I’m no Oktophony

I’m open minded and I honestly like weird installation art, so I was REALLY game for Oktophonie, The Park Avenue Armory’s current installation. (Remember the Swings? – Same art space). The Armory’s description:

Acclaimed contemporary visual artist Rirkrit Tiravanija stages the work as the composer originally intended—in outer space—creating a lunar floating seating unit to fully envelop the listener in octophonic sound… the audience takes a ritualistic musical journey from plunging darkness into blinding light to fully immerse themselves in the all-encompassing score and surroundings…


They had me at lunar floating seating unit.

And I wasn’t the only one looking forward to it. Each of the exhibit’s nine 70-minute showings sold out in a matter of days.

So, after work I made my way over to the Armory to meet up with Dan. We entered the drill hall (the enormity of which still stuns me every time – you just don’t see spaces that size in New York very often) and were immediately issued white cloaks to wear during the performance.

Sure, I’ll play along. Kinda fun, moderately odd.  We were then directed to a long bench where we could sit to remove our shoes. Hmm… Not sure they thought about olfactory effect of a few hundred barefoot New Yorkers in one room. It’s a pedestrian city, and we tend to hustle. But, ok.

Dan and I padded over to the circular seating area (lunar floating seating unit – woohoo!) and plopped down on a couple of seat cushions. Within a few minutes the lights dimmed and the performance began.

And, by “performance” I mean 70 minutes of Casio keyboard-like sound effects and circular track lighting that repeatedly turned off and on.

Ok, I realize that I may sound like one of those people who goes to a modern art museum and scoffs and dismisses all the “scribbles” and pain drips. But, in my defense, I will say that I went in with enthusiasm and an open mind. And, if I missed something, I am totally willing to be educated and set straight.

But, through the filter of ignorance, I will say that the whole experience was a little like the planetarium, which is already kind of boring, but without the benefits of stars and narration and education. You know those discordant noises they play before the planetarium narration begins that let you know that you’re about to travel through space and time? Well that’s where Oktophonie begins…and ends. The circular seating and backed seat cushions encourage the audience to look up…at nothing.  There is no virtual space travel.

Ten minutes in I started to wonder…Are we being punk’d? Is that still a show?

Twenty minutes in I started to turn the word Oktophonie over and over in my brain. Oktophonie. Oktophonie…phonie….phony? Is that what this piece is commenting on? Are we, the art-appreciating people of New York City, being taught a collective lesson about phoniness? Like Holden Caulfield phoniness? Is this our version of the Lunts and their terrible theater? Are we like those jerks who pretend to just LOVE the Lunts even though they’re pretentious and insufferable and boring?

Thirty minute in I started to contemplate leaving. But, damn it, I paid $40 a ticket and didn’t want to miss it if something cool happens halfway through. What if this carpeted lunar surface seating unit thingy starts to slowly spin and throws all of us in our white cloaks and matching seat cushions to the dusty drill hall floor? Or what if it begins to pulsate in such a way that we begin to bounce uncontrollably like little popcorn kernels in a sauce pan? What if the woman hunched over the laptop computer and control board suddenly flips to Pink Floyd and the flickering track lighting becomes a laser show?

As I contemplated this, at least 20 people left in pairs of two, their white cloaks fluttering behind them. “Take me with you…” I silently cried.

Thirty-five minutes in I looked over at my husband to find him fast asleep. This has happened numerous times – modern dance shows, performance art, movies, classical music. I usually get annoyed and jab him with my elbow. My favorite part of an artsy date night is discussing what we’ve just seen over a glass of wine. This time I just let him sleep.

Forty-five minutes in. I was past the point of no return. I figured that if I waited it out I could tell my grandchildren I made it through a performance of Oktophonie.

At the 70 minute mark the lights went up and people hesitantly applauded. I made a run for my shoes.

At dinner Dan was well rested, but I was annoyed. “What the heck just happened?” I demanded. Dan pulled out the over-sized program and showed me the opening spread.

Sheet music. COME FREAKIN ON. Ok, I call bullshit on two accounts.

One, that means nothing to at least 50% of your audience who doesn’t read sheet music. And, two, I find it hard to believe that what we all just heard required any kind of sheet music at all.

I’ve since scoured social media looking for others who are confused and angry like me, but I’ve found only a few people who admit to mild confusion.

What? What did I miss? Please, really. Honestly. Educate me. I love the Armory and want to believe there was value in this event and I just failed to find it.

Question: Did you ever have an Oktophonie-like experience? How did you work through it?


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