You Better WeWork

Domenick Ammirati on Ei Arakawa at Artists Space

Ei Arakawa, WEWORK BABIES (11 Courtlandt Alley), 2019. Performance view, Artists Space, New York, December 8, 2019. Photo © 2019 Paula Court.

I HATE CHILDREN. I feel bad about this, of course. My sister has a couple, my friends have others; I was once one myself. Yet only the occasional spike of terror about my own steadily approaching death has ever made me want one. Who wouldn’t like to have a captive audience for their ill-informed theories of everything, or at least an in-house caretaker when one’s brain goes? But those don’t seem like super honorable reasons for taking on the project, although they might be common ones, confessed to or otherwise.

Last Sunday, however, my aversion to children was overcome by my love of Ei Arakawa. He had been enlisted by Artists Space, that essential NYC nonprofit, to help christen its new home in TriBeCa, and responded to the invitation with a performance titled WEWORK BABIES (11 Courtlandt Alley). Arakawa’s work is sly and cerebral, funny and shambling and off-key sonorous. He specializes in amateur operettas, dance routines for paintings mounted on wheeled racks, game-like scrambles or parades. Though prolific, the globetrotting fortysomething hasn’t staged a live work in New York since 2016, How to DISappear in America: The Musical, which, in a characteristically collaborative move, adapted a book by Seth Price and involved a cast of both trained performers and enthusiastic amateurs culled from Arakawa’s wide circles of pals and associates.

Before WEWORK BABIES started, maybe a hundred and twenty of us waited outside on Cortlandt Alley, then inside because it’s December in New York, then outside again. Then twelve performers briskly appeared in athleisurely garb, each bulging with one or two baby dolls strapped to them, chest and back. Joggling up and down in a comical exaggeration of the way parents soothe and carry infants, they scuffled over the blacktop, picking up and flipping oversize coin tokens Arakawa had strewn about, then limboed awkwardly under metal sheetrock studs. It all made them seem drolly stressed out, by commerce or parenting or both. A soundtrack of mutant drum ’n’ bass played, composed by mad master musician Stefan Tcherepnin with a thematically deft assist from his son Igor, born just this past May.

Ei Arakawa, WEWORK BABIES (11 Courtlandt Alley), 2019. Performance view, Artists Space, New York, December 8, 2019. Photo © 2019 Paula Court.

Then the tossing began. Babies were lobbed in low arcs, launched toward the fire escapes from one performer to the other, lofted at the audience. As ludicrous as it was, even an infantophobe like myself experienced a certain reflex anxiety. No spills to report, however; the troupe seemed practiced to avoid such mishaps. The group then began assembling a kind of arch out of the metal studs, splayed over with plastic sheeting—“an experimental structure for babies,” announced Arakawa, leaning into the role of emcee with a certain brio. He singled performance doyen Mike Smith out of the crowd. “We are big fans of Baby Ikki!” he declared, Smith grimacing gracefully as though he’d have preferred to remain anonymous. When the structure was complete, it was spray painted with a zigzag that suggested the fortunes of the actual WeWork, the “flexible workspace” corporation run by yet another T-shirt-wearing sociopath whose IPO collapsed this fall when the company’s purported value of $47 billion was revealed to be a grotesque fiction, resulting in a projected loss of four thousand jobs and an incipient criminal investigation.

Arakawa then instructed us all to move to Artists Space’s new basement. The journey inside took a few minutes, with the performers taking care to avoid destroying either the fragile graph-cum-ceremonial arch or the lanky Duane Linklater piece installed in the stairwell. During the transition, some of the performers divulged their favored baby names into the mic—Precaria! LaWindows! Barette!—and Arakawa flung the giant cardboard coins like Frisbees into the massing, milling crowd.

I, meanwhile, used the time to work on one of my several “best of” lists, all of which languish unsolicited despite the year’s nearing end. DLA’s Top 5 Least Favorite Baby-Related Items of 2018–19:

5. Baby Yoda

4. Giant balloon of President Baby

3. “Small children” who can’t play in the yard because of feral hogs

2. I’m baby

1. The Very Serious Baby in Ed Atkins’s Old Food, currently on view at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise. Here Atkins’s trademark digital animations feature across multiple channels a gummy juxtaposition of a Kinder and an elder accompanied by lugubrious music weeping and snotting in some kind of sub-sub-sub-Hard to Be a God universe of cottages and filthy peasantry. Any slack the charitable viewer might want to cut the artist is yanked taut when you turn the corner and—oh look, it’s a CGI baby sandwich. Infants in diapers tumble from on high onto white bread with lettuce and tomato and streaming brown goo that’s either HP or diarrhea, all topped with a Union Jack, looping and looping, very much ad nauseam.

Thus concludes the Top 5.

Ei Arakawa, WEWORK BABIES (11 Courtlandt Alley), 2019. Performance view, Artists Space, New York, December 8, 2019. Photo © 2019 Paula Court.

The basement, once we reached it, was pleasantly dim and warm. The coin discs hung from the ceiling like mobiles over cradles, with a video silently incriminating SoftBank execs playing in a corner. Arakawa unceremoniously dumped event programs out onto the floor from cardboard boxes, and the music by Tcherepnins père et fils shifted to a gentler, slow-jam lullaby. Then more baby tossing, ladder climbing, metal rod poking, and the ever-hectic bobbing of the performers. Arakawa paused to invite one of the troupe’s members, writer and artist Malik Gaines, to offer a tongue-in-cheek (yet not) disquisition on alienation and consciousness vis-à-vis infants. Then a kind of yoga session began, caretakers assuming poses that positioned the infants between their feet or on their shoulders in a parody both of overburdened laborers trying to cover all of life’s bases and the type of corporate culture that offers amenities like yoga classes in lieu of, say, paid parental leave. Soon the performance ended, or rather tantalizingly dissolved, leaving the plastic sheeting and metal rods unsteadily attached to the basement’s structural columns.

Afterwards, a great many people strolled up to Performance Space on Second Avenue for their fundraising danceathon. Instead I soon found myself alone in a bar, thumbing through the program. It turned out to be much more than a simple list of acts and dramatis personae; rather, it was a sweet and serious rumination on what it means to have a child in these times, as an LGBTQ+ person, and as an artist. Arakawa offered some fragmentary notes, melancholy-hopeful. “What are babies. A thought. An Asian gay man in his 40s,” they began. “Babies in a Winter dream. CMYK vision of soft plastic bodies. A dream of field day.” On other pages appeared news items on gene splicing, on deciding to have kids or deciding not to, along with rehearsal photos and performers’ intimate reflections on their own attitudes toward procreation and parenting. The lyrics to the basement lullaby appeared toward the end. It turned out to be a modified version of Bjork’s “Tabula Rasa,” layered with the voices of a few of the cast, perfectly annunciating the trickling out of the last decade and the seeping in of the one to come. And so to Ei and the rest for the last word:    

Tabula rasa for our children

Not repeating the fuckups of the fathers

Our deepest wish
Is that you’re immersed in grace and dignity

But you will have to deal with shit soon enough
We hoped to give you the least amount of luggage

Got the right to make your own mistakes
And not repeat others’ failures