Archive for the 'Photo diary' Category

Culture Vulture/Performance Diary: Queer Black Artists, Charlotte Adigéry & Bolis Pupul, Arooj Aftab, THE AFRICAN DESPERATE, Machine Dazzle, and more

September 29, 2022

The fall season kicked in big-time last week.

Sunday: I swear the New York Times’ fashion supplement T Magazine under Hanya Yanagihara’s editorship has more overt gay coverage than the Advocate does. This week’s cover story feature on young, queer black artists under 40 grew out of photographer Shikeith’s despire to pay tribute to Marlon Riggs’s groundbreaking 1989 documentary Tongues Untied, a beautifully poetic celebration of black gay male culture. The T Magazine event had several facets to it, beginning in Red Hook on August 1 with one of those history-making photo shoots gathering 24 artists in one place.

serpentwithfeet, Jacolby Satterwhite, Tune Olaniran, Troy Montez Michie, and Texas Isaiah, photo by Shikeith

The following day, five of them sat down with journalist Emil Wilbekin for a free-ranging conversation. Adam Pendleton, who recently had a splashy show in the atrium at MOMA, spoke directly to the discomfort many artists feel about having a minority-status adjective (black, queer, female, etc.) attached like a label to their work:

Adjectives are terrible, but generosity and legibility are important. And what I mean by that is: A project like this is almost a double-edged sword, in the sense that any instance where you’re identified is a terrible moment, actually. When you’re claimed as something — when you’re named as something — that’s not necessarily a moment of celebration or liberation. And that’s kind of what this being released into the world will mark. It’s funny because I actually never thought about any of this, so when you keep saying “Black,” “queer” — that’s not the language I used when I thought about myself as an artist. I was just like, “I’m an artist.” That was it.

I totally respect that apprehension, AND I will say for myself that I came out in the first post-Stonewall wave of gay liberation, and for me it has always been exciting when artists identify as gay or queer. It always makes me a little more interested in them. Not because I assume they will conform to some idea of what gay or queer art looks like — just the opposite. I’m thrilled to encounter yet another example of how rich and different and multifaceted queer art can be. So while this T Magazine feature included a few artists I already knew about (Jeremy O. Harris, Brontez Purnell, Jacolby Satterwhite, serpentwithfeet, Jaquel Spivey, and Ato Blankson-Wood, in addition to Pendleton), I now have a bunch more queer black brothers – poets, actors, musicians, designers, and visual artists — whose work I’m curious to investigate. I actively want to know what they have to say about beauty and desire, gender and politics, love and life. The names: Don Christina Jones, Abdu Ali, Jonathan Lydon Chase, Miles Greenberg, Devan Shimoyama, Hugh Hayden, Saeed Jones, Jonathan Gardenhire, Danez Smith, Clifford Prince King, Eric N. Mack, Edwin Thompson, D’Angelo Lovell William, Tunde Olaniran, Troy Montes Michie, and Texas Isaiah.

You can read an extended version of the conversation online here.

Hilarious side note: Leon Curry curated a Spotify playlist that provided the soundtrack for the photo shoot, and the T article includes a link. But the trap-heavy playlist has been thoroughly scrubbed of curse words, and the result is that some tracks make no sense at all because of the frequent dropouts that interfere with sound, sense, and flow.

Monday: The title and the structure of The Nipple Whisperer by the mononymous Lui suggests that the book is a step-by-step guide to cultivating nipple eroticism. It is that, but it is also a lot more. It is ultimately a stealth manual for sacred intimates.

The author has carefully surveyed key encounters with clients and lovers, and he shares with readers his trial-and-error experiments in sexual healing with a huge amount of grace, wisdom, and excellent writing.

Tuesday night: Touring the US for the first time, the Belgian synth-pop duo Charlotte Adigéry and Bolis Pupul took Bowery Ballroom by storm. Their debut album, Topical Dancer, dropped earlier this year – fun, effervescent, quirky, playfully political.

Best demonstration: “Blenda,” a hot hot groove (Bolis is the one-man band) while she sings, “Go back to the country where you belong/Siri, will you tell me where I belong?” In performance, they’re energetic and physically unafraid.

For their last number, they both jumped off the stage and cut a Soul Train swatch through the audience, communing and boogeying down with the ecstatic crowd. (Their next gig is at a festival in Bentonville, Arkansas!) Our posse of Body Electricians met beforehand for a drink and a bite at Loreley Beer Garden, and we took a stroll down Freeman Alley checking out the ever-changing artwork.

Wednesday: MUBI subscribers get free admission to one indie-film-in-need-of-an-audience every week. This time it was The African Desperate by Martine Syms at the Quad, a very smart, edgy portrait of a black female artist’s last 24 hours in an MFA program at a rural upstate New York campus (filmed at Bard). It opens with Palace Bryant (a brave performance by Diamond Stingily) sitting for a final studio visit with her four white faculty advisors, each with their own brand of excruciating micro-aggressiveness. As she packs up for home in Chicago and navigates stolidly ambivalent farewell partying with her classmates, frenemies, and gender-fluid flirtations, the name-checking of art theoreticians flows as freely as the party drugs.

Syms gives herself a huge amount of freedom to play with the kind of jump cuts, layering, and sound games you’re more used to encountering in music videos and TikToks than in feature films, not unlike, say, Janicza Bravo’s Twitter-inspired Zola or Michaela Coel’s mini-series I May Destroy You. (Although didn’t the recently departed Jean-Luc Godard do all of that first?) I’m not the only person who referenced Gaspar Noë’s Climax during some of the extended, chaotic, nerve-wracking sex-and-drugs sequences. One of the quirks that cracked me up was when friends would be sitting around dishing other people and the soundtrack would blank out the names, as if they were blind items in a gossip column. Speaking of soundtracks, you can listen to the music from The African Desperate on Spotify here.

Thursday: Someone at the Metropolitan Museum’s Live Arts department had the inspired idea of inviting Aroof Aftab, the sublime queer Pakistani Grammy-winning singer, to perform at the Temple of Dendur. Taking the stage, Aftab declared this was the most epic performance the group had ever played, which is saying something because she’s been touring (a lot of festivals) continuously since the release last year of her sublime album Vulture Prince.

She’s an incredible singer in the ghazal tradition, which conveys fragments of poetry in long slow exquisite lines without being show-offy. But she also has a wonderful dry sense of humor. She noted that people tend to classify her music as sacred because so much of it is slow, somber, soulful. But she specifically included one song in English on her album (taken from a Rumi poem, its entire text goes “Last night my beloved was like the moon/So beautiful”) to indicate that all the songs she sings are about being intoxicated and unhappy in love.

After opening the show with the album’s gorgeous first song, “Baghon Main,” she chatted for a while, admitting to the audience that she usually talks a lot and tells jokes between songs but she was a little intimidated by the august venue, so maybe not. In place of her usual glass of red wine, she had whiskey in a paper cup to sip throughout the show. And she said she’s lately taken to tossing roses into the audience, but she worried that security would tackle her if she tried that at the Met. Well, after a few more sips of whiskey, all her inhibitions flew out the window, and she cracked jokes about her fancy outfit, which made her feel like a car (and which she swapped out halfway through the show for a more comfortable but still glam long silvery coat). And she doesn’t shy away from sly political commentary, noting that the Temple of Dendur “may or may not be stolen.” (It is, after all, located in the Sackler Wing, named after the family whose pharmaceutical company has been castigated and prosecuted for its part in the opioid crisis.) And one by one all those long-stem roses onstage wound up in the hands of pretty ladies who caught the singer’s eye.

The acoustics were perfect for her mostly acoustic band, an oddball ensemble of harp (Maeve Gilchrist, tall blond whose high heels doubled as percussion), guitar (Gyan Riley), violin (the gender-queer glory that is Darian Donovan Thomas), and bass (Shahzad Ismaily, who also adds some crazy spice on the synthesizer keyboard he balances on his lap). She said they’d learned a lot about song order on tour, so they closed with their “happy” number, their “banger,” “Mohabbat,” which only in the world of ghazal could be considered a “banger.” The show was being filmed so will undoubtedly manifest online somewhere, but if you’ve not yet had the pleasure of hearing this exceptional vocalist, I would encourage you to check out her “Tiny Desk Concert” filmed during the pandemic for NPR.

Friday: I returned to Forest Hills Tennis Stadium (where I saw Bon Iver and Odesza earlier in the summer) for another extravaganza featuring EDM superstars Jamie XX, Four Tet, and Floating Points. The latter two took the stage together, taking turns driving.

I’m a big fan of Floating Points (a happy bespectacled nerdy Brit named Sam Shepherd) and his bass-heavy grooves; he put out an extraordinary album last year called Promises featuring the London Symphony Orchestra and the legendary jazz saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, who died the day after the Forest Hills concert. Four Tet (another Brit named Kieran Hebden with very eclectic tastes) used his turns to conduct noise experiments that didn’t thrill me. A group of five little girls danced and frolicked behind them every so often. After an hour, Four Tet got the stage to himself and got more fun.

Jamie XX (aka James Thomas Smith, former member of the XX) definitely knows how to please a crowd by mashing up his own tuneful beats with surprises for the audience to sing along to (“Psycho Killer”! Ariana Grande’s “Into You”!).

Andy and I met up with our friends Jay and Paul, who just moved from Brooklyn to New Jersey and needed to let off some steam. Mission accomplished!

Saturday: Our friend Allen was visiting from San Francisco so Saturday afternoon we took him to the Museum of Art and Design and introduced him to the genius that is Machine Dazzle, who gets two whole floors to display his “Queer Maximalism.” The fifth floor showcases some of the mind-boggling outfits Machine created for Taylor Mac’s “24-Decade History of Popular Music.”

The fourth floor covers his non-Taylor costumes for shows at the Guggenheim, at Rice University’s Moody Center for the Arts, and for the Dazzle Dancers.

The detail and the beauty is insanely overwhelming. You could make separate trips to the show just to study the handbags, the shoes, and especially the kkkkkrazeee headdresses.

After beers at the 9th Avenue Saloon, Allen went off to Brooklyn, and we continued the day of Queer Maximalism by seeing the David Bowie movie MOONAGE DAYDREAM.

Not exactly a documentary, it’s more of a cinematic essay that collages rare concert footage, talk show appearances, and period cultural artifacts to present Bowie as more than a rock musician or pop star and more of a philosophical artist on a quest for meaning, for understanding his place in the universe. It’s written, directed, and produced by Brett Morgen, but the real wizardry is Morgen’s spectacular editing.

Sunday: I was feeling a little overwhelmed and oversaturated, but I raced down to the East Village on an electric Citibike (the trains were not running properly) to see Mud/Drowning at Mabou Mines at 7:30…only to learn that the show was at 2pm that afternoon. I rescheduled for this coming Friday, sandwiched between Monochromatic Light (Afterlife), the Tyshawn Sorey concert staged by Peter Sellars at Park Avenue Armory, and two very different shows on Broadway — MJ The Musical and Tom Stoppard’s Leopoldstadt. Next week: another wacky, eclectic marathon starting with Flying Lotus at BAM, continuing with David Greenspan’s one-man version of Gertrude Stein’s Four Saints in Three Acts, and at long last Funny Girl on Broadway!

Culture Vulture/Photo Diary: CAROLINE, OR CHANGE, Jasper Johns, Jennifer Packer, THE POWER OF THE DOG, and more

November 22, 2021

November 14 – Michael Longhurst’s revival of Caroline, or Change has had its delayed opening at Studio 54 under the auspices of Roundabout Theatre Company. Originally mounted in London, the show did nothing to erase my memories of the virtually impeccable original production that George C. Wolfe staged first at the Public Theater and then on Broadway. But Sharon D Clarke is indeed remarkable in the title role of Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s beautiful, strong musical play.

November 15 – I’ve been on a Paul Bowles roll recently, happily making my way through a massive volume of his letters (In Touch, edited by Jeffrey Miller). Bowles occupied one of the more fascinating corners of 20th century art as a novelist, composer, musical anthropologist, and photographer. He married Jane Bowles — both of them deeply idiosyncratic fiction masters, both of them queer — and for a time they lived in the famous house in Brooklyn also occupied by the likes of W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman, Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, Carson McCullers, and Gypsy Rose Lee. He had to be one of the most pretentious/precocious teenage artists who ever lived — his first day in Paris he hung out with Jean Cocteau AND Gertrude Stein (who took him under her wing for a while and called him “Freddy”). The letters include a long missive he wrote to Ned Rorem while having a not-very-enjoyable trip of mescaline.

Jennifer Baichwal’s documentary Let It Come Down (available on DVD from Netflix) fed me plenty of tidbits. The filmmaker managed to get footage of a NYC hotel room meeting between Bowles (above), William S. Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg, the last time those literary lions all met. Burroughs pronounces The Sheltering Sky “an almost perfect novel” (I agree) while also referring to Without Stopping, Bowles’ memoir, as Without Telling, because he’s so maddeningly discreet about anything having to do with sex, romance, or actual people (in contrast to Gore Vidal’s memoirs, which Burroughs appreciates for dishy gossip on every page). Bowles has nothing good to say about Bertolucci’s film version of The Sheltering Sky. I was also intrigued to see footage of Cherifa, Jane Bowles’s mysterious partner, as an old woman (below) repeating without denying rumors that she was a witch who exerted strange powers over JB.

November 18 – I don’t have anything nice to say about Lynn Nottage’s new play Clyde’s, directed by Kate Whoriskey for the Second Stage at the Helen Hayes Theatre, so I’m not going to say anything at all.

November 19 – I dutifully showed up at the Whitney Museum to check out Jasper Johns: Mind/Mirror (the other half of this retrospective is at the Philadelphia Museum of Art), which only confirmed the inability of Johns’ work to move me at all. His imagery (flags, numbers, maps, etc.) has always landed on me as extremely banal and ugly. The one piece that stood out for me in this show is Field Painting, probably because it looks a lot like the kind of multimedia “combine” that was the specialty of Robert Rauschenberg, his former partner and an artist whose lively, restless, generous creativity has always excited me.

The real reward of this expedition was encountering the splashy exhibition by a painter new to me: Jennifer Packer: The Eye Is Not Satisfied With Seeing. Her large multilayered canvases merge representation and abstraction in unusual and beautiful ways.

I’d also never heard of My Barbarian, the Los Angeles-based art collective, whose installation on the first floor is small but dense and fun and alive with film and animation.

November 20 – Today was National Trans Day of Remembrance. As I’ve done numerous times in the past, I gathered with Gays Against Guns – the activist organization formed after the Pulse massacre in Orland in 2016 – and manifested as one of the Human Beings, silent veiled figures dressed in white representing victims of gun violence. I held placards commemorating Tiara Banks and Dominique Lucious, two of the 34 trans Americans killed by guns this year alone (more have been murdered through other means).

We stood in front of the Washington Square Arch as passersby read and absorbed the stories of these lives lost to senseless violence, and then we processed across the park to Judson Memorial Church, where there was a ceremony and service honoring trans lives.

Among the other Human Beings were two artist friends who’d never met. I got to introduce Paul Wirhun (aka Rosie Delicious aka Egmananda), a radical faerie artist who specializes in psanky (eggshell painting), to Antonius Wiriadjaja (aka Oki), whose Instagram #foodmasku (“I make my meals into masks and then I eat them”) went from pandemic pastime to online sensation. Oki, whom I met playing with Gamelan Kusuma Laras, is also a victim of gun violence (innocent bystander to a drive-by shooting in Brooklyn) and tireless advocate for better gun control laws.

I also got to meet Camille Atkinson (below right), who’s from New Orleans and knows how to rock a memorial outfit.

I wasn’t chomping at the bit to see Lin-Manuel Miranda’s film version of Jonathan Larson’s musical tick…tick…BOOM, mostly because I’m not a fan of Andrew Garfield (still haven’t forgiven him for his shallow performance in Angels in America on Broadway – minority opinion, I know, since he walked away with the Tony Award). Nor was I a big fan of Rent, of which TTB is kind of a rough draft. But it was Saturday night on Netflix, so we tuned in. The first 10-15 minutes were tough going, with all the selling-it-to-the-rafters Broadway-style singing we’ve been overdosing on lately. What kept us going were the cameos – I kept exclaiming with delight spotting New York theater treasures among the supporting cast and background players (see the complete list online here), and Andy had fun spotting familiar geographical landmarks and vicariously inhabiting cramped Village apartments recognizable from when he himself was a lad in the early ‘90s finding his way through NYC.

November 21 – MUBI is yet another curated streaming platform for arcane art cinema from all around the world. I’ve encountered some gems and a lot of quirky curiosities there, and just when I think “Is this really worth $10.99 a month?” they’ve sweetened the deal by offering subscribers a free ticket to a brand-new art film playing in theaters. I might not have gotten to Jane Campion’s new film The Power of The Dog so quickly if it hadn’t been playing two blocks from my house at the Paris Theater, FOR FREE. But wow, so glad I did! I’ve loved a lot of Campion’s work, and this one is right up there. I’m never drawn to any movie that falls in the category of “Western” – even one set in Montana but shot in the hills of New Zealand – but this one is exceptional. I had flashes of thinking about There Will Be Blood and Days of Heaven and Brokeback Mountain and even A Streetcar Named Desire but then the film (based on a novel by Thomas Savage) goes several places I would never have guessed. I say no more except to recommend it to anyone who has the patience for a slow-moving but intensely emotional drama. Among the strong performances is one you won’t quickly forget by this kid named Kodi Smit-McPhee.

Opinions are not ideas. I wish I had more ideas than I do. But I do have positive opinions about three other shows playing right now, shows that would surely never be produced on Broadway if it weren’t for the ruptures we’ve seen in the last couple of years. I highly recommend the two downtown hits playing in rep at the Lyceum Theatre, Tina Satter and Half Straddle’s Is This a Room and Les Waters’ production of Lucas Hnath’s Dana H. (with quietly astonishing lead performances by Emily Davis and Deirdre O’Connell, respectively). Ditto Alice Childress’s Trouble in Mind, a trenchant and still pertinent play about racial politics in New York theater finally having its Broadway premiere at the American Airlines Theatre, elegantly staged by Charles Randolph-Wright for the Roundabout, with especially fine performance by LaChanze, Chuck Cooper, and Michael Zegen.

Culture Vulture/Photo Diary:

October 25, 2021

Cautiously and carefully, theater is back, and the culture world of New York City has come back to life. There’s a lot to see, and a lot I want to see, but rather than plunging in I’m trying to pace myself.

Wednesday 10/13

KLUDGE  /klo͞oj/
Noun
1. An ill-assorted collection of parts assembled to fulfill a particular purpose.
Verb
1. Use ill-assorted parts to make (something).

“Kludge” was the title for five nights of performances at Joe’s Pub curated and hosted by Laurie Anderson, this year’s Vanguard artist-in-residence. The Vanguard is an award and yearlong residency that celebrates the career of a singular artist who has contributed to American life and pop culture and is a part of the Joe’s Pub family of artists. This artist also sustains and leads their own artistic community while creating a body of work that stands apart from their peers. I didn’t get to see Arto Lindsay or writer Lafcadio Cass, but tonight’s guests were poet Anne Carson and cellist Ruben Kodheli and his trio. Laurie started off playing a record about hypnosis on a strange stand-up phonograph that she said she’d just bought (at the MOMA gift shop, did she say?), but the sound levels were murky and we didn’t hear what she wanted us to hear.

Anne Carson read from her book The Autobiography of Red, a novel in verse about Geryon, a figure who shows up in the myth of Herakles – in this version they become lovers. Then Laurie improvised with Ruben’s group, then Anne read some of her “Small Tales,” 13-second (or more) discourses on random subjects. One involved contemplating Hegel’s grammatical indignation on Christmas Day while snow-standing. Then another improv, and then the show was over, a crisp one hour show.

Thursday 10/14 – I went with Jay Michaelson to see Wally Shawn’s The Fever performed by Lili Taylor. I wrote a separate blog post about that. Jay and I had a good conversation about the content of the piece over dinner next-door at Da Toscano.

Saturday 10/16

I saw the Metropolitan Opera matinee of Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up In My Bones, based on Charles Blow’s memoir about growing up in Louisiana and being molested by a favorite uncle when he was 7. I found most of the vocal score unbeautiful and the libretto by Kasi Lemmons somewhat stilted. I admired the lush lyricism of Blanchard’s orchestral music (conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin), and I was excited to witness the first opera by a black composer ever produced by the Met.

In the evening, Andy and I took in the Wooster Group’s production of Brecht’s The Mother at the Performing Garage, mounted as a kind of exercise in trying on Brechtian theory, which is not that much of a stretch for the Woosters: exposing the machinery, the actors playing themselves rather disappearing into the role, etc. I liked that they focused on doing a play about communism from the point of view of the workers, striking to protest a cut in their pay, and how the title character goes from meek conformism to committed activism. Similar to the group’s mounting of Pinter’s The Room, it felt like a study, a little dry, less passionate than some of Elizabeth LeCompte’s more elaborate theatrical collages. The list of source material in the program intrigued me, and I came away curious to check out a few items on the list: Slavoj Zižek’s Let Us Be Realists and Demand The Impossible: Communism, Fassbinder’s Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven, and Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

I’d made a reservation for dinner afterwards at Pastazul around the corner on Grand Street (that used to be Lucky Strike) but the dining room was dominated by shrieking partygoers, and so we went to Felix on West Broadway, which was also insanely loud – even sitting in the dining shed, we could barely hear ourselves over the music and the hubbub from inside the restaurant, and the loud tables in the shed, and the son of one of the waiters who was restlessly clomping around the outhouse. But we ordered our merguez and our red wine and everything was fine. New Yorkers are ready to go out and party hard!

Thursday 10/21

In one of the most interesting experiments in recent Broadway history, the Vineyard Theatre has two shows previously produced at their home base in Union Square playing in rep at the Lyceum, a small Broadway house often commandeered by not-for-profit theater companies venturing to draw a larger audience. I’m seeing the remount of Lucas Hnath’s Dana H. next week. Tonight was Is This A Room, which was conceived and directed by Tina Satter, whose company Half Straddle performed the piece at the Kitchen before it moved to the Vineyard for an extended run. The hour-long performance stages verbatim the official transcript of the FBI’s interview with Reality Winner at her home in Augusta, Georgia, on June 3, 2017. Winner, you may recall, was the 25-year-old Air Force intelligence specialist who spent four years in jail for leaking proof of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Satter has fun making theatrical hay from the FBI agents’ fumbly manner and the transcript’s redacted jumpiness and mundane absurdism. Pete Simpson from Elevator Repair Service and Will Cobbs play the interrogators, and downtown legend Becca Blackwell gets to stomp around the edges as Unknown Male providing security for the detail.

For all the ridiculousness of the encounter, the piece maintains a dread-dredged tautness largely thanks to Emily Davis’s deservedly award-winning performance as the central figure, an eerie weightless figure in cutoff jeans who apparently speaks Farsi, Dari, and Pashto, owns a pink AR-15, and surrenders her iPhone even though she needs it to play music for the yoga classes she teaches. We literally see nothing else in the course of the show, yet it resonates with so much of the craziness of the last five years of American public life, the jittery dance between citizen participation and the forces in the federal government who have no accountability for their dark deeds.

Friday 10/22

Back at Joe’s Pub for an early glimpse of Taylor Mac’s work-in-progress, Sugar in the Tank: New Songs About Queer People, envisioned as a 54-song tribute to queer heroes, both legendary and unknown. Among the dozen or so songs we got to hear, Larry Kramer and Stormé DeLarverie were referenced by name. But the sound system was cranked so loud it was hard to hear many of the lyrics, which frustrated me.

Sporting a full-blown carrot-colored coronabeard and dressed by Machine Dazzle in an outfit that Mr. David Zinn described as “Hibiscus meets Phyllis Diller,” Mac fronted the band that pumped its way through Mac’s 24-Decade History of Popular Music, including musical director Matt Ray on keyboards and dazzling guitarist Viva DeConcini.

Each of the three backup singers got a solo – Steffi Christi’an (below) blew me away with hers.

We had a delicious meal afterwards at Corkbuzz on E. 13th Street and got to check out Chris Carnabuci’s public art installation in Union Square, SeeInJustice – giant heads of George Floyd, John Lewis, and Breonna Taylor, which looked especially amazing at night under a full moon.

Saturday 10/23

We joined Andy’s college bestie Bob for his second screening of Denis Villaneuve’s Dune on 42nd Street. I’ve never read Frank Herbert’s book, though I did see David Lynch’s unloved movie version when it came out in 1984. These futuristic epics in which a handful of super-powered individuals take on and triumph over vast hordes of confusing, interchangeable bad guys have never been my cup of tea, but I was happy to go along for the pop moment, the popcorn, and the dinner afterwards at Wagamama.

Happy as I am to be seeing live performances and going to actual movies theaters again, I am surprised to acknowledge that my favorite cultural vulturing in the last couple of weeks has been watching Ted Lasso. It’s a show that I’ve heard nothing but rave reviews about from smart friends, and for some reason I held it at arm’s length. The capsule description – fish-out-of-water American gets hired to coach second-rate British soccer team – hits none of my pleasure points, and I feared it would be way too heart-warming. Damned if I wasn’t hooked from the get-go the same way everyone else is, by the constantly surprising overturning of preconceptions about virtually every single character, the smart writing with the weirdest non sequiturs, the casual but pointed anti-racism, and the eruption of laughs and genuine emotion when you’re not expecting them. Three cheers for joy!

Culture Vulture/Photo Diary: Laurie Anderson, DEEP BLUE SEA, House of Dior, and SANCTUARY CITY

October 12, 2021

October 6: Laurie Anderson’s fourth Norton Lecture

Some highlights:

She quoted her friend Justin Stanwix who refers to the internet as “assisted living for millennials.”

She mentioned that her middle name is Phillips, which led to Phillips 66 gas stations, named after Route 66. Also, who knew that the name of the phone company Sprint is an acronym for Southern Pacific Railroad Internal Networking Telephony?

She said that she always sets up and breaks down her equipment for a concert by herself and that sometimes she wears a wig and a “CREW” T-shirt as a disguise. (It’s true – I watched her nimbly and efficiently dismantle her elaborate sound system after a show in San Francisco, although she wasn’t in disguise on that occasion.)

She spent some time discussing the notion of “the avant-garde” in 20th century art, noting that Gertrude Stein – who might be a perfect example of an avant-garde artist whom people consider difficult or inscrutable – gave 74 lectures on an American tour in 1934-35, her book The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas made the best-seller lists, and her opera Four Saints in Three Acts was performed by an all-black cast for six weeks on Broadway in 1934. NOT marginal or obscure.

She brought up the nefarious Texas law empowering citizen-vigilantes to prevent women from receiving abortions and asked, “How is this different from the Taliban?”

She spoke poignantly about her mother, who was brilliant but cold, and wondered: “If I’d had a warm mother, would I have seen technology as more embracing?”

Her aspiration: “Try to have a big mind and an open heart.”

Norton Lectures #5 and 6 are scheduled for November 10 and December 8. You can register in advance to receive the Zoom link (free) here.

Laurie Anderson fans will also want to read Sam Anderson’s beautifully written profile of her in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine.

I was tickled to see the magazine reprint Allan Tannenbaum’s picture that ran with my 1980 cover story for the Soho News.

The NYT piece coincides with the opening of “The Weather,” her show of paintings and immersive installations at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC. Click here for details.

Also this week Laurie plays MC for a series of shows at Joe’s Pub under the collective title Kludge (definition: “An ill-assorted collection of parts assembled to fulfill a particular purpose”), featuring poet Anne Carson, musician and composer Arto Lindsay, writer Lafcadio Cass, and cellist Rubin Kodheli, in different combinations. See here for details.

October 8: penultimate performance of Deep Blue Sea at the Park Avenue Armory

Bill T. Jones’ exquisite performance collage Deep Blue Sea weaves Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech into a monumental meditation on remembering and forgetting, the individual and the collective, freedom and justice, and asking young people to take the mic and share what they know.

For the first part Jones takes the vast stage of the Park Avenue Armory by himself, with occasional flights of sweet music from five vocalists at one end of the theater-in-the-round. For the second part he’s joined by the current members of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane company, 10 dancers with excellent chops and extremely distinct personalities. Amidst their rigorous choreography, Jones tracks them with a video camera, addressing them each by name, two different times.

Then for the last section, 100 other dancers appear and fill the stage with waves of actions and group image-making. The music throughout — original score with contributions from Nick Hallett, Hprizm aka High Priest, Rena Anakwe, and Holland Andrews — is beautiful, as is the extraordinary visual environment created by Elizabeth Diller – DS&R and Peter Nigrini with Lighting by Robert Wierzel.

For the last 15 minutes of the show, the “community participants” take turns declaring an “I know” statement. The extremely diverse cast includes at least three hearing-impaired performers (all the statements are translated by sign-language interpreters) and someone I casually clocked as “a Larry Goldhuber type” who turned out to be Larry Goldhuber himself, the plus-sized Jones/Zane veteran, whose statement was “I know everything.” Especially pertinent statements got greeted by snaps from their colleagues. Many dancers made statements that included derogatory assumptions about white audiences for the show — a fascinating role-reversal exercise for us white folks to be on the receiving end of unattractive generalizations. 

When the show was over, the cast stayed onstage and Jones urged the audience to mingle and talk. I got to chat with a queer black performer who represented fiercely and a white lad whose statement was “I know how to bottom.” Both of them said they come up with a new statement for every performance. The white boy said he likes to come up with something spicy. One night he said, “I know I’m waiting for Donald Trump to die.”

October 9

This morning at the farmer’s market at 57th Street and Tenth Avenue, a sight I’ve never seen before: a jazz combo set up on the corner. I couldn’t help thinking of the Joni Mitchell song: “They were playing real good, and for free.” The two horn players traded sweet and cool licks so intimately it brought tears to my eyes. The bandleader was the drummer, Will Terrill, who said he’s associated with the Jazz Foundation; his crew included Sharif Kales on flugelhorn, Chris Hemingway on alto saxophone, and Jason Clotter on bass.

Later that day, we trekked to the Brooklyn Museum, where we stopped in to see the Obama portraits by Kahinde Wiley and Amy Sherald.

The museum’s main attraction at the moment is a spectacular multimedia exhibition to rival the David Bowie retrospective in 2018. This one, Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams, traces the groundbreaking history and legacy of the House of Dior.

I know virtually nothing about the artistry of couture and couldn’t care less about dresses, so for me this was immersive theater, fun for people-watching and eavesdropping as much as absorbing the art and fashion.

The show has the unmistakable touch of Matthew Yokobosky, the museum’s Senior Curator of Fashion and Material Culture (also responsible for the Bowie and other great shows in the past), who put a decidedly 2021 stamp on Dior by choosing to display all the designer gowns on black mannequins. That small choice has immeasurable impact.

On our way back out of the museum, we passed this alabaster relief with a 9th century BC queen swinging a clever little clutch.

Another show of contemporary work included this nutty three-channel video of the artist lip-synching to the Bee Gees’ “Nights on Broadway” in airplane lavatories.

And then there was Karon Davis’s Nicotine, a striking sculpture of an essential worker on break.

October 10

In my therapy practice I somehow acquired the understanding that “having brings up not having” – sometimes when we get something we’ve longed for, there is a paradoxical bittersweetness or sadness recalling all the times we wanted that thing and didn’t have it. As I took my seat at the Lucille Lortel Theater to see New York Theater Workshop’s production of Martyna Majok’s Sanctuary City, I was mystified by the wave of melancholy that swept over me until I realized: oh, this is “having brings up not having.” Returning to the theater after 18 months of pandemic lockdown has been an emotionally charged experience, joy and excitement tempered and dampened by remembering exactly why we’ve been away – the losses, the deaths, the turmoil, the fear, the vaccine anxiety. We’ll get more used to it over time, like people in war zones get used to metal detectors everywhere, but we’ll never get over it.

The first act of Majok’s play covers a year in the life of two high school seniors from immigrant families in Newark. The fractured narrative skips around in time with lots of blackouts and repetitions without losing clarity or coherence, thanks to the original staging by Rebecca Frecknall (remounted by Caitlin Sullivan), Isabella Byrd’s lighting, Mikaal Sulaiman’s sound, and the performances of Jasal Chase-Owens and Sharlene Cruz. The second act (intermissions and concession stands have been 86’d out of covid precautions) consists of one continuous scene that unfortunately descends into soap opera territory as the three characters (Julian Elijah Martinez joins at this point) play out an overly melodramatic love triangle. The playwright has some subtle insights about class, race, immigration status, and sexual orientation dynamics but the second act lurches through a series of contrived plot points and sudden reversals that turn nuanced characters into TV-drama stick figures.

Recommendation: go see Todd Haynes’ documentary The Velvet Underground, which opens this week. It’s a fast-paced Warhol-esque stream of images, split-screen video, talking heads, vintage footage, and satisfyingly loud sound focusing on the early 1960s artistic/cultural milieu from which emerged the unlikely team of classical violist-composer John Cale and Long Island poet-rocker Lou Reed…and the rest is history.

Culture Vulture/Photo Diary: Arooj Aftab at Pioneer Works in Red Hook

September 6, 2021

The musical discovery of my year so far has been Arooj Aftab, the sublime Pakistani singer whose new album Vulture Prince has been commanding a lot of attention everywhere. As soon as I heard it in early June, I got busy online trying to learn more about her and spied a concert by her scheduled for September 3 at Pioneer Works, a community arts center in Red Hook. Checking out the concert seemed like an excellent way to view her up close and personal, learn something about Pioneer Works, and get some exposure to Red Hook, a neighborhood I’ve heard about but like most Manhattanites primarily associate with the IKEA store.

It was a beautiful, post-Hurricane Ida Friday night, perfect for toodling around a new location on Citibikes. Even more than Maspeth, where a bunch of music venues and dance clubs have opened in recent years, far from complaining residential neighbors, Red Hook is partly urban industrial landscape and part very local neighborhood. Even the subway stations don’t look like the ones you see elsewhere.

The golden hour before sunset always lends a special glow to otherwise unromantic vistas.

And then there is the occasional shrine to Betty Boop in someone’s window.

Pioneer Works turns how to be a groovy multipurpose arts center that hosts artists’ residencies, galleries, a bookstore, a performance space, and a lovely garden with a full bar and a viewing deck. (I’m keen to see a Moses Sumney installation that just opened and will be viewable through the month of September.) The announced showtime for Arooj Aftab was 7pm, which seemed early, but who knows? There were only three people in front of us when we arrived, which signaled that the show wouldn’t be starting until after 8. There was an opening act, a 24-year-old guitar whiz named Yasmin Williams who finger-picks in an American folk style that makes you think of Doc Watson or John Fahey, but then she’s likely to lie the guitar flat and work on it as a percussion instrument. There are occasionally pedals, and she wears tap shoes to provide her own rhythm section on a wooden footrest. A bit chatty between songs — she will learn soon enough that the audience doesn’t need to know the mundane details of how she wrote each and every song — but I’m glad I got to glimpse her budding virtuosity.

Arooj Aftab and her Vulture Prince Ensemble are the real deal — they create a dreamy cloud of sound on harp (Maeve Gilchrist), guitar (mainly Gyan Riley, son of composer Terry Riley, with a guest appearance by the excellent Kenji Herbert), bass (Shahaad Ismaily), spare synths (also Ismaily), violin (Darian Donovan Thomas), and drums (Greg Fox). Aftab works in the tradition of ghazal, a spare pensive style of poetry that takes a small amount of material and works many changes on it. Abida Parveen is one of the great performers in this style and one of Aftab’s musical influences. But she has her own exquisite style, beautiful mid-range vocal tone, very understated, very interior, never showing off high notes or held notes. She mostly performed songs from the album, including an adaptation of a Rumi poem that she sings in English, “Last Night.” I usually skip over that track on the record, but it turned into a totally different experience live — NOT about the words, slowed down and stretched out and indeed beautiful.

Late night in that corner of Red Hook, not a lot of dining options. But the San Pedro Inn, the tacqueria down the street from Pioneer Works was hopping. Clearly it serves as its own form of community center.

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