“I’m a fire dancer,” said Susannah Pryce, who was lurking about the front stairs of the Sixth Street Community Center on Saturday night, dressed as the Goddess of Death. For her role as a macabre guide to the finale of the 13 Portals, she wore glowing face paint, a black cloak, and six-inch fingernails made of curling brown beans. After explaining how she regularly performs at bars with an on-fire instrument that looks like “the bones of a giant geisha fan,” Pryce told us: “Tonight’s portal is about rebirth. And that’s why I’m here. Because everybody has to die to be reborn.”
Conceived a year ago by artists Perola Bonfanti and Nicolina of the Free Arts Society, the 13 Portals is an interactive public game involving street art and the masterful use of a wide range of spiritual symbolism. Each portal — a symbolic mural painted by Nicolina or Bonfanti and outfitted with a scannable code (“Google is a great oracle,” Bonfanti told us) — was unveiled during a series of ceremonies throughout the summer. A task was offered to the audience at each unveiling, and the winners, 64 in total, were given a key to hold on to and wonder about until the finale.
Two gypsy-ish sentries with golden masks and beaded costumes guarded the entrance to Portal 13 on Saturday night, occasionally swaying and singing eerie hymns. The centerpiece of the final portal was an image of Metatron’s Cube, a new age geometric figure made of 13 circles and named for an archangel mentioned in mystical Jewish texts of the medieval era.
Only keyholders were allowed behind the portal. Participants this summer needed everything from artistic and athletic prowess to a capacity for shameless showboating to sheer luck of the draw in order to win a key, depending on the task at hand. There was a yoga class, in which the person who kept an apple balanced on his or her head for the longest was victorious, in honor of the balance and stability theme of Portal 8. For Portal 6, mermaids danced through Tompkins Square Park charming pirates with songs in an elaborate role-playing competition to celebrate Lemanja, the Afro-Brazilian goddess of the sea and a variation on ancient Rome’s Venus. The seventh portal proved one of the most popular, likely because it was a collaboration with Clayton Patterson, who asked Nicolina and Bonfanti to paint it on his front door. It dealt with Roman god Saturn and his death, transcendence, and search for harmony (“eight is perfect and stable, but seven has the energy of chaos,” said Bonfanti, the numerology expert of the duo).
“We wanted to involve the characters of the East Village community, so we visited Clayton Patterson,” said Bonfanti, who painted Portal 7. “And he was part of the inspiration for the portal. You know he always wears a hat with a skull on it, a skull and flowers. And so I looked at him and I said, ‘You are Saturn!’ Sometimes you don’t really understand these concepts until you face them. When I met Clayton Patterson, that was the moment I understood Saturn.”
Patterson also determined the keyholders for Portal 7, by judging a photo competition in which contenders submitted a photo of “something beautiful that would not last.”
Ray Wu, whose photo of a half-empty pint of Sapporo at Udon West was one of Patterson’s selections, was the first keyholder to pass through Portal 13 on Saturday. “I thought maybe I would be crawling in a sewer or something, but it wasn’t like that,” he said, after emerging on the other side.
Christina Bainton emerged next. “It was a cleansing, an end that led to a new beginning,” she said. “It tied together the whole project, which for me has been about the connection between technology and art and the human experience.”
Most winners wore their keys, which were actually tiny glass vials corked closed, with an even tinier rolled-up piece of paper inside, on a gold thread around their necks. They were strictly prohibited from uncorking the vial until the night of the finale, when each one unrolled the scroll to find a line from a poem about the genesis of life by Walker Fee, a writer and friend of Bonfanti’s. The poem has 64 lines, of course.
The portals had taken over the whole of the community center for the evening. Wearing a silver sequined suit, interactive audio/video artist Justin Riley plopped down in a pile of pillows on the floor. “I’m just grabbing a disco nap before I have to perform,” he said, explaining that he needed to save some energy for a Mayan ceremony in the Bronx he planned to attend the next day. After showing us the multi-tiered, sequined sculpture-bike he had parked in a corner and insisting that he rides it regularly around Greenpoint, he told us his amazement at the 13 Portals concept.
“It has sacred geometry, quantum physics, eastern philosophy,” he said. “I like seeing people on a quest for the pattern of the universe.”
In an upstairs room, an eclectic mix of bands performed all evening, while a psychedelic light show played across a petal-shaped cathedral window, and the audience munched pizza and cupcakes. All the acts were locally based, with the exception of a Zimbabwean group playing the ancient and sacred mbira.
Angel Eyedealism, an opera singer and long-time resident of East 7th Street, had been walking by Portal One all summer and wondering what it was. She showed up in a homemade hot-pink gown with plastic lizards appliquéd on the bosom in order to perform with a theremin, the pioneer electro instrument responsible for the wobbling sounds effects one associates with 1950s alien encounter films. She shook her hand in front of its antenna as if charming a snake, and it sounded like a ghost with perfect pitch was terrorizing the building.
As the party gained momentum upstairs, most keyholders waited on the sidewalk for their turn at passage through the portal. “We gave them an envelope with two questions inside,” said Nicolina. “We asked them to think of something they want to do before they died, and something they don’t need anymore, to let go of.”
After giving the gypsy-sentries the password (metatron) the keyholder stepped behind the portal. A small hallway distorted to look long and menacing greeted them, with a door at the end labeled 13 in the small sad text of a motel room. Through the door was the death chamber, where Pryce and another Goddess of Death greeted the keyholder and pocketed their written desire. They helped the keyholder burn the card with his or her “something to let go of,” and then offered a “very strong potion” of mescal. After the optional potion-shot, the keyholder was herded into a black coffin-like box, mildly harassed and shook about, and then sent along into the chamber of rebirth, a room of white fluttery cloths, white flowers, and absolutely no shoes allowed. The keyholder got a hand massage, an anointment on their third eye with salt water from the Himalayas, and a mini-buffet of chocolate, grapes, and figs.
“The food represents nature and pleasure,” said Bonfanti. “Lots of religions establish a separation between body and soul. Now it’s time to bring them together and embrace the material life as sacred.”
After being reborn, the keyholders were given another envelope containing their original written desire, and an inspirational message ending with the phrase “now the world is yours again.” They left the white chamber and joined the two floors of party. Several hours passed before all had gone through.
“It was a beautiful accumulation of the entire project,” said Patrick Paglen, who was third to pass through the portal, but was spending time outside the building with those who had yet to experience it.
The 13 Portals have done nothing if not build a community, a sampling of East Villagers and New Yorkers drawn by its combination of whimsy, role-play, and meticulously researched spiritual significance.
“Some portals have three or four cultures meshed together,” Perola told us. “It represents the universal community that we are living now, the convergence of cultures in New York. We wouldn’t have wanted to do this anywhere besides here.”