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On Monday night, I finally made it out to the Brooklyn International Performance Art Festival for day (evening, really) 3 of the Super Coda series, an ongoing experimental cabaret curated by Valerie Kuehne. The event took place at Goodbye Blue Monday, a grungy yet homey place that’s part bar, part cafe, part performance venue (like so many other spaces in Brooklyn), and is entirely un-air-conditioned.
I arrived just in time for the end of Marie Christine Katz’s performance. I couldn’t quite tell you what was going on, but the Swiss artist stood cheerfully and casually among the tables, trying to hawk a felt garment she had made and been wearing up until that point. “Do I hear $35 for years and years of her artistic practice?” asked the man who stood on stage, acting as her auctioneer. “Artistic praaaactice,” sang the woman with the operatic voice who stood on a bench across the room. Someone eventually agreed to take the piece, but it was clear after the performance ended that he wasn’t really going to take (aka pay for) it. The mood was congenial.
We moved outside — some of us to see the next performance, others perhaps just to drink in the back garden, where the temperature was at least 10 degrees cooler than inside. Up next was Upholstery, a trio of performers from Philadelphia, staging a kind of Spanish soap opera. The star was a woman cross-dressed as a man in traditional Spanish clothing, but dirty and hobo-ish, which made sense once we learned that he loved to drink — which itself was a bit difficult because he spoke in Spanish the whole time (in an annoyingly inauthentic accent). The guitar player translated, telling us that the three passions of our protagonist’s country, Spain, were love, wine, and ham. He proceeded to sing songs about all of them, with a male performer cross-dressed as the man’s former love interest entering the scene partway through (and speaking English with a British accent).
The whole thing was lighthearted and campy but without a clear purpose, neither the premise nor the script novel enough to sustain the piece past its entertaining beginning. (Though they did end with a Spanish version of George Michael’s “Careless Whisper,” complete with saxophone, that was indulgently hilarious.)
Back inside. A friend wearing corduroys and boots because of her day job left, pleading heat exhaustion. We waited for Ryan Krause, an unassuming guy in a white T-shirt and jeans, to take the stage. When he did, it was with unrelenting coughing — deep, throaty, sickly coughing, the kind of coughing that ends in vomit. This went on for an uncomfortably long time and led immediately into a babble of sounds, noises, and the occasional torrent of words, something like beat-boxing with cartoon sound effects mixed with snippets of talk radio and static. Krause didn’t pause for 15 minutes. Then he stopped and said, “It sure is hot in here, huh, guys?” with the utmost nonchalance.
All the while, however, something else had been brewing. A couple was having dinner and drinks at a table in the audience, and they were quite definitely not there to see performance art, unlike everyone else in the room (because really, if you’re not there for performance art, why not go somewhere air-conditioned?). When Krause took the stage, they continued to talk, and barely a minute in, the man made his displeasure clear. “What the fuck is this?” he asked. Noises from the stage. “You wanted to come here, motherfucker,” he said to his partner. Was this guy for real? Was he part of the performance? That would be interesting, I thought — but when he got up and took a step toward the stage, threatening to intervene, calling out aggressively and loudly, it was clear he wasn’t. I didn’t know what to make of Krause’s performance, and I’m still not sure I do; I might have been bored, or I might have been hot, on edge, and distracted. But as another companion that evening pointed out to me, at least this guy had a reaction. That’s something.
Suddenly, a person in an oversize dress made of small, flattened milk cartons appeared, moving carefully through the space like a Butoh dancer in a fat suit. The performer — who turned out to be Sylvia Dean and Me — also wore a hat covered in the cartons and a plastic mask over her face. She shuffled quietly out to the back garden, many of us scurrying behind, and began performing to dissonant electronic music.
Walking, flexing, and crawling on the ground, she radiated incredible energy and control, with a stockinged foot occasionally poking out of the bottom of the dress. At one point she began collecting items from nearby audience members — a book, a cell phone, a flip-flop, an empty iced coffee cup — and arranging them into a kind of shrine. She gathered stones from the pathway and poured them over the pile, gathered more and poured them on. It was impossible to look away.
Someone discretely came around to let us know that Sylvia Dean and Me would be performing durationally, until “the end of the night or she passes out from heat exhaustion.” In the meantime, back inside, Scott Hawkins was taking the stage — and the loud, uninterested couple was still talking. Hawkins set up on a corner of the stage with a single-bulb lamp, a music box with a bedpost knob attached to it, and some kind plate. He tapped and brushed at the plate with a paint brush, and he rapped on the music box as it repeated its tune.
Hawkins worked patiently and intently through the sounds of the audience member’s answered phone call — “’cause of what bullshit?” — and once, while winding his music box, ever-so-slightly mouthed one of the phrases emanating from the table (“don’t fucking leave”). Observers moved forward and gathered around Hawkins, as if forming a protective circle, and when the talking couple finally left, partway through his performance, the magical hush he’d been trying for fell over the small crowd.
I had planned to leave at this point but was so enchanted — admittedly less by the art than by the community that had formed around it — that I decided to stay for Jill Burton. Burton took the stage with an easy swagger and sat down. Dressed in an elegant black outfit that seemed to say “dinner party,” she launched into a vocal improvisation that shared a kinship with Krause more than anything classic, although it was more polished. Burton crowed and spoke in gibberish, she scratched the microphone, ran it against a chair, and mashed it into a package of ham that had begun circulating thanks to a performer from Upholstery. (The sound was excellent.) At one point, she began to sing a little, her voice haunting and clear. And then, just as quickly, she dissolved it into a cry, the smooth sounds replaced by uneven, piercing ones. It was fitting: although she had a beautiful voice, this wasn’t the space for it. This was a space for making the best of the unknown.
Super Coda Day 3 took place on Monday, July 15, from 6 pm to 2 am at Goodbye Blue Monday (1087 Broadway, Bushwick, Brooklyn). The Brooklyn International Performance Art Festival continues through July 28.
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