BRIGHT LIGHTS TRIBECA

by Miles Pflanz

Terence Koh’s untitled installation at Launch F18 opened with an endurance performance on the 19th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. I sat outside the Tribeca gallery drinking a beer, waiting my turn in the very intimate, very socially distant audience. Pedestrians paced further downtown to the start of Tribute in Light, the annual 9/11 memorial where two columns of light shoot to heaven and dwarf the skyline. A lot of patriot gear, teens with cameras, some people lost in genuine reflection. I wasn’t sure what to expect from Koh. Between the naive handwritten invitation and press junket about a party monster turned spiritual seeker I wasn’t expecting very much. Coked out sound bath gawking? At least the Tribute in Light crowd knew what to expect despite an especially tough year for its production.

Tribute in Light is fraught with new troubles and concessions every year. One year the memorial racked up a seven digit electric bill and now local restaurants pool biodiesel to offset the cost. Environmental groups observed the lights mortally disrupt the flight routes of migratory birds and now must flicker off hourly. Teams of specialists from Las Vegas and Italy are flown in for the annual set up so this year the logistics of pandemic travel imperiled the production. The 2020 show was canceled until the last minute and after some outcry was revived by popular demand.

The memorial’s enduring popularity may be because it has no visible agenda, an anomaly in the “Never Forget” industrial complex. The trauma of 9/11 is still so effectively leveraged by flag waving war profiteers it’s easy to forget the horrible toll of the attacks on our neighbors and city. Tribute in Light is a blank beacon, not bolstering the lies that led to unnecessary war, but not pleading for peace and dignity either. At best it cuts through the fog of bloodthirsty punditry and imperialist cash-ins that cheapen our collective memory and invites us to contemplate tragedy without a lot of messy rhetoric. At worst it is a massive expenditure of resources for a night of traffic blocking selfies. Tribute in Light can be read as nationalist or elegant or disturbingly apolitical, but it’s just pretty lights, so it’s really whatever you want it to be.

Koh acknowledged a 9/11 opening the same way, by not saying anything about it and leaving the audience to decide on the significance for themselves. On the sixth floor, high above the noise and smell of patriotic throngs, the hall to Launch F18 was silent and smelled like Palo Santo. The audience was ushered into an empty gallery pitch dark except an unidentifiable light source bouncing through an uncomfortably narrow hallway. Through that hallway Koh sat backlit in a small room lighting fires on a pile of dirt.

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By the time I got there Koh had been at it for a while, using only matches and the day’s newspapers to build a fire. Sometimes he’d get some brief, unpredictable flames going. When  these big fires died the room went pitch black and he’d start flicking matches again. The effect was stroboscopic, slow shifts of pulsing light and dark, embers dancing up in the air and extinguishing. Pyro anti-sociality as group meditation, shamanic coaxing of hypnotic states from shadow and smoke, Lascaux vibes. I could’ve stayed all night.  

Koh encouraged the audience to ignite pages with him. In the dark, it’s impossible to tell what the paper says. The page I lit could’ve been Bill Barr playing possum at a deposition or a particularly frustrating Sudoku puzzle. A case could be made for the cathartic effect in burning any and all of it, but who gets their news from newspapers? In the year of amped doom scrolling, newspapers offer little more than wood pulp and that’s exactly how Koh uses them. He’s indifferent to content, the news is kindling, all eyes on the fire.

There is a fertile psychological space created by extreme fixation on repetitive tasks. Performer and audience cycle together through emotional states from boredom to awe, annoyance to fascination. With or without focused attention little details of a piece can start to seem big and big gestures can become consciousness consuming. If the audience commits and disregards worldly demands and passing time, art like this offers a materialist route to a sacred feeling. A couple of blocks from Launch F18, another TriBeCa light show, La Monte Young & Marian Zazeela’s Dream House, has pursued this effect for decades.

Dream House is the world’s longest running concert, a beloved landmark in the development of installation and sound art, a magenta lit apartment buzzing with window shaking sine waves. While the sine waves never change, subjective perception of them does. Depending on one’s position and movement in the environment different tonal relationships come to attention. I volunteered there a couple of seasons and can attest that no visitor experiences the installation the same way. Visitors describe hearing blues scales, industrial rhythms, alien atonality, the resonance of religious chants. Some are repulsed, some immersed, and a few walk away complaining it’s a whole lot of nothing.

Dream House discourages visitors from talking and using phones. These rules don’t outright stop selfie happy tourists, dry humping teens, or napping drunks, but the environment is powerful enough to serve as its own bouncer. Audiences either earnestly get sucked in or 86 themselves. Koh has a similar take it or leave it indifference, but staged his performance with the warmth of a family gathering. The danger of indoor fires aside, a lot his piece’s tension developed from this informality. Without procedural guidelines, the audience was forced to consider how their very presence might disturb the gentleness of the performance. Flash photos seemed rude, but not discouraged. Ditto overstaying an unspoken 5-15 minute slot. After some time, I got the vibe that selfie happy tourists, dry humping teens, and napping drunks would be just as welcome as polite spectators, so long as it didn’t distract Koh from his task.

The intimate art function as unpredictable meeting ground is what a lot of unfortunately termed relational art wants, but only someone who’s done a lot of partying can effectively accomplish. A decade ago Koh was best known as an obscene provocateur, the most welcoming persona an artist can take as all provocation intends to start conversation. He mounted enfant terrible stunts like gold plating shit and naming a neon rooster sign Big White Cock. He collaborated with fashionable controversial-ish people like Lady Gaga and Pizzagate pinup Marina Abramovic. Koh’s transition from bad boy theatrics to meditative endurance artist dovetails with his TriBeCa light show peer Marian Zeezela. Her mysterious pivot from bohemian social butterfly to godmother of psychedelic minimalism is rarely considered.  

At one point Zazeela cut a mercurial figure, contributing to art provocations, poised to be a counterculture it girl. She designed sets for plays by Black Power beatnik Amiri Baraka. She cameoed in Baudelairian burlesque for pioneering queer artist Jack Smith’s Beautiful Book and starred in his seminal drag-orgy-as-pagan-rite midnight movie Flaming Creatures. Like Smith, she had some hard to pin down social associations with the early Factory crowd. Her and Young collaborated with the Factory’s resident photographer / amphetamine dispenser Billy Name on an early incarnation of the Theater of Eternal Music. Warhol included her screentest in his 13 Most Beautiful Women collection and she is one of two out of the 400 odd subjects in the screentest series to not blink for the entire four minute film reel. She streams tears by the end, her iron whim hinting at endurance feats to come.

By the mid-1960’s, her attention turned to nightlong ear shattering drone marathons with the first stable Theatre of Eternal Music lineup featuring Young, Tony Conrad, and pre-Velvet Underground John Cale. After a botched major label deal with Atlantic Records, Young and Zazeela became disciples of Pandit Pran Nath, a master of the slow and heavy Kirana gharana vocal style. Nath, who spent the last years of World War 2 and the Indian Independence Movement in a cave tuning his voice to resonate with a stream, pointed the nascent minimalists toward a disciplined work/lifestyle distinct from industry careerism and their druggy downtown milieu. Under his tutelage, Zazeela devoted herself to calligraphy, chimeric sculpture, the perfection of her light shows into stable installations, and the proliferation of Kirana gharana vocal technique. Zazeela, a woman very of her time, disappeared from time and into a private oasis of noise and light. Only later would the art world codify her activities with terms like site specific installation or minimalist sculpture.

Whenever older counterculture heads stopped by Dream House I’d subtly try to substantiate the juiciest rumors about Young and Zazeela. That their mid-1960’s shift in sartorial style from innocuous beatniks to biker outlaws was to better suit their lucrative drug distribution gig. That a well regarded foundation that funds site specific installations gladly served as their launderer. I’d also try to glean more about Zazeela’s friendships with Smith and Warhol’s debauched cliques, a topic that gained little traction. That’s a shame because the spiked punch of Fluxus noise, Pop provocation, queer glamor, and beatnik squalor still smells sweet after 60 years. And I’m sure I’m not the only person curious as to how Zazeela and her circle account for her development. I only ever spoke to one person from that era who would speculate on Zazeela’s twin penchants for mystical inquiry and party girl exhibitionism and her conclusion didn’t amount to much. “Marian chose a higher path.” Sensing my disappointment with that answer: “Well, a different path.”  

A clean break from subcultural extravagance to monastic austerity. This is the line blogs and curators push with Koh too. My hunch is that if Koh and Zazeela have similar trajectories 60 years apart there’s a more cohesive unity between these paths. In their mature work, they indulge performance and environments composed of subtle elements refined from years of consideration. Sound, light, and scent are deployed for the sensual experiences they initiate without regard to symbolic content. Like party promoters coordinating crowd energy, they determine territory, but refuse to dictate behavior or meaning. There is a straight line from the polymorphous perversity of their early efforts to the mystic encounters of their mature work, a star-crossed arc from messy provocation to highly skilled decadence.

As with disappointed Dream House visitors, there’s some who will find their encounters with Koh to be a whole lot of nothing. But let’s consider the consequences of a whole lot of something. In a decade’s time, Tribute in Light may still be an annual tradition, draining electricity and killing birds without anyone having the faintest idea as to why the production exists. A grandiose illustration of grumpy historian Lao Tzu’s observation that “ritual is the husk of reason.” Koh creates decidedly smaller light shows, rituals whose reason is yet to be decided. In doing so he gives cause for us to deliberate reason for ourselves, to reflect with new light.