No Pain No Gain

Kat Herriman at a “Transformative Pain Conference” at Signal

Left: Christian Dettloff performing at the “Transformative Pain Conference” at Signal. Right: Signal’s “Transformative Pain Conference.” (Photos: Kat Herriman)

THE FACEBOOK PAGE advertised “light electro-shock therapy” and “metal ball treatments,” so I guess I had fair warning going into Signal’s “Transformative Pain Conference” on Saturday night. Tucked away in a former rug warehouse a block away from the Morgan L stop, the four-year-old Bushwick gallery has become a de facto clubhouse for a new generation of Brooklyn artists thanks to its natural resources and solo show–driven program. As a result, alternative activities like the “Transformative Pain Conference” are surprisingly or not so surprisingly prevalent.

I hopped off the train at 8 PM ready for involuntary flinching and personal growth, dressed in a baggy sweater and jeans. Turns out I should’ve worn a swimsuit. The night’s main attraction wasn’t the ritualistic zappings but the in-house sauna, which served as the symbolic and literal hearth for the gallery’s first group show, “Watermark.” As I entered the unheated space I narrowly evaded a pack of half-dressed twentysomethings emerging from the hot-box installation, conceived by artist Frank Traynor (aka the purveyor of the Perfect Nothing Catalogue). A warm burst of eucalyptus and cannabis trailed them as they wiped their sandy feet on the rug outside the tunnellike entrance. Some disappeared into the backyard for a postsweat cigarette, while others reclined on the military cots put out by gallery owners Alexander Johns and Kyle Clairmont Jacques, who lounged amid the huddle.

“The pain conference is definitely an idea of Frank’s,” Johns said. “I think he saw the sauna as the pursuit of a kind of catharsis. Extreme physical states promoting a kind of renewal. Pagan rituals about resurrection extend back into prehistory, which became the basis of a holiday like Easter.” The young gallerist had recently received a dose of his own medicine, a shock treatment administered by artist Brady Gunnell, whose implement of choice, an adapted sex toy, left everyone buzzing. “Did you get shocked?” asked Clairmont Jacques. I shook my head. “Maybe you should try the metal ball treatment.” Uh huh…

The metal ball treatment was actually axiatonal alignment with a very affable man named Christian Dettloff, also wearing a baggy sweater in addition to some enviably stretchy pants. There was a queue, so I decided to wait it out in the sauna. The structure, consuming a corner of the gallery, was more tree fort than treatment center. A few bathhouse necessities—towels, water bottles, flip-flops—lent the scene just enough legitimacy. A wooden privacy screen stood adjacent to the entrance for those who wanted to strip or, in most cases, hang their coats. Did anyone take it all off? “It’s happened,” Clairmont Jacques answered. Getting down on hands and knees, I followed the curator into the dark. When I turned my iPhone on to record, the screen’s light bounced off the insulation blankets. “It’s like a womb in reverse,” said a voice in the blackness. “Everything you did before this was in preparation for now,” said another, riffing on the Sedona-in-Brooklyn vibe. “What will you do with this one life?”

Before anyone could answer, another participant burst through the leather flaps, causing everyone to erupt into salutation: an initiation process that greeted each new entry. The sauna’s population grew; things began to get very friendly. So what inspired this whole “conference”? “Most of the conversations started here, people who were interested or knew people who were interested in alternative body treatments,” Traynor said as he rolled a meat tenderizer over someone’s back. “They are not even all about healing. Like the electroshock, some are more about experience than outcome.” Last summer, Traynor opened a mud bath in the Rockaways; the sauna felt like an appropriate sequel in his postapocalyptic spa series. Sitting in his pseudo–sweat lodge, one could understand the appeal of these extreme physical experiences, especially for a generation increasingly interacting in a virtual realm.

Tides of friends came and left and eventually it was my turn. As I reemerged into the chilly, candlelit space, my only consolation was artist Sophie Hirsch, dawdling in front of a Hayden Dunham painting. The statuesque sculptor smiled: “I get claustrophobic in those situations,” she confided. I couldn’t begrudge her; she’s spatially… sensitive, after all. As the evening wore on the room mellowed—an effect of either the treatments or the wine (served in mugs). Conrad Winslow’s playlist interspersing Western orchestral music with Tibetan monk chants kept us from dozing off as we chatted till past our bedtimes. “It’s about dissonance,” Wilson said of his set. “About how disjointed pieces can come together through ritual.” The thought was more appealing than some of the noise.