Glowlab Winter Rendezvous wrap-up
Over coffee one November afternoon, I was discussing the plans for a Glowlab holiday party with Brooklyn artist Sharilyn Neidhardt. The bar where I wanted to host the party is tucked away in an inconspicuous and sign-less location several blocks from the Bedford L train. To help our friends find the place [not that our fellow psychogeographers need navigational help] and to make the journey there interesting, I was thinking about a guided walk, and had the idea of undercover agents in mind. I invited Sharilyn to organize a performance around this theme, and she was game. Sharilyn has previously collaborated with Glowlab on a number of projects, including the highly-successful human-scale chess project she developed for the first Psy.Geo.Conflux in 2003.
For the Winter Rendezvous, I posted an invitation on the Glowlab site with directions to the first meeting point. Sharilyn took it from there, stationing several "secret agents" at various locations along the route to the bar; she had party-goers trade maps and photos as they identified the agents and received further instructions. Those who made it to the bar [everyone, as far as we know] came in from the [very] cold and warmed up to the holiday spirit with tasty beverages and good conversation until late into the night...
In the following interview, party-attendee and Glowlab Editor-at-Large J. Gabriel Lloyd discusses the Glowlab Winter Rendezvous "secret agent" performance with Sharilyn.
-- Christina Ray
JGL: What was your original intent for the piece? Was it a performance by you? Was it an event for us? Were you a facilitator of an event or something else for us?
SN: The Secret Agent Game was somewhere between the realm of performance and event staging. As the lead secret agent, I definitely looked at my role as a performance. I dressed in a fedora and trench coat and stood in the subway station, looking secretive. Few people had trouble identifying me. I was performing as my alter ego, Special Agent Johnnie Utah. But as the designer of the game, it was my intention to facilitate a certain type of experience for the participants.
As psychogeographers, I feel we are opening a space, usually in public or semi-public spaces, for a certain kind of experience. Participants are invited into that experience, but they have to bring their own energy to the performance, too. We are building a temporary theater with our actions, and inviting whomever is so moved to act upon that stage. Not everyone takes the bait, and some people even resent that the art is not being performed for them as passive consumers. I find all those reactions interesting in themselves.
In designing the game, I was attempting to recreate a certain kind of experience that sprang up around rave culture in Los Angeles and other North American cities in the early nineties. Most parties were technically illegal, held in abandoned spaces and usually fueled and financed by illicit substances. Partygoers were often forced to follow a series of arcane instructions, involving voicemail messages, beepers, and convenience stores in order to get directions to the party. This experience was described and parodied in the movie 'go'.
I thought that if people had to work a little to find our party, then the party would seem even more exclusive and special. We weren't strict about it, but partygoers needed access to exclusive information in order to even find the place. Perhaps it backfired by raising expectations too high. We were playing to a certain attitude I perceive in New York hipsters, that 'hidden' and 'exclusive' are desirable commodities in themselves.
I once spoke to a woman trying to write the section of a tourist guide that dealt with Williamsburg. She said she was having a difficult time collecting information, because Williamsburghers didn't want to help her. They didn't want their favorite watering holes turning up in a tourist guide and becoming overrun with bridge-and-tunnel interlopers. In a city like New York where private space is at a premium, a lot of time is spent in semi-public space like bars, coffee shops, and restaurants. Knowing a good place to hang out can be as important as having a decent place to live.
JGL: The pictures. Some were given by us and others were taken by you, or the agents. What happened with these? Are they currently being used for something in your work, or will they resurface for us in another way? Speaking of resurfacing pictures, the pictures from the final party were posted on Glowlab, but do they have a significance in terms of order or arrangement?
SN: I decided to collect snapshots from people at the first stop on the route to the party. We wanted people to have to trade something for the first instruction. Originally, we also planned for each secret agent to require something from the participants (for example: having to answer a question or perform a short stunt).
The pictures I collected were incredible. Some people made small napkin-back drawings to present to me, other people donated snapshots or tore photos from magazines and newspapers. I was encouraged and excited by the effort people put into the images they gave to me. I received an amazing number and array of donations. The things I collected will emerge later on Glowlab as a collaborative piece between the party guests and myself.
Stacie and Chris were the final secret agents, stationed at the bar. They took pictures of each person who approached them as part of the Secret Agent Game. Stacie and Christina curated these photos and posted them to Glowlab. I found these photos very charming, revealing various levels of exasperation, relief, disgust, and delight.
Documentation has always been a very important component of the projects Glowlab stages. By collecting photos and snapshots from the partygoers, we were inviting everyone to contribute to the documentation process.
JGL: Getting there. There were steps, pictures, hunts and new places found by the participants. We were forced to ask agents about their identity so that we could move on to the next step. How did you feel about this process?
SN: Each agent was encouraged to perform as an alter ego and to require some bit of information from participants before they could move on to the next step of the game. It seemed that as the hour went on, people lost their enthusiasm for maintaining the facade. This was the first attempt at a game like this, and I've been speaking to the actors and participants to find out ways to refine the experience in the future.
JGL: The event. The bar. Why here? Why like this? Did you think about having it at an apartment?
SN: Selecting 'Larry Lawrence' for the Glowlab party came before anything else. Glowlab founder Christina Ray has developed a relationship with the owners of the bar and really wanted to see a Glowlab event happen there. My only objection was that it has a very low profile on the street, and I was worried that people would have trouble locating it, especially if unfamiliar with the neighborhood. I designed the Secret Agent Game as a way of assisting people trying to find the party. We also wanted to inject an actual psychogeographic event into the rendezvous.
Very few of us have access to enough private space in New York City to host 60 people. I don't think holding the party at a private apartment would have been feasible. In any case, it likely would have strained the resources of Glowlab, which is an all-volunteer organization. Throwing the party at the bar was more economical and easier to stage. Additionally, this bar is new and often stands quite empty on weeknights. The owners of 'Larry Lawrence' were overjoyed to host us, and we felt good about lending our support to a neighborhood establishment.
It was definitely not a regular night out for me. I met tons of other psychogeographers and conceptual artists, chatted with performance artist Chengwin, and got drawn into a complex discussion about the efficacy of method acting in a postmodern artistic environment. The goal of the Glowlab rendezvous was to introduce far-flung participants in various Glowlab and other psychogeographic projects to one another. I feel the party was very successful in that goal.
JGL: I recently read a quote by artist David Hammons where he said, "The art audience is the worst audience in the world. It's overly educated, it's conservative, it's out to criticize not to understand, and it never has any fun. Why should I spend my time playing to that audience?" Is this event about leaving the formalities of the art scene behind and getting us to engage in having some fun? If that is the case, then why have the formalities of organizing and having agents and photos mixed in the process?
SN: I think that many of Glowlab's projects push the boundaries of art and the art world. Psychogeographic practices in my own work have pushed me to think less about creating objects to hang on white walls and more about carving out specific experiences from the environment. It's a relatively new way to think about art and art-making, and I don't think it has the same formal concerns as a more established practice like sculpture or painting. Without those established structures, it can be difficult to judge the success or failure of psychogeographic experiences.
I don't feel confined by the art world or the expectations of the 'art audience'. I do what I think will be fun, interesting, new. The art scene, especially here in Williamsburg, is pretty open and flexible (or some might say 'fickle'). The people who 'get' what we do, get it. The people who don't, I don't worry too much about. The Secret Agent Game was not about making a point or about demonstrating some essential truth -- we just thought it would be fun to do.
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