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Do you prefer the journey you want to go on, or the one you need to take? That was the question posed at the conclusion of my check in to the Institute for Psychogeographic Adventure (IPA), an experience at the Brooklyn Museum as part of the Beat Festival. Set somewhere between immersive theater and an alternate mapping project of the museum, the journey would take me from galleries to off-limits areas in a strange sequence of uncomfortable lectures, precarious dance, and a mummy-Egyptologist duet.
After putting my name down at the table draped in white set up outside the Connecting Cultures gallery, with people in lab coats milling about, I filled out a form that would, in theory, have some influence on what would follow for the next roughly 90 minutes. I hadn’t participated in an IPA event before (this was officially their Experiment #23b), but earlier this year they had a large and intricate adventure in DUMBO and early next month they will be participating in the PRELUDE festival. IPA, as their missions states, “creates performances exploring the intersection of site and individual psychology,” and was started by Brooklyn College Performance and Interactive Media Arts (PIMA) MFA Program graduates Andrew Goldberg, Radoslaw Konopka, Liza Wade Green, and Emily Rea, with this Brooklyn Museum event involving around 70 performers, including other recent PIMA graduates.
The form was followed by a walk through the Connecting Cultures gallery with inquiries from one of those lab coated-performers into what I heard while closing my eyes (I’d listed sound as the sense to which I was most attuned), and such nonsensical inquiries as — prompted by viewing a Nick Cave soundsuit — “If you had a basket as a head, what is the one thing you would carry in it?” I can only imagine what was quickly scribbled in pencil to my impulse choice of water, which of course would just leak everywhere and cause quite a mess.
After the art-based interrogation, our group set off, and while I got nervous with the adventure’s beginning stages with a faux-marriage to an elevator shaft being a little too on the forced fun side of my comfort level, the greeting of our group in the main atrium with a solo violin was beautiful. Soon a dancer in a blue dress emerged to perform along the perimeter of the space, the only thing marring the moment being the man chasing her with his camera phone outstretched. That would be an enduring theme of the experience: the reaction of those museum goers who were just there to see the museum, and then suddenly an Egyptologist and a resurrected mummy were performing a duet of Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” that echoed through the gallery and iPhones and iPads would encircle. After the violin performance, our group was split up, and would continue to be split up, until I was left in a pair watching a woman dance in a bird costume on the balcony overlooking the street.
The joy of the experience was really to explore a museum that I thought I knew in a totally different way (not to mention the chance to run through the museum was quite fantastic, perhaps the positive answer to the question “have you broken a rule recently?” on the form was what got me on that track). I heard from other friends who attended that they experienced a sound installation at the Judy Chicago “Dinner Party,” or toured the museum looking at its outlets, fire extinguishers, and storage rather than the art on display. I’m honestly not sure if my responses had any influence on the experience itself (my companion for it all until the solo conclusion was a friend, and I’m not sure that our answers really had much in common), it did make me think about what museums could be doing with their space to engage viewers in another way.
There’s often a divide between theater and dance with visual art, but bringing in performers to explore a museum and its both architectural and artistic identity can offer a cross-disciplinary experience where movement and your own personal state of mind can interpret a museum in a different way. And of course, it is fantastic to get these little glimpses into the innards of the museum and have them become part of a wider narrative of the museum experience. The last thing participants were asked to do was draw a map of what happened, and they were a varied, chaotic, scrawl of experience, although if you were there you knew how to read them.
In the end I’m not sure if what I experienced was either the journey I wanted to go on or the one I needed, but as I responded at the time to that question, those should be one in the same. I really appreciated the detail to which IPA explored the Brooklyn Museum collections and the level of coordination it must have taken to get everything timed just right. Sure, there were awkward moments and it felt like a series of vignettes rather than an immersive adventure set exactly to my “psychogeography.” But what I was most left with was a curiosity about what they would do next, as any place we think we know can always be remapped into an entirely different experience, and it’s exciting that there is this network of performers who are taking risks with just that.