In Jorge Luis Borges's fantastical story "The Approach to Al-Mu'tasim," the narrator reviews a fake book, going so far as to not only describe its pseudo-plot and the background of its fictitious author, but to compare the "reviews" of its first and second editions by other "critics."
The acclaimed artist duo Freeman/Lowe (Jonah Freeman and Justin Lowe) have done something not so dissimilar with their latest show, Scenario in the Shade, a multimedia mindfuck of an exhibition—a collaboration with musician/artist Jennifer Herrema—that opened this past weekend. The trio has converted Red Bull Studios in Manhattan to the point of unrecognizability. Until December 6, the arts space will be a bombed-out labyrinth of sculptural and sonic environments, each room the remnants of fabricated gangs and subcultures that once roamed a made-up megacity called San San International.
"San San is like a metroplex that has grown from San Diego to San Francisco, but SF is now in Alaska," the artists explained to me a few days before the opening. "We're working with these very constant science-fiction and alternate-history models where time is out of joint."
To explore Scenario is to be ripped out of reality and plopped into a Warriors-style dystopian urban landscape where chemtrails likely stain the skies (if there were skies to see) and the water is almost certainly spiked with Orange Sunshine LSD. Upon walking through the exhibition entrance on 18th Street, visitors are greeted by a decrepit bodega, an antiquated parlor, and a 70s-style drug den fitted with a couch sunken into the carpeted floor that gallery-goers enter through the back of a wardrobe (because of course there'd be a Narnia motif), as well as a room containing the leftovers of a drug lab, a kinda-continuation of Freeman and Lowe's 2008 installation, Hello Meth Lab in the Sun. And that's just the first floor of the 15,000-square-foot space.
The subterranean level, which visitors enter through a porta-potty, includes a fully built-out courtroom; an area surrounded by aquariums, where a ragtag band featuring Herrema and members of Gang Gang Dance and MGMT performed during a private preview; and hacked arcade games like Time Crisis 3 that spout psychedelic visuals. There's even a theater, if all this is too dizzying for you and you need to sit for a minute, where visitors can watch a 30-minute survey of the physical exhibition that is the second part of a trilogy beginning with Freeman/Lowe's 2014 show The Floating Chain.
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Not that overwhelming environments are the only thing on display—the artists also installed speakers in the various rooms which emit a "sprawling sonic collage," including contributions from Kurt Vile, OFF!, Devendra Banhart, Hot Chip, and Bad Brains, together forming seven hours of music that will be released as a record on Drag City. The trio describes just the sound aspect as "its own sort of living organism," suggesting that Scenario, amalgamated, is akin to a living mammal—but probably closer to a fantastical beast sporting ten heads and iridescent teeth.
"I feel like this is first opportunity where we were allowed to do it all," Herrema told me.
"It's close to the idea of a complete artwork," Lowe added. "We had a chance to make that. There were so many toys to play with here: studios, a video-viewing room, and this weirdo architecture to respond to. You can really make a complete picture."
As I tried to process it all, the three artists explained what inspired the installation itself, prior to even broaching the mad-genius backstory of San San International and the gangs that occupy it.
"It's about a sort of multi-universe and us trying to transcribe from within that matrix," Lowe explained. "You know that feeling when you walk down Canal Street, right? It's about the polyphonic head-fuck that is Canal Street, but a globalized model. We are kind of automating this little bit more to reflect the actual reality of the urban experience."
Zeroing in a bit on this specific iteration of their ever-expanding, precariously tethered oeuvre— Scenario includes Easter eggs from past exhibitions, equally batshit (albeit less expansive) endeavors that sometimes related to San San. The artists divulged that while the space aims to encapsulate said urban, polyphonic head-fuck, they're also trying to tell a story "about people through their objects, and through their environments."
"How can you use material to create a fictional narrative?" Freeman asked rhetorically. "In our studio discussions, we focused in on subcultures and gangs and the way their territories are distributed among a city, and how their style, aesthetic sensibilities, and objects become the identity for certain groups." For example, a sculptural cactus-crystal hybrid appears in the exhibition, representing a fake plant that produces a drug called Marasa that one gang (vaguely inspired by real-life hooligans The Scuttlers) was fond of taking. In turn, there's the drug-lab room, likely alluding to Dr. Arthur Cook, an Albert Hoffman–type psychopharmacologist the artists imagined for their 2010 exhibition Bright White Underground. Dr. Cook is said to have invented Marasa and administered it during group-therapy sessions, which may nod to that vibe-y, carpeted den inside the faux-wardrobe in Red Bull.
"There's this connected narrative, but we're not precious or totally directive with any of these spaces," Herrema said. "It's not a Walt Disney ride—it's more like ring-around-the-fucking-rosie."
Lowe added that even if there are noticeable nods to pop culture, be it 60s and 70s drug parties or William Gibson or Philip K. Dick, "the familiarity of the environments is there so people can use those reference points to have an emotional or intellectual responses.
"We're very much bringing in culture and we're bringing in how we experience daily life," Lowe continued. "So there are brands. There is repetition. You do see Nike and Coca-Cola again and again. You do see that same haircut."
Despite finishing what may be their most meticulous, ridiculous, and comprehensive installation to date, the artists have greater ambitions for the future of their dive into hand crafted alternate realities.
"We're still interested in this serial, sort of chapter-based storytelling," the trio agreed. For the third installment of their film trilogy and future exhibitions, they imagine "a long-form narrative feature that tells the stories of Dr. Cook, the gangs, and all the characters involved," using actors and maybe even dialogue.
"San San International is just the mall, the metroplex," said Lowe. "Next time, we're gonna walk you out the front door and bring you to Mercury City."
Even if the hinted macro-metropolis never comes to fruition, it's fun to imagine Borges browsing through Freeman, Lowe, and Herrema's entrancing sculptural worlds, the deceased author taking notes and even feeling a pang of jealousy at the sheer scale and ambition of a project as tripped out as the artists's latest.
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Scenario in the Shade is open at Red Bull Studios through December 6. For more information on the exhibition, visit the art space's website here.