Last Friday night marked the launch of the Brooklyn Art Book Fair, an event I co-organized with Paul John of Endless Editions, poet Ana Bozicevic, and Ben Campbell of NYC Department of Parks and Recreation. For the most part, I felt that I had a pretty good handle on what would be going on over the weekend--we'd be assisting our exhibitors, throwing a little after party, and running around putting out small fires here and there for a couple of days. Paul and Ana had taken the lead with programming a series of performances and readings to take place Friday evening and all day Saturday on the massive outdoor deck of McCarren Park Pool. Admittedly, I was unfamiliar with a handful of the folks they'd curated, but Paul and Ana have their fingers on the pulse of New York's art and poetry communities, respectively. As such, I was looking forward to being exposed to some new faces and voices.
What I didn't anticipate was completely losing my shit during a riotous performance spectacle by artist Zebadiah Keneally.
As the sun began to set around 8:15pm, Keneally sauntered onto the pool deck in a toga and inflated an enormous globe with a shop-vac. A whispering and giggling crowd of fair attendees gathered. What exactly in holy hell, I wondered, was he going to do with a gigantic terrestrial beach ball? It was incredibly windy on the expansive deck and the globe looked ready to roll away violently at any minute. Keneally passed the inflated earth off to a friend and exited the deck through the crowd. The whispers and giggles of the crowd turned into murmurs, then out-loud laughter as people speculated on what we were collectively in for.
Moments later, Dvorak's "Violin Concerto in A Minor, Op. 53" suddenly started blaring through the PA speakers. From behind the crowd, Keneally and a group of nearly a dozen others, outfitted identically and carrying various handmade sculptures including trident staffs and lightning bolts, marched back onto the pool deck. The audience erupted in cheers. This proudly absurd group of gods and goddesses drank up the warm reception, waving and smiling as they gathered in the center of the deck and around the inflated globe.
The game was on. For the next fifteen minutes, they ran chaotically around the deck in a rollicking, though Sisyphean, attempt to hold a soccer match with the world. Every kick, header, or other deflection sent the globe flying with the will of the wind. Word reached the exhibitor tables in the gymnasium within minutes, and people poured out of the building to catch the action. I screamed chants of support despite having exactly zero fucking clue if there were two distinct teams or even any general objective to the game. Several fair attendees had brought along their kids, who were having total meltdowns at what they were seeing. Why, I assume they asked themselves, would adults be acting like this?
Every time someone landed a seriously powerful kick, it sent the globe sailing dangerously towards the gates surrounding the pool deck. The crowd would gasp, imagining the globe bouncing over the lifeguard chairs to the south and wreaking havoc through Friday night traffic on Bayard Street. Thankfully, it never went quite so far, though several times it did fly into the empty pool itself. The first time, Keneally seamlessly leaped over the fence to fetch it, allowing for nearly no break in the action.
It was a rare joy to be treated to such an unexpected and absurd action. Keneally's performance most certainly fits the criteria I laid out a couple of years ago for artists creating site-specific comedy. Essentially, Keneally and company didn't need us as an audience for this bizarre attempt at soccer to qualify as comedy. But what they did need, and what they understood implicitly, was that the enormous concrete deck of the McCarren Park Pool was the perfect canvas for the work. The hard surface of the deck itself presented a real danger to the performers, though at no point did any of them act any differently than they would have when playing on a forgiving grass field. The recreation center, a municipally-sanctioned place for sports with their unique structure and rules, became part of the punchline amidst the mayhem of this Dada-indebted game. And in high-priced condominiums surrounding the park, there were no doubt scores of high-earning Williamsburg transplants glued to their picture windows wondering what the hell was going on down below. Their confused encounter with Keneally's spontaneous soccer match, like my own, wasn't required for it to be funny, but it certainly added a bonus layer. The very gesture, the fact that Keneally created the performance, is the comedy. I feel lucky to have experienced it, but my experiencing it isn't what validates it as a work of art or a complexly ridiculous joke.
Keneally later told me that You Always Lose at Your Own Game was his "response to our current geopolitical climate; a diverse group of people pretending to be gods and goddesses who head butt the world as if they were playing pick-up soccer. It's Monty Python's Philosopher's Football meets Paul McCarthy's Piccadilly Circus."
He went on, outlining his interest in comedy: "What do I do with reality? All the things I can't control? The inherent pain and frustration of the human experience? Do I let it destroy me or do I befriend it? Laughing at my imperfections, mistakes, misfortunes, and failures connects me with my humanity, with other people. We're all equally messed up and can take heart in that. Humor is disarming; I use absurdity to talk about reality."
People will argue, fairly, that it's not art's job to entertain or to provide some kind of escape from the real world. And in general, those people are mostly correct. It does seem that art should aim to provoke critical introspection about ourselves and the spaces we inhabit. But like most things in life, what's interesting about art is that it isn't tied to binaries. Artists like Keneally can give us fifteen minutes of unadulterated laughter where we get to--albeit temporarily--enjoy ourselves and purge the pestilence of Trumpism from our anxious inner monologues. However, work like Keneally's can't be reduced as saccharine, interim escapism, because after the LOLs there remains plenty upon which to ruminate. A group of millennials belligerently kicking the shit out of planet earth for no logical reason maybe suggests that they learned that behavior somewhere, know what I mean?
Participants in You Always Lose at Your Own Game included: Bob Panza, Clara Biznass and Ash Wednesday of Hand Job Academy, Jarrett Key of Codify Collective, Famous Artist Laura McMillan, Helena La Rota Lopez, Nicholas Palmirotto of Pyrolatrous, Mayur Deshmukh, Enrique, Rachel Coleman, and Clay Boulware of Gumbo Bros. Soundtrack by Spencer Bloor of Rat's Mouth. Documentation by Clay Anderson.