Here and Now
Anyone who has purchased a home knows the transaction comes with numberless hidden costs—financial, emotional, social. And then, once the contracts have been signed, the checks handed over, the hands shaken, and the movers paid, the houseguests arrive.
Houseguests who don't want to leave. That was certainly the case last Thursday, when performer Adam Matta debuted Makeshift, a multimedia show that comprises part of the Culturemart Festival at Here Arts Center. After the house lights brightened and the applause ceased, Here artistic director Kristin Marting and an assistant slipped away to the lobby, but the 60-odd audience members stayed. And stayed. Ten minutes after the show's end, only three or four spectators had departed, including a college-aged man who waylaid Marting. He pronounced the show "awesome" and asked if the performance would be the same the following night. "I think I'll come again," he said, and left. Temporarily.
In June of 2005, Marting closed the deal to buy part of the space Here had occupied for the last 12 years. The purchase required a determined capital campaign and the relinquishing of the caf— area, part of the gallery, and one of Here's three theaters. The sacrifices may seem less distressing in light of Here's success in purchasing 9,000 square feet of Soho real estate for a reported $1.7 million—only slightly more than a dedicated shopping spree at nearby Prada. The purchase seems even more impressive when one considers how few downtown producing organizations—P.S.122, LaMaMa E.T.C., New York Theatre Workshop—own their own spaces.
A year and a half later, there's still awkwardness in Here's transition from renter to owner. Its former entrance on Sixth Avenue is now headquarters for community news papers The Villager and Gay City News. The new entrance, tucked around the corner on Dominick Street, is ornamented with marquee lights, but also requires a piece of paper taped to the door assuring the ticket buyer that this is indeed the box office. Whereas the caf— once served salads, tarts, and a particularly luscious lemon-ginger infusion, the new one doesn't extend itself much past beer and soda.
If the old space was a sprawling clutter of mismatched chairs, rickety tables, and scavenged paintings, a welcome locale to wile away an hour or two before the show, the new one is petite, almost cramped. Though it does still find room for two up right pianos and the odd sofa, in this incarnation the chairs do mostly match. And, as Marting or a house manager must announce before every show, the current lack of an internal staircase means anyone who needs the restroom must leave the building, re-enter a few doors down, navigate a dusty backstage area and some ill-lit stairs, and trace a path marked out with red tape to find relief. An architectural renovation—and the campaign to fund it—is already under way, promising elegantly arched glass doors, a metal staircase enlivened with video art, and, yes, far more accessible toilets. In March, Here received a $500,000 grant from the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation that should speed the transformation.
All this emphasis on real estate and renovation doesn't mean the quality of Here's work or the attention it offers artists has suffered. Since 1993, Here claims to have supported "11,000 emerging to mid-career artists," Basil Twist, Hazelle Goodman, and Eve Ensler among them. The Here Arts Residency Program (HARP) and the Dream Music Puppetry program provide one to three years of support (rehearsal space, publicity, and marketing assistance) for projects, 16 of which are currently in the works. This season so far saw smashing work from resident artists Young Jean Lee and Eric Sanko and a stirring, if patchy, piece by brother-sister team Lisa and Todd D'Amour.
The annual Culturemart festival, running January 2 through 28, provides a glimpse of such projects in progress. This season's incarnation features 17 shows by current and former HARP artists, from the relatively recognizable (Lenora Champagne) to the pointedly obscure (Juggernaut Theatre Company). Dance, video, performance, puppetry, and "bike drawing" all feature, as do subjects ranging from the "one true God" to '60s stewardesses, from Hamlet to H.G. Lewis's 1963 film Blood Feast.
The festival's opening entry, David Evans Morris and Juliet Chia's Routine Hearing, apparently served as the second installment in an ongoing series titled Exercises for the Body Politic. Described as "workout routines for the various activities we use in the performance of citizenship," the series stages "communal listening, thinking, and talking about civic issues." Seated in chairs placed carefully on a red and blue grid and supplied with personal CD players, all audience members were asked to listen to selections from political speeches and debates (Crossfire, Rush Limbaugh, old Barry Goldwater invective) and physicalize their responses according to a set program of gestures: lean forward if rapt, lean backward if repelled, look at the ceiling if bored, and so on. Eventually each participant was encouraged to develop his or her own gestural repertory, which largely consisted of head shaking, head scratching, and eye rolling. Though a provocative piece, the exercise felt more private than communal. Also noted: Ambivalence can make a girl dizzy—all that rocking back and forth and eye rolling.
Less dizzying was Adam Matta's enjoyably silly Makeshift, a multimedia evening designed to show off Matta's various abilities, most notably his human beatboxing, a talent insufficiently celebrated since the early days of rap and the Police Academy films. Matta's show lacks context or coherence—narrative, thematic, procedural—though it does feature Coptic rap, matchbox car animations, and (shades of Yves Klein) painting using a dirt bike's wheels dipped in glossy black. But his ability to remix his own voice is remarkable, at first singing over a synced beat and then slowing it down, speeding it up, dubbing, scratching, even using the layrngeal equivalent of a wah-wah pedal. He's wonderful to watch in these moments, right hand on the mic, left hand flailing in time, drops of spit and sweat flying off him. He must get terribly dehydrated. However, he proves significantly less sweaty and less absorbing when demonstrating his mad figure-drawing skillz [sic].
Like mid-renovation Here, these pieces were very much works in progress. In Routine Hearing, a much anticipated video component failed to play; in Makeshift, both hand and body mics frequently fell. And Hal Eagar's Automaton Repertory Project, on display in the lobby throughout the festival, barely worked at all. Though buttons would make the little robot's bug eyes bob or its undercarriage swivel, its doll's arm refused to play the ukulele that composed its body. "That's what robots are like," sighed Eagar. "They barely work. You just sort of fiddle with them." Some fiddling may still be required, but Here itself appears to be working awfully well.
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