LAST WEDNESDAY NIGHT, I found myself standing on the main stage at the Abrons Art Center, blinded by stage lights, looking at a gently playing string quartet, dimly aware of a full house halfheartedly applauding my arrival . . . and wondering what exactly I was expected to do next. As I circled toward the strings, I noticed a woman standing downstage, frantically beckoning me forward. “Are you K11?” she asked. “Yes, I’m K11!” To my relief, she led me into the auditorium, where I was gratefully given a seat in . . . row K.
Such was my entry, in medias res, to Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster and Ari Benjamin Meyers’s K.62. But the performance, one of the culminating commissions of this year’s three-week-long Performa gauntlet, had actually begun forty-five minutes earlier, for me and eighteen other Ks, as well as all the members of the orchestra, who were brought to the Abrons from various locations downtown. An inversion was taking place whereby the orchestra entered via the auditorium (and sat in the stalls until going onstage), while the audience entered via the stage.
In fact, I felt as if the work had begun eight hours earlier, when I’d been offered a “solo” or a “group” ticket to the performance. I immediately leaped for the solo option. A subsequent phone call instructed me to go to the Performa Hub on Cooper Square at exactly 8 PM and told me that my experience would last approximately ninety minutes. My informant deliberately cultivated an air of enigma and mystique. On arriving at the Hub, I was handed an envelope labeled “K11.” At the top of the steps was a violinist playing her part of what was clearly a larger score, synced with an earpiece to hear what (I assumed) was the rest of the orchestra. Inside the envelope was an invitation to “After” (a party on the corner of Grand and Pitt streets) and twenty dollars for the cab ride home. Uh-oh. So this was the “solo” option: one audience member getting to watch one violinist for ninety minutes. Avant-garde difficulty writ large.
But I was wrong. A yellow cab parked outside had “K11” on the windshield, so I got in. As we set off, the driver put on a CD of flamenco-guitar music. Gradually, I realized that I was being driven slowly to the corner of Grand and Pitt, i.e., the back of Abrons, which bore the neon sign AFTER (matching the one on the invitation). A video camera greeted my arrival, and I took my place in a line alongside three other Ks (surprisingly calm and unspeculative). From time to time, the bouncer talked to someone inside on a radio and let one of them inside. When it came to my turn, it was pretty obvious that entry into the building was going to mean entry onto the main stage.
Having seen two previous performances, “Il Tempo del Postino” (in Manchester) and another, NY.2022, at the Guggenheim last fall, I had some inkling of what might be coming. Both had involved an orchestra playing the first movement of Beethoven’s Sixth and a gradual dispersal, one player leaving the stage after another until a core handful were playing—until there was one. This time, I guessed, the Ks were being fed onto stage to fill the vacated seats.
Again, it was far more complicated. On either side of the stage were whiteboard charts on which the movements of each K were being mapped in relationship to five movements of music played onstage. The house lights were up, and the organizers’ radio links were audible to the audience. Shortly after my arrival there was an audio sample of Orson Welles’s 1962 film of Kafka’s The Trial, and the next K to arrive gave a short speech responding to the excerpt we had heard. At this point, it became clear to me that Gonzalez-Foerster and Meyers were creating for us an experience of controlled subjugation akin to that experienced by Josef K at the end of The Trial: to walk into a situation that seems predestined but where you have no idea why you are there or the logic behind the gathering. The other point of reference was Martin Scorsese’s After Hours (1985), in which a man is stranded in SoHo when his last twenty-dollar bill is blown out of a window of a cab. That film also contains a scene outside a nightclub with dialogue directly lifted from Kafka’s The Trial.
Such a wonderfully dense web of references was a consummate development of Gonzalez-Foerster’s and Meyers's previous performances and took the tropes of avant-garde dispersal, transparency, and fragmentation to a new extreme. (Having said that, I’m glad I wasn’t K18, who arrived just as the evening was winding up.)
-Claire Bishop, from PERFORMA 09: BACK TO FUTURISM