Responses: The Sixth Borough

by Jonah Bokaer The first thing I hear after exiting the building is a loud police siren. The Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia is closing down for the day, and I'm lugging a bunch of props and set objects awkwardly out the front door. I've just said goodbye to the curators of the museum, who have been extraordinarily kind, intelligent, and accommodating. One of them even knelt on the concrete floor with me, to help focus a projector prior to the show. Aside from the brutally hard concrete floor, the performance went very well. In some ways, concrete is a small price to pay though: performing in a visual arts venue seems insulated by people who actual curate (literally, "care for") the work that's presented, and have taken special attention to the surrounding context. In addition to that, the public has come to see "Art," with a capital A at a public institution. There is an unspoken assumption that when they enter the facility they will engage in an artistic experience (like an invisible contract), even if it's unfamiliar one. In that way, there are fewer apologies for the subsequent viewing experience. Even if dance is shown within the walls of a museum, an audience is less likely to preface their observations with "Well, I don't understand dance, but..." There is more likelihood that people will trust their own vision, their own perceptive powers. The sirens are still blaring, and getting a bit louder, so I start making my way to the car with Fritz Haeg, one of the featured artists in the exhibit at ICA. Philadelphia is often called "The Sixth Borough" among artists, which is not only an affectionate, double-edged joke, but also an increasing truth: artists are emigrating from New York City more often now, and the cheaper prices of Philadelphia are beckoning visual artists, dancers, musicians, and theater artists eager to find affordable workspace, and vibrant communities for alternative, experimental, or multidisciplinary work. This "Sixth Borough" also refers to violence, I think. The crime rates in Philadelphia are extremely high, perhaps so high that they don't reflect any of the post-Giuliani five boroughs of New York City. Philadelphia is an outer, "other" borough just 90 minutes away. I hear this "Sixth Borough" nickname more often than I hear "The City Of Brotherly Love," which is perhaps an outdated moniker at this point. Philly is a beautiful, complicated city, and as I walk back to the car, I catch myself thinking, "Why don't I come down here every month?" There is a bourgeoning dance scene just 90 minutes away, that's completely accessible by car, train, bus, plane, etc., and it's an extremely affordable trip. 90 minutes is about the distance from Paris to Brussels as well - it's just curious that our country isolates its metropolitan areas the way it does, and I begin to think about my own participant in that isolationism as well. Michael Hart is rounding up the car, and Fritz and I stop in a Seven Eleven to get a snack before the trip. Inside, there are oppressive florescent lights, packaged food in rows, Slurp-eee machines, and coolers lining the walls. I also notice a number of surveillance cameras, and low-resolution monitors behind the double counter in the center of the store. They seem to change about every 10 seconds, and skip frequently (which almost reminds me of animation). I can't quite find anything to eat, and after a while, I become embarrassed of my dancer-neurotic eating habits, so I decide to make a quick choice. I'll get some milk, which has protein, and might help some bones that have just danced on concrete. There is skim, whole, low-fat, two-percent, chocolate, non-RBST treated milk, and probably a few others. Suddenly I start thinking about what I must look like in those cameras - am I being watched? If so, that's no big deal, but I wonder what I look like. Through the glass on the cooler, I can see the low-resolution image of my body on the screens behind the counter; it's an angle of my figure that I would never be able to see. I then start to get impatient with myself, choose low-fat milk and head to the line to meet up with Fritz. There's a long line. The cashiers are totally slow. The screens flicker and switch. The cashiers are chatting. Someone's talking on a cell phone. I then notice that one of the cashiers touches the other one's hand; she whispers something; one of the male clerks then leaves the counter area; I look outside and see Michael waiting in the car. Behind me there is a huge eruption, and a loud, shouting voice starts to yell "Get Offa Me," while Fritz and I turn around to see what's going on. Two aisles away, three men are swarming around a much larger, stronger man in a down coat. They literally hang onto his arms and back as he flails around, calmly but forcefully, like a giant rhinoceros. Everyone in the store is surprisingly calm, too calm, incongruently calm. "Get The Hell Offa Me. I Don't Have Nothing," the man says, very loudly, but without shouting. He flails and whips his powerful body, and the three men keep trying to overpower him, uselessly. I am totally puzzled because the situation is extreme, but sedated. The man's tremendous body and voice begin propelling through space, trying to shake off the three men, who are now trying to cuff him. As violent as this scene is, it is completely unsurprising: the man is clearly not threatened by the three people clinging to him, and his voice barely needs to shout. He thrashes up and down the aisle, and the other bodies thrash with him, pitifully, in response to the attack of his body's actions. This becomes undoubtedly choreographic - probably the most raw improvisation I will ever witness. The cashiers stand still, and the everyone in the line is watching this scene unfold. The surveillance screens flicker and switch. No one knows what to do, but no one is in shock. Fritz and I keep beginning sentences at each other "This is... " "Holy shit... " "What... " This continues for about three minutes, with the entire store in a state of inertia. Everyone's attention is arrested, but no one is in danger. Clearly no one can approach this moving mass of four violent bodies careening through space (it would be ridiculous to intervene), but no one can turn away either. There is milk in my hand, and a five dollar bill on the counter in front of me. This doesn't make sense. It's totally incongruent with the violence just a few feet away. These are not my images. I want to abandon this. This continues. I can't watch this. I am drawn to this. This is horrible. It's all so static, so low-resolution, and I feel so unthreatened by this. Where did this come from? I think these things to myself, put down my milk, and Fritz and I both decide to leave, but an employee has locked the front door. "We can't let him get away!" says a defiant employee, with her hand on the lock. The experience becomes even more surreal even minute. The man continues to flail and buck wildly. Newer, louder sirens are sounding now, and they are coming closer. Fritz and I have a panoramic view of the Seven Eleven from the front of the store. We are completely stuck, witnessing this scene unfold in the aisle, held captive by the event. Suddenly everyone is a spectator, an audience, and I begin to resent this. I feel forced to watch something that I don't want to see, and I feel observant in a manner that I did not decide on. When I entered this space, I did not agree to view this. My mind starts thinking about the aesthetics of this viewing experience, and the choreography of it, too (the movement, the bodies, the velocity, the rhythm, the audience, the cameras, the space), and I begin to hate myself for that. The woman opens the door, and we exit.
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Jonah Bokaer, performance, Philadelphia


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