THE LEGENDARY VENUE P.S. 122—rechristened Performance Space New York—finally reopened in January. It’s hard to encompass the tangled mare’s nest of this building’s cultural associations: the place is like an archaeological site, with layers of civilization and history piled up higgledy-piggledy. Occupied originally in the late 1970s by a group of squatter-artists, the repurposed school building and its two theaters were at the center of New York’s experimental scene for nearly four decades. Spalding Gray spoke his monologues there. Philip Glass played a battered piano. Ron Athey literally bled into the floorboards. More than any other place in the city, it contained the art that happens when you make a clubhouse for the outsiders, the freaks, and the weirdos—not to mention those who love them. Only La MaMa could match it for longevity and 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’ve been hearing that it was going to open almost every year since). At last, we who have long awaited its return can now prowl around it, poking our noses into corners, trying to figure out why and how it took the city seven long years to complete the project. Certainly, things are changed. The spaces—once creaky, jerry-rigged, thickly overpainted—show no trace of the classrooms they once were. Admittedly, the refit is just that tiny bit institutional, in the way that a lot of city-contracted theaters always seem to be. There’s finally an elevator, and the bathrooms gleam. But then everything at PSNY is emphatically new. In addition to the new name, there’s a new executive artistic director, Jenny Schlenzka (formerly of MoMA PS1), a new deputy director, Pati Hertling, and a coy new graphic identity (a black heart with a dog-eared edge). There’s also a jettisoned programming slate, a wiped Instagram account, and a deleted winter festival. Out with the old, I guess.
Perhaps sensing the stark panic these losses would instill in those of us who had imprinted on the old PS like little ducklings, Schlenzka launched her first season with the East Village Series, dedicated to celebrating downtown figures from the 1980s and ’90s. And to kickoff the new guard, the (old) “Avant-Garde-Arama” came lumbering back to life. AGA is the longest running PS program and as befits the space’s signature event, it’s chaotic at its core. One of the venue’s founders, Charles Dennis, showed up to do a wonderfully spaced-out history of it, which mainly consisted of him bopping around and showing slides of fliers from the ’80s. As Dennis explained, this haphazard showcase has basically two rules: 1) It’s curated by committee, and 2) performers are limited to under ten minutes of material.
Salley May—downtown fixture and wild-haired punk bacchant—organized this particular AGA 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 infused all. She started the evening with a raggedy threat to “Occupy PS!,” which culminated in a group of downtown illuminati (like cabaret-star-cum-curator Nicky Paraiso) unfurling a paper banner that read WE’RE STILL HERE! Post-yawp, however, she retired to the wings to giggle like a proud mama. The whole night had this punch-and-a-cuddle quality. Who was in a position to demand anything? The AGA tradition is teetering on the knife’s edge; all it would take to disappear completely is to not be invited back. Lucy Sexton—who performs as both the pro-truth persona The Factress and as half of the splatter-duo DanceNoise—praised Schlenzka for retaining the old group-curation model. “Thank you for keeping it alive!” she said. The new director only smiled. No promises.
Fair enough. The avant-garde has gotten old. The form promised to be eternally self-renewing, always young, always fresh, but it has turned out to be historically rooted after all. We sometimes use the term as a blanket appellation for anything experimental, but there is a stripe of performance 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—which belongs to the true avant-garde. Over time, body-shock pieces glided into the textbooks (which pretty much killed their ability to be shocking); the destabilizing Dada experiments needed funds (which first suffocated under Clinton); a general, cultural post-AIDS prudery chilled some of it; the eternal cycle of youth-devouring-age did its bit too.
But old isn’t dead.
That evening, there were more than three-dozen acts across two theaters, and the building was packed to the rafters. Hughes was there, though I didn’t see her. I did see Penny Arcade perform a snippet of her lecture “Longing Lasts Longer,” a rallying cry for the vanishing, bolshy New York sensibility. “Don’t call it ‘nostalgia!’” she cried, while doing a modified Pony around the stage and saying vicious things about Twitter. The hit of this part of the evening was a touching performance by sisters Muriel and Gloria Miguel of Spiderwoman Theater, founded in 1976. Muriel would say a line; her octogenarian sister Gloria, stagger-dancing, would repeat it just behind her. “My songs! My culture!” they chanted, and all were humbled at the palpable effort it takes for our elders to keep their performance traditions alive. Sexton and Ike Ufomadu played host in the larger of the two PS theaters. Sexton brought down the house when she came out in her final costume change, which was just . . . a pair of shoes. Youth is all very well, but nudity over fifty is sublime.
The evening also included major PS figures who have learned from—and often Pop-ified—the avant-garde. Reggie Watts did his fabulous mouth-music jabberwocky (he kept calling the place PS 166); singer-storyteller Erin Markey scared everyone to death with her crazy-baby voice that changes, always without warning, into a full brass band; body-art provocateur Antonio Ramos served chocolates that had been made in a mold based on his anus. (He showed a video of the form-making process, just in case anyone had doubts.) Comedienne/choreographer Adrienne Truscott popped out of a door high on the wall. “Is it a school or a performance space?” she asked, her fake ponytail falling in her face as she did her furious “un-dancing” shtick. “Neither! It’s a concept and a brand!” (Zing!)
In a few of the PS offices, installations had taken over. Sibyl Kempson set up shop in the “Telemarketing Center,” and attendees crammed in to watch The Kempson Company yell nonsense at one another and, sometimes, into the phones. Occasionally a person in the crowd would be hectored for being a terrible intern. That tone of merry bullying works perfectly at “Avant-Garde-Arama.” It’s hard to be seduced or bewitched or even befuddled in eight minutes. But an artist can push you around in that time, and still have a minute left to hold for applause. The queer MC/stand-up and PS fixture Carmelita Tropicana is the reigning queen of this kind of aggressive tickling. She was playing hostess in the smaller PS theater, her round chipmunk cheeks setting off her skin-tight outfit and her stapled-on mega-merkin. She was like a Wind-in-the-Willows character having a very raucous night, and when she joshed us and mocked the acts—“Cornelius was raised in the wilds of the Hamptons!”—the crowd lapped it up.
The one thing nobody mocks is Forty-Second Street, the come-one-come-all segment of AGA during which anybody can perform for forty seconds. One audience member did a simple little dance with her shawl in tribute to the late, much-missed, super-fan Helen Weiss, who came to AGA every year and grooved 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, PS’s artistic director before Schlenzka, rallied the staff on stage for a forty-second beer chug. It was a beautiful, silly moment: They were all blushing and falling into one another 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 noise and riot and pride in the old stuff—was everywhere.
At the end of the performances, the “Avant-Garde-Arama”–goers trickled out down PS’s narrow stairwell (looking like its former self, though covered in a coat of white paint), passing by a four-floor-long line of people still waiting to get in. As they left, the people who hadn’t made it in yet learned that the evening had shifted into DJ sets. (All seemed crestfallen to hear that weird art was being fobbed off with a party.) As I walked away, the top windows of the building were flashing purple and pink. Thumping sounds of house music pulsed through the bricks and over the sidewalks and out into the night. “Bless their hearts,” said one silver-haired passerby to another. Did she mean the black one as per the new branding? Or the throbbing red one that’s been beating for forty years? Hard to know. At any rate, for that moment at least, you could feel the blood coursing through the neighborhood. I said a prayer for the future. God willing, PS is back.
“Avant-Garde-Arama” was held on Sunday February 18th at Performance Space New York.
Helen Shaw is a theater critic working in New York.