Saturday, December 27, 2014

Forest Fringe in New York Reflections

When the Forest Fringe microfestival descended on New York in October something was missing.  It was not just the amazing cheese soup I ate at the Drill Hall cafe at this year's Forest Fringe in Edinburgh (though I lamented its absence SEVERAL times over the weekend).  What I missed most was the hustle and bustle of a centralized space.  Even when filled with screaming children engaged in some sort of art project (I swear there was also an adult human dressed like a panda this year) I felt like all of Forest Fringe Edinburgh could be seen from my vantage point in the cafe--artists greeting one another, readying shows, grabbing food with friends.  The Drill Hall makes the festival feel a little warmer, smaller, and friendlier. 

At Abrons Art Center, the Forest Fringe happenings were more spread out through the large complex and despite having a festival pass for the weekend, I felt as if I was loitering as I waited on benches around the space for the next show to start.  I also got trapped in a “garden” at Abrons which had a sign outside it encouraging people to go in.  I still wonder if this was a rogue piece of performance art.  How soon will the audience panic when they discover they cannot get out of the garden?  3.5 seconds.

But garden-based entrapment aside, I was happy to have Forest Fringe in my backyard. It was a pleasure to finally see artists I had missed in Edinburgh. Like any festival sometimes the juxtaposition of work impacts the viewing.  For instance, seeing Brian Lobel’s Purge followed by Made in China’s Gym Party created a wholly difference feeling than when I saw Purge after I Wish I Was Lonely in Edinburgh in 2013. 

Purge is Lobel's solo show inspired by the discovery that his late, ex-boyfriend Grant had unfriended him on Friendster.  He created a performance where he spent one minute making a case for each of his Facebook friendships and an audience voted on whether to keep or delete those friends.  Purge is a reflection on those audience votes and the aftermath.

Seeing Purge again was no less moving for me.  Lobel's smart structure framed around his burgeoning relationship with Grant and his warm nature shines through time and again.  But for some reason audience voting in Purge in New York felt harsher than it had in Edinburgh.  There seemed to be a greater ease in voting to delete people.  Having also seen Gym Party, which focuses on the dark power of group consensus, I wondered if that had tinted my impression.

Gym Party is a lesson in group dynamics, competition, and our tolerance for personal pain in the face of entertainment.  Gym Party was so addicting I saw it twice.  Three performers, Christopher Brett Bailey, Jess Latowicki, and Ira Brand, stand before the audience as a group--friends, colleagues, and competitors. Dressed in identical gym clothes, wearing colorful wigs, they will compete against each other and eventually for the votes of the audience.

Initially they engage in a series of measurable feats.  Who can dance the Macarena the longest with a book on their head? Who can squeeze the most marshmallows into their mouth?  It's all in good, silly fun, isn't it? Later the games become more insidious. We vote on immeasurable traits like who had the best upbringing or who is least likely to have cheated on a partner. Our complicity in the act of condemnation comes far too readily. We don't have a choice--or do we? We are told we are not allowed to abstain. The games move ahead through consensus.  We make selections based on nothing--a feeling, a whim, bias, an imperfect sense of balance (I parsed my votes out equally among the contestants in my own irrational game of fairness). When someone wins, someone else loses. What we learn is that the two who lose must endure “penalization”—a form of corporal or emotional punishment.  At the start it is easy to get swept up in the goofiness and the joy, but there is a cost for the audience's enjoyment and that cost is exacted on the cast.  We have to bear witness to the results of our votes.

Throughout the show the cast describes certain preteen adventures.  They remind us that our awkward preteen years are a time when sharp lines are drawn--you're in the group or you're out.  The power of the collective crowd at that time is merciless.  It’s the same in adulthood, we just mask it better.  How much of adulthood is competition with colleagues and friends? Who's the best parent?  Who has the biggest house? Who is least likely to have cheated on their partner?  We still anoint winners and losers. Gym Party reminds us how easy it is to be a part of the pack and how hard it can be to stand alone.

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