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2003.08.05

We’re No Angels

By Felix Q. Varga

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Deborah Warner’s Angel Project – a heady mixture of theater, installation and performance running for a few weeks as part of the Lincoln Center Festival – offered participants, for a mere $90, the psychogeographic excursion of a lifetime: beginning at Roosevelt Island, you travel into the city with directions to various addresses around Times Square, interacting with a series of installations.

Yep, that's right. Times Square: a throbbing bad-trip migraine of noise-crowd-smog-neon and BUYBUYBUYBUYBUY...five minutes and already eyes glazing over...fifteen minutes and I’m convinced that the gateway to Hell is not, as originally suspected, located along a lonely stretch of highway somewhere in Ohio, but just beyond the Sony Jumbotron evil-clown-grinning down at yours truly.

And yet, the cheery push-shove of Times Square is exactly what made it a perfect substrate against (also behind, above, underneath, and inside of) which to find a lonesome angel or two.

But alas! Neither FQV nor the Man of the Crowd (my itinerant companion) could scrounge together (despite attacking sofa cushions with zeal) the required funds. Art with a capital A, it appears, is for the privileged (or at least gainfully employed) few. FQV has no qualms about admitting it: he’s an unrepentant leech. So when MOTC scored an Angel Project guidebook on the down low, we set off on our officially unsanctioned journey. Though FQV has a low tolerance for the pretensions of High Art, he loved Wings of Desire, Wim Wenders’ lyrical and melancholy meditation on the angel as detached, trenchcoated observer; The Angel Project takes this idea and literally runs with it. Besides which, it just sounded fun.

Entering hidden spaces, wandering in and out of hushed chambers encountering surprise after surprise – a room of brilliantly colored live finches, a floor inches-deep in salt and the footprints of Those Who Have Gone Before, a row of lockers containing myriad objects (child’s ID bracelet, postcard, dance program), spaces on the verge of collapse, hovering between here and there: the angel as ghost, wandering a neutral and ephemerally lovely purgatory. Designed as a solitary excursion, rooms filled with the traces of invisible occupants – flowers, feathers, musty bedding on the floor, bins of assorted religious books illuminated by eerily glowing single light bulbs – couldn’t help but provoke a mix of wonder and the unease of being both watcher and watched. Watching and waiting. Us watching them watching us watching – you get the picture.

Ascending concrete stairwells, boarding rickety elevators (FQV’s claustrophobia kicked in more than once); a deserted apartment, abandoned, bombed-out office spaces, a breathtaking 27th floor loft, a decrepit theater located – amazingly – behind an Applebee’s emporium. A theater piece with few actors and no dialogue, each location provided instead clues to the overarching narrative, littered with objects juxtaposed to hint at hidden meanings – recurring themes of suicide and child abuse, habit as ritual, religion as cultural meme and the softness that lurks behind hard shiny surfaces.

Blissfully ignorant of The Rules (having by necessity missed the debriefing at the project’s start on Roosevelt Island – No Cameras, No Talking (to the actors, as presumably one was alone) – we snapped and chatted and marveled and wandered and scribbled and eventually received our comeuppance: at the last venue (the theater, with angels peering down from the balcony) a stern British woman (a plant, no less!) threatened to kick us out, all atremble with indignation. A harsh and disappointing ending. I'm not saying we didn’t deserve it, but still.

Afterwards FQV chewed all of his nails off while asking himself the question: were we being subversive or just plain rude? Were we guilty of disrespecting The Art – and should we have? I couldn’t shake off the feeling that we’d misbehaved. But shouldn’t art be for everyone? Of course there should be rules, but weren't rules meant to be broken?

The artists behind the Angel Project aimed to lead visitors on a guided meditation. A beautifully executed idea that left plenty of leeway for happy accidents – and I'm not even about to get into a tangent about documentation, art tourism, and whether we fell into a trap of our own making.

I keep wondering: did we miss the whole point? Or was the whole point to raise this very question?

Okay, so we stole fizzy lifting drinks. But there’s no getting around it – we should have had the ending Willy Wonka gave Charley and Grandpa – glass elevator, going upupup, and finally out and through!

We should have. Shouldn't we?

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