I've had some recent sojourns to NYC, which involved some experiences worth keeping track of.
I visited the Brooklyn Museum for a job interview. I didn't get the job, but I did see an incredible Keith Haring retrospective while I was there. I was particularly in awe of his experimental video work (surprise surprise), which I'd never seen before or known existed in the first place. The one that kept me mesmerized was called Machines--it's 7 minutes of a close-up on a mouth wearing red lipstick (ehem...). The mouth is speaking lines from a text, but the sounds and movements of the mouth are disjointed. The words spoken are over-enunciated, and the mouth pauses to pucker, smile, and grimace throughout the speech. The meaning of the words is lost to the image of the mouth speaking them--the physicality of speech is emphasized in a way that causes one to lose track of what is even being spoken. There is a complex multiplicity of focus, with a great deal of repetition and rhythm (fluctuation between things being in- and out- of sync, the same motions or words being pronounced over and over in succession before the sentence moves forward). I watched it loop at least twice, and was completely overwhelmed by feelings of dislocation/ alienation/ the urge to understand, but being unable to do so, and losing track of what I was even trying to understand. I was frustrated and captivated. It seemed to me that there was a duality between the language of hearing and the language of seeing, and they were being held in an amazing tension. When I stopped trying to make sense of the words he was speaking, I focused more on the saturation of the color, his sweat, his blemishes, his teeth. I was constantly deciding where to focus, changing my focus over time, going back and forth, catering to multiple focuses at once. The fact that it was an identifiably male mouth with an identifiably male voice wearing the red lipstick was an extra layer for me. The words of the statement that stood out/ were repeated most were phrases that included "things," "machines," and "she said." The complexity of a male voice giving an account of a female voice, while wearing red lipstick was pretty joyous.
There was a whole other room of videos. One of them was called Tribute to Gloria Vanderbilt--it's only 3 minutes, and it's just Keith dancing in front of the camera and occasionally kissing the lens, with rabid enthusiasm. I loved that he was recording this kind of moment--it was full of joy, and felt welcoming, but also weirdly voyeuristic (to be watching)/ exhibitionistic (of him to have recorded), and confrontational in the way he kisses the lens--it isn't soft, it's pretty violent/ aggressive.
The Brooklyn Museum is also the permanent home of The Dinner Party, so I had the chance to actually confront it in person. For me, the most powerful aspect of the project is the "Herstory Gallery" that accompanies the table. It's a very impressive documentation of the role of women throughout history, incorporating examples of significant female figures. The narrative exists on walls that you can stroll among, reading the accounts. The whole point of The Dinner Party as a project is to "bring women to the table of history," and I think the Gallery is the more impressive mechanism. It's written like a timeline/ text book, with pictures and quotations, and it's clear how much research went into its existence. It successfully incorporates and asserts the importance of figures that have gone ignored within the iteration of history that was constructed to exclude or reduce the incorporation of women. It offers an alternative--a more expansive, inclusive potential model, which is undeniably an important thing.
The problem I have with the piece is the way in which the table reduces women to their vaginas, and the way the entire project uses that reduction to imply an essential "female experience,"complete with an overarching set of "female values" that exist in opposition to the "male values" that rule our society. I'm not arguing that patriarchy is not a very real thing--it absolutely is. A binary concept of gender has been polarizing people into opposing roles based on their anatomy for centuries, and the ideal attributes of one role have certainly been valued over the ideal attributes of the other for just as long. It's annoying and frustrating and it's perpetuated constantly by companies and governments and individuals who are too insecure to entertain the idea that everyone would be a whole lot happier if a set of unattainable expectations weren't imposed upon them at birth. I don't enjoy an approach that further perpetuates the notion of "inherent female values" as opposed to "inherent male values" because I find it counterproductive to the goal of everyone existing as mutually respected individual human beings, with differences and similarities that all serve to make life interesting and educational and surprising. I don't enjoy being told that I am inherently a certain way by virtue of the fact that I was born with a particular sort of genitalia. The experiences I have as a result of society's assumptions/ presumptions/ behaviors regarding my body are very real and certainly affect and shape the way I live my life, but that's a problem, and asserting that yes, women are innately this way and that's why we're better is still a part of that problem. *Deep breath...
I ALSO finally saw Sleep No More. My friend Adrienne has been trying to get me to go since she first saw it when it opened in Brookline, MA, and she obsessively attended multiple times a week until she knew the whole cast. After that, she managed to get a job working behind-the-scenes, and stayed involved after the production moved to NYC. She managed to score tickets for us (herself, me, and our friend Emily who was visiting from San Francisco) while I was in town installing my video at BWAC and oh boy do I regret not seeing it when it was in Brookline! Every single experience of Sleep No More is different. It's an interactive performance that unfolds around you as you navigate through the space. Visitors wear white masks that render you anonymous as you observe/experience the action of the cast members. The plot is based loosely on Macbeth, and the scenes repeat three times during the three hours from when the show begins, which means that you have the opportunity to encounter scenarios and discover rooms you didn't notice during the first hour, or that you might witness things multiple times. I'll describe my experience:
We walked into a dimly lit hotel lobby area and checked our coats, where a woman handed us each a playing card [I kept mine and have it in a little shadowbox frame on my wall]. Then we navigated through a series of dark hallways, led only by the flickering light of candles marking the dead-end walls where we needed to turn. Adrienne made Emily and me go first because we'd both never experienced it before. From there, we spilled into what I can only describe as a David Lynch night club. Or maybe a cheerier manifestation of the hotel bar in The Shining. There was a woman in a shiny green dress with perfectly coiffed hair, crooning into a microphone stand on a small stage. Cocktail waitresses in costume mingled through the smokey air, passing out small glasses of absinth. I felt a little edgy, realizing I might not have adequately prepared myself psychologically for what was about to happen, but I felt relieved to be there with Adrienne, who knew these people out of character. And I felt familiar enough with this kind of vibe anyway. I've always wondered what it would be like to wander around inside a David Lynch movie...
Adrienne told us the basics of what was about to happen: one of the slicked gentlemen would announce that people holding aces [the first wave--we among them] were to board the elevator. There, we'd be given our masks, which were not to be taken off for the rest of the night [very Eyes Wide Shut]. She told us to hang back with her in the elevator so that she could bring us to a solid starting point. From there, she felt we should separate so that we could each follow our own journey. The prospect of this made me nervous, but also excited. At the behest of our accordingly coiffed leader, we were shepherded into the elevator, where we dutifully donned our masks. The conductor said scripted things to us--generally, iterating the mask consistency and no talking rules, but also encouraging us to explore. "Fortune favors the bold," he said as he stopped the elevator on the 6th floor. "Everybody off," he told us, moving aside so that one person could exit. Before anyone else got the chance, he closed the doors again and re-started the elevator [Adrienne told us later that he'd let that person out alone on the asylum floor. Not a place I'd liked to have begun, especially alone. A thrilling notion in its dirty-trick cruelty]. When Adrienne squeezed our hands as a signal to exit with her, she led us to the nearest stairwell. We crossed through a graveyard that I made a mental note never to return to alone [which I did later--it was as terrifying as I'd anticipated], and down into a great hall, where a party seemed to be ensuing. This scene introduced us to the full cast of main characters. I was particularly drawn to one erratic character with dark eyeliner and spiky, tousled hair. He seemed to be able to see us while the others ignored the audience. His dancing was more sexually charged than the others' and he seemed to have a manipulative power over the other characters he danced with, particularly another young gentleman. I should probably admit here that I've never read Macbeth, so I was at a slight disadvantage as far as the plot/ character identification layer goes. My only real option was to respond to the way things were being performed, and connect to the narrative that way. Adrienne and Emily left the hall when the party scene shifted, and most of the cast members scattered. Many people left at this time, following particular characters to new locations, but I decided to stay because the eyeliner-wearing fellow was still there, along with one of the female cast members. The lighting in the room changed from bright warm yellow tones to mysterious blue/purple. Their dancing became interpretive and intense. The woman removed what turned out to be a wig, revealing her completely bald head. Her shoulders and neck were mesmerizing. I decided to try to follow her for the rest of the night.
When she exited the room, I and the remaining horde of masked visitors followed her up a winding staircase and down a hallway toward a doorway, where we were ushered into a room. Her eyeliner friend was there, along with another woman. All three of them had that same kind of restless, knowing energy about them. Once everyone was inside, they gathered around a table and we gathered around them. I was struck by how incredibly creepy it was to see more than 50 masked faces crowded together, all watching the behavior of these three people, close enough to touch them. To be one of them was bizarre. It felt very voyeuristic, but there was also an eerie sense of belonging about it, and a freedom to the anonymity [My photography professor liked to drive home this quote about how photography gives us permission to stare. Well, masks do that as well]. What ensued inside that room was what I later described to Emily and Adrienne as "a bloody disco orgy." They both knew what I meant--Adrienne because she'd seen Sleep No More hundreds of times, and Emily because she'd managed to encounter that scene too, in its third incarnation, toward the end of her experience. "Oh good! I was hoping you'd both get to see that scene! It's one of the most important ones," Adrienne gushed. "I saw it within the first 15 minutes," I asserted with a deadpan emphasis on how intense a formative experience that had been.
From there, it's mostly a blur. I lost track of the woman I'd been determined to follow and wandered through various rooms. I found myself in a hotel suite where there was a pregnant woman agonizing and dancing on top of high bureaus with her husband. I entered the master suite and saw the Macbeths quarrel, and found myself back there to see Macbeth return, bloody--Lady Macbeth drew him a bath in the claw foot tub on a platform in the center of the room. I saw her bathe later, on the asylum floor, which was how I knew she was Lady Macbeth. There was a banquet scene back in the great hall, which became a forest of evergreens afterward. I saw a man carrying a door, and was briefly convinced that this was some kind of Hogwarts situation where the staircases moved. Time and space were bizarre, ethereal entities that I lost track of. I felt disoriented in my wandering, but felt comfortable in that sense of dislocation--like that was the point somehow. I got lost and kept coming upon the same people and places. It was extremely surreal. I managed to see several in-between sorts of moments, when the performers were setting up for the next scene (they did so in character, making each action part of the performance). It was strange, but I felt gratified that I was having a meta experience of the production itself, which I appreciated because I found the entire dynamic so fascinating--the requisite trust between the performers and the audience to be coexisting and navigating together; the cyclical nature of everything; the extreme intimacy but simultaneous anonymity/otherness. There were the black-masked attendants strategically scattered to maintain some security for the performers/ offer assistance to the visitors when necessary, but other than that fact, it felt very...nebulous. It was like having gone down the rabbit hole and entered a world that included everything decadent, lavish, covetous, alongside everything ominous, treacherous and terrifying. Which is a captivating tension. I felt completely ambivalent the entire time. Ambivalence is sort of my natural state, but this was a much more intense brand, and it felt right in its ambiguity--appropriate, encouraged even. It was a place that nurtured confusion and reveled in it, and I felt comfortable in a reality whose only concrete truth was the power of mystique.
I had expressed a fear to Adrienne before we went in about getting lost. "How will I know when it's over? How will I find my way out again?" "Oh, you'll know. And it's not like you're going to stumble into a janitor's closet or something," she had laughed. I proved her wrong at one point by pushing open an industrial-looking door behind a curtain, which turned out to be concealing a florescent-lit storage closet. We laughed about that later. "Oh god, you're such an artist! You would reveal the storage closet!" It was around that point that I started to become frustrated, knowing that there were many more floors that I couldn't seem to access, feeling trapped in a spatial loop. I wandered down a hall and walked into another room that felt like I shouldn't have found--it was completely empty and the walls, table, ceiling and floor were painted black. That was when I noticed a black-masked attendant and silently indicated that I needed help. She kindly directed me through a curtain that magically led back into the Lynchian lounge from the beginning. I felt relieved and thirsty and immediately went to the bathroom to splash water on my face and stare at my reflection in the mirror for several minutes. It was nice to be grounded in a place. I'd left my phone in my purse, so I had no idea how long I'd been inside. I asked someone for the time and figured out that I still had 40 minutes to wait until Emily and Adrienne and everyone else came back out. I considered going back in, but decided against it, feeling mentally and physically exhausted enough to just revel in the air conditioning with my glass of water, watching other wayward people slowly trickle out.
It was excellent to hear Emily and Adrienne's accounts of their respective experiences once they were out. They were so completely different from mine! Emily had had a "one-on-one," a hallowed occurrence in which a cast member chooses you and whisks you off to a secluded location. Hers involved entering a wardrobe, where the woman told her a creepy poem about being trapped, and then left her locked inside the wardrobe, unable to go out the way she'd come. She had to discover a secret passage that led her out in a different direction. They were both surprised that they'd never seen me--they'd run into each other a couple times. I told them about my bizarre in-between/ meta experience and neither were surprised, as this seems to be my way. They described places and scenes I hadn't seen, and scenes I'd seen being prepared. It was fun to piece together the plot and the layout of the place based on our subjective journeys, and it was great to hear Adrienne's behind-the-scenes anecdotes and tidbits--she was so thrilled to finally be able to share it with us (I mean, she had been since it opened in Brookline, but it finally meant something to us!).
A singularly unique experience that I'll probably be processing for the rest of my life