Every spring for the last 10 years the Transmodern Festival has held radical space for the exploration of experimental, boundary-bending, outrider art. This year’s Labor of Love was indubitably a true labor of love with multiple exhibits, concerts, a MAYFAIR festival, and among the numerous and multi-faceted experiences of art, a feature performance show called Rooms Fall Apart. RFA is a wild and imploring journey where physical and psychological boundaries dissolve. Imagine 22 immersive art installations, which you travel through not as a spectator but beside the performers as an actor yourself in each room. It’s nothing less than an adventure and a surrender where you enter numerous worlds, which may delight, disorient or dislocate you.
The event invite for Room’s Fall Apart says, “RFA is a game. RFA is not a ride. RFA is a trap. RFA is not a massage. RFA is a work out. RFA is not a spa. RFA is boot camp. RFA is a serious play.” The first night I attended Room’s Fall Apart the host announces to the audience that the safe word is “truce” if you need it to stop.
We begin the journey in the foyer of Maryland Arts Place. Attendees wait patiently in line until they hear strange noises and cries from the stairwell. Two mischievous and wild faces peer out from the door calling and beckoning us like sirens to follow their cacophonous lead up multiple flights of stairs until we arrive, breathless.
We all gather together in a red-curtained cinema, waiting for the entertainment to begin. There’s a host who welcomes us before calling out dancers to take the floor. But the predictable ground of reality between art and audience quickly dissolves as a ghost- faced stripper in a white body suit tosses off layers of clothes while an audience member sitting behind me grows more and more agitated, mumbling, “This is disgusting,” under his breath before he bursts on stage grabbing to close the robe of his girlfriend and shout accusations at us. But the tormented man is quick to be turned into a zombie by his dancing and singing zombie girlfriend. The real entertainment has begun!
We pair off in groups with our zombie snatchers. The journey is now. We arrive each moment to find ourselves in new and startling space. A couple and I are led first down a stairwell lined in a canopy of branches we must duck beneath to avoid getting poked by errant sticks. It feels like a fairytale.
At the bottom of the stairwell, we find ourselves at a crossway between rooms where a woman is sitting at something that might be described as a loom or holder of kite threads. She churns these threads in a clockwise motion as they arch up across the ceiling and pull on the mouths of a geometric wall of paper fortunetellers; opening and closing together in unison. At one point the woman stands up from her stool so I can try my hand at making the paper mouths move.
She then tells us that we can enter our first room. It’s a space adorned from floor to ceiling in plastic bouquet covers with single flowers suspended inside. Animal skins festoon the wall behind us, and when we round the corner of this silent, plastic space, we see a person-creature who dances in a frenzied breathing, stomping her heels into the floor of the ceremonial space before collapsing into a heap. “Are you Ok?” the couple beside me asks the person-creature to no response. The room is still. She reminds me of the forest spirit from Princess Monoke before we made our way back out of the plastic-flower-cave.
We traverse into our next room, the Under-Groundlings, a comedy show where the comedian, grasping slips of punch lines, tells jokes about two lips (tulips) and chrysanthemummies to an audience of houseplants. Canned laughter sporadically erupts through the room as we stand on the side watching the fumbling human comic attempt to bridge the gap between plant and animal worldview. At the roar of applause, we throw flowers given to us by the woman at the loom.
Our next room feels like a nest, like we’ve entered the organic living space of a creature before a whirling dervish explodes from underneath a torrent of paper and asks us to dive under with him. We lay on our bellies under the paper like children in a secret fort or a family of animals burrowed into the ground. “Come closer,” he says. “You’re so far away. Come closer.” We nudge forward on our bellies, making a tight circle. “What’s bothering you?” he asks. I open my mouth to bridge the gap and the space between strangers dissolves.
We knock on the next door, and it’s “God”. God welcomes us in then stand behind a rolling landscape with only his bare long feet poking out from under the wide canvas. The whole room is covered in blue and green paint including the carpet that feels just a little tacky to the touch. “Humans”, he gently incriminates. “Where are you from? Where are you going? Things use to be peaceful until you came along.”
“But, we are the Earth; we can’t be separate,” I pipe up.
Next, were ushered into a room that feels like walking into a Japanese dream with its high-tech, futuristic minimalism. A man like a sleepwalker android or over-medicated urbanite gestures for us to fit armbands around our wrists, which hang suspended from the ceiling. He stands rooted on a round patch of grass as he leans over to touch us. With each surprising and whimsical touch to our arms, buoyant sound is born from thin-air. The signature sounds of Windows and Mac start up noises fill our ears, as we stand and touch and giggle. Our interaction is both joyous and sad. We’re alive together in a sparse room where we interface between nature and technology, silence and sound, before our new friend grows stiff and shuffles back to slump against the wall.
The next room is a fortuneteller’s hypnotic lair. We’re beckoned to speak to the dark hooded man behind the table.
“What is you name?”
“What are you good for?”
“What are you bad for?”
“Next time you will get paid to write.”
He issues me what looks like a Chinese bank note.
The woman from the couple I’ve journeyed with steps forward.
“What is your name?”
“What are you good for?”
“She has a green thumb,” I say.
“A green thumb?” He says in a questioning Monty Python lilt.
“Yes,” she says, “Succulents, I’m good for succulents.”
My company and I traverse to another black light room after this. White, amoeba, spiral doodles glow from the back walls as a cymbal is rang loudly beside our heads. “Repeat after me,” our instructor says like a charismatic, yoga charlatan.
“I am happy. I am healthy. I am free from all evil,” as we spin around.
“Louder,” she barks!
“I am happy. I am healthy. I am free from all evil.”
“I can’t hear you!”
“I am happy. I am healthy. I am free from all evil.”
“Get out of here! You’re the most stressed out meditators I’ve ever seen!”
Next, we enter what feels like a harem, swathed in fabric, as we notice first four women in dancers leotards with their faces wrapped revealing only their sparkling eyes. In giddy, joyous serenades of laughter they burst forward, sweeping around us like a force of nature and ask us to shake our thing and shake our butts into their dance circle before they praise
us for our wonderful, smart, world class dance moves. These ladies lift our egos to the heights of super stars and heroes. We’re ready for Europe they say!
The last room we see is the shadow tale of the night. We’re instructed to knock to enter a club. A man in a black hoodie pulled up over his head sits as a bouncer in the corner of the room as we observe rows of records lining half the floor. The faces of black artists stare back at us from the vintage covers, and the image of a black man with a gold pallor cast to his face is projected onto the wall. It’s clear that we’re expected to stand and be silent observers. Thus begins a gut wrenching video montage of the most unspeakable violence African Americans have experienced in white America. It’s a sobering display of violence I’m still absorbing into my mind.
RFA is serious play, I remember.
We have one last stop to visit. We’re ushered upstairs and join everyone who has also been traveling through their own route in and out of rooms. We move together into a streaming line into the last room we’ll experience this night where a marching band joins us and all actors from all of the rooms parade in. This is the finale!
The sheets hanging from the ceiling as walls drop, and we’re all together in the last passage. The journey is both completed and just begun! We navigated Rooms Fall Apart with our curiosity and quivering hearts. Life got bent backwards, forwards. We’re elated and expanded. We’re home again.
Rooms and Rooms and Rooms and Rooms, here’s some more rooms I visited on Sunday and other Rooms I wish I got to immerse myself in…. There are a plethora of Rooms…
I enter a birthday party where I’m served potato chips and Skittles. I’m shown an album of the birthday boy who I immediately recognize then I hear a gunshot outside, and I know Trayvon won’t be attending his party.
I enter a waiting room that looks like a Beetlejuice dream with a desk clerk from hell and a nonexistent blue square I’m firmly told to go stand in.
I made a special request to visit this room where I crawled through a tunnel to find a hooded beat boxer who placed my hands on his chest to feel his heart as he beat boxed and throat sang like a Tuvan monk.
I entered an adobe pink womb/room with the voices of gods calling from above as they dropped me markers so I could draw flowers and sperm on their cave wall, and speculate with them on what makes humans, humans. Is it tool-wielding thumbs?
I entered a woman’s bathroom and watched her stick hypodermic needles into her black Barbie before she sparkled my eyes in gold glitter.
I’m invited into a home where everything is covered in Saran Wrap, and I’m told to sit on the floor to keep the furniture nice, as the wife pukes in the toilet and the television is pumped at full blast until the electricity bill isn’t paid and the lights go out.