TBA Day 2: TRAJAL HARRELL | Judson Church is Ringing in Harlem (Made-to-Measure)/Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at The Judson Church (M2M)

It’s opening night (for actual performances) at TBA, and what could be more exciting than sitting front row in a packed house with an audience to die for in the temporarily uber hip Con-Way warehouse, aka THE WORKS, as the lights go down?

The audience turned out in force to witness some cutting edge performance art.

Awaiting Trajal Harrell in THE WORKS.
Awaiting Trajal Harrell in THE WORKS.

But in the case of the first of two Trajal Harrell projects, there wasn’t much on offer.

If you have a compelling piece of art you want to share with an engaged audience, it’s unlikely you would name it:

“Judson Church is Ringing in Harlem (Made-to-Measure)/Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at The Judson Church (M2M)”


The purpose of a name is to draw people in, help them understand what it is, and display right there in the first thing your audience may encounter about your show some of your artistic or poetic abilities.

In this case, everything in the name is some inside reference you need a historical primer on to get.

A name this convoluted and insider-facing seems to suggest: “I’m not quite sure what this is about, and you won’t be either.”

Sure enough, it was a perfect name for what we saw.

There was a fairly long verbal explanation of what the piece was supposed to be about by one guy before the show – which didn’t help explain anything, so I won’t try to repeat it.

The first 45 minutes consisted of Harrell quivering on a chair crying. And a Czech guy kept repeating “Don’t stop the dance” in what from his accent sounded like the sum total of English words in his repertoire.

As we had no info to go on at all about anything, after about five minutes of Harrell’s crying, those around me started reading the program, looking for something – anything – to do. Harrell needs to share some of whatever he is on with the audience pre show if we are to enjoy this kind of thing better.

Using great canned music in a dull show is always a risk, as the audience immediately starts thinking about how much more fun it would be to see that performer live instead of this, etc. In this case, I think it was Gillian Welch. And the only reason I and probably a score of others didn’t bail was because the sound was so beautiful.

The music completely upstaged anything happening on stage.

Which was nothing.

Boo hoo.
Boo hoo. Stare at this image for 45 minutes and you’ve got the first part of the show.

Eventually the guy right next to me wisely bailed (from the front row), and the next two guys over starting laughing quite a bit. Others filed out.

The last 15-20 minutes was definitely more exciting (coming from a baseline of 0, mind you), because at least people were moving around a bit.

But there just ain’t much here. And when you are offered the big stage for an international festival, you need to bring SOMETHING.

In the town of the mandatory standing O, the audience response was deafeningly tepid. The performers somehow came back out for a second call even though the response did not warrant it at all.

Btw – do not be decoyed by the amazing clip of ANOTHER Harrell performance piece in PoMo’s “The Experts’ Guide to PICA’s Time-Based Art Festival”. This is nothing like that! Nothing! There are no beautiful, naked people, for starters.

I get the whole “we take risks” and “we like to challenge the audience” PICA thing. But it’s worth asking why we give things in art that don’t measure up a pass, under some rubric of “Oh, is that how you responded to it?”, in a way we never would in other areas of life.

What if your barber said: “I’m going to challenge your conception of a haircut and give you something you may not like or understand, but that will engage you in dialogue.”

What if your local restaurant said: “We’re not bound by traditional conceptions of ‘the good’. We’re going to problematize your expectations of a good meal tonight.”

Would you bust down the door, and shell out your cold cash for these experiences?

Probably not.

Because that’s just how you, the unsophisticated and barbaric masses, roll. You don’t know how to evaluate what you think you want or know.

Harrell seems like the kind of guy who would jump on an offer of a problematized haircut.

In these other realms, people are pretty clear what you mean when you say: “I got a bad haircut.”

It wasn’t what you wanted.

It wasn’t any good.

In this case we got not a bad show but just a non show.

There was a hole where the show was supposed to be.

Oh – and if you don’t like this review?

This is just me problematizing your idea of what a review should be.

That’s my new out.