THE LEGENDARY PLACE PS 122— renamed Performance Space New York — finally reopened in January. It’s hard to encompass the tangled mare’s nest of cultural associations in this building: the place is like an archaeological site, with layers of civilization and history piled up higgledy-piggledy. Originally occupied in the late 1970s by a group of squatter artists, the converted school building and its two theaters have been at the center of New York’s experimental scene for nearly four decades. Spalding Gray delivered his monologues there. Philip Glass was playing a dented piano. Ron Athey literally bled into the floor. More than any other place in town, it contained the art that happens when you create a clubhouse for strangers, freaks, and weirdos, not to mention those who love them. Only La MaMa could match him for longevity, transgression and hectic production. Nowhere could match it for its air of adventure.
The space closed in 2011 and underwent a brutally protracted renovation. (We heard it was going to open almost every year since). Finally, we who have long awaited his return can now roam around him, poking our noses into every nook and cranny, trying to figure out why and how it took the city seven long years to complete the project. Of course, things have changed. The spaces – once creaky, rigged, covered in thick paint – show no trace of the classrooms they once were. Certainly, the refit is just that tiny somewhat institutional, as many city-contracted theaters still seem to be. Finally there is an elevator and the bathrooms shine. But then everything at PSNY is decidedly new. Along with the new name, there’s a new executive art director, Jenny Schlenzka (formerly of MoMA PS1), a new deputy director, Pati Hertling, and a shy new graphic identity (a black heart with a chipped edge). There’s also a jettisoned lineup slate, a wiped out Instagram account, and a deleted winter festival. Out with the old one, I guess.
Perhaps sensing the utter panic these losses would instill in those of us who imprinted on the old PS like little ducklings, Schlenzka kicked off his first season with the East Village series, dedicated to celebrating personalities of the city center of the 1980s and 90s. And to kick off the new guard, the (former) “Avant-Garde-Arama” came heavily back to life. AGA is PS’s longest-running program and, as befits the flagship space event, it’s chaotic to the core. One of the venue’s founders, Charles Dennis, came forward to make it a wonderfully spaced story, which mostly consisted of him moving around and showing slides of flyers from the 80s. As Dennis explained, this random showcase basically has two rules: 1) it is organized by a committee and 2) performers are limited to less than ten minutes of material.
The avant-garde has aged. Corn old is not dead.
Salley May – a downtown staple and a wild-haired punk bacchant – hosted this particular AGM with a gang of thirteen others, including drag diva Tyler Ashley, Joe’s Pub eminence Shanta Thake and choreographer Gillian Walsh . May’s Dionysian spirit permeated everyone. She started the evening with a tattered threat to “Occupy PS!”, which culminated in a group of downtown Illuminati (like cabaret star and conservative Nicky Paraiso) unfurling a paper banner that read WE ARE ALWAYS HERE! After the yawn, however, she retreated backstage to laugh like a proud mom. All night had that punchy, huggable quality. Who was in a position to demand anything? The AGA tradition teeters on the razor’s edge; all it would take to disappear completely is not to be invited back. Lucy Sexton — who plays both pro-truth personality The Factress and one half of splatter duo DanceNoise — praised Schlenzka for sticking with the old group curation model. “Thank you for bringing it to life!” she says. The new manager only smiled. No promises.
Fair enough. The avant-garde has aged. The form promised to be eternally renewed, always young, always fresh, but it turned out to be historically rooted after all. We sometimes use the term as a general appellation for all things experimental, but there is a band of performances that emerged from the pre-gentrification streets of New York’s East Village – Holly Hughes and Karen Finley and Ethyl Eichelberger and Richard Foreman and Klaus Nomi and Jo Andres—who belongs to the true avant-garde. Over time, bits of body shock have crept into the textbooks (which all but killed their ability to be shocking); Dada’s destabilizing experiments needed funds (which first stifled under Clinton); a general and cultural post-AIDS prudery has cooled some of it; the eternal cycle of youth-devouring age has also played its part.
Corn old is not dead.
That night there were over three dozen acts in two theaters, and the building was packed. Hughes was there, although I didn’t see her. I saw Penny Arcade perform an excerpt from her lecture “Longing Lasts Longer,” a rallying cry for the fading, bolshy New York sensibility. “Don’t call it ‘nostalgia!’ she cried, while doing a modified pony around the stage and saying vicious things on Twitter. The hit of this part of the evening was a touching performance by sisters Muriel and Gloria Miguel of the Spiderwoman Theatre, founded in 1976. Muriel said a line; her octogenarian sister Gloria, staggeringly dancing, repeated it right behind her. “My Songs! My Culture!” they sang, and all were humbled by the palpable effort our elders must make to keep their performance traditions alive. Sexton and Ike Ufomadu performed in the larger of the two PS theaters. Sexton knocked the house down when she came out in her last costume change, which was just right. . . a pair of shoes. Youth is fine, but nudity after fifty is sublime.
The evening also included major PS figures who learned from the avant-garde – and often pop-ified. Reggie Watts did his fabulous jabberwocky of mouth music (he kept calling the place PS 166); singer-storyteller Erin Markey spooked everyone with her crazy baby voice that turns, always without warning, into full fanfare; body art provocateur Antonio Ramos served chocolates that had been made in a mold based on his anus. (He showed a video of the shape-making process, just in case anyone had any doubts.) Comedian/choreographer Adrienne Truscott came out of a door high up in the wall. “Is this a school or a performance space?” she asked, her fake ponytail falling in her face as she did her furious “no dancing” shtick. “No more! It’s a concept and a brand! (Zing!)
In some offices of the PS, the installations had taken over. Sibyl Kempson sat in the “Telemarketing Center” and attendees crowded to watch The Kempson Company yell nonsense at each other and, occasionally, into the phones. Every once in a while someone in the crowd would get harassed for being a terrible trainee. This tone of happy intimidation works perfectly at “Avant-Garde-Arama”. It’s hard to be seduced or bewitched or even confused in eight minutes. But a performer can bump into you during this time and still have a minute to wait for applause. Carmelita Tropicana, the queer MC/stand-up and PS presenter, is the reigning queen of this aggressive tickling genre. She played the hostess in the small theater of the PS, her round chipmunk cheeks showing off her skin-tight outfit and her stapled mega-merkin. She was like a character from Wind-in-the-Willows having a very loud night, and when she joked to us and made fun of the acts – “Cornelius was raised in the wilderness of the Hampton!”—the crowd drank it.
The one thing no one makes fun of is forty second street, the segment of AGA’s come-one-come-all during which anyone can play for forty seconds. A member of the public did a simple little dance with her shawl in tribute to the late and much missed super fan Helen Weiss, who came to the AGM every year and danced with it all even when she was on her walker. Another spent part of her time urging us to call Congress about gun control. Vallejo Gantner, the artistic director of PS before Schlenzka, gathered the staff on stage for a forty-second shot of beer. It was a beautiful, silly moment: they were all blushing and falling into each other and hugging. Schlenzka, who had been carrying her young son all night, slammed her empty beer can on the floor. She now looked suitably debauched. The Avant-Garde-Arama spirit – all the noise, riot and pride of the old stuff – was everywhere.
At the end of the performances, the spectators of the “Avant-Garde-Arama” descend the narrow staircase of the PS (resembling itself, although covered with a layer of white paint), passing in front of a line of four floors of people are still waiting to enter. As they left, people who hadn’t yet come learned that the evening had turned into DJ sets. (All seemed discouraged to hear some weird art being leaked at a party.) As I walked away, the windows at the top of the building flashed purple and pink. The muffled sounds of house music pulsated through the bricks and down the sidewalks into the night. “Bless their hearts,” one silver-haired passerby said to another. Did she mean black according to the new branding? Or the throbbing red that has been beating for forty years? Hard to know. In any case, for this moment at least, we could feel the blood flowing in the neighborhood. I said a prayer for the future. God willing, PS is back.
“Avant-Garde-Arama” took place on Sunday, February 18 at Performance Space New York.
Helen Shaw is a theater critic working in New York.