Caden Manson wants you to know that Flesh Tone, Big Art Group’s new multimedia performance, does not end with the destruction of the Earth and the theater, too. That was their last piece, S.O.S.—in which survivors of an epic economic catastrophe got engulfed in a mountain of exploding balloons. The last couple of shows before that one went out with a bang, too.
“Our work is very apocalyptic,” says Manson, the group’s co-founder and artistic director. With Flesh Tone, however, the avant-garde company turns down the doom a notch—or does it? The show follows a man who returns to the U.S., his face gruesomely mangled from some sketchy “contractor” work in the Middle East, to find his country weirdly transformed. By turns unsettling and funny, the piece is characteristic of the inventive New York ensemble, which celebrates its 10th anniversary with a four-day “Take Over” of three spaces at Abrons Arts Center starting April 15.
“For a small downtown company to survive for 10 years, we were like, wow, you know?” says Manson. “When you hit that eight-year mark, all of a sudden people are like, ‘I can’t perform with you for three years because I’m having a kid.’ ” The group is now a fixture at international festivals, in addition to mounting regular presentations here at home. So what does a decade of integrating real-time film with wacky wigs and political critique teach you? “There’s always a way to make work,” answers co-founder Jemma Nelson. “There’s always a way to get it done.”
For the anniversary blow-out, each part of Abrons’s Grand Street building will feature a project from Big Art’s past, present, or future. Flesh Tone is the future part—it goes on a European tour later this year and will probably have a longer New York run next season. Their past will be displayed in The Sleep, a 2007 adaptation of M.P. Shiel’s 1901 story about a North Pole explorer escaping a purple cloud of poison that’s enveloping the Earth. Manson calls it a “chamber piece” and hopes it will reveal a more intimate side of their work; it has not been previously performed in New York.
And downstairs at Abrons, two original video installations will loop, both riffing on current stage projects. “We did one with the animals from S.O.S.,” says Manson, referring to a wolf, deer, bunny, and raccoon who try to survive in the wild for the first time when urban consumption is no longer viable. The animal costumes are enormous and slightly disturbing—think Disney meets Salvador Dalí. “We filmed it out in Greenpoint in winter, in all the outfits, the whole get-ups. People were stopping us and taking photos. It was hilarious.”
Audiences can see everything at Abrons in one trip or choose individual portions. But the rapid-fire dialogue and video scrambles in these one-hour shows rarely make for laid-back viewing—which is just the way Big Art is supposed to be. “You’re sort of repositioning yourself all the time, and for some people that can be upsetting,” explains Nelson. “That’s the goal of the work, to challenge in that way.”
Looking back, Manson says he’s struck by the queer sensibility in shows exploring self-presentation and “realness.” Watching his multigendered, multiracial beings confront the apocalypse is wild fun, but look out: Big Art’s approach, which the director calls “supreme fakeness,” has sharp edges. “For me, culture is a space for critical thought, which America is not very heavy on,” says Manson. “We’re not really making a show, we’re making a space for people to think.”