Not too long ago, Michael Alan, the multimedia artist of Nude Thrift Shop notoriety, hosted an event at Bowery venue Teatro IATI and “really fucked up,” in his own words. “There was cake everywhere and, like, a bunch of bugs for months after,” he recalled. “I turned every person into a cake, and there was fish and garbage, for like a whole month I collected garbage. There was this infestation. They were really nice– they didn’t kick me out, they were just like, ‘Let’s take a break.’”
Thankfully, the break is over, and this weekend Alan is hosting an event called Vampire Masquerade. He has promised “no cake this time,” but guests should still prepare to get their hands dirty.
Actually, Vampire Masquerade won’t be an “event” or an art show at all. “It’s a happening,” Alan explained. “I think a lot of people don’t know what that is anymore.”
As a Bushwick native born here in 1977, (“Summer of Sam”) Alan is familiar with the term. “I’m always in a happening, that’s just how it is,” he said. “That’s the way my family taught me to think and that’s the way New York was when I was a kid– it’s a different time now. It’s not that we’re crazy, it’s the way art was.”
Judging by the photos, these participatory performances look a lot like real-life renderings of the psychedelic paintings and drawings that are crammed into Alan’s Bushwick studio along with countless strange objects. Aesthetically, Alan embraces the sort of all-out maximalism that’s also an essential element of Wild Torus, another Bushwick-based art collective staging radical happenings that move well outside of the sober Art World.
The happenings have “two parts,” Alan explained– the first consists of performances by Alan himself as well as a “cast” of other artists, and the second is whatever the guests contribute.
This amounts to an environment of almost total openness. The guests and performers will have to fill in the rest. For this, Alan provides a ton of supplies: “fabric, saran wrap, tin foil, rope, yarn, lots of strange masks, marking material (nothing too permanent), tempera, crayons, tape, different fabrics covered in gunk, backdrops, mirrors, projection, sounds, microphones, different loops, bells, crazy lighting, all different types of battery-run lighting equipment.”
Ideally, he’d like to see the Vampire Masquerade, which has a theme inspired by “’80s horror/sci-fi drama,” turn out as a “huge space filled with people doing their own stuff and creating their own circles and making their costumes there, bringing their costumes there, drawing their costumes, eating their costumes.”
The mask element is something that Alan’s familiar with: “A lot of my work is about masks and the masks that people wear, and when I perform I’m always blindfolded.” In this case, he hopes it will help the audience feel less inhibited too.
Since the happening relies on ecstatic, in-the-moment creation, audience involvement is essential in the birth-and-death cycle of Alan’s happenings. “I make everything there, on the spot, and it all gets destroyed,” he said. “Everything changes every second, literally. It’s like 2,0000 characters in one for each person, so if it’s five hours, it feels like 2,000 hours because there’s so much creation happening.”
Fortunately/unfortunately there’s not gonna be a bonfire or anything so destructive as that. “It’s not like a Burning Man,” Alan assured me. Instead, everything gets broken down into its constituent parts, and sorta like that super creepy scene in Fantasia, the chopped-up bits take on a life of their own after death– in this case, Alan “recycles” the garbage pieces and reuses them again at the next happening. This creates a sort of consistency, a subtle thread running through each happening that acts as a comforting guide in the midst of an event that’s never the same thing twice.
Even the music is improvised (though here’s an idea of what it might sound like). Alan said that there’s no pre-planned choreography and that he constantly switches up the cast, made up of everyone from close friends to artist collaborators. In the past, Alan has seven recruited his mom to participate, and each one of the performers bring their own style to the table. “I consider it an ensemble,” he said. “Each person has a different speed ranging from zero to seven, and I’m a seven.”
The only real boundary Alan sets is that each artists’ work has to be kept separate from one another before the happening. “They don’t know what Gary’s gonna do, and that’s important,” he laughed. “If they know what Gary’s gonna do, they’re gonna copy Gary, or try and be Gary, or make friends with Gary, or fuck Gary.” (As far as I know, there is no actual Gary– but you get the idea.)
This helps maintain a certain element of surprise and prevents the cast from “acting,” something Alan doesn’t want either. “I believe if everyone focuses on what they’re doing, then everyone has a better life,” he said.
Once again, at Vampire Masquerade “everything’s gonna be spontaneous.” This time, though, Alan had a curator to help him pick the cast of local artists, including a “healer.” Unfortunately his mom didn’t make the cut this time around.
“There’s no way my mom’s gonna be in this one– it’s this crazy, vampire-eating insane festival, so that’s just not gonna happen,” he said. “I’m not gonna eat my mom on stage. That would be just really bad, you know?”
People are free to interpret the “masquerade” as an opportunity to get their Halloween costume on early. “It’s not a horror show,” Alan said. “But I think it’s important for people to push their limits.”
I was surprised to hear that Alan is hosting the event on the Bowery and not in Bushwick. He admitted that originally it was going to be held in a loft in Soho. “But this Soho loft was too nice, they were like ‘Holy shit, you’re crazy, you’re gonna ruin it,'” he laughed.
The artist has learned something since his last performance at Teatro IATI: “I have to take the bucket of ice cream and dump it on my head, not someone else’s. That’s what changed. I was the person trying to make it happen, but now it just happens.”
Overall, Alan is aiming to create a “safe space” where (almost) everything’s permissible, where self-expression and freedom are in abundance– things that are hard to find in white-walled galleries, and increasingly difficult to find in Bushwick, as the art scene here becomes more Chelsea-ified.
“It’s really hard for me, because I’m from here, so I’m confused,” he said.
It’s less about trying to revive a particular generation’s art movement– he mentioned Da Da and “the ’60s” as influences– and more about reinstating the spirit of experimentalism that reigned in New York City for decades, something that was seen across cultures and generations. “That’s the reason why people came here, and I’m not trying to imitate it,”Alan explained. “That’s just what I grew up around. That’s what I know.”
As an artist, Alan’s motivated to hold these events as a means of sharing his work and making his two-dimensional pieces come to life. But these happenings are also about encouraging others to make their own work. “I just feel like there’s something missing,” he said. I asked where exactly he felt this void– in the art world maybe?
“If you look at the history of happenings,” Alan explained. “They have nothing to do with the art world at all.”
Vampire Masquerade, Saturday October 22, 7 pm to 12 am at TEATRO IATI, tickets $20 discounted on Michael Alan’s website.