“YOU HERE for the dreaming thing?” the man asked me. I’d interrupted his smoke break by knocking on a door I thought was the entrance to see Jim Findlay and Jeff Jackson’s performance piece, Dream of the Red Chamber. I apologized for my interruption, but he was unfazed. Whether you live in New York or not, everyone is a tourist in Times Square. “Go back to Broadway,” he waved, “take a left, and go past the door that says Brill Building and you’ll see it right there. Can’t miss it.” I hustled past the packs of not-from-heres, all of us in a kind of high-definition delirium beneath the video billboards. Once I made my way through the right door, all was mercifully dark. I walked along a red carpet lit by the snow of two rows of televisions and down a set of stairs to finally discover what the artists subtitled “a performance for a sleeping audience.”
Conceived and written by Findlay and Jackson and directed by Findlay, Dream of the Red Chamber is loosely adapted from the eighteenth-century Chinese novel of the same title by Cao Xueqin. Over five nights, five “dreams” were performed for seven hours each, with the full cycle being performed twice as two thirteen-hour presentations. A “durational performance installation,” DotRC is devised for the audience to sleep through, or at least partly through. Was this gesture a witty submission to the drifting in and out of consciousness (or at least of attentiveness) that’s part of the peril and pleasure of spectatorship? Or perhaps more of a straightforward joke that theater is a good sleep spoiled? As I made my way to the basement of the Brill Building and saw the rows of cots lining the performance space, both propositions seemed to me as theatrically sharp and seductive as any double-edged sword could be.
The installation resembled an opium den stripped of all illicit delectations. Diaphanous curtains hung from the ceiling, sectioning off various playing spaces, and some doubling as screens for video projections. Flat-screen monitors were lined up along a center aisle, while in the middle of the space, a magic lantern of sorts spun around a bare bulb. This evening of the story cycle was titled “2nd Dream: Vain Longing,” and as I looked around for an empty bed, I watched as women dressed in Chinese-esque garb performed various tasks for video cameras that were placed within the set. One played a game of solitaire, another put on makeup, and others held beads and jewels up to the camera lenses while images of their actions appeared on the various screens around the room. Droning tones were played through the speakers while a woman’s voice described an exotic formula for a “cold perfume pill.”
As I lay on one of the cots, my mind wandered between the performance and elsewhere, depending on whether my eyes were open or closed. I thought about La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela’s Dream House, and how I still have never been there. I wondered if our culture’s waning attention spans would soon give way to art that demands or commands no attention at all, and noted that for better and for worse, it already has. At one point, I watched as the piece’s repeated actions and looped sounds dissolved into ambience, unfocused and uncomfortably generic in moments when the performance deferred its pulse to the drone rather than modulate it to an idea of duration. At no point in the hour or so I was there did I feel closer to understanding the story, and wondered what the installation would have been like if it had also produced a new text to dream to. (Literature, unlike Times Square real estate, isn’t property necessarily coveted by contemporary artists, and when adapted, can sometimes feel like a tourist attraction: pointed to, or posed before, but not fully represented.) I looked around at the other people in attendance, some wide-awake and watching while others seemed to be sleeping. I catnapped, perhaps, but never dozed off completely, trying to remain an alert audience for my funny half-dream state.
I only stood up again when a sudden surge in the lights and sound snapped me back into the room. The space was now bright, and from the speakers, a woman’s sultry voice sang words I couldn’t quite hear or pay attention to. I was disoriented and paused for a quick second to remind myself where I was. I quickly scribbled down some notes while I could still remember what it was that I didn’t want to forget, and picked up my bag to check my phone. As I shook myself from my stupor and headed out onto the street, I was surprised to realize that it was well past my bedtime.
Jennifer Krasinski is a writer based in New York.
Dream of the Red Chamber ran from May 9 – May 17 at the Brill Building in Times Square, New York.