Bursting out

The cops, thinking it was a rave, came and busted up last weekend’s The Free Project at the Burst Building, which is really too bad because I was looking forward to the grand finale piano concert slated to climax with the piano igniting.

It sucks for Gregory Holm, who must’ve had a fun time dragging a baby grand to the site on 22nd Street off Michigan Avenue. It would have been a stretch to expect the audience to stand in the bitter cold to watch the last show of the night’s abstract art/music event, but at the least Holm could have given it a shot.

As for the police, they joked about how they were “just doing their job.” One officer, appropriately commenting on the older, art-scene crowd surrounding him at the time, quipped, “What is this, a rave for geriatrics?” Too bad the men in black and blue didn’t send a scout to observe the obvious before prematurely ending the show.

Ah, life in the city. As for The Free Project, performance artist Mare L. Costello put together a remarkable multimedia event with some 20 artists, with moments of artistic brilliance and moments that left room for improvement. Mainly, it was the spaces between performances, when audience members stood in the dark waiting for action — when they could have been, for instance, looking at more art than the slim pickings provided — that left something to be desired.

But the highlights were high indeed. The Free Project included video installations outside (including a flashing projection on the building and a tree illuminated with bright colors that must have caused a thrill of curiosity for drivers on the highway below), indoor and outdoor art and several performances.

The works were as decidedly abstract as the techno music that filled the concrete building. A diverse crowd of a couple hundred people turned out to experience the night — eerily enhanced by the lunar shadow of Saturday’s incredible eclipse.

Ronald Lowery’s “Vine Ball & Jacks,” a huge piece made from tree branches wrapped around a frame, was great. As was an installation in the basement of the three-story, 15,000-square-foot building, where Julie Pate presented a sprawling abstract rainbow-colored elementary school classroom. Around a school desk were dozens of multicolored bottles, with colored balloons coming out of the bottle tops. Like humans, some balloons were full and boisterous; others were deflated and withdrawn. A potential future Columbine shooter, a heartbreaking sight indeed, was a black bottle with a deflated black balloon, standing alone in the back.

Audience members tore down a partition to catch the action in Kate Hers’ anti-war performance — a protest against war and military occupation. From behind a curtain, Hers emerged naked with strips of black Velcro lining her body. She slowly approached two rectangles of plastic toy army men, and shivered in the cold room as she attached the figures to her body, green men on one side, tan men on the other. She then approached two lines of metal pails, and began to pour a pail of flour, then water, over her body. With each pour, there was increasingly more flour, and less water, and she was covered fairly well with flour when she poured the last bucket, of red salt, on her head.

Now a vision of military terror, a primordial figure fully occupied with war figures and covered with ashen aftermath, Hers put on a cheery smile and held up a sign asking the audience to choose an Army man from her body to place on a world map on the floor. She walked through the crowd with the air of a game show hostess, and the effect was utterly creepy. Intended or not, her lithe naked body provided a sideshow for the audience, which could have been her intent, to illustrate how sex (in TV, movies, etc.) distracts us from the killing and brutal occupations at hand.

Throughout the piece, Brandon Walley provided haunting, postindustrial atmospheric music that sounded like some military nuclear base on red alert.

But the highlight of the evening was Costello’s “techno opera,” dubbed “Ego Tragedy Bottom God.” The third iteration of her autobiographical song/dance/video/musical/costume work, the piece began with the artist dressed in a shiny black laminated suit (made by Costello) that emitted plastic cord spokes, a Hellraiser-esque vision of futuristic beauty. The artist wailed, “My ways aren’t like yours/My ways are different/My ways shatter doors/Come cry with me, because nobody else will,” ending with “me, me, me, me …”

The second act found Costello in a ballerina outfit. With painfully slow ballerina steps, she moved toward the front of the lean homemade stage before retreating back. All the while she held her hands to either side against a video screen showing a raging fire. The apex of the performance came as Costello stopped in front of the fire image, shown on a horizontal screen, with her arms extended and her figure in shadow. The resulting image was almost satanic, like an all-powerful evil ballerina bringing fire and damnation to the earth. It was powerful.

In the third act, longtime Detroit-area techno dancers Gehrik Mohr, Jeremy Kalio and Steven Miller did interpretive movement in front of a video that rapidly flashed Detroit street scenes. The piece was a meaningful statement on techno dance as the anguished expression of urban life, a mixture of torture, convulsion, beauty and grace.

The piece concluded with Costello in a wedding gown-like version of the original costume. As she slowly moved, her white, virginal dress was lit by multicolored lights.

The techno opera, though lacking a story line intrinsic to opera, was seamless, choreographed with precision, and made an emotional comment on city life in Detroit and personal transformation. While one person on my right after the show commented, “What’s the point?” a couple of hairdressers on my left enthused about the performance’s artistic beauty.

“This is just what Detroit needs,” says Will Curtis, a Brooklyn, N.Y., native who’s been in Detroit for years. “It’s a come-up for the city. It’s like a new era. It’s a renaissance. The Renaissance Building and the casinos downtown weren’t really the renaissance. It’s people getting together and doing things together that are beautiful, like this. And we need it most desperately.”

One complaint: more thought could have been given to the audience, most of whom couldn’t see much of the action in the techno opera because there were no chairs. With abstract performance, much is demanded of the audience in terms of contemplation, and being able to comfortably sit around the stage would have been a marked improvement. This goes for the entire night, as folks could have sat in candlelight and chatted between shows instead of tiring their feet.

Complaint No. 2: The wine ran out! Aaarrghhhh! And this, before the techno opera, was inexcusable. Yes, it was free wine with the $10 cover, but have mercy on us hedonists and offer cash drinks if necessary. We are loathe to lose our buzz.

Yet, The Free Project is just what Detroit needs more of: cutting-edge art shows that include video, music, performance, fine art forms and raw, honest art. It’s been going on in San Francisco, New York and Europe for decades, and to a certain extent in Detroit. Space is a necessity, and the Burst Building — so named for the prolific sound and lighting company, owned by Brian Johnson and Mike Fotias, that inhabits it — is perfect for such fusion events. One can only hope that The Free Project is the first of more and even better things to come at Burst.

Lisa M. Collins is the arts editor of Metro Times. Contact her at 313-202-8047 or [email protected]
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