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JULY 30 - AUGUST 5, 2004

A Considerable Town


Frag or Be Fragged

Eleven men and one woman faced each other, armored from head to toe in steel and leather. They gripped swords, maces, axes and shields. The sun was setting, and the west-facing room, still steamy from a burning afternoon, had cooled off just enough to begin the battle. Behind protective hay bales, a phalanx of spectators crouched, stood and spilled out onto the street, straining to hear as Aaron Darkhelm, clad in a tunic (but no dark helm), officiated at the opening of the battle. “If you are killed, acknowledge the kill, go off the field, and wait to re-enter,” he announced. “Each melee continues for 10 minutes solid. There will be nine melees. You’re going for the most kills. Pace yourself; it’s gonna be brutal.”

These were the basic rules for Untitled War, a performance presented at the Machine Project gallery on Alvarado at Sunset and organized by Brody Condon, an artist whose work is rooted in video games and their culture. Condon invited fighters from the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA), a group that seeks to live and fight according to the technology and values of the Middle Ages, to do battle in the manner of online first-person shooter competition. When you log onto such games, there may be 10 players already “fighting”; whoever gets the most kills, or “frags,” wins. If you are killed online, a few seconds pass before you re-spawn. Likewise, at Machine Project, a fragged fighter would re-spawn — in this case, behind the hay bales — before rejoining the fray.

As technicians tweaked the ceiling cameras sending a video game–like composite view of the action to a screen at the Echo Park Film Center next door, scorekeepers got ready to count frags, the “populace” cheered, and combat commenced. Dr. Tom Davidson, a maiden frolicking in a somewhat medieval-looking costume replete with diaphanous veil and who is also a practicing M.D., leaned over to whisper, “I’m a little worried about the safety precautions.”

Swordplay is loud in a small space. Despite the fact that the fighters wielded rattan mockup weapons cushioned with duct tape, they took genuine swings. Which were deflected by genuine shields, or absorbed by genuine armor and helmets. Of those, Philippe de Tournay’s pig-nose Bascimet was particularly striking. It was fashioned, he had told me while suiting up, after a genuine 15th-century helmet style that was contemporaneous with the era of his SCA character, a courtier to the schismatic pope of Avignon circa 1460. On the field, Philippe cut a nice figure in a red coatehardie, bearing a Vanguard of Honor, a colored ribbon that waved with each parry and thrust.

And yet Phillippe was not as seasoned as some of the other fighters. The SCA is not the Renaissance Faire, Condon had told me; nor is it a medieval version of Civil War re-enactment. These battles are not choreographed, and the hierarchy within the SCA is based on battle skills. In the Machine Project arena, a few of the 12 combatants quickly distinguished themselves as superior warriors. Lord Johannes the Southerner racked up four kills in just the first round, and that was with an already-broken kneecap. Sir Eronric of Devon and Sir Gavin of MacDomhnuill were close behind.

Beneath the clatter of the medieval mano a mano, I got commentary from Julia Rupkalvis, a Marine veteran and military adviser to Hollywood with a degree in hoplology. (That’s the study of representing military action theatrically.) Rupkalvis, who owns more than 150 swords herself and recently trained Colin Farrell in the bladed martial arts of antiquity for his title role in Oliver Stone’s Alexander, noted that the successful fighters in the gallery employed better defensive strategy. (She also told me that Brad Pitt’s leaping sidewinder stab in Troy was an art of combat known as “total B.S.,” but nevertheless “looked pretty cool.”) As Untitled War unfolded, Rupkalvis liked one burly fellow in a cloak who made nice use of his shield, and frowned when an opponent aced him with a quick flat snap to the head. “That would never have happened in real combat,” she said. “That guy’s sword would be way too heavy to move that fast.”

Meanwhile, the one skirmishing woman, Condessa Battista de Kie del Goya da Lagos, was having trouble fighting Florentine style — wielding two weapons and no shield. Battista was getting battered by a hulking knight with a broad sword and a round shield. “Two swords wasn’t a good idea. She would have had an advantage in maneuverability because of her size and speed,” Rupkalvis explained as one of Battista’s flailing swords, in a moment of medieval friendly fire, accidentally disabled an ally. “But that was negated by the confines of the gallery.”

By the final round, the action had slowed significantly. Most of the fighters, sweating profusely, ate platters of pickles for their salt and water. The spectators drank Coors and Bud Lights out on the sidewalk, paying only loose attention to the battle through a TV mounted above the doorway. Mark Allen, the owner of Machine Projects, was nonetheless pleased. “The crowd is losing interest,” he said. “But that’s kind of a perfect development — like in today’s world, where there’s a war going on in the distance, up there on a television. And we all pay close attention at first, but then start to relax and watch with a few beers.” Inside the gallery, Johannes the Southerner, heaving with exhaustion, managed to raise his sword for yet another kill.

—Joshuah Bearman

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previous columns:
07/23/04 Yogis for Kerry
07/16/04 Shake It Like a Camera-Phone Picture
07/09/04 Anime Magnetism
07/02/04 Bubba Onboard

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