There was a drone. It floated over the stage. It advanced on the audience. It photographed us, then made us take out our phones and video-record our faces. We watched ourselves watch the drone watch us.
The artist-driven performance series Special Effects, part of a flurry of cutting-edge downtown experimental theater festivals taking place in NYC this month, ran this past week at The Wild Project in the East Village. I ventured out for Gray Spaces, an evening of five short pieces curated by writer/performer Eli Steffen (who I recently enjoyed in the A.O. Movement Collective’s Etle and the Anders).
I apologize in advance for my limited artistic vocabulary, but consider me your man-off-the-street, representing for the not-quite-lowest-common-denominator hungry for something besides food, film or flirting on a Friday.
Gray Spaces explored the in-between and its potential for connection. Eli writes in the publicity blurb that to seek connection is to look to the future, to the “not-yet-conscious,” where “what we will be diverges from what we are or can be in the present.”
They had me at “gray.” I’ll admit to scattered waves of incomprehension, but I could have easily watched (sorry, participated in) another hour or more of the wide-ranging mediums and performance styles, the sum of which was wonderfully complex and original.
The piece I describe in my opening was Happy to See You, by Cara Francis. We the audience played a vital role as both subject and spectator, with the piece highlighting the seductive anxiety of overexposure. The remote-controlled drone was hella entertaining. It hovered over and around audience volunteers, its booming and authoritative voice grilling them with rapid-fire multiple-choice questions (suggesting a limit on acceptable answers). Willing volunteers were goaded with free Ray-Bans, but of course, that was a lie.
General Dynamics was a solo piece presented by the thoroughly watchable Zavé Martohardjono, who welcomed us to 2016, where our world is “digitally generated, politically extremist, resource-depleted, selfie-obsessed and twerk-a-licious.” Zavé appeared in a gold-fringe mask and hot pants to lead us in a peppy call-and-response over things we’re tired of: the rent, crazy white terrorists, gentrification, subway ads, YEAH! Their winning countenance faded, though, and they flowed over the floor, seeming to attempt, repeatedly, a hands-free shoulder stand. Getting upside down without support? “General Dynamics” was developed in residency at Chez Bushwick with Mieke D, Liz McAuliffe, and Chloé Rossetti, any of whom are wholeheartedly welcome to let me know exactly how I totally missed the point. Truth: I loved the piece and Zavé.
Land Project, performed by Lisa Parra and Daniel Pinheiro, gave us some video-mirroring between Lisa in the lobby and Daniel on a live feed from an undisclosed location, presumably backstage. Physical movement was benign, but there was an eerie ISIS quality to Daniel’s placeless dark room. The physical became vocal as characters spoke in different languages, struggling to communicate and comprehend. “Are you here now? Where is here?”
Panoply Performance Laboratory (PPL) offered Embarrassed of the Whole #15, a bodily process interpreted from responses to an online survey. The PPL trio explored the stage and audience risers in toothy hoods and long, apothecary aprons, chanting, monk-like, high and low, and passing out paper squares of multiple-choice questions, answered with fingerprints. “There is no such state as total liberation,” they chanted as answers were tallied. There was a countdown to their mandate, which they enacted literally: “Apply your strength in a futile manner.” Bodies hurled against walls, but no walls moved.
Finally, in The Wedding, Eric F. Avery experimented with ceremony and ritual around a sought-after future. The audience was enrolled to cartoonishly populate a wedding that never happens. Instead of a destination, only an in-between is reached, the gray space between gain and loss, him and me. Finally blindfolded, Eric is spontaneously assisted by seated spectators as he backs up the audience risers. Reaching the back row, he remembers “love,” “connection” and “trust.” But on the word “future”, the room goes black.
Special Effects was a project of the Contemporary Performance Network, and drew on a network of over 68,000 artists, each curated work representing the diversity and richness of the discipline of performance and serving as an open forum for critical thinking on the issues of the day.
Check out more stuff at The Wild Project, which is a beautiful space. Where will the drone perform next? I wish I knew…