Last Monday afternoon, the artist Uri Aran staged a collaborative performance at Gavin Brown’s Lower East Side space that incorporated art, jazz, dance, and even bagels. The end result was a non-linear and at times absurdist exploration of group dynamics and corporate power structures.
The show started with a group of six formally dressed men and women standing in a circle, a series of musical instruments surrounding them. Pretty soon some lights turned on and a projection started to play. (On the video: a man and women holding hands on a couch.) “Come here, I’m angry at you,” one of the men in the circle said to another across from him. Shortly after, they hugged. This process repeated itself several times with different configurations of cast members, growing faster and more chaotic as it progressed, breaking up the circle. After some time, another man emerged and everyone froze. Next, a woman from the circle started playing a piano and the projection started up again, this time with audio.
(Featured in the first video were the artists Alison Kizu-Blair and Sterling Wells. A former assistant for Aran, Kizu-Blair was in attendance for the performance and told me that the artist gave only a few instructions during the making of the video. “That thing that Sterling was saying [the phrase “We assembled together a group of people”] we had to say that over and over in a lot of different voices,” Kizu-Blair explained. “He wanted us to hold hands and hum to the song lovingly.”)
From there, the performance wound through a series of pulled-apart vignettes and music and dance interludes featuring some especially powerful jazz drumming from Dan Aran, the artist’s twin brother. At one point, a bag full of bagels got dumped on the ground, each bagel shaped like a different letter. The performers used these bagels to spell words above each other’s heads, like “nurse” and “dog.” (There was a small dog in the front row of the performance. I wasn’t sure if it was part of the show or not, but it was very well behaved considering the amount of commotion surrounding him.)
Born in Jerusalem, Aran was included in the 2014 Whitney Biennial and the 2013 Venice Biennial. Once, at the Frieze Art Fair in New York, he created an imaginary hospital run by his friends—a study in power dynamics not unlike his Monday performance. The show was workshopped and rehearsed at the very space it was held Monday, although it officially premiered earlier this fall as part of Aran’s show “Multicolored Blue” at Brown’s space in Rome, Sant’Andrea De Scaphis.
After the performance, Aran told me that he was “interested in method acting” when constructing the piece, as well as “the dynamic within a group, any group.” The performance felt somewhere between a really abstract team-building exercise and some sort of deranged improv comedy piece (one of many telling voiceovers that popped up throughout the performance: “Sexual intercourse may occur within members of an acting class”). Stories were told and then told again in different accents, phrases repeated until they turned into something else. In the middle of the performance, a bar tale told from the point of view of a musician that ended with the punchline “Why don’t you go inside before I fuck you up?” was repeated multiple times by different cast members, with slight variations in tone and cadence. It was almost like a game of avant-telephone. “Things got abstracted into music and dance,” Aran–who spent the performance in the front row, at times interjecting or shepherding the cast–said of the process, which included a lot of back-and-forth between the artist and his collaborators.
Cast member Harry Acland briefly took on the role of a used-car dealer, with another cast member on his lap playing a dog (at this point I started to suspect that dog in the front row was no accident). “Here I am lifting this 80-pound dog on my lap,” he said, drolly. “If I were a mean person and a shark, so to speak, then this dog wouldn’t let me touch him and paw him,” he continued, as a means of persuasion to get you to buy a “new or used car from our downtown location” (this in itself a reference to a piece by William Wegman).
In the end, everything in the performance centered around a wider concept. “In a way it’s very formal,” Aran said of the performance. “But at the same time, it came back to the more original idea of what it would be like to work as a group and the notion of the group.”