Brooklyn performance art duo Wild Torus are known for their wild, orgiastic, and messy shows, which often get the audience involved. They’ve always been a bit extreme, but found themselves in a situation that shocked even them when, in April, a performance art festival they did with Estonian performance collective Non Grata at East Williamsburg space The Paper Box was shut down mid-show without warning.
Mike Berlant (aka Vlady VØz Tokk, one half of Wild Torus along with Amy Mathis / Mág Ne Tá) recounted their experience on Facebook, in a post that was shared over 50 times and led to many in the surrounding arts community leaving bad reviews of the venue (including bad experiences some organizers had with other shows done there) and calling for it to be blacklisted. A month later, Wild Torus found themselves being sued by Paper Box for defamation and for “trashing” the space. They say they weren’t informed of the suit until the New York Post called them for comment for a piece they wrote about it.
They’d worked with the venue before, but booked the April festival there due to last-minute planning and need for a larger space.
“We had already had a mini food fight there, and other stuff that was even more labor intensive than this show was,” said Mathis. “We had no idea it would catapult into all of this, to the point that we’re getting sued for slander over nothing. We didn’t come up with anything false.”
Much of what the Post reported from the suit about the show was an exaggeration, Mathis and Berlant said. For example, the Post reported the lawsuit saying they had “hanged a dead chicken from the ceiling,” but the two tell me that was a stuffed chicken they borrowed from nearby Grace Exhibition Space, and any blood-like substance present was fake blood.
“They were like, There are naked people running around. We actually complied with their request for no full nudity. The most we had was topless or loincloth performers,” said Berlant. “We had some fire performers that were going to be in the backyard which they were okay with initially. And basically [said] there’s going to be a non-liquid mess we’re going to clean up. That was discussed, that was all in the contract. We clean up, we leave the place as we found it.” Mathis said they tried to clean up after they were told the show was being shut down, but the venue kicked them out before they could get anything done.
“I think if anything in the suit is true, it’s that they really believed what they saw was something demonic or threatening, that like, baby powder is something that would destroy everything,” said Mathis. The duo often uses baby powder during performances, and told me they used a fraction of what they normally use, and never had an issue cleaning it up in the past, including at a show they did at historic Judson Church earlier that week.
Something they said did not make into into the venue’s lawsuit was that one of the venue’s owners allegedly attacked Mathis, leaving her with “a black eye and other bruises.”
“I was talking with them about door sales, not getting anywhere, basically the conversation [was] escalating into some yelling match. And I’m trying to exit, and they had shut it all off to me, and they all start coming at me. This girl pushed me against the wall, hitting me repeatedly,” she recounted.
They told me they filed a police report the day or so afterwards because it was too chaotic in the moment and the venue was also threatening to call the police, but even the cops asked them why they didn’t file it then and there—a common occurrence with people who experience any sort of assault.
“I think it’s good to just to let people know,” said Berlant. “I think that’s what they’re worried about, people will know all these things. But that’s what should happen– bad players in the scene need to be called out.” He said they plan to countersue the venue for the assault. “I don’t even want to drop it now, I want to pursue this to make it a point.”
They went on to explain how they had never experienced backlash like this before for their work, even a time abroad with Non Grata where they burned a car. “We always work with every space in its own parameters. Every once in a while, yeah, we’ll have some sort of run-ins with the management. But 9 times out of 10 those things are just someone overreacting, and 9 times out of 10 of those times they’ll come back to us later down the line and say sorry, we flipped out, we want to have you back,” he said. “I think truly we are always thoughtful and respectful of the place0– if we don’t leave it as we found it, we make sure it’s always discussed beforehand.”
“We had this whole moral crisis after [the incident]– we felt bad about ourselves,” he continued. “And then we were like, fuck, why are we feeling bad about ourselves? Did we miss something, do something so atrocious– are we that unaware of ourselves? You have these doubts. But we haven’t met anybody else that’s like, been on their side.”
The Paper Box did not respond to B+B’s request for comment.
Meanwhile, they’re looking towards the future. The duo has moved out of their studio space, the Torus_Porta, and has been touring around for the past month or so. They plan on beginning a collaborative traveling performance platform called Wild Embeddings soon, will organize another festival at sprawling Greenpoint space Last Frontier, and maybe even one day find a proper venue of their own.
Over a period of months, the Torus_Porta space had gone from a traditional (well, as much as you can be with these two) studio space to a small, niche DIY venue of sorts. (I performed at the space once, in a durational performance art show, curated by a friend of mine, of acts meant to be purposefully monotonous.)
Small is meant literally—the Bushwick basement spot is about the size of someone’s living room. “I think Torus Porta got to the point where we just can’t fit people in there,” said Berlant. “It was great, it was there and [now] it’s over. And people [will be like], Oh man, remember those days? It’s gonna be a lot better that way.”
They commemorated the final night of the space as Torus_Porta with a (literally) jam-packed all-day closing party right before July 4th. I swung by around 1 am, and it was so full I could barely fit—they had started doing some of the performances outside to accommodate the crowd.
“Even the closing was kind of the beginning of this new kind of experimentation,” said Mathis.
“I feel there’s definitely a potential to really broaden this crossover between nightlife and performance,” added Berlant. “Something that’s really collaborative, entertaining and challenging at the same time.”
Now, the Torus Porta moniker is no longer, and the space is being handed over to their friend and collaborator, JP Marin, who will be revamping it alongside Lilly Ngairi to become more of a recording studio. They’ll still do shows of the same spirit every month or so, but they’ll be “bigger, more curated.”
“You know when you come to the city, and [someone’s] like, Come see my band, it costs ten dollars and everyone gets nothing, basically,” explained Marin, when I met the duo at the Stockholm Street space a few weeks ago. “In this case it’s more or less the same idea but it’s, like, crowdfunding a recording session. I was like, Alright, if you’re gonna come for your friends band and then leave, why don’t we just do a recording session?”
Marin told me he began booking shows in the space when Wild Torus went on tour last November, and they told him he could be in charge of the Saturday night slot. A group that had been slated to do a show in the space earlier that week couldn’t make it, and he began thinking of how to use that extra time.
“I was like, if we’re going to have the space all week, let’s do something unusual. So we booked a five-day continuous party. Little breaks and naps, but it was like 40 acts,” Marin explained. The party began with an eight-hour set by local band Marital Dispute. “Generally what I was trying to do was, as arbitrarily as possible, pair up some kind of performance art with some kind of music.”
“It totally worked, though,” added Ngairi. “Everyone seemed to be really into it.”
“And when Mike came back he was like, Oh, I heard [about] that five-day party, I heard good things. You think you just wanna run the space?” With that, the new life of the Porta had begun. It was a bit of an experiment at first, as they tried booking more bands (which “got annoying”), did film screenings, lectures, noise, and performance art. He started doing a regular show called Headquarters there, which is also the name the Torus_Porta space will now be going by.
“[Headquarters] had more or less a formula: a couple bands, performance art, noise, lecture, maybe a demonstration of some sort. It’d be very eclectic,” Marin said. “You can go to a cafe and hear a singer-songwriter that belongs in a cafe. Don’t do that here. There are many, many cafes. This is a place to, y’know, experience and hear something you probably wouldn’t somewhere else.” However, they don’t allow fire in the space, on account of their low ceilings and almost nonexistent windows.
Marin and Ngairi tell me they were on their way to the notorious Paper Box show, but learned of the show’s shutdown before they made it over.
“My view of it is they tour the world doing this, and they wouldn’t be able to do that and be invited back if they were going around causing a lot of trouble,” said Marin. “I don’t have an opinion about Paper Box one way or the other. I work with Mike all the time. He’s very reasonable, I’ve never seen him get angry at anyone. He’s very cool-headed. [And] Amy has a way of reading someone to make sure they’re ok with becoming involved or taking their clothes off [in performances]. They’re not aggressive. My impression is they tend to make the biggest mess in their own place.”
Back at Torus_Porta, Marin said they very rarely ran into any sort of trouble; even their madcap five-day party had “no problems.” Not to say it’s spotless– at Torus_Porta’s huge closing party, one person got a fine for lighting a small fire outdoors, and they do recount a night they hosted a “Goth Ball” show, and a couple on “some kind of miscellaneous drug” started falling on their equipment and getting aggressive.
“It just turned into this whole shitshow, they were yelling at everyone,” recalled Ngairi. “What was he calling us? Yuppie faggots.”
“I’m like, faggots, yeah. Yuppies, probably not, it’s 2016, nobody makes enough money to be a yuppie anymore,” joked Marin. “But we welcome faggots here, you’re definitely in the right place for that.”
They told the offending man he was banned, and locked him out until he got tired of trying to get back in and left. “I suppose it’s a self-policing kind of place,” Marin said. “But because it’s a very open, free environment, you can more or less do what you want. You have to be reasonable, act like a damn adult, not cause trouble.”
Now, they’re starting to clear out and clean up the space, and even have plans to put in a dehumidifier. They’ll be doing some construction, building walls and some isolation booths and boxes for amps.
“A recording studio is kind of like a fancy office. It’s not really a band’s natural environment; bands play at night in front of their friends. So having a studio environment that’s kind of like a show, but with durational performance art happening at the same time. And when I say recording, I have some of the best mics in the world, too.”
Grinning, he shows me some of them, including a Neumann CMV-563 and other large capsule condenser mics. They also have a record lathe cutter there, so bands could potentially get a multi-track recording as well as a physical record.
“It’s about as in-house as you literally could get,” says Marin. “It’s not like this is a new idea, it was actually a very common thing in the ’50s and ’60s. We’re just adding performance art and lots and lots of microphones.”