. (Free.)

Future of Tradition (129 Roberts St., River District, Asheville)
Pretty Things Go to Hell, Blinki! – Friday and Saturday, 7:30 p.m.
The Mars Explorer Show – Friday and Saturday, 10 p.m.

PUSH Skate Shop and Art Gallery (25 Patton Ave., downtown Asheville, 225-5509)
• Exhibit of Guest Artist Irene Moon’s insect photography. (Free; open business hours throughout the festival)

[Contributing writer Hanna Miller lives in Asheville.]

Asheville Contemporary Dance Theatre presents the fourth annual Asheville Fringe Arts Festival Thursday, Jan. 26 through Sunday, Jan. 29 (see schedule). Tickets are $12/adults, $10/students with ID. Each ticket is good for $2 off another performance; advance ticket sales are not available. Fifty $40 Freak Passes, good for six shows, are available at Be Be Theatre. Call 254-2621 for more information.



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