High Life, Low Life

New York

Left: Thurston Moore. (Photo: Zach Baron) Right: Laurie Anderson. (Photo: Brian Sholis)

Two days before the end of the first-annual H&M High Line Festival, performance artist and musician Laurie Anderson stood onstage at the Highline Ballroom and asked, “Don’t you love whores?” The festival’s producers, Josh Wood and David Binder, and its curator, David Bowie, surely would have rather avoided the question. But Anderson has a knack for this sort of persistent fragment—what novelist Jonathan Lethem once called “an itchy or gummy phrase”—and so it stuck.

Money for trade: The High Line’s relation to the festival that bears its name had been explained in articles leading up to the ten-day-long series of events. Bowie, according to the New York Times, had never been up on the tracks of the now-abandoned elevated rail line—scheduled to be turned into a Diller Scofidio + Renfro–designed public park open to the public later this year—and had “no particular feelings about it.” To justify sharing the name, the festival was chipping in 5 percent of its profits toward the park’s establishment. What united them (and the likewise-unaffiliated Highline Ballroom), according to the baffled press, was a shared interest in, depending on whom you asked, the neighborhood, real estate development opportunities, a common interest in “aesthetics and design,” raising “awareness,” and, of course, the prospect of the park itself, which will eventually run north-south from roughly Thirty-third to Gansevoort Street. Until then, as Anderson put it, “here we are in the heart of the meat market, right next to Western Beef.”

Left: “No Fun Fest” organizer Carlos Giffoni. Right: Prurient's Dominic Fernow. (Photos: Zach Baron)

The programming hinted at the glossed-over emptiness of the festival’s basic concept. Anderson’s New Agey persona, and her blousy outfit with its long white bird-wing cuffs, matched with precision her NPR-calibrated politics: “Give me all your oil, what else do you have?” she sang. “I’m a very baaaaad man.” Behind her were projected bits of text, hieroglyphics, and satellite photographs. A live projection of a lightbulb flew in circles to her right. Her band—a second violinist, bassist Skuli Sverrisson, and keyboard player Peter Scherer—channeled world-music doyenne Enya alongside bits of Anderson’s signature, sticky violin pulse. Even her more successfully quirky moments, such as when she slowed down her enunciation to the pace of her longtime partner Lou Reed’s laconic delivery, failed to register in the antiseptic confines of the new Highline Ballroom.

A trip up Ninth Avenue to the General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church to see the nominally Bowie-curated installation of noted French Surrealist Claude Cahun’s photographs only added to the pervasive, unreal atmosphere. A 9 PM visit (the show was to run from dusk till midnight) found a frantic scramble to put the finishing touches on the installation in the garden. We were led to a second-story chapel-like space full of alcohol. There, an unmanned slideshow desultorily turned through a few Cahun photographs. It was an opening without new work, a living artist, or a curator anywhere in sight—Bowie, presumably, had actual things to do.

There is, of course, always another New York. A call Friday morning opened the doors to the fourth year of No Fun Fest, musician Carlos Giffoni’s annual barrage of extreme music, hosted this year by Brooklyn venue The Hook. If the High Line Festival had proven anything, it was that setting sets the tone, and the relatively unwanted wastelands of Red Hook were the perfect retreat from the anxious salesmanship of the previous evening.

Left: Anti-Freedom in performance. Right: Sissy Spacek's John Wiese. (Photos: Zach Baron)

Four nights of sold-out shows were only the most visible token of Giffoni’s success as a curator. Take, for instance, the Friday-night presence of Japan’s Incapacitants—legendary survivors of that country’s first wave of early-’80s noise, along with Merzbow (who played Saturday night) and Yoshimi, of the Boredoms and OOIOO (she played as a duo with Kim Gordon on Thursday). In the crowd Friday night, you could spot nearly every important noise musician from the region, including Prurient’s Dominic Fernow and Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore.

Where else would German duo Raionbashi & Kutzkelina gleefully interpolate Swiss yodeling with guttural, unnatural power electronics? As the night progressed, the coruscating, bassy tones of Giffoni’s analog-synth set made way for the Incapacitants; my view of their postmidnight performance was obscured by hundreds of arms waving cameras. A personal highlight: the ramshackle flailings of Anti-Freedom, a skate-thrash quartet with John Olson (of the Ann Arbor noise-rock trio Wolf Eyes) on drums. “Put your hands in the air if you’re against freedom,” Olson screamed. Well, more than I’m for Anderson’s professed love of whores. My hand went up.