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 wasn't sure whether to eyeroll or buy drugs in anticipation. I thought, Ok, this sounds like a glamorous circle-jerk that could be funny. It may be all smoke and mirrors, but there will be free drinks. At the same time, Rhizome only does cool stuff and there must be some tech or new media spin that fits with The Creators Project. I'll go and observer, maybe have a few beers and talk with some pretty people. So I said sure, I'll come.
I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
The morning of the event, I received a call from Fornieles. He was speaking hyper-fast and I could barely understand him, yet I managed to catch that I was to embody the role of a "sociopath" in the Sky Room that night. "Patrick Bateman," said Fornieles. "You're channeling him." Fornieles also said that others received 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 could use it with sociopathic tendencies, sparking ideas of Uncle Terry shoving his fingers in the mouths of young women.
Upon arriving at the museum around 8pm, there was a mixed crowd. In the lobby, 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, well, 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 museum's 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. Something didn't click, and I didn't fully process that a "semi-fictional benefit gala" required gala garb: when the elevator doors open I was the only person not wearing a suit, or black and white, for that matter. Everyone looked incredible, and the all-white space looked (again, unsurprisingly) like a gala.
Things started pretty normally. Everyone was socializing, drinking complimentary champagne, and smoking on the roof deck that overlooks the Lower East Side. Nothing really happened for the first hour, and I spent my time chatting with acquiantances and gawking at some of the guests wearing more intense clothing.
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 started lip-synching a cover of some grandiose, Diva-friendly, showstopper. It was a proper initiation for all that was to come, and immediately after a troupe of dancer appeared. The crowd started shouting, and the dancers unleashed a deluge of confetti and white fluff, signifying that a lot was about to fall down.
Party-goers started taking 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.
By 9:30PM, the night morphed into a hedonistic, fantasy-like party that evoked images of Roman orgies and the kind of birthday parties reserved for royalty. To feed the guests, human meat plates were brought out so attendees could fill 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. The DJ started playing louder, more bombastic tunes (Biggie, Disclosure, etc.) and the hedonism began to surge.
Some dancers took their clothing off on raised platforms and then a group of Chippendales took command of the room.
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.
The excess continued to sky rocket, until it exploded in a wave of destruction. One member of Fornieles' crew started literally tackling people to the ground, while more fluff and confetti rained down. In a blink, everyone was riling on the floor, crawling on top of each other. I tried taking photos, but the tackler came up to me and bit me on the cheek before wrapping her arms around me and falling backwards with me into the human meat pile.
The guests started destroying the entire room, and everything that was once beautiful became tarnished in a blast of concentrated chaos.
When the room was completely decimated around 11PM, "Wrecking Ball" appropriately played over the speakers and everyone cheered and clapped. Nef announced the gala's end, but that the party would continue at the Boom Boom Room, as if there wasn't enough lavishness already.
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 overloaded indulgence and luxury is a lovely twist of performance art.
Furthermore, it's a curious concept regarding how we play certain roles at an idealized event. A gala, at heart, is this romantic, American Dream-type illusion that's more of a mirage than a reality. We see images of this kind of royal, important spectacle 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 (confetti as pixie dust) that turn us into characters without us even realizing it? Fornieles may be manipulating the unexplainable forces that dictate human behav
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.