Monkey See, Monkey Do


I am told the large monkey painted on the garage door across the street from the multimedia dinner theater Monkey Town is a coincidence, but I know the wall of god’s-eyes inside is not: Last year, Monkey Town gave its guests sticks and string and offered to deduct $3 from the bill for each decent-looking eye. It became a bit of a tradition, much like “Porn Week,” which celebrated the Christmas holiday with home movies starring Pamela Anderson and Paris Hilton and Johnny Wadd. The porn was served with dinner.

This is the same Williamsburg spot that hosted “Gamers and Jammers,” four people playing the Xbox game Halo on four movie screens over four days while a different band created the soundtrack; “Pet Video & Massage,” America’s Funniest played at one-third speed with a hot-stone massage applied in real time; “Cult of Oprah,” a month-long meditation on the ubiquitous talk show; “Bollywood Nights,” a festival featuring sidesplitting Indian remakes of Dirty Dancing, Fight Club, and E.T.; and “Day of the Dead,” a comparison study of all three flesh-eating-zombie movies. For the more refined diner, Monkey Town programmers have been known to pay tribute to visionaries such as Luis Buñuel and Federico Fellini. They also curate video art programs and documentaries, as well as live audiovisual experiences created by people like Golan Levin, a cybernetics virtuoso who composes sound-and-light pieces using overhead projectors, tabs of felt, and Magic Markers. They even commission sound installations for the bathrooms.

Monkey Town began in Montgomery Knotts’s loft, which he outfitted to debut his own four-screen video installation, accompanied by a musical quartet and four small-food plates for $4 each. Knotts’s friends came, then Knotts’s friends’ friends came. Fairly soon, Knotts’s loft was selling out every weekend, which wasn’t all that hard to do.

Though Monkey Town is now a legitimate restaurant with a fashionable dining room and a bar, the performance space isn’t much bigger than the original. It seats 32 on long white futon couches surrounded on all sides by movie screens. It’s a bit like stepping into a sensory chamber from a Logan’s Run fantasy. Within the breezy borders of this techno-utopia, comely waitresses glide like starship stewardesses between the low-lying tables. Young, attractive patrons lounge comfortably with strangers and nibble fusion cuisine “from a country that doesn’t exist.” Ethiopiques plays over the sound system. Fellini’s
8 1/2
crawls across the screens at one-fourth speed.

Knotts often uses 8 1/2 for ambience. He says the lighting allows people to read their menus, but it’s much more than that. During the fading years of his life, the actor Eugene Walter—a literary bon vivant whose screen time in 8 1/2 is quite unforgettable—frequently entertained and edified Knotts in a room filled with objets d’art shaped like monkeys.

Knotts hopes to celebrate the approaching anniversary of his new space with an eight-and-half-hour-long screening of 8 1/2. But tonight, it’s “Show & Tell,” an interdisciplinary salon where Leejone Wong provides a public forum for people to discuss and develop their passions: environmentalism, graffiti, God, or an unfinished novel. The audience members— hipsters, artists, activists, and curiosity seekers—typically walk away with more than a bellyful of Monkey Town’s spring truffle risotto. Tonight’s theme is “Revival.”

Kristin Dombek is uniquely qualified to speak on the subject, having spent the first half of her life as a conservative Christian and the last eight years researching evangelical churches for her upcoming book, Shopping for the Apocalypse. Dombek looks like she would feel more at home on the back of a Harley than inside a mega-church. She sits down at the laptop glowing in the center of the room, and huge images fill the walls: mega-churches with stadium-sized crowds, theme parks with roller coasters, arena concerts with fireworks—all Christian.

“Evangelical and conservative Christians have coopted popular culture,” begins Dombek in what is to prove to be an incredibly chilling, occasionally funny reminder that many policy makers believe Jesus Christ is coming back within our lifetime and that Israel will be transformed into a Christian utopia.

“Of course, we already have that,” says Dombek. “It’s called the Holy Land Experience in Orlando, Florida.”

Dombek breaks up her examination of Ralph Reed, persecution envy, Zion, overconsumerism, peak oil, Jerry Falwell, and the bestselling Left Behind book series with a song.

“I want you all to get up on your feet and sing along,” says Dombek. “Consider raising your arms to God, as if you were a child asking your father to pick you up.”

The words to “Days of Elijah,” written by Robin Mark, a worship leader based in Belfast, scroll across the screens: “Behold He comes riding on the clouds/Shining like the sun at the trumpet call/Lift your voice, it’s the year of jubilee/And out of Zion’s hill salvation comes.” All 32 people in Monkey Town stand up and sing along.

By dessert and a third round of drinks, the Monkey Town crowd is primed for Emiko Kasahara’s slide show. The Tokyo-born artist has made breast-shaped urinals, labia-shaped bedpans, tit-like pillows, and vaginal sink drains. She has created massive mandalas out of synthetic wig hair and presented live models with tresses to match. She has gathered money collection boxes from around the world and highlighted their eroticism (“the little slit, the folded money which penetrates it”). Her latest project, “Sheer,” assembles hundreds of firsthand accounts of loss from all over the world. The stories—recorded in different languages in locations worldwide—are offered at the volume of a whisper from the tip of a nipple-like protrusion in a large fleshy dome covered in panty hose material.

“When you lean in to listen to the nipple, it will remind you of when you were a baby breast-feeding,” says Kasahara, who admits to never having been breast-fed. “The sense of sucking on your mother’s nipple will conjure the emotional memory of this loss.” The Monkey Town audience giggles self-consciously, but when Kasahara invites the crowd to tell her stories, everyone applauds.

Mary Walling Blackburn and Danyel Ferrari are the last to share their particular revival-based obsession: millenarianism. Historically, the Great Disappointment was the result of fierce revivalism that swept through western New York and New England in the mid 1800s. Millerites, who abandoned their homes, crops, and businesses to gather on mountaintops for the immediate coming of Christ, were left with nothing but an unfulfilled desire for the Rapture. On July 28, 2006, Blackburn and Ferrari created an orchestra of eight cars parked in a circle on the site of a former revivalist camp. The stereo of each vehicle contributed a segment of a song that had been inspired by the Great Disappointment. The drivers, their passengers, and residents of the town danced to the uncanny music, in the center of a circle illuminated by headlights. While the performance piece, inspired in part by similar dance parties held throughout Texas in the 1960s, was meant to be experienced, the home video is both touching and a bit eerie. An apt conclusion for the “Show & Tell” revival.

“I thought they were going to make us dance,” says 23-year-old Geno Ejzenberg with a little shudder. “I guess I would have. Monkey Town is my kind of town.”