by Matt Nestor
Nonsense NYC is a weekly rundown of “weird events,” “unique parties,” and “senseless culture in New York City” started 14 years ago by artist Jeff Stark. The criteria for inclusion on the list isn’t set in stone, but generally speaking, an event must meet the “rule of three”: Are at least three separate activities going on at once? In other words, a punk show or an art opening won’t make the list, but a punk show at an art opening probably will — provided that there’s also a sword swallower or cat juggler. It has, over the years, become the de facto guide to things New Yorkers feel like they should be doing.
The Nonsense letter makes for good aspirational reading, and I always skim the list when it arrives Friday evening: Knowing that these events are happening is, in some faint way, enriching. But something’s always stopped me from actually going to any of them. Maybe it’s just too hard to convince people to come with:
Me: “Yo Greggy, guess what: there’s a installation at Silent Barn tonight that ‘re-mixes architecture and space to create a sonic landscape by using the tools of ornithology!’ How about it?”
Greg: “I’d like to but… *cough* *cough*… I’m a little sick?”
It took a while, but shame at my own timidity finally got the better of me. On a recent Saturday, I ditched Greg and every other alleged convalescent in my life and tried to visit every single event listed that day. The goal proved too ambitious: I had to break at home for a nap, but I hit six events, three boroughs, and two states — all for about the price of an IMAX ticket to Spiderman.
The Eighth Staten Island St. George Day Festival
To be listed as a Nonsense event, you have to be cheap and independent, but you also have to flaunt at least a modicum of pretentiousness. Maybe that’s why the Staten Island St. George Day Festival advertised itself as a “performing arts showcase.” But I’m a little skeptical. Yes, there was a dragon, and a guy in a wizard costume talking about the dragon, and yes, the wizard guy had a backup adding suspenseful throbs on the Djembe. Also present were some kids in costumes and a posse of drunks wandering in and out of the crowd, smoking our discarded cigarette stubs. But — and I don’t mean to be harsh — I’m not sure any of these parties would have snagged a slot in a Brooklyn performance art showcase, with the possible exception of the drunks.
Industry City Open Studios
I took the ferry back to Manhattan and nipped over the bridge on my ten-speed, heading towards Sunset Park, where artists affiliated with Industry City Studios were holding their first open studio day. Industry City is an Instagram-ready conglomeration of eleven identical, parallel loft-buildings. Mostly home to small businesses and manufacturers, today it hosted not only the open studios but also various Nonsense-ready performances, including the dance stylings of the Zoorkhaneh Collective.
Manifestly, this was not Staten Island. The dancers, wearing cream-colored leotards adorned with metallic plates above their pubic bones, did a vaguely erotic dance to sporadic percussion accompaniment. The audience, mostly thin, creative-looking thirty year olds, sat watching with sober seriousness or filmed it on their iPhones. I liked the performance but missed an element of spontaneity: Where were the drunks?
Maybe I was just looking in the wrong place. In the building across from the dancers, I walked into the studio of an artist who was evidently the wrong side of three Sierra Nevadas. In a friendly smoker’s growl, he tried to explain to me the intricacies of plaster manipulation and then, when that didn’t work, offered me a beer. I politely declined; my day had barely begun.
Brooklyn Zine Fest 2014
Staten Island to Industry City is ten miles; from Industry City to the Brooklyn Historical Society, host of Zine Fest Building, is barely three. Yet, in what I was coming to realize was the fundamental beauty of the Nonsense list, the crowd at Zine Fest was as different from the crowd at Industry City as the latter were from the S.I. set. Maybe in five years the Zinesters, having shed their dirty cut-offs and gratuitous locks of blue-green hair, will spend their weekends contemplating site-specific modern dance in artist lofts, but right now they’re doing their thing: doodles and poetry and poetry-doodles.
I don’t much care for zines, which always seem to total less than the sum of their many parts, but I bought a couple anyway. I could spare the seven bucks: I’d been out since noon, and I hadn’t spent a dime.
Museum of Beautiful People
The MoBP (as they abbreviate themselves) was something of a redundancy. Manhattan’s already a gallery of perfect-ten hotties; the moment I crossed the bridge, I was instantly surrounded by preening, coiffured, gym-toned people, the kind who won’t go to the deli for coffee without primping their hair. In fact, upon entering the “museum” (really just an LES storefront), I couldn’t immediately tell the beauties and the normals apart. Everybody seemed equally thin and expensive-looking.
The host, a flirtatious woman of about thirty-five, came to my rescue. Like a pair of generals reviewing their troops on parade, we exchanged notes on a model who sat with a book in her lap.
“I’m really into her shoulders.”
“They catch the light like highway reflectors.”
“Just like her cheekbones.”
Audibly evaluating the person directly in front of me raised interesting questions. Had the experience awakened me to hitherto unnoticed nuances of beauty? Or had it only re-confirmed my tendency to make snap surface judgments? One thing was sure: after my fourth event in as many hours, my brain hurt. I went home and napped.
Apparently these cats, who call themselves the Morgan Avenue Underground and live in a house off the (you guessed it) Morgan L stop, hold a party every month in their very tidy basement. Slightly older than the zine crowd, slightly more lesbian than the Industry City attendees, the cat worshippers all seemed to know each other and I felt a little out of joint. I became the loser at the art opening who actually looks at the art: cat paintings, a cat wall projection, and a wall-mounted iPad which definitely would’ve been stolen if we were still in Staten Island. I put on the headphones, pressed play on the iPad and, for what were perhaps the best three minutes and two seconds of the whole day, watched a video called Dreams are Real. People, the cat-on-a-green-screen genre is officially over. Dreams are Real (an official selection at the 2014 Catdance film festival) is the best cat-in-space video ever.
One is skeptical of events which sell themselves too hard. A “7,000 sq. foot warehouse” is a verifiable quantity. But “the creation of endless universes living in infinite moments”? What does that even mean? Patently, nothing. I pushed away my doubts and took the PATH to Hoboken, then walked two miles to the top of the Palisades. In the quiet evening air, the Manhattan skyline ran to right and left like an all you-can-eat buffet of light; the whiff of a skunk and the chirp of crickets reinforced the sense of peace.
It wouldn’t last. The event listing claimed that the entrance would be “a tunnel of hypanogogic illusion projections.” What I saw was a bunch of men in Under Armour, urgently hustling us in through a side door. Pot fumes hit me the second I walked inside. No one was checking IDs. I ponied up the cover and passed through the “illusion tunnel”–really just a few duct-taped sheets–and entered a vast and desolate concrete cavern. Lights flickered morosely across the unclean walls. Fog rose half-heartedly from a fifty-dollar fog machine. Teens slouched over Solo cups or pecked away at cell phones, and though a band was playing no even tried to dance. I bought a cup of beer and retired to a corner.
Nonsense had delivered me into the bosom of genuine scenes five times already: not slickly packaged “entertainment experiences,” but the weird outcroppings of entire subcultures. The events were about specific tastes and concerns, and the desires of the public barely even registered. Take it or leave it, each group seemed to say: We are what we are and we’re not changing for anyone. And now, once again, I was in the midst of a scene, only this one was called “disaffected youth of north-central New Jersey.” Common identifiers included metal shirts and gauge earrings, cough syrup and tongue-piercings; if somebody else besides me had brought a cardigan, I didn’t meet him. This land was strange, and I was the stranger.
But Rumi was stranger still. As I sat and mused unhappily on the long walk to the PATH, a young man (Turkish, no visa) came over and sat down. I could hardly hear him speak over the din of the music.
“What’s that?” I yelled, cupping my ear.
“I’m sad,” he repeated and brushed the hair from his eyes.
“Because I don’t know anyone here.”
I felt a happy smile steal across my face.
“Put it here, partner. Me neither. Let me get you a beer and let’s make something of all this nonsense.”
Matt Nestor is a writer and editor living in New York. He blogs at thedailyvirgin.net .