Potato chips tossed from the balcony rained down on a well-coiffed sea of wealthy patrons eating rich cheeses and croquembouche as I grabbed a whiskey glass from a table holding dozens of them. I held it out and let a blonde male model with high, boyish cheekbones in a tuxedo fill it for the second time that evening. I had been at Power Ball, Toronto's notoriously extravagant annual arts fundraiser, for a little while already.
"I'd like to update what I said the last time we talked," the model said, looking around. "Oh, yeah?" I answered, nodding to let him know to keep filling my glass with viscous amber. "Yeah," he replied, "All hell has broken loose, and I have no idea what's going on. There's broken glass on the floor, just chilling."
I looked down at my shoddy combat boots, and indeed there was. Nobody seemed particularly concerned with cleaning it up either, as women in red carpet dresses and high heels stepped around the jagged shards, alternately laughing and looking bored, off to snip another cold, purple tentacle from the humongous chandelier made of cooked and skewered octopus hanging near the front of the room.
Several hours later, the fleshy bundle would begin to emanate a faintly disquieting odour. Brash, unvarnished waste would become a theme for the night as the humongous tables of food all eventually, and inevitably, went dead cold.
This dizzying perfume of aimless confusion and simulated depravity defined New York-based artist Jennifer Rubell's food performance at this year's Power Ball. This year's theme was "Appetite for Excess," and saw Rubell—a former caterer known for her large-scale experiments with food—curate an uncomfortably luxurious dining experience called "So Sorry" that came with a $500 per ticket price tag.
The idea, Rubell told me when I caught up with her in a phone call several days after the performance, was to force people into a position of being sorry. "The phrase 'so sorry' is interesting," she told me, "because it means you're doing it anyway; you're just aware of the other person's emotions."
Succulent charred ham, roasted potatoes, outsized slabs of sour-tasting bread, cheese, honeycombs oozing with crystalline nectar, and the aforementioned octopus chandelier—all prepared by Toronto-based culinary mainstay Grant Van Gameren of Bar Isabel—were strategically positioned throughout the space.
Attendees were forced to elbow through the crowd to serve themselves in hunks and chunks as workers moved like shadows to get on their knees and sweep up after them. Whether you said sorry to the people in your way or not—fellow ticket-holders and performers, of course, not the unnoticed janitors—like the choice of whether you used a plate or your hands, or felt bad about any of it, was up to you.
"Participation is the greatest thing there is in this life, and yet luxury in general involves a lack of participation," Rubell said in our interview. "Things being brought to you, given to you, being served. The incredible intensity of participation is weirdly avoided for somebody who can have almost any experience. I wanted to create a situation where there was no way to be above it."
Despite these would-be invitations to animalism, I didn't spy anybody shoving handfuls of roasted potatoes into their face while I pushed my way through the throng at Power Ball. It was clear that the people who paid up to attend this event were here to be seen and rub elbows, not to get sauced on free liquor and drip pig grease on their pocket squares. Everybody looked too beautiful for that kind of raw excess.
Except for one person, maybe. A man of perhaps 60 or so who looked every bit his age, but hard eyes and disheveled silver hair belied a kind of liveliness. That, and he was drinking his tall glass of red wine a little more quickly than everyone else. I asked him what he was doing here.
"If I didn't have an installation in the next room, I wouldn't be allowed in," he replied, his voice almost lyrical with a subtle, wine-induced slur. "I would get another drink, but I don't want people to think I'm an alcoholic. Ah well, I hate wine anyway." I introduced myself, and he told me his name was Orest.
Over the course of another glass of whisky, Orest unleashed a heady mix of tales from his days as a fire captain and poignant reflections on the current circumstances. "You know what I'd say if I paid $500 to get in here?" he asked, rhetorically, in that lilting cadence of his. "I'd feel fuckin' ripped off."
Before the conversation could go any farther, for better or for worse, one of Power Ball's organizer walked up to me and the photographer I'd been assigned to spend the evening with and asked us to go upstairs, to the balcony. It was time, it seemed, for the riff raff to get out of the way of the people who paid to be here. When I asked who would be allowed to stay on the main floor, with the food, I was told sponsors, mostly.
When I asked Rubell about this later, she didn't realize that the organizers had done this—the only people confined to the balcony were supposed to be the artists who were given chips to dump on the wealthy attendees and egg people on to throw food. It seems as though life began to imitate art at some point during the night.
Regardless, I was hungry, so I quickly snuck back down to get at more of the spread. I had been too busy drinking and taking notes to eat anything really substantial. Taking the theme of the evening to heart, I grabbed a hunk of bread and loaded it with a fat slice of ham. A plate was not needed. As low-level celebrities milled around and had their photo taken, I stuffed my face and shut out an internalized feeling of hot shame.
Back upstairs with the rest of the media delegates after a rather lonely bout of hedonism in a room full of people, things were more calm. The upper level was less crowded, for one, and everyone knew that everybody else was only here because they got in for free. Looking down on the ebbing tide of rich fabrics and fussy hair, one got the sense that we really were on the outside. We were the hungry ones—the young ones who still needed to eat for more than just social status.
"I think I get it now," said a young, thin photographer with curly brown hair that complimented his beige sport coat. "The people who paid to get in here aren't the audience. We are."
I nodded and took another long sip of whisky. The ice in the glass was melted now, turning the fiery liquid into something mild and vaguely unpleasant. The last translucent slivers hung in the amber, about to disappear forever. I contemplated taking a sandwich with me, smuggled inside my jacket.