Foster’s Fearless and An Era of Experimentalism

I don’t miss much about living in a densely-populated city, but I do recall with romance and nostalgia the smorgasbord of weird shit that was going on all around me at any given time. I’m not talking about the guy on the train who tried to sell me a half-eaten jar of peanut butter – although I do think about that guy on a near-daily basis. I mean how easy it was to find people trying new things, be they creator or audience.

See: Carlie Foster’s latest project, Poorly Named. While spoken word is among the world’s oldest art forms – with oral histories predating the earliest written language – Foster’s treatment and execution is uncommon.

Free-association monologuing, supported by a guitarist who responds to her energy, she combines installation and performance art into something that is more than spoken word. It’s definitely one of those affairs you search for on a night when you’ve had too much caffeine and need something to ground you.

So you walk into The Island and observe as a young woman, who has painted herself (“…a lot of dark colors to show the scars and bruises of my past…”) and is standing amid torn journal pages and candles arranged in a shrine, speaks to a rapt audience about her earliest experience with love and the power memory has to make a hurt from childhood still raw.


Foster began writing at age seven, when her grandmother died on Christmas. For a child, this event was a pivotal course in universal cruelty; she would forever associate the loss of her matriarch with mall Santas and network TV specials sponsored by Coca-Cola.

“I had to find an outlet for the pain and bitterness,” she wrote to me a couple of weeks ago via Facebook messenger. “In the beginning years there was a lot of darkness.”

Though an angry child, her next bout with existential crisis held off until puberty. Like most humans beginning the agonizing and tedious transition into adulthood, Foster felt lost and isolated.

“But pen and paper were always there for me. They have always been my best friends.”

At thirteen, she returned to writing as a method of compartmentalization. Of course, as Foster grew and changed, so did her art. She discovered the power of live music and performance, as well as its scene, so to speak.

“I always wanted to share my words,” Foster wrote, “but never had the guts to.”

That’s one explanation for her breathless delivery. It’s this delivery that makes her performance feel so urgent and compelling. It’s also a characteristic that a professional speech or drama instructor would likely discourage.

Interestingly, the same instructor would applaud (as do I) how Foster drives forward through minor missteps in her oration – those same little errors that cause many speakers to panic and blank out.

After seeing her perform, it’s hard to imagine that she’s lacking in any guts, but she insists that she was too nervous to get on stage before she was inspired by her peers – specifically, Mollie Piatetsky of Closet Witch – to do so.

I have to agree; Piatetsky is a physically tiny person who gets hold of a microphone and suddenly towers over everyone.

The flier for Angelo Rossi‘s show this fall looks like he remade Attack of the 50 Foot Woman. I would see this movie.

“…the PA went out so you couldn’t even hear her,” Foster wrote. “But everyone lifted her up and she still screamed her words. I think at that moment I knew in the community I’m in I could share pieces of my soul with them and I knew they’d support me in anything I did.”

That gave Foster the shot of courage to make her voice heard – and Closet Witch courage is powerful stuff.

“My first performance I performed without a shirt, and my chest painted. Don’t get me wrong I was mortified. But I wanted to show vulnerability to my friends so they would allow themselves to be vulnerable with me.”

This raises the point of environment – experimental arts require a fertile one in which to blossom and grow by virtue of their inherent vulnerability; for example, there’s little to no pre-existing audience, in opposition to the mainstream genre acts and cover bands that appear around town on a regular basis. But the audiences for those performers are steadily aging.

With nearly 30% of the Quad Cities population falling into the 25-40 age range, the average local is about 34 years old. That means there is a significant number of locals preoccupied with the idea of growth. It just comes with the territory – it’s the age where most people have babies and start businesses.

It’s also the age where people begin to weary of chaos and the absurd. I’ve written about absurdism before, but as a red-blooded academic, I’m really an experimentalist. Experimentalism also refers to a philosophy that places absolute value on empirical truth. Maybe it’s a reaction to the current political climate or reality television – which, I guess, go hand-in-hand now – or maybe it’s because people are abandoning organized religion in favor of less violent belief systems, but it seems that all of the life-giving ingredients are present and ready.

This is exciting for an area with a lower population density and a lot less time to mess around. We’re America’s breadbasket; we’ve got corn to grow and pigs to fatten. Our most famous artist was Grant Wood, one of the patron saints of Americana. As much as I adore his stark fields and long, dusty roads, the man died in 1942.

Foster’s performance may be a harbinger of a new artistic era. At the very least, it’s refreshing as hell. While her subjects generally relate to struggle and the human condition, her message is ultimately an empowering one.

“When I perform I really want people to get something out of it. I want to relieve my soul. I want people to know they have all the power in the world to change their minds and hearts.”

Poorly Named may be part of the new Americana – or, at least, a new era in area art. In the end, it has freedom at its core.

“I wanted to share the message that you are more than just a name. You have a soul inside. That’s what I want to see in people. I want people to be free.”

Foster outside The Island, June 2017.