For the next three months at Red Bull Studios in Chelsea, the artists Jonah Freeman and Justin Lowe have teamed up with underground rock legend Jennifer Herrema (of Royal Trux and Black Bananas) for “Scenario in the Shade,” an impressively immersive exhibition (and adjoining film) that serves as a continuation of the duo’s ongoing creative concern: a fictional 1970s megalopolis of their creation known as the San San International, housed in an enormous convention center that exists somewhere between San Francisco and San Diego.
The installation combines elements of film, sound, and architecture, all spread throughout two stories of the vast, energy drink–sponsored gallery. By way of explanation, Lowe told me, “It’s a tour of all the various people that inhabit [San San International], as told by their objects and the environments that they inhabit.” Before I went up to him for an interview, he was laying on a couch in Red Bull Studios, watching his own film and drinking a Pabst. “This is a world where objects have taken center stage, and people are always once removed.”
The first floor reads like a collaged composite of the Megalopolis as a whole: there’s a Venice Beach–esque stall filled with subtly altered beach towels, a perfectly distressed Victorian room, and a sunken-floor, shag-carpeted area complete with geometric wallpaper. There are also hallway storefronts that conjure images of the kind of bootleg bazaars found anywhere in the world, filled with old VHS tapes and prescription-drug bottles. The artists did a masterful job cloaking the space; their attention to detail went beyond that of a major film set. If it weren’t for the occasional Red Bull–branded refrigerator peaking through—almost like a wormhole to another universe—I would’ve maybe forgotten where I was.
“It’s a real, kind of, I think all over composition in terms of the areas that we’re pulling from,” Lowe told me. “Jonah and I have a really vast image archive, so we’ve been collecting these things for years. And it’s not like any kind of a normal collector, where there’s a really particular theme and vested interest in first editions or whatever. It’s really kind of like everything, like we’re just getting a lot of stuff.” He offered an example: “We pulled a silkscreen off of these Punjabi, Bollywood prints…We went to Jackson Heights and got all of these Bollywood tapes, cassette tapes, and some of those things I think have made it into the sound installations.”
Lowe and Freeman staged a presentation at last year’s Art Basel Miami Beach that served as a history of the San San International, which, according to the artists, started as a festival and turned into an enormous spectacle, before being burned to the ground. A lot of people read the whole thing as a critique of art fairs themselves. “People have said that,” Lowe said of this interpretation. “I don’t know that I necessarily was saying that. I’m not necessarily sure that that was the focused navel-gazing that people thought it was, you know? That might be a little, like, actually egocentric. I think that we were talking about the world. Not the fucking art world.”
To get to the exhibition’s lower level, I had to walk through a tunnel and ultimately the doors of a Porta Potty. Downstairs was the abandoned headquarters of the San San International, along with some psychedelically altered arcade games and a space dedicated to live performance. The sound portion of the exhibition is organized by Herrema, who culled from an impressive international list of musicians to collaborate on a work that functions as both an audio installation and the soundtrack to the show’s film component. The movie plays on the first floor, inside of an installation approximating the feel of a bland conference room. (On the day I visited, in the back of the room, there was a table that housed an immaculately tepid deli tray. I wasn’t sure if it was part of the installation or intended for consumption, but I did observe a journalist approach the tray pensively before finally backing off. Better safe than sorry.)
Taken together with the rest of the piece, the voice over–heavy film—which Lowe calls “a faux-ethnographic survey” and which was shot using pieces from the installation—feels somewhere between Dan Graham and a scene from The Doors movie: all slow pans, psychedelic signifiers, and heavy rock music. Decades deep into a certain kind of retro subcultural study, it’s hard to not see certain aesthetics within the prism of all that has already referenced it. When I said something to this effect to Lowe, he seemed content with my read. “That’s fine, right?” he said. “Layer it on, you know?”