Katarina Hybenova


Mercury threatens to burst out of my imaginary thermometer under the onslaught of Fahrenheits. The time of the year is quickly approaching the date of don’t-even-think-about-getting-hold-of-anyone-in-NYC point, a.k.a. August 1. So when a cryptic text from Bushwick gallerist Christopher Stout arrives, enticing me to escape New York in an hour-long performance on Monday night, I simply say, “Sign me up.”

I have exactly zero expectations. I’m bored out of my mind and hot as hell. Vaguely I imagine that I will be asked to follow someone somewhere like is usually the case in performances that claim to be “immersive” and I’m fine with it.

Unsuccessfully avoiding several fire hydrants blasting cold water like there’s no water shortage on the other coast, I bike to ADO (Art During Occupation, formerly known as Christopher Stout Gallery), which is housed at Brooklyn Fire Proof.

I navigate through the inner workings of the building to locate ADO and Christopher Stout, as well as two other spectators of Escape New York performance. The show, created by multidisciplinary artist J. Morrison, is to be experienced in groups of three, which is an odd number, almost making sure you will be accompanied by strangers, just a step outside of your comfort zone.

I take the last of the three chairs. My fellow spectators are two guys, and the three of us make polite small talk about the heat, the stench of the garbage on the street, and the style of our summer footwear.

When the time comes, J. Morrison, barefoot, his feet clapping on the cool concrete floor, but outfitted in a suit and a fetish leather face mask, ushers us into a room. He doesn’t say a word, and the three of us will be silent throughout the performance as well.

The room is cool, almost dark, illuminated only by muted colorful lights. We are seated at three chairs, each of which is partitioned by a silk veil. The strange music is filling every inch of the space, and even though the room as well as the artist give off a friendly, maybe a slightly mysterious vibe, I cannot but think of Hannibal Lecter because I just finished reading “Silence of the Lambs.” But I slowly realize my foggy summer brain has started to pay attention. Good!

The artist, like a server in an upscale restaurant, serves each of the spectators an LED light flashing shot glass, and offers wine or seltzer. I pick seltzer since I’ve been sober for a while now. Each of us drink the beverage, shot glasses still flashing like crazy in the near-darkness, and watch for what’s going to happen next.

J. Morrison hands us a paper. “KEYS, PHONE, WALLET,” it reads. I take out my phone from my jean shorts pocket, sadly thinking about all the Instagram stories I won’t be posting, and set it aside. The next paper we are handed reads, “SHOES.” I take off my sandals and set them aside as well. The third message startles me: “ANYTHING ELSE?” My first thought is that I don’t have anything else to set aside, but when I spy on my two companions through the silky partition, I realize that both of them are undressing. I inhale, because I’m not one of the nudity-loving, supercool, sexually super-open Bushwick creatures even though I kinda wish I was. But I quickly asses the situation (“I just lost 8 pounds and my underwear is only a little bit embarrassing.”) and just go for it. I strip, waiting for the next instruction, which comes in the form of a fetish leather face mask, J. Morrison helps me to put on. Great.

The artist, clearly amused, even though I can’t see his facial features, invites us to one-by-one crawl through a fabric tunnel into another section of the room. There we’re seated at three sofas ready for more.

The artist turns on the strobe lights and strips into fetish underwear, letting us watch as he dances with a giant bunny head on, and later does a shadow dance. I’m laughing and giggling, the face mask and the darkness providing me with some unexpected emotional privacy despite my almost bare body.

Afterward, the artist takes the spectators by hands and we dance in a circle like children, turf grass tickling our bare feet; complete darkness surrounds us.

The next section of the room is veiled in complete darkness too; my senses are heightened as I wonder what’s next. Loud Freddie Mercury blasts from the speakers when I touch something with my hand. “It’s inflatable,” I assess. When the disco ball comes back on, I see myself and my white-undies clad companions standing in a room full of giant inflatable dinosaurs.

I burst out laughing, even though no one can tell because of the mask and the loud music. Hesitantly, the guys begin to move around, and dance, while I quickly check for any slipped out nipples–there are none, good–and join the fun, tossing the dinosaurs at J. Morrison and at the companions. We fall, we throw, we dance, we run around as much as the army of dinosaurs allows, and I feel the excited energy and endorphins trickling through my veins, as well as a relief, even though I’m not sure from what.

When the artist instructs us to put our clothes back on, I am kinda disappointed. It feels like I’m putting on ordinary life, and I want to stay in this hazy dreamy world of surprises with just a touch of the fear of the unknown a little longer.

When I bike back home, I occasionally giggle, and I am refreshed, sharp, present, and enjoying the world again.

PS: Ever since Escape New York, I’ve been very mindful of my underwear selection in the morning. You never know!  

Escape from New York runs at ADO Project Bushwick (Art During Occupation) from July 15 to July 31, 2017. Tickets are free.