A review of
The House Party by Andrew Ohanesian
I recently saw Project X, a movie that screened in March. Not to give too much away, in case you decide to pop in the Bluray one Sunday evening, the movie revolves around a group of high school friends who want to transcend their supposedly undeserved anonymity by throwing the most epic party. A skewed teenage hero narrative where they lead the village to fire. Maybe not, or maybe quite literally in this case. Either way, their party is a success, but quickly becomes something beyond their control, a social organism born from the free will and sum of its parts, fueled by drugs, sex, alcohol, and electronic beats. Fun movie. Also, based on a true story.
Flash forward, I’m in a kitchen pressed between two sweaty twenty-somethings (maybe the one with the 'stache was in his mid 30s, I can’t tell these days); my arm is blindly extended underneath one of their armpits, red Solo cup hoping to get its turn at the keg. The kitchen is crowded. The living room that it opens to is also crowded; a DJ surrounded by pulsing bodies, someone was galloping, hands crossed gangham style, people are laughing. An egg explodes in the microwave by my head and something wet hits my back, not egg. A girl is leaning against the kitchen sink; attractive, flushed, and all smiles. Her youth inexplicably takes me to another place, away from the kitchen, away from Williamsburg. A hairy hand pushes my arm, indiscriminate in its blasé urgency to get a turn at the beer. Just going through the motions. I pull my arm back; the cup is barely heavier, filled with anonymous foamy head. The egg smelled, the guy’s armpit smelled. I look at the girl again and feel a little displaced, maybe a little pervy. I shove my way back into the living room. Then the hallway. A generic framed picture hangs on the wall. The carpet is soaking wet, it has infected my socks through my black Chucks. I know where this is headed. I knew the second I walked in.
I step out of the sliding doors onto the gallery floor. Red cups litter the nooks and ledges of Pierogi's annex The Boiler. I turn back to take in Andrew Ohanesian's latest work, a full-sized one-bedroom apartment built in the gallery's central space. Its styling wasn't something you'd find in New York, perhaps closer resembling something you'd drive past in an Oregon suburb. One of those cookie cutter pre-fabs so popular when I was growing up. This is where Ohanesian decided to throw a kegger. In an apartment he built, in a gallery that helped pay for it, in a part of Brooklyn that is decidedly in tension with what the apartment can stand for. Ok, I'll bite Ohanesian, but lets get back to that later. I try to imagine what the piece looked like before the party and it isn't too hard. He has done a good job recreating the apartment, that is his bread and butter after all. But you know when you walk into a friend's apartment and for some reason it doesn't seem theirs, like it hasn't been lived in, that they haven't nested yet. The opposite of that is hard to fake, and, to his credit, Ohanesian seemed to opt against trying. Rather we have the overt simulacra of a suburb apartment. Just furnished enough to pass. The press release called the space hyper-real - I don't know if we went to the same party. The work didn't seem to strive for hyper-reality. Rather, there was close to the minimum of semiotic cues that allude to a place, a worldview, an attitude, and a time. Suburbs, suburbs, rebellion, youth - respectively. 'Hyper-real' takes a lot of liberties. (In fact, I've rarely read a press release that gives its show so many liberties, but that’s another conversation). I bring this up for one central reason: that it is important in this case to figure out what is really at play here, removing the liberties afforded by the nature of the performance - namely that it ingratiates the audience into participants, and that it relies heavily on its contextual implications, or the baggage of putting something that doesn't belong in a gallery in a gallery.
I noticed the framed picture had fallen, its glass shattered.
Taking a step back too see what Ohanesian is actually doing I can identify a few immediate ideas in play. What I want to figure out is if any of them move the work beyond the obvious pitfalls mentioned as liberties before. For instance, the setup is simple enough. Take a culturally understood institution (gallery), co-opt it (build an apartment inside gallery), invite people in to ponder the juxtaposition (i.e. What does it mean to be at a kegger in an apartment inside a gallery in Williamsburg in 2012?). Usually the audience automatically become participants in this and ultimately "activate the work". I personally hope that this isn't what Ohanesian is crutching as conceptual territory. Why? Because the nature of a gallery has been a belabored point. Institutional critique of this kind (putting things in a gallery that don't belong there), or any critique that revolves around the question "Is this art?" bore me to pieces. So, the job ahead of us is this: To see where this work can lead us, and to turn around and see if we've gone too far and have given him too many liberties.
Mass psychology is seeing a new imperative. Between game mechanics, the agency of today's virality, and new methods of documentation/data gathering the ideas of crowd psychology are increasingly relevant. The more connected we become, however tacit or intangible that may be, the more these dynamics matter; to be taken advantage of or otherwise. Gustave Le Bon's studies into this, Psychologie des foules being a primary text, underlines distinct characteristics of what is to be considered a crowd - that "the sentiments and ideas of all the persons in the gathering take one and the same direction, and their conscious personality vanishes."(1) These same mechanics are as much at work in riots and situations of large-scale civil disobedience as, say, Black Fridays at Walmart or an ICP concert. If we allow these characteristics to distinguish how Ohanesian's work is situated as a study in group psychology, taking a cue from Project X as the logical endgame to this piece, then a possible read on his work can be seen as a social experiment of sorts. Ohanesian has created a maze, put cheese in the middle, and set us loose. Specifically, he created an understood cultural phenomenon, the house party, placed it in a controlled environment, which is basically saying we can get away with a lot more because the consequences are tolerated as part of this fictitious structure, and expects what? Everything from the show's title to the press release is pretty obvious about that. Not very exciting or an ambitious use of the scientific method if you ask me. But you didn't, so let's pretend that is the point then. Placed in a crowd, I shed, to whatever degree, a sense of personality and adopt a group-sense with those around me. We, as a crowd, are then pointed (pretty much knowing what is expected of us at a kegger through television and experience) in the same direction: have at it, go crazy. By doing so we enact ourselves as the subjects in his commentary. Maybe it goes something along the lines of: "Blindly partying, the inebriated masses are oblivious to the greater concerns of the epoch." At least for tonight, the financial crises takes backseat to dance moves and how to swipe a beer from the keg; the girl at the sink shows a more promising return than the economic policies of the presidential candidates. Yeah I'm being facetious, but the point is if that is even partly the case, then what is he saying? Ohanesian uses the suburban apartment, once a modest corollary of the American Dream, to perhaps signify the disconnect seen presently; that is, the collapse of the housing bubble in the United States and its current effects on the American pathos. But he isn't necessarily bringing anything to light; the possible messages run along the lines of either some post-empire "whatevs" or a generalization about the ignorance and/or apathy of the masses. The former I would disregard because of how linear the logic of this piece is (it comes across very thesis-driven) and the latter just isn't interesting if it doesn't answer itself (even the aesthetic read on the piece as an illustration of the housing crises doesn't go too far beyond just that).
The biggest problem with the work is that it is on conceptually weak terrain. The stunt of the house party overshadows, drastically, any convincing point about the subject matter. Just because you use these charged symbols, that pretty obviously declares what they are supposed to reference, doesn't mean you're saying anything about them. Hell, it doesn't even mean you're opening up the conversation about it. Ohanesian sets up the suburb-suburb-rebellion-youth framework but doesn't follow through. What is actually being interrogated here? Is that even the point? If not then we settle on the bulk of any interpretive take on the piece hitting crowd psychology before it says anything poignant about the state of our economy. Which is fine, but then at it's best it becomes weak-form relational aesthetics buttressed against the spectacle of his opening, and under the pretense of sculpture. The biggest success of the work comes from this interpretation. The opening was interesting. The experience had depth, at times nostalgic, at others anxious. It didn't posture as hard as the press set us up to believe and the interpersonal dynamics of a house party (something I see as reminiscent of high school and undergrad more than anything) make you pleasantly self-conscious again.
The thing is this, I think he does want the work to be about something more. Something, dare I say, meaningful. And I don't think thats entirely unattainable with this piece. For instance, take a look at Allen Ruppersberg's Al’s Café (1969). The interpretive threads of the piece, though many, mostly revolved around a central perspective. Aesthetically and experientially it all ran under a common logic, solid and complete. In turn, the contentions presented by the piece were absolute. It leveraged the cultural charge of its subject matter, and every object that embodied that, toward an end. In effect, it said something, it did something.(2) Ohanesian's piece performs similarly, it just gets confused as to why it exists. Without giving the overt subject matter liberties it doesn't deserve, I can't get past it being conceptually absent. I end up questioning a lot of the moves made: to have it in a gallery, to frame it in such an instrumentalist way, to not have better beer, etc.
I did have a good time at the opening. Maybe in the ruin, I'll find more answers. The show is up until Mid-November, check it out.