"I think we've lost the ability to just be human with each other...and we've lost a way of even talking about what's going on in our country that needs fixing as a collective body. And so that's part of the reason why I think this kind of work is still important." — Leigh Fondakowski
For twelve years, Performance Space 122’s COIL festival has acted as an amplifier for experimental and contemporary artists from around the world. This year’s festival marks the end for Vallejo Gantner as artistic director of PS122. I had an opportunity to explore some shows and speak with Vallejo and artists Yehuda Duenyas and Kate McIntosh about this year’s festival.
Glowing disembodied hands float in front of me. Stardust magically trails as they fly through the air. Suddenly, a giant red curtain parts the proscenium and reveals a sea of silhouettes all cheering for me. As I bow and gesture, the glowing hands mimic my moves. The audience heaps more adulation. The curtain closes, and I feel a hand on my shoulder.
The moment I removed the HTC Vive headset, Sam, my handler, asked me how it was.
“It was fun to be silly for five minutes,” I replied.
“CVRTAIN” is the brainchild of Yehuda Duenyas. It’s a virtual reality (VR) experience that puts you on a giant stage at the end of what feels like a magnificent performance. You can be whomever you dream. Ballerina. Broadway star. Maestro. The Vive controllers capture the gestures and trigger cheers, applause, and if you happen to show your bum to the audience, boos.
“When the curtains part,” Yehuda said, “and there’s a silent audience looking at you, it’s kind of freaky, especially if you’re not use to being on stage.”
Perhaps it’s because I’ve performed before or maybe the experience felt more like a game than a real audience shouting, but I was uninhibited. I pirouetted, and the crowd went wild. If you’re cool to briefly make a fool out of yourself, you’ll receive some audience love.
“The nugget for me is really trying to explore this feeling of love,” Yehuda said. “Can we transmit a feeling of love and adoration in a virtual environment? Also to deliver and experience that not a lot of people have had, which is to be standing alone onstage in a huge theater with many hundreds of people cheering for you.”
Back in the day, Yehuda worked as a fire-proofer for Radio City Music Hall once a year. They would work from midnight to four in the morning. Once, when he was on a break, Yehuda found himself having a singular experience alone on the colossal stage. With “CVRTAIN,” Yehuda hopes to replicate that kind of moment.
“CVRTAIN” isn’t just a VR experience. To theatricalize the installation, each participant “performs” on one of three small stages at 151 Gallery in Chelsea.
The Doris Duke Foundation supported “CVRTAIN,” which is the first of three PS122 virtual projects attempting to break down what it means to have projects that are live experiences but delivered electronically. Vallejo Gantner believes this probing is healthy for live performance.
“We conceive of theater as being something where we all have to be in a room together. What if that’s not the case?” said Vallejo. “Or do we end up thinking, okay, that is the case? There are lots of facile changes you can make to format, but if you really think about theater not as being a set of objects or text on the stage, but as an experience for an audience. How do we find ways of exploring the notions of that experience as a live thing? As that being a live act being the experience. How do find way of exploring that that will create a sense of theater? And ‘CVRTAIN’ is a beautiful beginning for that.“
I had one of those days where you just want to break shit. And I knew I was headed to just the right place: Kate McIntosh’s “Worktable” is a simple concept: pick up an object, break it, find another already broken object (from a previous participant), and put it back together again using sundry craft items like colored pipe cleaners, packing tape, or Elmer’s Glue.
As I arrived, some items on the shelf included:
Hawker Kodak Instamatic
Fantastic Four #324 (March 1989, Marvel)
Two antique tennis rackets
Two teddy bears
Magenta Everlast boxing glove
Round wire-rimmed spectacles
Golden Harvest Full Flavor Filtered Cigars
Antique Weight Watchers food scale
Blue velvet high heel shoe
I chose an Art Deco antique toaster from the 1930’s. I wanted to destroy it. I headed into the Room #1 and before me was my “Worktable” filled with hammers, pliers, wrenches, and safety gear, including goggles, gloves, and ear muffs.
I selected a wooden mallet and killed my toaster.
Following a fury of destruction, I took my bits and pieces into Room #2. There, I was instructed to place my handy work on a long table with other shattered objects and pick one up. There, in front of me, was a disassembled educational globe.
The world feels broken right now, and all I want to do is put it together again. So I walked my smashed world to a new worktable, literally rolled up my sleeves, picked up some packing tape, and cobbled the globe back together. Only I reassembled it upside down. And I fashioned the equator into a bow and popped it on top. Somehow, things seems a little more right this way. Back together, but not perfect.
The real beauty came when I entered the third room. A gallery of all the work of previous artists—because all the participants were now artists—greeted me with joy. I won’t go into what I saw. Use your imagination. The artists—both audience and Kate McIntosh—definitely did.
Kate, who normally makes theater performances for audiences, says she wanted to create a piece with no performer, no spectator, and no witness. She wanted the audience to be in action, rather than watching or being watched. She was in New Zealand in 2011, when she was imagining “Worktable,” and an earthquake hit Christchurch. She explains how her home city of Wellington is in constant anticipation of a massive earthquake. After the Christchurch quake, everyone was walking around imagining how buildings would fall, where they would seek shelter.
“So it’s this constant image of a city actually coming apart around you,” said Kate. “This is frightening, but it’s also very, somehow, liberating and quite exciting, actually. This feeling that everything that seems unchangeable that, somehow, you’re ineffective to shift it or move it or change it, that it can very instantly and naturally be atomized and shifted. So this is one thing, and then there’s this next image, which is the figure that walks into the broken city and picks up a bit of odd brick goes, ‘What do I do with this now? How do we start to rebuild? How do we think about a shattered situation?'”
Kate calls “Worktable” a “miniature play through” of the ideas she had in New Zealand. Participants act them out on domestic objects that have history and meaning. She also believes there is a reflection process that occurs when in action, which she wanted to offer.
“I was curious around this theme of violence, and I don’t know really effective ways to represent that or fake it. I was also interested in what does it mean to destroy something or to take apart meaning and take apart usage? And to waste things? These are all things that we are actively doing, I think, every day, but to really frame it in a tight way that one could reflect about it while you do it. And the only way I could think of to make those things vibrant was to put it into the hands of people and let them do it themselves.”
The idea of autonomy and working in real-time was important to Kate. Sometimes participants spend 10 minutes at the “Worktable” and others spend up to five hours on an object.
“I did it first with my son in Italy some years ago,” said Vallejo of “Worktable.” “It gives you this relationship of creativity around the object and you destroy it. And suddenly, it’s kind of emotional. It’s quite beautiful.”
PARTNERS IN EXILE
For the past five years, PS122 has been in exile from their schoolhouse home in the East Village during a gut renovation. During that time, Vallejo shifted focus to global presentations. When COIL mounts every year in New York City, it utilizes several satellite collaborators, like the Invisible Dog Art Center, where “Worktable” resides.
Last year, PS122 presented Yara Travieso’s “La Medea” as part of its RAMP residency. But before that, “La Medea” had a BRIClab development residency at BRIC House. When it came time to present Travieso’s re-imagining of “Euripides violent tragedy into a dance-theater performance and feature film á la Latin-disco-pop variety show,” it made sense to bring the full production back to BRIC House.
“The piece is this monumentally ambitious work,” Vallejo said. “With a live band. Three pro TV cameras shooting live. She’s live editing that into a film that’s being streamed into other locations. People watching that live stream can change the narrative and change the outcome and interact with the piece in certain ways. The set is enormous. It’s bilingual. There’s a social media interactivity. It’s everywhere. You’re going to want to have about 17 espressos before you walk in because of the hyperkinetic physicality and pace.”
Sounds like I don’t need any caffeine to stay awake for this multimedia extravaganza when it opens on January 20 and wraps up COIL, which serves as a swan song for Vallejo Gantner.
Last May, Vallejo announced he would step down from his artistic director post, and just this week, PS122 announced Jenny Schlenzka will take over its leadership. As for Vallejo, he’s certainly made his mark on the performance world, both in New York City and abroad.
“I’m really proud of the festival in general. This is something that’s in its twelfth edition, and it started out as a little dance showcase program that we set up, not on a whim, but with nothing and no time and no idea what we were making. And suddenly it got all this attention and grew. That whole period in January has evolved into such beast. Such an exciting beast. Between Realness and Prototype and Under the Radar and COIL, it’s now like this incredibly comprehensive survey of what the hell is going on in contemporary theater and contemporary dance. And particularly a kind of survey of what’s going on in the U.S. It’s really exciting. It’s become the biggest gathering point for professionals worldwide in the year anywhere. So I’m really proud of being a part of building that. It’s significant, and I’m happy that we had a voice there and a place a the table.”