Brain Frieze

Michael Wilson around Frieze New York Week

Wales Bonner’s Devotional Sound at Saint John’s Church, May 2.

THE PURE WHITE TENT of Frieze New York is all too readily seen as a temple to the quasi-religion of contemporary art’s makers and markets, so it made a kind of sense that at least one of its satellite events took place in an actual church. Presented by avant designer Grace Wales Bonner at the rigorously modernist Saint Peter’s Church in midtown Manhattan, last Thursday’s Devotional Sound evening continued the concert series organized by Serpentine Galleries that was inaugurated at London’s Saint John’s Church this past January. Framed as an accompaniment to Wales Bonner’s Serpentine exhibition, “A Time for New Dreams,” it laid claim to a mystical-spiritual bent.

How significant this reverential context was to the fashion-forward crowd that packed the venue—aligned with progressive Evangelical Lutheranism but also a home for jazz performance—was an open question. The fact that one Solange Knowles was among the scheduled performers likely deterred a few potential attendees and encouraged a great many others, so it was hard not to wonder whether the likes of Laraaji, Standing on the Corner, and Gil Scott-Heron collaborator Brian Jackson felt upstaged or out of place. As the crowd filed in, some bearing “floral offerings to the shrine,” as prompted by the show’s publicity, the vibe felt less meditative and more confused.

Standing on the Corner.

Solange occupied the middle of the bill, not the top, and the whole experience was more coherent than expected—in spite of endless sound and lighting glitches. Opener Laraaji, in particular, suffered from random surges in volume that came close to derailing his good-natured if slightly hokey combination of zither and spoken word. “Vibration . . . pulsation . . . radiation . . . contemplation,” he ad-libbed, and I felt my “never trust a hippie” sense tingle. But it was hard not to take the one-time Brian Eno collaborator’s side when he got the whole room putting hand to heart and laughing along with him over those technical snafus. The sequence of spoken tributes to late artist Terry Adkins that followed also helped bring things down to earth.

Solange’s set, which featured an extended version of “Things I Imagined” and jazzed-up takes on “Rise” and “Way to the Show,” was, predictably, a smoother production. The crowd was fired up, and, while I don’t claim devotee status, the singer’s vocal and physical presence was undeniable (she’s got head-banging style to spare). A portion of the crowd did get up and leave as soon as the set was over—more lighting issues were partly to blame for that—but most came back once they realized there was more, beginning with Brian Jackson’s extraordinary flute work and wrapping up with Standing on the Corner’s intricate jazz experiments, steered by Gio Escobar through some method all his own.

Sheila Heti and Josephine Decker’s Frieze Talk on May 3.

“It’s been nice to read your books—you seem to be riddled with anxiety too!” Performer and filmmaker Josephine Decker’s breezy remark to writer Sheila Heti early in their conversation at Frieze’s Randall’s Island base the following afternoon seemed to threaten a neurotic cast to the proceedings, but in the end their exchange was marked by an easy flow that was refreshing amid the posturing and tension of the larger event. Heti opened with a passage from her 2010 novel How Should a Person Be? that unfolds in an art fair (Art Basel; Frieze would have been a shade too meta), and Decker screened a trailer for her 2018 movie, Madeline’s Madeline. From there the two plunged into a freewheeling back-and-forth about the significance of narrative, the ethics of improvisation, and the vagaries of making art—of whatever kind—in collaboration. The theme of moral accountability on the part of writer or director seemed to be on both panelists’ minds. Heti wondered if it was possible to make art without exploitation, or whether the creative power dynamic was inherently one-sided. Meanwhile, Decker talked about the uncanny experience of deciding that one was exploiting not only one’s collaborators but also oneself, as she felt she had been in the process of directing and starring in an episode of the HBO drama Room 104 that called for her own extended nudity. Heti considered the most appropriate way to treat a collaborator when one’s own enthusiasm for a project was withering. Was it strange, she asked, to make the chance that this might happen known from the outset?

On the place of narrative, the pair was equally conflicted, testing various ways to sneak up on the making of a story. Decker floated the potential of a musical approach in film, scatting her way engagingly through a snatch of Rhapsody in Blue to illustrate the use of repetition and suspense. Asked how she grappled with narrative in writing, Heti revealed a “very inefficient process” that saw her work on elements of a novel for “a couple of years” before starting work on its structure. “I do want to pull people to the end of a story, though,” she conceded. “The Picture of Dorian Gray is a perfect story of the kind I always want to write.” A neat choice for an art fair.

And visual art came up again as Heti discussed—with clear disappointment—the paucity of “conceptual” writers, meaning writers who approached their craft with the same kind of self-awareness as artists who niggled at their field’s conventions and contexts. Citing Richard Serra’s controversial 1981 public sculpture Tilted Arc, she wondered whether a book could ever constitute a similarly unavoidable intervention into one’s intellectual life. And later returning to the theme of narrative in response to a question from the audience, she again drew a parallel between her approach to fiction and an artist’s tendency to immerse the viewer in situations and moments: “I’m not interested in what happens next. I just wanna be in that world.”