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Naked on the first day of school. What may sound like the ultimate teenage trauma was one young man's reality at MoMA PS1's college-themed Thursday night "Back to School" benefit. He looked pretty euphoric, though, as he scampered past the beer pong tables and stacks of Domino's pizza, clutching a composition book in lieu of a fig leaf. Maybe it was less of a nightmare, more of a dream come true.
This was the second year that MoMA PS1 opted to use the window between the New York Art Book Fair and the start of its fall exhibition season to throw a raucous, performance-based blowout. (It was also the second time they'd used the back-to-school theme and multi-performance format; last year's event was created by artist Ryan McNamara, and his idea was handed on to DIS.) As one guy decked out in a pearl earring and a faux-fur jacket put it, "the space is empty, so why not let young people come and fuck shit up?"
A foam party filled with jock-strapped dancers raged in the basement, providing an incongruous, thudding soundtrack to an entirely serious debate on universal basic income going on across the hall. Alexandro Segade, one of the founding members of art collective My Barbarian, was giving a lecture on cosplay in a nearby room, while comedian Ruby McCollister and her Zhe Zhe web series collaborators, Leah Hennessey and Emily Allan, stomped and flailed around upstairs.
It wasn't always easy to tell what was planned performance and what was spontaneous mayhem. But dismantling the distinctions between irony and sincerity, counterculture and commercialism, subversion and self-promotion, is what DIS does best. The art-fashion-branding collective were given free reign to fill the museum with 20-plus projects and the result was a characteristically uncanny blend of superficiality and substance.
One of the larger galleries was given over to a multi-designer fashion show MC-ed by Ian Isiah, a performer linked to GHE20GoTH1k, the once-underground, gender-bending party turned global phenomenon. Taylor Trabulus, a director at Gavin Brown's Enterprise, was among the models. "I liked picking out my outfit, but I didn't really like school that much," she said, reflecting on the first day of class. "If school had been like this, it would have been great."
Behind her, partygoers used the catwalk as a long communal table to skarf cookies and spicy chicken sliders. Performers attired in rhinestone bras, ostrich feather jackets, and white long-johns swirled around the room. Veteran fashion photographer Dustin Pittman glided nimbly through the crowd, pausing to snap portraits of a model whose pile of blonde curls, more-is-more approach to eyeliner, and tight white sheath unzipped down to there made her resemble an intergalactic flight attendant by way of Absolutely Fabulous.
We found two DIS founders, Lauren Boyle and Marco Rosso, downstairs, reclining on a queen-sized bunk bed in a room dubbed "Dorm Rage." Boyle, outfitted in loose black pants and a red backwards polo shirt by Telfar, said she and her collaborators started planning the event by approaching the organizers of local parties and comedy groups. "We wanted it to feel like someone switched off the lights at school and the kids went crazy," she said.
The museum was beginning to feel a little like a frat house—albeit one with a queer streak (most of the projects dealt with sexual identity in one way or another) and as much bottled matacha as beer. Crushed Tecate cans, half-dead glow sticks, and empty Doritos bags littered the courtyard. "Was that real urine in the Kim Jung Un karaoke room?" a leggy girl in leather shorts asked her friend. He shrugged. "Smelled like it."
As the night wore on, the party grew increasingly lawless. One woman in saffron stockings slipped past security to do a tap dance on the plywood floor of the VW Dome. Guests ricocheted around the halls, smacking empty solo cups off ledges onto the floor. Comedy rooms became karaoke dens; karaoke dens became dance parties. The once waist-high foam in the foam party dwindled down to an inch of sudsy water, but the dancers didn't seem to mind. The night was still young and they were not about to stop.
Zoë Lescaze is a writer based in New York.