Frank Lloyd Wright designed the Guggenheim museum. His intention for those visiting the curving rotunda, to start at the top and slowly walk down while viewing the art, was echoed on the red ticket we had been handed when we were let in. Intrigued by a possible context or even just a barebones set of instructions, we headed towards the ceiling.
There were bars on the first, third, and fifth levels but the 1500-person crowd was evenly dispersed throughout the space. A steady flow of audience members moved up and down the rotunda ramp. By the third level, I’d counted at least 14 credentialed photographers. Dozens of cellphones and pocket cameras were held out over the rotunda waist-high walls, pointed down at the performers or else up and around at the projections moving over the dark figures of others also holding cameras of some kind. There were so many people taking each other’s pictures that the event began to resemble Don DeLillo’s most photographed barn in America.
The novelty of the spectacle dominated. I realized I’d only specifically focused my attention on the music once. We were still far from the top.
We made our way around a turn, maybe half-way to level four, and found, tucked behind a wide and rounded cement wall, a roped off area that contained within itself a large multi-track console, digital pad controllers, three male console/gadget operators, bottles of imported beer not on sale, and a woman not in her twenties with bleach blonde bangs trimmed into acute angles over her sharp-chinned face. Her clothing was black, tight, short and contoured. I looked at her and she looked at me and the intent of her stare seemed to be to loudly reinforce that she was, in fact, on the inside of the rope.
A bearded man with a young face and shaggy black hair says, “Danny’s improvising the visuals to the music.” It’s difficult to hear him over the swell of sound that is the talkative crowd and increasingly disorganized audio.
His note on procedure meant, I thought, that the projections were somehow related to what I was hearing, but the connections were tenuous and vague. Thundering bass skittered around the inner column of space, leaking into the levels, while clunky keyboards chirped along with reverberating guitar. The off-kilter tempo was barely in sync with the projected video clips of bubbling streams and slow-mo rivers painted over with an orange tint and an oozing blueberry color that resembled, barely, the cover of Animal Collective’s 2007 album, Strawberry Jam. The projections were oscillating wildly in tone, to the effect of hovering over the white space and ceiling above. Also, no one was pressing any buttons or sliding any sliders on the console, leaving me to wonder how improvised this thing was. I decided to not press the bearded man about the nature of the visual performance. We moved on.
Friend was growing restless, I sensed, so we doubled back for the bar. He wanted to mingle, but I wanted to figure the show out. The possibly disingenuous information from Projection Operator #1 was empowering, like I’d been given directions, however inaccurate, from the attendant of a remote gas station after miles of aimless wandering. Friend was at least game to make it to the top level—after that, I feared, hunting season would begin.
A thick bottleneck of people crowded the fourth floor, where an agitating group of the yelping painted faces ripped through the crowd, gyrating their hands wildly to create invisible frames around unsuspecting spectators’ faces, like Madonna’s Vogueing move in that video, and just as annoying. Most of the hold up was caused by people gazing in on another roped off area. This one was all computer screens and big computer towers flanked by one skinny guy and one rotund and bearded guy who looked authoritatively associated with the set-up. There was no femme fatale.
Huge flat screen monitors atop the bigger of two tables ran a split-screen computer program that appeared to be incredibly, mind-bendingly complex. The authority figure was Stephen Moore, a sound designer and software engineer. As the ever-flowing crowd floated by or collected on the banks, organically bumping or shoving me out of the way, I heard Stephen explaining that the music was all pre-recorded. The program, designed and now being operated, or at least monitored, by Stephen, was randomizing the music through 36 speakers placed democratically around the museum space. The chaotic disorganization of the music suddenly made sense—or at least had a reason for its chaos—and this was weirdly soothing.
We arrived finally at the top of the rotunda. Below was a museum atrium with a crowd of mostly young people walking around while music played and fancy lights bounced around the walls. It was, in a way, a typical event. And yet, in another, it was something else entirely. The music was disjointed and the visuals were utterly unidentifiable. The three performers were still on their perch but, from above, I could clearly see the set-up around them. In front, a sofa-sized platform hoisted up glowing plastic spikes like inverted icicles. Behind the performers, a large mound equal in dimensions to a semi-truck cab jutted out with asymmetrical bulges, apparently made of the same bean-baggy foamy stuff as the shapes below the performers. Colorful LED strobe lights illuminated from every five feet. Thick packs of people orbited around the band. The action wasn’t on the rotunda we’d been scaling. It was all happening below , on the ground floor.
We headed down, but made it only one and a half floors before Friend tapped my arm and hopped back to join a pair of unattended attractive girls. I distance myself and take in, for the first time, the music. It was after 10 pm and something in the vibe of the event had changed. People had spread out; some were sitting on the floor, others had mounted the big mound of whatever it was behind the band and lounged out. The visuals were less image-oriented and more patterned. A bright purple texture bubbled around the rotunda, washing everything in a calming pastel. I found an elevator and skipped past the crowd.