Photos by Lanee Bird
"What's in the bottle?" asked a security guard suspiciously as he patted down my pockets for drugs or weapons, taking a sniff of my bottle of flavored seltzer. "Um, water," I replied. Getting interrogated by security wasn't part of the show, but it was a fitting start to "Authority Figure," Monica Mirabile and Sarah Kinlaw's supremely ambitious performance art piece about obedience and authority, which took place on May 20-22.
Overseen by six choreographers and seven installation artists, the immersive dance piece featured a cast of over 150 performers—mostly artists and friends of Mirabile and Kinlaw—divided into several different "scenes." Each performance was soundtracked with original sound compositions by a cast of musicians that included Dev Hynes, SOPHIE, Dan Deacon, Eartheater, Chairlift's Caroline Polachek, Hot Sugar, DJ NJ Drone, UMFANG, myself, and others.
When I arrived the Knockdown Center, a former glass factory turned arts venue in Queens, I didn't really know what to expect. Aside from a personality quiz that you had to take before buying a ticket to the show, designed to determine relative degrees of psychological endurance, Monica and Sarah intentionally had kept the details of the what we were about to experience over the next two hours deliberately mysterious, even to collaborators like myself.
Spectators were separated into groups of 20. I was in group one, the first to enter. A woman in a uniformed jumpsuit held up a flashlight in the darkened room and instructed us all to wash our hands in a sink. "Hurry up!" she barked as I dried my hands. Next, a man in a similar jumpsuit very gently took me and my friend Dan Deacon by the hands, introducing himself as our guide for the evening, and telling us that we could trust him. Leading us further into the cavernous warehouse space, he asked us innocent but probing questions about our lives, like "Who are you?" and "Where do you live?" Then he and all the other jumpsuited workers broke out into the first choreographed dance of the evening, surrounding a pregnant woman and a young girl sitting a school desk who were roleplaying a bizarre student/teacher or mother/daughter relationship. Watching them, I guessed that this was the opening scene for a reason—these authority figures are some of the first we deal with when growing up.
The worker took my and Dan's hands and brought us to another area where dancers were moving between empty bookshelves placed upon sand. Suddenly, the lights went out and the workers instructed us to take out our cellphones to illuminate the room; they started yelling at and shoving the dancers, dragging their bodies around in the sand. This harsh juxtaposition from holding our hands and being so gentle just moments before immediately made the audience aware of our privilege in an imposed hierarchal caste system.
My sense of anxiety started to build as we were ushered to another area, where a single spotlight illuminated four dancers, including one portraying a horny dog sniffing and licking the crotch of a seemingly passed out and limp-bodied woman. A dancer climbed a ladder and lept off, dangling from the ceiling on a harness. Meanwhile, a black man in a Christ-like pose started singing a beautiful a capella song, only to be "shot" to the ground after a fight broke out, with certain dancers holding their hands out like guns.
This scene led into a "militia" dance that I was lucky enough to compose the music for. This dance was a sort of climax for the evening, with the dancers marching and shouting in unison like some sort of maniacal boot camp squadron. As the aggressive energy built into a frenzy, the dancers began to riot and rush towards the audience, screaming and yelling at us while physically pushing us out of the building, then slamming the doors behind us. It felt like a bad dream, leaving my group to ponder what had just happened to as we stood outside, under the silent and full moonlight.
Watching this scene unfold, I was really blown away to see what Monica, Sarah, and the dancers and had created to the sounds I produced. I loved the brutal intensity and passion of it, but also the confusion and panic that they were able to invoke in the audience as we got pushed around by the terrifyingly aggressive dancers.
Monica and I have collaborated many times—both for my own live performances, and for her project FlucT—and I think we both understood totally where each other is coming from artistically. When I spoke with her about what she wanted for this scene, she told me to think about concentration camps and dead bodies being piled on top of each other, one after the other. We also talked in depth about my own relationships to authority, and how my art deals a lot with resistance to various forms of control and conditioning. The sound for this piece was to be very dark, militaristic, and marching, which I was very happy to try experimenting with. Immediately what came to mind was the song "Opus Dei (Life is Life)" by the German industrial band Laibach, whose drums I actually sampled for my piece.
It was interesting that she told me to invoke the horror of concentration camps, because I actually couldn't stop thinking about concentration camps during the duration of the entire performance, specifically in the way we were being forcefully led around this large brick warehouse space. While outside, people were saying how they had already begun crying—and we were only about ten minutes into the show. It was commendable that the whole performance was able to produce such a strong psychological effect on its visitors.
Next, a few people were chosen and forced into a small room that was an installation by the artist Signe Pierce. Signe's work is so rad, and she is now known for her infamous viral internet video, "American Reflexxx," made with Alli Coates. Wearing a black beret and looking like Sonya Blade from Mortal Kombat, she spoke through a microphone that distorted her voice, stretching it and making it echo in strange ways, while pointing a fake M-16 machine gun with a camera attached to it at her chosen victims. Pushing them to sit one by one on a bed, she demanded to know the answers to personal data-based questions like, "What is your email address?" and "What are the last four digits of your social security number?"—and kicked people who didn't comply out of the room.
The rest of the group was led through a garage-type room with large surveillance monitors on a wall, showing videos taken of our group just moments before. Without knowing it, we were being filmed the whole time. I thought this was a great effect, as it made me realize about how many times I am on camera during the day without thinking about it. The dancers in the room began speaking in unison what sounded like violent headlines from the news about school shootings. This scene seemed to be a commentary on how the media is one of the most powerful forms of control and authority in our daily lives, with most people not even thinking about how strongly it shapes our perceptions of reality.
We continued into a steamy spa set up in the venue's bathrooms, where a bunch of half naked people were dressed in pink robes, primping, washing, massaging each other with oils, and brushing their teeth. To the side of me in a bathroom stall, a girl was screaming: "Mommy! you never let me go outside!" The fog-filled room was so cramped, and the situation so surreal that it made me feel like I was inside of a Matthew Barney nightmare—it was great.
The group was then led outdoors for a dance inside a crumbling brick building with no ceiling. Walking around the side of the enormous structure, we entered another room with a group of people with basketball nets over their faces and two female drill sergeants yelling instructions at them like this was some sort of demented dance class. The soundtrack, DJ NJ Drone's "10 Cones," was loud and punishing, a total assault on your senses. All the while, a woman was tied up in the back corner of the room.
After this, we were led to a waiting room behind a chain link fence, where we could watch other groups experiencing my "militia" piece and being forced outside the building, but from a different angle—effectively taking the surveillance theme to another level by letting us spy on each other.
The evening ended with a siren blaring and red lights flashing as every dancer ran into the main room, where they all started humming and singing a sustained note before breaking into spontaneous dancing. Everyone from all of the groups were together now, and we were free to roam around with no separation between audience and dancers. I saw multiple people crying, and it felt like a release—a sort of healing prayer, one that felt like the perfect way to balance out the extremely tense situations that preceded it.
All in all, Authority Figure was a genius and highly poetic exploration of the many types of authority and power dynamics that we struggle with in our lives. The way that so many people from various parts of the New York music, arts, and dance communities came together to produce this event was really inspiring; I had never really seen anything quite like it, on this scale, before. I was reminded of the NYC avant-garde arts scene of the 60s and 70s, which was heavy with a lot of performance art and dance, with choreographers like Merce Cunningham collaborating with musicians like John Cage and painters like Robert Rauschenberg to really push their respective genres of art forward.
Authority Figure held that same power. Monica and Sarah showed that the best weapon for challenging all types of authority is to work together collectively. Finding strength as a collective, people can overcome established forces that are abusive or oppressive—and by working together, we create something greater than we could as individuals.
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