Photos by Jesse Untracht-Oakner and Zach Sokol.
On Thursday, November 7th, I was invited to go to an event in the Sky Room at the New Museum for an event sponsored by Rhizome, the not-for-profit organization that focuses on new media and technology-related art.
The exhibition, titled New York New York Happy Happy (NY NY HP HP), was described to me in vague terms--it would be a "semi-fictional benefit gala" created by artist Ed Fornieles in which guests would adopt "a heightened persona" and lose themselves in the glamorous world of a New York charity gala."
I thought, okay, this sounds like a glamorous circle-jerk that could be funny. It will be all smoke and mirrors, but there will be free drinks. At the same time, Rhizome only does cool stuff, I'll go and observe, have a few beers and talk with some pretty people.
I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
The morning of the event, I received a call from Fornieles, where he informed me that I was to embody the role of a "sociopath." "Patrick Bateman," said Fornieles. "You're channeling him." Fornieles said others were instructed to take on roles such as "Selfie," "E-Cig," and "Gossip Queen."
I asked if I could bring a camera, and the artists said yes, but only if I used it with sociopathic tendencies—which immediately sparked images of Uncle Terry shoving his fingers in the mouths of young women.
The crowd in the lobby of the museum was mixed: there were your average museum attendees, kids and families checking out the Chris Burden installation, and then a few pockets of extremely attractive, well-dressed types that looked like they were ready for a gala.
I checked in and was asked which ticket level I purchased. Apparently, tickets for NY NY HP HP started at $50 for a bronze admission and went all the way up to $5,000 for a black one. The various tickets offered amenities such as "dedicated arm candy" and limo rides. The most expensive badge promised that you would be the evening's honoree. No one took that bait.
I rode the elevator to the top floor with a friend who worked a Rhizome, and she said "I don't want to be rude, but you're horribly underdressed." I had just left class and was wearing a red button-down and jeans. Clearly I didn't fully process that a "semi-fictional benefit gala" required gala garb and when the elevator doors opened, I was the only person not wearing a suit, or black and white, for that matter. Everyone looked incredible.
Things started off slow with the first hour spent drinking complimentary champagne, smoking on the roof deck, and gawking at everyone's attire.
Here's what happens when the USS Endeavour crashlands in a hippy commune in Bali.
Tie dye suits and riding boots were de rigueur.
Teddy Ruxpin died for this coat. :(
At 9pm, performance artist, Vice contributor, and "future 'It Girl,'' Hari Nef, gave a speech about the accomplishments of Rhizome and the importance of a not-for-profit company that focuses on new media and the future of art. Then the real show began. Nef began lip-synching a cover of some grandiose, Diva-friendly, showstopper. Her performance was then followed by a troupe of dancers and a deluge of confetti and white fluff, while the assembled crowd bayed for more.
Was that woman in the background actuallly WITH CHILD? Or was her baby bump ALL A RUSE?
Party-goers really took advantage of the open bar, and the people assigned heightened objects like "E-cigs" began to actually embrace their roles. One woman got up in my face and started telling me rumors about various party-goers, obviously filling the "Gossip Queen" role. She pointed out who had cocaine on them, who was subject to a lawsuit, and other rumors she spewed out on the spot.
At the same time, certain badge-holders were brought on limo rides, again heightening the idea that they were important people, and this was an important gala... that wasn't technically real.
Smoking is not chic, but with e-cigs you can get that stressed out dragon look without getting cancer!
Shots are always in style.
By 9:30, the night morphed into a hedonistic, bacchanalia. The guests feasted on human meat plates, attendees filling up on the "flesh" of angelic, virginal, sacrificial bodies. Naturally, I ate a slice of salami off one offering's chest.
A music performance started with a Gershwin-esque ditty before a band took over. The dancers interrupted by showering the whole room in iridescent confetti while the DJ spun Biggie and Disclosure.
Bass drums are made for mounting, apparently.
If you can do your "fierce photo face" during a pillow fight you should probably spend less time looking in the mirror.
Chris Farley incarnation of the Chippendale.
It looks like things are about to get oral. But, as I heard more than one party-goer comment, the gold-heeled loafer-boots were pretty intense.
Nef screamed at the audience to shut up, before telling us we had more sacrifices who needed their clothes ripped of so they could be re-dressed, and thus re-born.
One member of Fornieles' crew started tackling people to the ground, while more fluff and confetti rained down. In a blink, everyone was writhing on the floor, crawling on top of each other. I tried taking photos, but the tackler came up and bit me on the cheek before pulling me backwards into the human meat pile.
The guests started destroying room, and everything that was once beautiful came crashing down in the chaos.
Frankly ferel behavior!
By 11pm the room was completely decimated and everyone cheered and clapped while "Wrecking Ball" played out over the speakers. Nef announced the gala's end. (The debauchery continued later at the Boom Boom Room.)
I'm still processing the event in my head. On one hand, it's fascinating to create a fake gala with histrionic, hyperbolic roles assigned to people so that we became a collective caricature of a fancy, New York gala. The idea that this setting couldn't contain its gaudy tendencies and exploded due to an overload of indulgence and luxury, is a great twist of performance art.
Furthermore, it's a curious concept exploring how we play certain roles at an idealized event. A gala, at heart, is this romantic, American Dream-type illusion that's more mirage than reality. We see these kinds of showy spectacles in movies (most recently, The Great Gatsby), in magazines, on the internet, instagram, and all through pop culture.
When we attend such events, do we consciously force ourselves to embody specific identities, or do the events have a vague magic (or societal pressure?) that turn us into characters without us even realizing it? Fornieles may be manipulating the unexplainable forces that dictate human behavior.
It must be mentioned, though, that the event was legitimately real (even if pre-meditated). It was exclusive. It was fancy. Every attendee had probably been to several "real" galas in their lifetimes.
The point where the art ended and reality began was blurred, and it was hard to determine if there was a lack of self-awareness clouding the room. How can a young, hip artist and his posh friends create an installation about social status, wealth, and New York archetypes without succumbing to a level of unintended irony? Or was the irony intended the whole time?
There was a rumor floating around (not from the "Gossip Queen") that everyone was assigned the role of sociopath by Fornieles, and this was more of a psychological experiment than a piece of performance art. He may have been manipulating us to make a subtle commentary that only some guests would recognize.
Fornieles may be tinkering with the idea that we force imagined social archetypes and social spaces into existence. We take imagined concepts--like a gala--and make them become realities because we all desire a hedonistic sublime. We all become sociopaths when there are beautiful people, fancy spaces, exclusivity, and of course documentation with iPhones, cameras, and video cameras.
There may have been no technology present at the event, but the arsenal of iPhones capturing the madness provided an apt metaphor: we can all become "heightened objects," sometimes intentionally, sometimes unconsciously, and they will all be preserved online for the world to deconstruct.
Zach's face, post-attack, is fine. He's on Twitter - @zachsokol.