"A Suicide Bombing By Invitation Only" at the Whitney Museum

by Jeff Laughlin

Lars Jan is walking up to his crew and asking if they are comfortable. He moves toward Chat Logs — the noisier half of his team of musicians. It’s hard to say if they are comfortable, really. They are about to play the Whitney Museum of Modern Art, the crowd is getting rather large and they are hooked up to a Martin Kersels sculpture that wasn’t really intended to promote sound. They are turning knobs and shifting their weight around. They say they are comfortable and talk about the noise ending. They have had one rehearsal. They have never played with the other composer/band in the performance. This is their first live show.

In the corridors, the guards meet and prepare for how many people will be allowed to stand inside the concert area. They are boisterous and seemingly not phased by Jan’s wearing a fake suicide bomb. From their perspective, the art is always all the same. Some guy is going to prove that our ideas about culture are false or true. I talk to Alexander MacMahon, the composer with the accompanying quintet. “It’s gonna get weird,” he said.

A large screen behind the performance scrambles in and out of static and man with a helmet-camera prepares to film the event. “Seems that way,” I said. Ryan Downey — one of the men in Chat Logs — nods approvingly as he fiddles with knobs. Oftentimes, anticipation causes our most vulnerable moments. His feet are tapping, his hands are busy.

* * *

Exactly how does a band play their first show in a sculpture at one of the foremost museums in New York City? I’m not sure anyone knows. Jan, the creator of the project, hired them sight unseen. MacMahon recommended them, Jan approved it. It seems too simple. Didn’t Downey have to date someone famous for a month or something? Didn’t a somewhat credible blog have to write them up? MacMahon heard them on the internet and remembered them.

The front 30 or 40 people in the crowd are let inside the space. Bands go their whole lifespans without having done anything 1/10th as cool as this. Doesn’t it seem unfair?

Jan is interviewed by a “reporter” about his intention to blow himself up. “A Suicide Bombing By Invitation Only” is already an indictment of the bombastic reporting of this generation, a strange dictation of a man’s quest to popularize his intentions, and a look at the counterproductive nature of protests. A group is standing next to me with signs that read [sic throughout] “NOT IN MY BLAST RADUS,” “BOMS NOT FOOD.” The other sides of the signs have references to big businesses — Olive Garden, Pizza Hut, Regal Cinema. The “interview” with Jan ends without him having said a word to the “reporter.” He has two beautiful women acting as handlers and they field all the inquiries. The crowd is still and silent, but I get the feeling the performers would be fine if we acted awkward and waved to the camera. There is a musical interlude after each interview. The first couple of them are the quintet only — very somber, pretty orchestral pieces. Jan thanks people for coming to his death. He warns others that the blast is going to kill them too.

The bands start a musical dialogue. “Protesters” are shouting “Suicide Kills,” and “Racist, Sexist, Anti-Gay/ Suicide Bombing is Not OK.” Their signs are waving furiously above us. The interviews are getting more abstract. The “reporter” is mangling phrases, using makeshift throws to Soledad O’Brien, speaking in higher pitches. Destruction can’t be sold unless there is passion. Terrorists are never just terrorists. They have to be vicious killers or lunatics. In this case, though, everyone surrounding the bomber is crazy. The reporter, the protesters, the bands; they are the crazy ones and the mood-setters. As Chat Logs begins the countdown to suicide, the music is maniacally loud. Downey is caterwauling into the tower as an extra vehicle; an extra instrument. Everyone is staring at the large screen as Jan shares his suicide note. It is a declaration of what he would do as a terrorist. The sites he would bomb if he were in charge. The reporter is improvisational but his questions are pre-ordained, according to Jan. Pre-ordained improvisation cannot be more like a suicide bombing.

* * *

A low drone deafens the crowd. Chat Logs is playing now and it is overpowering. They are nodding with the pulsating beat. The crowd is locked in on them. The sculpture is buzzing as if this was the original intent. I can see my friend M____ cough but it is inaudible.

Once the bomb “explodes,” we are told to lay on the floor in silence for a while. Even the bands are lifeless mounds at this point. The signs are all in stepped-on heaps. A woman takes snapshots. The aftermath of the destruction is our warmth huddled on each other. Chat Logs are among it all, reveling in their completion. Their story is a rehashed version of old truths. We all know that reporters are ridiculous actors and that suicide bombers exist within our realm, but maybe we don’t know how they function. How does a band function knowing it has never functioned?

During the suicide note, Jan held up a series of signs. To paraphrase, “have you ever seen a piece of modern art and felt like you could have done it yourself?” It’s a question most people have asked if they have any interest in art. What separates us, now, from the great minds? Didn’t the masters have to be technically skilled at one point? Are they now? To that end, one could say that the entire piece was a sham. However, “Invitation” had elasticity, elitism, a circular philosophy handed to the patrons. The countercultures are weighted by their own stupidity. The televisions are shape-shifters. The cameras are on, but they are not inescapable. What we learn is not perfect, but we must think ourselves indelible. Otherwise, we misfire when we get our breaks.

Later that night, I hit on a waitress and got blown off, but I just kept thinking that if I catch my break, I will own my moment. When I press my button, my message will be clear. If anything, seeing Chat Logs’ beginning, Lars Jan’s “ending” and laying my head to the cold Whitney floor inched me toward meaning. Not bad, to start.