When I first walked in to Torus Porta, it was difficult to understand exactly what was happening. After opening a door at the bottom of a staircase, all I could see were a number of sweaty, naked bodies covered in stickiness and powder. On the floor a human-centipede-like blob of people thrashed about. I thought maybe this was an illusion or some optical trick brought on by the kaleidoscopic glow of multiple projections, but even after a few minutes of adjusting I found I couldn’t distinguish between men, women, and blow-up dolls.
A man thumped hypnotically on a large drum and people seemed to by either zombie walking or reeling about, obscured by masks and face paint. I decided if I stayed one more moment I risked tumbling head-first into a DMT-fueled trip back to whatever the hell regrettable things I was doing at festivals as a teenager. And I wasn’t about to strip, which made things slightly awkward– clothing wasn’t optional here, it was seriously frowned upon.
I followed my friends out, thinking I could never un-see what I’d just seen. But as days passed and I tried to describe what I’d seen to other people, I became less and less sure of what I actually had seen. Was it just an orgy? Another predictably Bushwick approach to spiritual revival? Or was it something else?
Torus Porta lives in Bushwick (shocker), inside a a newish brick building that seems to be all corners, jammed onto a small piece of block between Myrtle and Stockholm Street. Above, an anarchist library seamlessly blends into an adjacent, bland-looking coffee shop and overpriced cookie-cutter apartments. At first glance, the building looks like the regrettable, banal future of Bushwick: bland, overpriced development mixed in with hints of lingering weirdness. Below the surface is Torus Porta, or the newish home of Wild Torus, quite probably Bushwick’s wildest, weirdest, and yet most inclusive art collective.
As an inherently participatory project, Wild Torus consists really of anyone who cares to join Mág Ne Tá Z’air and Vlady VØz Tokk (aka Amy Mathis and Mike Berlant, respectively; Bushwick Daily recently included the two artists on a list of the neighborhood’s power couples) in one of their “rituals.” They can be terribly jarring for the uninitiated. And if you’re repelled by mysterious sticky substances– forget it.
“A lot of people freak out when they see our stuff for the first time,” Amy admitted. “We did a performance in Baltimore in 2012, it was at like a street festival and thousands of people come through. They see a hot dog stand and a car show and then, like, Wild Torus is twerking and covered in glitter and a dinosaur is running around and people are getting slimed. And it’s kind of a confrontation with your beliefs. Like the reaction, ‘Am I supposed to stand here and watch this?!'”
“And they do!” Mike laughed. “We definitely want that reaction. It’s shock, but it’s also curiosity.”
Wild Torus performances are sort of an aesthetic assault– there’s dancing, gyrating, the visual palate is sugary-sweet neon bright overload, the soundscape is dominated by unpleasant sounds mixed with electronic music, all layered with swirling, hallucinatory projections and glitchy images. And then there’s the quality of improvisation and interactivity, an overarching sense of the unexpected, and a sense that you are implicated – costumes, makeup, “slime,” participation.
“It’s an alternate reality in a way. Because these sort of new experiences and feelings and ways of expressing yourself, they don’t exist in daily life, only in these art experiences,” Mike said. “We’re looking at the overarching scope that takes into account the deep, subconscious human experience and desires. We bring that into conversation with the post-modern and the internet age and how those can enrich each other. By adding the ancient and subconscious to the modern and digital – what we’re talking about is digital spirituality.”
Amy explained that Wild Torus is something like “a cult,” but she clarified, “not in a negative way.” And it’s open to everyone.
“It’s a group of people believing in something specific,” she added. “We’re creating a luminal space-time in between events that happen in the physical reality that we all kind of know about or experience but don’t actually all collectively dissect together.”
Mike explained that although Wild Torus is focused on spirituality “it’s not a religion but it goes after similar things.” That’s why participation is key. You have to get involved in the performances for them to function properly. “Being the spectator is very one-sided. It might as well be TV in a lot of ways,” Mike said.
As culty and bizarre as it all may sound, the Wild Torus aesthetic is exceedingly playful. Stepping into one of their events is like joining some depraved Dionysian romp interspersed with a variety for psychedelic brain blasts. You will get sticky, you will get naked, and who knows what else might happen.”You’re not going to find that kind of thing in Chelsea or in a museum,” Mike said.If all this sounds like a throwback to the ’60s, you’ve only scratched the surface. Wild Torus is also deeply concerned with the internet, as a state of mind, and as a means to what Mike calls “digital spirituality.” The two artists are most concerned with the case of the Digital Native– people who were born after the internet revolution and for whom cyberspace is immutable and just as “real” as anything else in the world.
“As artists it’s our job to explore the avant-garde fringes of technology and consciousness, because we don’t know exactly what being a Digital Native does to your psyche,” Mike said. “So we’re creating these rituals for and of the Digital Native generation.”
Despite the deeply NSFW freak fest that is a Wild Torus event, they’re all live streamed, in the interest of what Mike describes as “the synthesis of physical ritual and digital consciousness.” The performances also borrow from what Amy says is the “pop aspect” of the net: “We distill crazy memes and people talking about black holes and aliens and reptilians into our work.”
For example a Torus performance has invoked Slender Man, something Amy finds “just so grotesque, and amazing and cult-like.” Mike added: “It’s like a meme that became real, almost like Freddy Krueger — something that came out of the imagination and took on nearly a physical form.”
“But not all of our stuff is terrifying,” Amy said. “A lot of it is extremely lighthearted. It’s more about pushing people to extremes and seeing what kind of chemical reaction comes out of it. In order to feel you must remember trauma, go back and replace it with something else.”
I thought about my own experience stumbling into the Wild Torus performance at Torus Porta. I’ve never thought of myself as a Puritan and I sneer at normies like it’s my job. But going to a Torus event and guaging my own reaction to what I saw really brought in to question my personal threshold for weirdness, and I found that my tolerance for it was much lower than I’d expected. I was open with Amy and Mike about my reaction and they were pleased.
“There’s a little bit of alchemy there. Sometimes it’s shocking, not in a fearful way unless you are just so fearful of losing any sort of control,” Mike explained. “In a way you can relate it to a psychedelic experience– it’s shocking in one sense, but mind-opening in another. Afterwards you don’t know exactly what happened. But only through deeper reflection or going through it again do you start understanding. So we try to have a multi-level thing: there’s a surface and then the deeper thing, because we do get people who are regulars. A lot of them become performers with us.”
As opposed as I am to hippie sensibilities, it’s impossible to deny that the people who attend these things are clearly having cathartic, sometimes even spiritual experiences and letting their inhibitions slide off as easily as their pants. It’s either that, or they’re just having a ton of booze and drug-fueled fun. I spoke with one guy who had come in from off the street after hearing a party. He was putting his clothing back on and beaming on his way out. He had a hard time describing what was going on. “You just have to do it,” he said.
Do what? Well, I didn’t stick around to find out. I guess I’m just more attached to my pants that I ever realized. When I met up with Amy and Mike for the interview, I half expected them to be wearing Uniqlo, pasty and drawn looking from hard partying. But scrubbed clean for the unforgivable light of day. Rather, the lights were still off and projections swirled around. Mike wore a silver bra and disheveled wig and skin-tight leggings while Amy was equally as unapologetically bedecked in ridiculousness – neon platform heels, a rainbow wig, and blue lipstick well beyond the bounds of what most people would define as the mouth.
There was no telling if this was a permanent look or something left over from their most recent performance –a 48-hour ritual and immersive installation. “We built this lodge tipi thing during the first night,” Mike recalled. “It was almost two days in the life of Wild Torus, going through daily activities that would happen in this alternate reality.”
“We didn’t leave the place at all,” Amy said.
Though Amy and Mike are still holding performances elsewhere and at one point were regulars at Bushwick’s Bizarre Bar, the Torus Porta on Stockholm Street has become their safe place. After all, galleries and traditional performance spaces are places where there are always some rules and restrictions no matter how liberal the owners.
“We’ve done some gallery things and it’s like: do this, don’t do that, don’t scare people, don’t get corn syrup on the art,” Mike said. “That’s why we started doing things here, because people can feel free and participate here. It’s like a sacred space people can come to and find another world. Some of it’s escapism in a way, but I think that’s great. It’s good for ya. You need it.”
The next Wild Torus event takes place on Saturday March 4th at 113 Stockholm Street in Bushwick.