back to the past, into the future

karen therese: ps122’s the retrofuturespective festival

PS122, New York

PS122, New York

DURING THE SPRING IN NEW YORK I WORKED IN THE PROGRAMMING OFFICE AT PERFORMANCE SPACE 122 (PS122). IT WAS A SIGNIFICANT AND HISTORICAL TIME FOR THE DOWNTOWN PERFORMANCE INSTITUTION AS IT WAS CELEBRATING ITS 30-YEAR HISTORY AND PREPARING TO CLOSE ITS CURRENT HOME FOR RENOVATIONS TO GO OFF SITE FOR THREE YEARS, FOLLOWING A MAJOR INFRASTRUCTURE GRANT FROM THE CITY OF NEW YORK.

PS122’s venue was once an old primary school in Manhattan’s East village. In the late 70s a community of artists started to inhabit the building and through the next three decades it quickly developed into the hub of the avant-garde downtown arts scene.

To say goodbye to the old building PS122’s artistic director, the Australian Vallejo Gantner, presented The RetroFutureSpective Festival, a two-week farewell party to celebrate the building’s considerable history, the community that shaped it and to introduce the radical shift into a new future for the performance art institution.

The RetroFutureSpective Festival was an exhaustive two week event. It included an All Day Dance Class—informal workshops with influential choreographers—followed by a night-time screening of the Alan Parker movie Fame which was shot on location at PS122 in the 80s. ECHO: 30 Years of PS122 was a three-channel video installation of archival footage by Charles Dennis; Avant-Garde-Arama Wrecking Ball, a two-night showcase of queer performance; while the culmination of the festival was The Old School 122 Benefit, a four-night mini-festival within the festival. The luminaries of the downtown performance scene from past and present were invited to perform back to back in this four-night marathon of short works—artists such as Penny Arcade, John Zorn, The Wooster Group, Eric Bogosian, Sonic Youth front man Thurston Moore, The Elevator Repair Service, all coming to pay their respects to the space that helped form their early careers.

The building was wrapped in nostalgia; the downstairs theatre was converted into a lounge hosted by Lori E Seid, a respected production manager. In one of our encounters she told me she was “the Dyke” in Penny Arcade’s seminal work, Bitch, Dyke, Fag Hag, Whore, which premiered at PS122 in 1990 (and toured to Australia). During the festival, artists such as Amanda Palmer popped in to sing some pre-show tunes at Lori’s Lounge.

A highlight of the festival was Charles Dennis’ ECHO. The artist edited 30 years of PS122 archival footage into a one hour 20-minute, three-channel video installation. Sitting through over an hour of performance footage from three decades of live works might sound like a serious chore for some, particularly when live works rarely translate well into film. However, Dennis’ ECHO is a remarkable installation that transforms the potential of the performance archive, creating a stand-alone work that was mesmerising to experience. This was partly due to the overwhelming collection of artists represented, but mostly to Dennis’ virtuosic editing and composition with each of the large screens simultaneously showing different footage. On one screen, an excerpt of experimental musician John Zorn improvising on violin becomes a soundscape for Spalding Gray’s monologue on the centre screen, while on the third, choreographer Sarah Michelson’s dancers appear to be moving to the erratic soundscapes created by Zorn and Gray. In another moment, retro footage of The Blue Man Group emerges, while images of Gray dissolve into the raps and melodic raves of Reggie Watts. ECHO holds these artists and their histories in the same time and space, in a wonderful evocation of the vision underpinning Gantner’s festival.

The art collective Praxis (Delia and Brainard Carey) presented a work from their conceptual museum MONA, The Museum of Non-visible Art. Praxis states that the museum “reminds us that we live in two worlds: the physical world of sight and the non-visible world of thought composed entirely of ideas; the Non-Visible Museum redefines the concept of what is real.” Each work sold from the museum has this disclaimer, “You are not buying a visible piece of art; you are buying the title and description card for the imagined artwork.”

At MONA artists are invited to collaborate and create conceptual works that exist in the imagination alone. Most famously NYC’s uber-man James Franco’s MONA contribution was recently purchased for $10,000 on the funding platform Kickstarter. For this festival, Praxis created a ghost tour, presented in a disused back room. Five audience members at a time would be guided through the imagined museum while Praxis described the imagined and real ghosts of PS122—such as Ethyl Eichelberger, Andy Warhol, Jack Smith, Spalding Gray and Charles Ludlum. Audience members could also purchase the works or ‘ghosts.’ The concept of MONA at this point is still developing: during the Ghost Tours Praxis struggled to bring their concept into the realm of live performance, falling short of engaging the audience in their imagined histories. However Praxis are only at the beginning of developing the infinite concept of MONA and I look forward to the future construction of their Museum of Non-visible Art.

Pullman WA, Young Jean Lee Company

Pullman WA, Young Jean Lee Company

Pullman WA, Young Jean Lee Company

Young Jean Lee Theatre Company is a stand out presence on the NYC performance scene. The artistic director of the company, Korean-born Young Jean Lee, was recently named by American Theatre magazine as one of the 25 artists who will shape American theatre over the next 25 years. As part of Retro, Lee presented an excerpt from her work Pullman, WA that premiered at PS122 in 2005. The title of the work refers to the town where Lee grew up, but instead of watching a linear presentation of personal anecdotes we experience a non-linear series of provocations about the confusions of day-to-day living. On a bare stage a man stands facing the audience, the house lights are up. He tells us that “he knows how to live” and proceeds with a subversive and provocative monologue that challenges our sense of self. The starkness and explicitly truthful nature of the text and presentation was completely original to me, and Pullman, WA provided me with one of those rare moments in the theatre where I felt somehow changed.

The final night became a four-hour epic, the house packed beyond capacity. The Wooster Group provided the last official work on the program, presenting the infamous Hula performed by a near naked Kate Valk. But the real finale was reserved for Phillip Glass who played a rendition of his work Closing.

The PS122 building is a space that many artists call home (I could not help but reflect on the old Performance Space venue on Cleveland Street in Sydney).The RetroFutureSpective Festival was overwhelming, heavily weighted with 20th century nostalgia that focused on honoring the incredible community and works that developed throughout the heyday of the formation of New York City’s avant garde.

As PS122 vacates, Gantner will be maintaining a balancing act over the next three to five years creating a program that exists across sites and venues throughout the city, with a vision of creating an engaged online social environment for PS122. The new development parallels the urban and social transformation of Manhattan, with the renovations being a positive and necessary step for the much loved but well-worn performance establishment. The next three years will be a challenge, an opportunity for Gantner and his strong team to create the future history of performance across New York City.

PS122, The RetroFutureSpective Festival, New York, June 11-25

See an excerpt of Charles Dennis 79 minute video work revisiting 30 years of archival performance footage from PS122
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=daQAcuaOIFI

RealTime issue #106 Dec-Jan 2011 pg. 34

© Karen Therese; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

13 December 2011