Making Room

By now, you’ve likely seen this video. It’s been making the rounds on the internet and, if you follow me on Twitter or Tumblr, you’ve seen me gush over it. I’ve probably watched it from start to finish a half a dozen times and I’m still thinking about it days later.

Part of that is because I love dance. I’m moved by the immediacy and vulnerability that’s so specific to dance. There is no hiding for an artist once they’ve taken the stage. And the best dancers can take who they are in the world around them at that exact moment and use it to add depth and nuance to their performances.

You can see that happening here. It’s sunrise in downtown New York City on September 11th. Twelve years separates these two dancers from tragedy. Like any other piece of art, the performance is up for interpretation. But, I see two people treating a very specific moment in time gently, with grace and care.

I was in my senior year of college in 2001, attending Pace University in downtown Manhattan. Somewhere I still have paper copies of our university newspaper from that week. Every single page was dedicated to coverage of the attack, and that felt necessary. Students with jobs or internships in the towers had lost their lives. Hundreds of people living in university housing were displaced, and the rest of us found our neighborhood – our coffee shops, our subway stops, bookstores, late night breakfast spots – destroyed.

I remember a young woman in my creative writing class breaking down while reading aloud part of our most recent assignment. Weeks later, school was finally back in session and she said, “I just don’t think we should have Christmas this year.” It made sense to me. How could we begin to even feign merry? The idea of even going through the motions – hanging lights or buying gifts – was exhausting. Just like there was no space for any other stories in our student newspaper, there was no room for Christmas.

If someone told me 12 years ago that I’d fully appreciate these two dancers perform in the footprint of everything we’d lost, I don’t think I would have understood. I’m pretty sure I needed 12 years to fall in love with this particular piece of art. People say that time heals all wounds, but (for me) it’s more about room and space. The wounds are all still there, but time slowly creates space for other things like dance, love, sunrises and Christmas.

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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…

-link

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?

 

Downtown

brooklynbridge

This week I received the MOST exciting email in my inbox.

“The Maiden Lane location of Just Salad has reopened!”

I do like their salads, but that’s not the point.

The point was that another downtown business had recovered after Hurricane Sandy.

Even if you’re paying attention to the recovery effort in New York and New Jersey, you may not know that downtown Manhattan, specifically the financial district, is still nowhere near 100% up and running. A number of both residential and commercial buildings endured so much water damage that, nearly two months later, they are not inhabitable. On Maiden Lane alone, there are at least a dozen retail locations that are still closed. That’s a dozen storefronts with staff temporarily out of work. And who knows how many families are still displaced.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot. Downtown often gets a bad rep for being cold and void of personality. Yes, it is home to the stock exchange and government agencies and lots of other boring corporations. But it’s also incredibly rich in history and home to lots of students, families and artists.  And, besides all that, downtown will always have a special place in my heart.

I went to college at Pace University, which is right by City Hall and the Brooklyn Bridge. In a way, downtown represents my first shot at independence. I moved into the dorms when I was barely 18 and had zero life experience beyond rural Massachusetts. Downtown was the first neighborhood I learned as a timid freshman who was afraid to ride the subway alone. Each week of my first semester I’d venture out a few streets further towards the seaport or Tribeca or Little Italy, slowly expanding my knowledge of the city. When I was bored or felt suffocated by my tiny dorm room I took walks across the Brooklyn Bridge and back (It was pretty impossible to get lost – and it was free!). I bought a bagel from the same Park Row street vendor every day to the point where he started to recognize me and remember my order. It was the first time I felt what it was like to be a regular and have a usual.

And when the Twin Towers were hit on 9/11, I felt like my home had been destroyed. And, as the rest of the world watched downtown rebuild, I took pride in my neighborhood’s resilience.

I think that’s part of why all the covered windows and boarded up doors have been getting to me. It reminds me too much of those dark days downtown that followed the attack. Not that I think the two events should be compared at all. I just hate to see my neighborhood and its people hurting.

There’s no doubt in my mind that downtown will eventually get back to 100%. I’m certainly not the only one who is invested in downtown and is committed to seeing it flourish.

Question: What neighborhood is your home? Is it the place where you grew up, or somewhere else?