All words: Travis Andrews — Photos/Magical Cinemagraphs: Ryan Kelly, Additional Photos: Shauna Alexander
It’s a Friday night, Friday May 11 to be exact, and a line snakes around the corner from the the Hirshhorn. Not the most common sight.
Interesting to see the National Mall so tumescent on a Friday night at 7:45 p.m., when most of D.C. seems to be finishing up playing the “let’s-beat-happy-hour” game of downing about twenty brews in as many minutes. But here they are, at least a couple hundred people, waiting to see visual artist Doug Aitken’s Song 1: A Happening featuring performances from No Age, Animal Collective’s Geologist, High Places, Tim McAfee Lewis and Leo Gallo, Oneohtrix Point Never and Nicholas Jaar.
The event, media sponsored by Pitchfork Media and Wired Magazine, is the culmination of Aitken’s nightly installation that’s been on the Hirshhorn’s cylindrical wall (and is closing this weekend-ed).
For a couple months, there’s been a 360-degree film loop playing, scored by various interpretive covers of the Flamingo’s famous “I Only Have Eyes for You,” including one by Beck and one by LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy. Tonight, several bands take the stage to play the capstone song, while the film is truly “premiered” to anyone willing to part with $25 for the experience (and for all the sneaky folks who set up on grassy patches in the Mall just outside the gate with Coca-Cola bottles filled with wine (of which there were many)).
Being press has its benefits, so I hop to the front of the line to grab my ultra-cool (in my sad little head) press badge and meet the rest of the BYT crew. My boss insists I get a drink, so we hurry to the ticket line where you get to plan your night of drinking in advance: $7 ticket corresponds with cocktail/wine, $5 ticket corresponds with beer and $2 ticket corresponds with water. This line will later stretch more than 75 people long, and this is just for the drink tickets, not the drinks themselves.
Initial Impression: The Hirshhorn isn’t going to do too poorly in the dough department tonight.
The downstairs exhibits are open, so I pop down quickly to take a gander at “Dark Matters” and “Black Box.” First, in “Black Box” there’s an art film of squiggly colored lines wandering the halls of an old school or maybe storage facility. Not clear which. Not sure I “get” this, and thinking marijuana might be a key component in understanding. Unfortunately, I’m sipping the aforementioned Budweiser, a drink fella myself, and feeling a bit like a fish out of water.
A room over is another film exhibit, this one consisting of 7 small screens, each showing hands jutting out of white shirtsleeves and performing menial office tasks like stapling, hole-punching and stamping. Pretty sure it’s supposed to highlight the monotony of office work, but it kind of makes me want a club sandwich and a black coffee: what I generally eat at lunch when I work in an office.
This is the problem of covering art: it’s such a personal experience, it’s hard to convey what is meant and who honestly cares what it means to me. Then there’s the whole artist’s intent v. interpretation factor. But then, maybe this was designed to make you crave a club sandwich. In which case, kudos.
The other exhibit is “Dark Matters,” which includes several completely black canvases, little black rectangles in larger picture frames, and dark art such as a nude female model far away, achingly so, in a black box that’s about 2 x 3 inches. Then, in the corner is a golem-like bald giant, nude with bull-like genitalia, slouched and slumped in the corner, looking despondent and bored in his beige skin. Why? Hell if I know, but it’s certainly striking.
Back upstairs in the plaza, which is decorated by beautiful sculptures of giant animal heads on sticks by Ai Weiwei.
Judging from the amount of people up here v. the amount in the exhibits downstairs, it appears obvious that even an art-minded crowd such as this one seems to care more about drinking overpriced Budweiser than viewing the exhibits. But eyeglasses abound and excitement for the main event is building.
Finally, at about 9 p.m., it begins.
The film begins and two men in tuxedos take to the balcony and sing down to the crowd the first iteration of many, this evening, of “I Only Have Eyes for You.”
First Impression: It’s astounding. This actually remains the lasting impression. The video is enormous and towering and dynamic, and the music is beautiful and eclectic but familiar.
Looking through several pages of notes of what was actually displayed on the screen is making it more and more clear that describing the film as a whole is a waste of time. There are many shots of people doing fairly everyday things such as going to a gas station, driving cars, working in a factory, etc. To describe the film is like describing a piece of abstract painting: not only pointless but somewhat insulting. The loop is still playing, so going to the National Mall one evening is the best way to truly understand that part.
No Age takes the stage and the loudest moment of the night begins and something is building.
The most striking thing about the film is that the communal experience is not the communal experience of most shows. There’s the old philosophy about everyone seeing a “communal experience” like a concert or a movie through different lenses, their own prejudices and life experiences taking precedent. That’s even stronger here than ever, since there is no true communal experience.
The “screen,” for lack of a better world, is 360 degree ellipse, meaning everyone sees something different. However slight, no one here is viewing the same exact film, which isn’t the case with a flat screen. The rest of the bands take the stage, one by one, each doing an interesting take on “I Only Have Eyes for You.” But most eyes remain glued on the film, each set experiencing something slightly different and perhaps unique.
For example, when the screen suddenly displays the words of the song, focusing on ones like “disappear,” and the music becomes even more disparate, I’m feeling creeped-out, terrified, the song making me nostalgic for a lost closeness and the words began falling apart on the screen: it seems bone-crushingly sad and horror-ridden. But my friend is excited, finding it affirming to see the song fall apart. Not sure why, but that’s what this is: communally experiencing a personal experience.
At one point, a man in a suit walks through a barn or a stable, maybe, toward what I’ve deemed the “front” of the screen, right over the stage. It’s front to me because its toward me. When he reaches the camera, he turns. That’s the split moment, and he heads in two different directions as two of him now appear on screen. Depending on where you sit, he is either walking away from or toward you. For most people, he’s doing both, in opposite directions.
Non-communal communal experience.
It’s hard to place a finger on what the theme is, if one exists. I’m going to keep going with my non-communal communal experience idea, especially since many shots of are the every dayness. It’s folks driving, close up shots from the passenger seat of these people lost to the road thus lost to the world. And the crowd out here is silent, lost in watching these people lost to the world. Everyone’s lost and not connected. Will be soon. And talking about it after clearly won’t assume your regular post-movie chat status (i.e. “Remember when that suited guy walked toward us?” “No, he walked away from me.”) Not to beat a dead horse here, but it’s pretty interesting.
No one in the film looks bored. It’s not the classic films tropes, the extreme emotions and actions, the fucking and killing and retching and crying and reuniting and cheering. But it’s still intense. More like they’re doing a whole lot of internal processing, and it’s hard not to do the same yourself with this straight-to-the-heart song playing over and over again, in so many different interactions through the various interpretations, some loud, some happy, some sad, some inhuman.
The live music stops about 10:30, even though the event has another hour and a half. At this point, the movie begins looping like it does most nights and the old soundtrack takes back over. The bar lines grow, and the non-communal communal experience slips away as everyone begins getting drunk and wandering off into the night.
If there’s a criticism it’s how quickly it was all over (and that the beer cup sizes seemed to be arbitrary while the price was fixed. I definitely received a couple different sized Budweisers over the course of the evening. For the price most paid, it seemed like alot of the audience wanted a little more).
But maybe it’s better to leave the audience wanting than to leave them bored. One way or another, everyone walked away having seen a film that no one else will probably see the exact same way, a singular and personal experience shared with hundreds of others of people.