My friend Max Miller, whom I haven’t seen in several months, scoops me into a hug and then hands me a shiny silver egg. “A bird gave this to me because I freed her wing from a tangle of balloons,” he says. I take it, smiling, and we head upstairs to explore.
We’ve just entered Dark Before Dawn, a one-night-only funhouse of art and spectacle, filling an entire empty apartment building in Ridgewood, Queens. It’s the brainchild of Jonah Levy, a veteran producer of events ranging from huge immersive parties to intimate trespass gatherings. For this, he’s corralled some 50 artists, from painters to actors to rogue jesters, to transform 26 rooms on four floors, populating them with sculptures, speakeasies, interactive theater, immersive installations, and a cornucopia of other art that defies easy categorization. “The impetus for this came from a dark time,” Levy told me. “Since the horrific election, myself and my loved ones have spent many days confused and scared. Some very generous and trusting people saw the low condition I was in and offered me the space. It was a perfect way to channel my feelings and the energy around me.” The event doubled as a fundraiser for the Immigrant Justice Corps.
Participants entered the house through the basement, exchanging coats and scarves for a handful of cryptic tickets, each good for a drink at a different bar — the first implicit directive, then, being to find them all. This turned out to be no easy feat: The old rambling building had rooms within rooms on every floor, and it was so dense with happenings — live painting in hallways, interactive performances in bathrooms, bars in kitchens — that it was often difficult to be certain where you’d been and where you had yet to go. Plus, the majority of the art was participatory, so you could easily find yourself playing a “pocket poker” game, sitting on a panel judging a cocktail competition, or watching a snippet of a play that moved you from room to room. As one attendee, Jasmina Tomic, put it, the night provided “something for everyone: parallel experiences all happening at the same time, a sort of choose-your-own-adventure wonderland.”
Some pieces were contemplative, like Lani Combier-Kapel’s sculptural fountain, installed in a tent in the backyard and providing a lacuna amid the frenzy, or Jaclyn Atkinson’s “Bowerbird Nest,” a room-size cocoon made of woven trash bags where masked bird performers laid karmic-message eggs, or Levy’s “Feminist Nightmare,” a room full of midcentury appliances stuffed with moss and set to creepy nature noises by Danielle Butler. You could get your nails did at Ryan Soper’s “Somethings Never Nail” or sip a warm libation in the “Martian Tea Room” — after watching Erik Sanner brew it in conditions that mimic life on Mars. Or you could take in a very intimate performance of Siobhan O’Loughlin’s “Broken Bone Bathtub,” an interactive meditation on vulnerability and loneliness performed for audiences of just four people squeezed into a tiny bathroom.
And plenty of pieces were rollicking and raucous. Cheers and laughter from James Dawson’s “Pocket Poker Salon” — where you could only bet with non-monetary items currently in your pockets — reverberated throughout the building. Guests eked out floor space in Seth Larson and Abigail Entsminger’s “Spooky Classroom for Experimental Ethics,” where doctors (and lovers) Alyssa and Alyssa taught the class their Universal Ethical System via a quiz that started out innocuous but became increasingly menacing and manipulative. Crowds gathered to watch the “International Regional Mixology Championships,” an evening-long performance that saw deconstructed Jell-O shots by Raynald (Suchan Vodoor) competing against Lipton-infused Long Island Iced Teas by the Billy Joel–loving Stef (Coco Conroy). Jeff Stark, who played one of the contest’s judges, said that people who come to events like this “expect baroque experiences, maybe hand-crafted cocktails with elaborate stories. We thought it would be funny to subvert that expectation with the kind of light satire that makes fun of ourselves as much as the audience.”
Then there was Dirby’s Apothecary Parlor, a saloon where, between drinks, participants could get stick-and-poke tattoos by Rogue Pokes and Victoria Wikler. Guests had to first self-diagnose their “disease,” and choosing the tattoo design was part of the cure. Abi Inman was there with her brother Ben, who recently moved to New York on a whim. “I got the cure for Compulsive Consumerism,” she said, “to help me stop using consumerist goals as a crutch for avoiding thinking about what I want to accomplish with my life. And Ben got Existential Crisis.”
It was a night designed, in many ways, to bring about transformation. One of the standout installations was Jaclyn E. Atkinson’s “Psychic Surgery,” an interactive “operating theater” where guests could opt to be treated for all manner of ailments. “The genesis of this project stems from a fascination and fetishism with medical equipment and quackery,” Atkinson told me. Like good old-fashioned faith healers, Atkinson and Chief of Amputations Drew Feuer cast out participants’ demons — often in a spray of fake blood. “I believe the mind is a powerful healing tool and that play is cathartic and can help you release tightly held emotions,” Atkinson said. Before being healed, participants had to fill out “informed consent” forms, complete with a safe word to end things if they got too intense. “As with any participatory art, the more a visitor is willing to play in my nightmare, the more all of us will receive,” Atkinson said. “Sometimes laughing, getting messy, and being a bit weirded out is great medicine.”
Another deeply moving installation was “Candela,” by Kathryn Sclavi. It involved two spaces: the “Darkness Room,” painted black and hung with silver streamers, evoking a nightclub after the party is over, in which Jeremy Friedman read stories and letters of breakups and loss; and the “Light Room,” rose-hued, draped with red and pink fabric, filled with balloons and echoing with spiraling ambient music, in which Heather Morowitz read love letters written between Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin during their long and illicit affair. My friend Max likened this room to an “aural womb,” adding, “The readings summoned to mind the pain and ecstasy of the devotion and madness of being in love, and as I listened, I felt like my heart could rupture. Honestly, I’m still processing it.”
And on and on and on, from room to room, deep into the wee hours. “I was looking for artists and installations that explore the cycle of light and dark, and confusion in an upturned world,” Levy said. “Many artists I love working with are adept at transforming unconventional spaces, and some provide experiences that can truly transform a participant in mind, body, or soul.” In these deeply upsetting times, Dark Before Dawn offered eager participants a weird and wonderful kind of change.