‘An experimental moment’: performance as music, film, poetry, and pickle-lighting at the Whitney

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I.U.D. performs at the Whitney Museum. (@WhitneyMuseum)
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Not much disqualifies something from being performance art, once someone chooses to call it that.

Cheesecake Emergency, an evening of performances at the Whitney Museum on Friday, co-curated by recently appointed curator of performing arts Jay Sanders and artist Wade Guyton, felt a lot like a party, even if it was laced with some creative sideshows billed as artworks.

By 6 p.m., the line to get into the show snaked across the small entryway bridge in front of the Whitney, down the block, and around the corner at 75th street. A series of heavy, discordant tones echoed from sound check downstairs, shaking the air like those T. rexes from Jurassic Park, while a mostly young crowd waited at the top of the stairs to be let down.

Downstairs, Sanders was darting between two computer stations, jerry-rigged as technical support for the forthcoming line-up, split between two stages, one in the center of the downstairs space and another off to the side, alternating acts. As people waited for the show to begin, most made a detour to the restaurant, Untitled, to grab a drink before settling in.

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Finally, preparations complete, Sanders ran over to the smaller stage where artists David Mramor and Adriane Schramm sat, peacefully, dressed in bright, floral frocks and long headdresses. A bouquet of white carnations rested on each of their laps.

“OK,” Sanders said, “you can start now!”

Mramor and Schramm’s collaborator, Kundalini yoga instructor Amanbir Singh, lifted a gold cloak to reveal a large gong. And then, the chanting started. Suddenly, a small group surrounding the stage clasped their hands in meditation and joined in. Facing the gong, Amanbir periodically tapped it with his mallet while Mramor and Schramm weaved through the audience, handing out the carnations, each symbolizing a personal blessing, Mramor later told me.

“[Kundalini] connects to so many different things like Sikhism, and it’s just so beautiful, the clothing and everything and like the gong, it’s like the mother,” Mramor said after his performance, explaining why he’d incorporated his yoga practice into the show. “Wade [Guyton] always hears me talk about the gong. I’m obsessed with it, so when we talked about this [show] and what I was going to do he suggested this.”

The next few performances were a bit of a blur, either incredibly short or incredibly subtle, which meant coming across like background noise amid the din of the crowd. These mini-events were performed in quick succession—Lisa Jo and Amy Yao's trailer for their upcoming film Sorry, Can't Talk, I'm at Work; James Campbell’s drum performance; and later, Israel Lund's 10-second film featuring truncated scenes from Caddyshack—all bridged with interludes from the D.J.

At one point, in a strikingly good imitation of Ben Stein, actor Elliot Brown read some comedic poetry composed by Zach Steinman and Ben Tear. There was a lot of talking as he did so.

“Some people listened,” he said to me later. “It’s a tough crowd. Poetry is tough.”

Right after Brown finished, and without warning, the crowd shifted, moving to the front window to watch sculptor Virginia Overton use a car battery to illuminate a pickle in the outdoor space.

Then everyone shifted back. I.U.D., a band featuring Lizzie Bougatsos of Gang Gang Dance and Sadie Laska from Growing, gave a woozy, cacophonous rendition of Jamaican reggae artist Mad Cobra’s famous tune, “Flex (Time to Have Sex!),” which was only slightly reminiscent in melody to the original (and in honor of which Bougatsos wore a belt with the Jamaican flag on it.)

“Do you have a program? Do you know who that was?” performance artist Amelia Saul, 30, asked me after I.U.D. finished up. I told her the name. “It was excellent. You know the band OOIOO? They’re the girl part of the Boredoms, which is this Japanese noise band, and they’re like sort of related to this. It reminded me of being a teenager … like yeah, fuck you, I don’t know who you are.”

“I came tonight because I’m a performer,” Saul continued. “I’m an artist/performer. I’m trying not to say performance art. It’s such a bad word. Performance art is so…” She paused to find the right words to describe it. “People have such a clear idea of what they’re going to see. It’s like flailing stuff, and it doesn’t have anything to do with skill, necessarily. It’s this monkey in the art world these days. I came downstairs and I was like ‘that is the first thing I hate about performance art; everyone goes and is around it but nobody looks at it.’” Saul was partially right, though there were certainly a decent number of people paying attention while most mingled.

You could have been paying attention and still missed Sam Pulitzer. The frontman for the next act, P2PBSH “the gush” W! H! L! C!, Pulitzer spent the entire set crounched next to a large shrub while his collaborator and fellow artist Mathieu Malouf played the guitar and provided back-up vocals.

The three-hour event, encompassing video, music, poetry, and pickle-lighting, was an exercise of well-planned randomness.

“We sort of gave [the artists] an open invitation to try something new,” Sanders told me at the end of the evening, standing still for the first time all night and seeming relaxed after so much activity. “It’s like a group of people who know each other, so the thread was social. It’s the first thing I’ve got to organize here and I think we’re going to try a lot of different things. I want the performances to be different so we get a broad sense of what we can do. It’s really an experimental moment.”

All photos by Melissa Smith except bottom photo, courtesy Whitney Museum.