Inside the New York Art Space That’s Been Turned into a Alternate-Reality Urban Wasteland

Image of the drug lab from ‘Scenario in the Shade.’ Courtesy of Red Bull Studios and Freeman/Lowe/Herrema

In Jorge Luis Borges’s fantastical story “The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim,” the narrator reviews afake book, going so far as to not only describe its pseudo-plot and thebackground of its fictitious author, but to compare the “reviews” of its firstand second editions by other “critics.”

The acclaimed artist duo Freeman/Lowe (Jonah Freeman and Justin Lowe) have done something not so dissimilar with their latest show, Scenario in the Shade, a multimedia mindfuck of an exhibitiona collaboration with musician/artist Jennifer Herremathat opened this past weekend. The trio has converted Red Bull Studios in Manhattan to the point ofunrecognizability. Until December 6, the arts space will be a bombed-out labyrinth of sculptural and sonic environments, each room the remnants offabricated gangs and subcultures that once roamed a made-up megacity called SanSan International.

“San San is like a metroplex that has grown from San Diego to San Francisco,but SF is now in Alaska,” the artists explained to me a few days before theopening. “We’re workingwith these very constant science-fiction and alternate-history models wheretime is out of joint.”

Other images from the installation. Courtesy of Red Bull Studios

To explore Scenario is to be ripped out of realityand plopped into a Warriors-style dystopian urban landscape where chemtrails likely stain the skies (if there were skies to see)and the water is almost certainly spiked with Orange Sunshine LSD. Upon walkingthrough the exhibition entrance on 18th Street, visitors are greetedby a decrepit bodega, an antiquated parlor, and a 70s-style drug den fitted with a couch sunken into the carpeted floor that gallery-goers enter through the back of a wardrobe (because of course there’d be a Narnia motif), as well as a room containing the leftovers of a drug lab, a kinda-continuation of Freemanand Lowe’s 2008 installation, Hello Meth Lab in the Sun. And that’s just the first floor of the 15,000-square-foot space.

The subterranean level, which visitors enter through a porta-potty,includes a fully built-out courtroom; an area surrounded by aquariums, where aragtag band featuring Herrema and members of Gang Gang Dance and MGMT performedduring a private preview; and hacked arcade games like Time Crisis 3 that spoutpsychedelic visuals. There’s even a theater, if all this is too dizzying for you and you need to sit for a minute, where visitors can watch a 30-minute survey of the physical exhibition that is the second part of a trilogy beginning with Freeman/Lowe’s 2014 show The Floating Chain.

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Not that overwhelming environments are the only thing on displaythe artists also installed speakers in thevarious rooms which emit a “sprawling sonic collage,” including contributionsfrom Kurt Vile, OFF!, Devendra Banhart, Hot Chip, and Bad Brains, together forming seven hours of music that will be released as arecord on Drag City. The trio describes just the sound aspect as “its own sortof living organism,” suggesting that Scenario,amalgamated, is akin to a living mammalbut probably closer to a fantasticalbeast sporting ten heads and iridescent teeth.

For more on Jonah Freeman and Justin Lowe, watch our 2012 video featuring the artists:
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I feel like this is first opportunitywhere we were allowed to do it all,” Herrema told me.

“It’sclose to the idea of a complete artwork,” Lowe added. “We had a chance to makethat. There were so many toys to play with here: studios, a video-viewing room,and this weirdo architecture to respond to. You can really make a completepicture.”

As I triedto process it all, the three artists explained what inspired the installation itself, prior to even broaching the mad-genius backstory of San SanInternational and the gangs that occupy it.

“It’s about a sort of multi-universe and us trying totranscribe from within that matrix,” Lowe explained. “You know that feeling when youwalk down Canal Street, right? It’s about the polyphonic head-fuck that isCanal Street, but a globalized model. We are kind of automating this little bitmore to reflect the actual reality of the urban experience.”

Zeroing in abit on this specific iteration of their ever-expanding, precariously tetheredoeuvreScenario includes Eastereggs from past exhibitions, equally batshit (albeit less expansive) endeavorsthat sometimes related to San San. The artists divulged that while the spaceaims to encapsulate said urban, polyphonic head-fuck, they’re also trying totell a story “about people through their objects, and through theirenvironments.”

How can you use material to create afictional narrative?” Freeman asked rhetorically. “In our studio discussions, we focused in onsubcultures and gangs and the way their territories are distributed among acity, and how their style, aesthetic sensibilities, and objects become the identity for certain groups.” Forexample, a sculptural cactus-crystal hybrid appears in the exhibition,representing a fake plant that produces a drug called Marasa that one gang(vaguely inspired by real-life hooligans The Scuttlers) was fond of taking. In turn, there’s the drug-lab room, likelyalluding to Dr. Arthur Cook, an Albert Hoffmantype psychopharmacologist theartists imagined for their 2010 exhibition Bright White Underground. Dr. Cook is said to have invented Marasa andadministered it during group-therapy sessions, which may nod to that vibe-y,carpeted den inside the faux-wardrobe in Red Bull.

From left: Justin Lowe, Jonah Freeman, Jennifer Herrema. Photo by the author

Herrema performing during a press preview. Photo by the author

Gallery visitors exploring the installation. Photo by the author

“There’sthis connected narrative, but we’re not precious or totally directive with anyof these spaces,” Herrema said. “It’s not a Walt Disney rideit’s more like ring-around-the-fucking-rosie.”

Lowe added that even if there are noticeablenods to pop culture, be it 60s and 70s drug parties or William Gibson or PhilipK. Dick, “the familiarity of the environments is there so people canuse those reference points to have an emotional or intellectual responses.

“We’re verymuch bringing in culture and we’re bringing in how we experience daily life,” Lowe continued. “Sothere are brands. There is repetition. You do see Nike and Coca-Cola again andagain. You do see that same haircut.”

Despitefinishing what may be their most meticulous, ridiculous, and comprehensive installation to date, the artistshave greater ambitions for the future of their dive into hand crafted alternaterealities.

“We’re still interested in this serial, sort of chapter-basedstorytelling,” the trio agreed. For the third installment of their film trilogyand future exhibitions, they imagine “a long-form narrative feature that tellsthe stories of Dr. Cook, the gangs, and all the characters involved,” using actors and maybe even dialogue.

“San San International is just the mall, the metroplex,” said Lowe. “Next time, we’re gonnawalk you out the front door and bring you to Mercury City.”

Even if the hinted macro-metropolis never comes to fruition, it’s fun to imagine Borges browsing through Freeman, Lowe, and Herrema’s entrancing sculptural worlds, the deceased author taking notes and even feeling a pang of jealousy at the sheer scale and ambition of a project as tripped out as the artists’s latest.

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Scenario in the Shade is open at Red Bull Studios through December 6. For more information on the exhibition, visit the art space’s website here.

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Posted by: Sublimuld50

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