RAYYA ELIAS IN CONVERSATION WITH ELIZABETH GILBERT
37 Main St. at Water St., Brooklyn
Wednesday, April 2, free (advance RSVP appreciated), 7:00
“This book is the story of my life,” Rayya Elias writes in the first chapter of the painfully poignant yet ultimately inspiring Harley Loco: A Memoir of Hard Living, Hair, and Post-Punk, from the Middle East to the Lower East Side (Penguin, March 2014, $16). “This is my truth, and it may not be pretty, but I own it.” Pretty it isn’t, as the Syrian-born Elias details her battles with drug addiction, her time in prison, her struggles with sexual identity, and her eventual recovery from a shocking rock bottom. Clean since August 1997, Elias is a gregarious woman with an infectious personality that lights up a room. She “always wanted to be the center of attention,” she notes in the book, and she’s spent much of the last year doing just that, promoting Harley Loco — the title refers to her Rikers Island nickname — around the world. A musician, filmmaker, hair stylist, and major football fan, Elias will be at Brooklyn’s powerHouse Arena on April 2 for the launch of the paperback edition of her memoir. She will once again be joined by her close friend Elizabeth Gilbert, the bestselling author of such books as The Signature of All Things and Eat, Pray, Love who wrote the introduction to Harley Loco. Last fall, we appeared on Elias’s sports-and-fantasy podcast, “Football Riffs and Chicks,” and now she is returning the favor, answering intimate questions for a very personal twi-ny talk.
twi-ny: You just lost your pitbull, Ricky. How are you doing?
Rayya Elias: Well, the grief comes and goes. It’s only been a few days since he passed, so I’m still in shock, I think. Ricky was my kid and companion for thirteen years, so there is a huge gaping hole in my heart. We were meant for each other; he was beaten up quite dramatically (used as a bait dog), and he had the scars to prove it, yet he was so good inside. We did quite a bit of healing together.
twi-ny: For the last year, you’ve spent a lot of time on the road promoting your memoir. What’s that experience been like, especially as you have to keep going back over some very difficult times in your life?
Rayya Elias: Writing the book was the ultimate cathartic experience for exercising those demons. Sometimes, when I was in the midst of working on the book, I doubted my own memory because it was almost too much to grasp. It got pretty deep.
twi-ny: What’s been the best part of the tour?
Rayya Elias: When I was on the road promoting it, it became like a testimonial. My favorite part was that people came out of the woodwork to tell me their stories, whether it was an eighteen-year-old child who had gone missing due to drugs or a gray-haired lady who related to being fat as a kid or being bullied as a teenager. So many people wanted to be heard because they related to many parts of my story. That’s what really kept me in the zone.
twi-ny: How about the worst?
Rayya Elias: There is no worst. Honestly, I love all of it. It’s something I’ve longed for, so I’m taking it all in, the hotels, the road food, even the airports, and especially when friends I haven’t seen in years show up at a reading/performance, I love it.
twi-ny: Is there a question that you’ve been surprised you haven’t been asked yet?
Rayya Elias: Not really; people have pretty much dissected it. I was really happy that a college radio station in Brisbane, Australia, asked about methadone detox. No one in the States really bothered giving that one any thought. I was pretty grateful, as I have a strong opinion about it!
twi-ny: You’re very good friends with Elizabeth Gilbert. How did the two of you meet?
Rayya Elias: Liz and I have been friends since the year 2000. She came into my studio and needed an intervention. Not a drug intervention like I was used to, but a hair intervention. I cut her hair and we told each other stories. She was writing for GQ at the time and asked me to style a story that Mary Ellen Mark was shooting. We clicked on a level that neither of us really understood. It was deep, and very real, and she became a part of my life. Then, many years later, she bullied me into writing my memoir. Ha!
twi-ny: Do you want to offer a sneak peek at the powerHouse event? For example, will you have your guitar with you?
Rayya Elias: I will absolutely have my guitar, and I will play a few songs. A new one is called “Touch the Ground,” inspired by Liz’s book The Signature of All Things. I recorded it, and with Barb Morrison producing, it sounds amazing.
twi-ny: Last November, we appeared on “Football Riffs and Chicks.” That was a lot of fun. Will there be another season?
Rayya Elias: I loved having you and Ellen on “FR&C”; it was so much fun. Yes, I will definitely do it again; this year I will concentrate a little more on fantasy, I think.
twi-ny: Your fantasy football team, which is named the Pittbulls, after Ricky, finished in a three-way tie for the best record in our fantasy football league. Were you happy with your team’s performance?
Rayya Elias: I’m never happy with my team’s performance unless I win. My guys were getting hurt every week, so I really had to study and pick up the next best available athlete for the position. It was hard going. I can’t imagine what the real live sport is like for the coaches. That’s why I’m in awe of the game.
twi-ny: You were born in Syria and still have family there; how has the political situation there affected them and you?
Rayya Elias: It’s been extremely difficult. The country is torn, my family is torn, my heart is broken for the Syria I visited just four years ago. I spent Christmas and New Year’s with family in Aleppo and Damascus. Now they are struggling and I haven’t heard from some of them in quite some time. No one saw it coming because the country seemed to be on the verge of a tourism breakout and everything seemed to be going well.
twi-ny: Okay, so you’re a writer, musician, hair stylist, podcast host, filmmaker, and big-time football fan; what’s next for you?
Rayya Elias: I’m wrapping my head around a new book, a novel of sorts. I’ve never tried to write fiction, but I’m gonna give it a whirl. Music is something that is constant in my life, so that’s a given. The rest is up to what inspires me. I’m the type of person who loves to be involved in creative endeavors and make stuff. Once an idea enters my head and my heart, it starts to take over my being, and once it’s too much to hold in, then I gotta let it out. If I can’t keep it in, I gotta let it out!
In her bold, innovative works, California-born, New York–based choreographer Faye Driscoll explores ritual and relationships between the performers themselves as well as the audience. Anything can happen in Driscoll’s pieces, which have included such successes as You’re Me, 837 Venice Boulevard, and There is so much mad in me. Her latest work, Thank You for Coming, which makes its debut March 6–15 at Danspace, is the first of a trilogy — the working titles are “Dance,” “Play,” and “Space” — that continues her examination of the mind and body as well as society’s interconnectivity. An early version of “Dance” was presented last year as part of the 92nd St. Y’s “Stripped/Dressed” series, and it featured five performers locked together for much of the time; they also interacted with the audience directly.
Driscoll is also a master collaborator, working with a wide range of musicians, visual artists, designers, and theater directors. Last year she choreographed Nick Vaughan and Jake Margolin’s “A Marriage: 1 (Suburbia),” and this year they return the favor by contributing their unique visual design to Thank You for Coming. “Nick and I have absolutely loved Faye’s work for a long time, and getting to collaborate with her on this process from such an early stage in development has been a pretty amazing experience,” Margolin explained. “It’s a process unlike any we’ve been a part of before and has led to some really unexpected and exciting stuff. It has been really eye opening in terms of what a process can be and what it can look like. It’s been inspiring watching as Faye unflaggingly chases rigor and perfection in material that still manages to feel spontaneous and organic.” (Nick and Jake’s new exhibition, “A Marriage: 2 (West-er),” runs March 8 – April 12 at the Invisible Dog in Brooklyn.) Driscoll discussed her process, collaboration, fundraising, and more a few days before Thank You for Coming was set to open.
twi-ny: You presented an early version of this work last year at the 92nd St. Y. How has it changed since then? I see that the dancers now include Alicia Ohs, who worked with you on You’re Me, and Sean Donovan, who made a guest appearance in Nick and Jake’s “A Marriage: 1 (Suburbia).”
Faye Driscoll: Yes, it’s funny because for me in some sense I think the Y version was complete in and of itself. But the cast shifted, designers got involved, and new ideas emerge and old ideas either went deeper or got thrown out. So you will still see the Y material, but hopefully it is also a totally new work. What’s exciting to me about this project is that it reflects my process of generating a lot of ideas and then evolving them into each other and making new iterations and offshoots that will continue forward into my next work — because it’s an interconnected series. With Thank You for Coming (the series) I have set up a process of producing work that reflects my process of creating work — which is often making things in excess, and with many possible versions — and in the meantime I am building a company of performers and designers around a long-term project.
twi-ny: Thank You for Coming continues your very direct relationship with the audience and your exploration of social experience and interconnectedness, both in title and execution. Why do you think you are so drawn to this aspect of performance?
FD: I think I have always been interested in performance as a ritual of expression, protest, transformation, and basically one gigantic act of mirroring with the performers and audience. I don’t buy this idea that in order to be socially engaged you have to adapt to a certain way of being; I think we are all socially engaged whether we like it or not — or maybe whether we choose to deal with it or not. I am not saying I am totally dealing with it in this work, but I am trying. I am trying through my own formal and aesthetic experiments to expand my perception of this interconnection, and maybe others will feel that or maybe they won’t.
twi-ny: In 2009, you were one of fifty artists chosen by the New Museum for its “Younger Than Jesus” triennial, and just recently you were named a Guggenheim Fellow. What was it like when you found out about the latter? What kind of impact has it had on you?
FD: I have been blushing all year from having gotten the Guggenheim. I feel so honored. It just makes me want to make my work stronger. There can be some internal pressure involved. But I have always felt pressure when I am making things; it’s just that I feel a little bit more visible now.
twi-ny: Like so many choreographers, you have turned to Kickstarter to help finance projects. What has that experience been like? Are you a good fundraiser?
FD: Please donate! That is what Kickstarter has done to me! Which maybe is an essential trait of a good fundraiser? The willingness to ask and keep asking without shame. Being a choreographer, you have to be it all — grant writer, fundraiser, administrator, stage manager, public speaker, floor sweeper. It’s truly exhausting. I think I am a better choreographer than I am any of the other hats I wear, but I try hard because it’s what the work needs. And I have more help now than I ever have and I am super grateful for that. Even though Kickstarter is extremely stressful, it’s also really amazing. We have more than two hundred people backing us — that feels pretty good. It takes the power out of some monolithic “funding entity” and into our own hands. But doing a Kickstarter campaign can seriously consume your life. I really want us to reach our goal — please back us! See, I’m obsessed.
twi-ny: You have collaborated with a wide range of artists, from Young Jean Lee and Nick and Jake to Taylor Mac and Cynthia Hopkins. What are the secrets of being a strong collaborator?
FD: I love collaborating with these people. I learn so much and it keeps me on my toes. I think being a good collaborator is having the willingness to serve the project, not just your ideas and tastes.
twi-ny: Do you have a dream collaborator?
FD: I am dying to work with Ann Hamilton.
twi-ny: In 2007, you told Feministing that in fifty years, you’d like to be remembered as a rebellious, honest, dangerous choreographer who had a lot of fun. How do you think you’re doing so far?
FD: Oh wow. I’m not sure. OK, I think Fun is my F word. I think it can be a big no-no in the avant-garde world. And honestly sometimes in my personal life I have a hard time relaxing. But in my work I have a lot of fun. Maybe because then I am taking fun seriously? Not sure. I think there is something in fun and play that is a kind of key to all transformation. And isn’t really good fun also a little bit dangerous?
(Ed. note: Advance tickets for Thank You for Coming are sold out, but there will be a wait list before every show beginning at 7:15. You can contribute to the production via Kickstarter here.)
JODY OBERFELDER PROJECTS — 4CHAMBERS: A SENSORIAL JOURNEY INTO THE HUMAN HEART
Arts@Renaissance, Garden Level
2 Kingsland Ave. at Maspeth Ave., Greenpoint
January 21 - March 22, $60 before February 1, $75 after, Thursdays at 6:30 & 8:00, Fridays & Saturdays at 7:00 & 8:30
Last summer, New York-based choreographer, director, and filmmaker Jody Oberfelder presented 4CHAMBERS on Governors Island, an immersive journey inside the human heart in which six dancers led twelve audience members through an abandoned, specially renovated former officer’s house, each room representing another chamber, incorporating film, interactive video, factual information, and plenty of physical contact. “You will be touched by the performers, both literally and figuratively,” we wrote back in July. Although it was her first site-specific installation piece, 4CHAMBERS is not the first time Oberfelder has delved into the nature of the human heart; she previously examined the blood-pumping, life-giving organ in 2012’s Throb. For more than two decades, Jody Oberfelder Projects has been addressing such emotions as love and the search for social identity in such works as LineAge, The Title Comes Last, Approaching Climax, and Sung Heroes. Oberfelder is now bringing back 4CHAMBERS, restaging the sixty-minute piece at Arts@Renaissance in Greenpoint, in a building that previously was home to, appropriately enough, a hospital. A few days before opening night — the show runs Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays from January 23 to March 22, with bonus performances January 21-22 — Oberfelder discussed transformation, collaborating with her husband, people’s hunger for real experience, and more.
twi-ny: 4CHAMBERS was initially performed on a hot and sweaty summer weekend on Governors Island, and now it will be performed in what so far has been a pretty cold winter. Even though the performance takes place inside, do you think the weather will have any impact on the audience and dancers? Cold and heat do have very different effects on the heart.
Jody Oberfelder: On Governors Island, people came in from an outside temperature of about 98.6, matching their actual body temperature. There was something beautiful about this, since our piece has so much to do with getting under the skin, an internal experience. Thankfully, at Arts@Renaissance, we have our thermostat set to a comfy 72 degrees. It’s perfect. This time people will venture out from cold, nasty weather and to an inside space that is warm and breathing and atmospheric.
twi-ny: How did you find this new space in Brooklyn?
Jody Oberfelder: I’d seen Then She Fell at Arts@Renaissance in fall of 2012. The creators, Third Rail, did a tremendous job of transforming the space as a trip down the Alice in Wonderland rabbit hole. A@R has a competitive open call for their three-month residencies. Lo and behold, my project was selected.
It was clearly a raw space with potential. After several site visits with my video collaborator, Jason Bahling, lighting designer, Kryssy Wright, set designer, Juergen Riehm, and a couple of dancers (Mary Madsen and Mercedes Searer), we found where each of our four chambers could live, figured out how to create passageways that would need to be created for arteries and veins, etc., and drew up a plan of how to site this particular work. At the time of our application, we’d not yet been given the Governors Island opportunity. Our first rendering was in an old officer’s house, with built-in metaphors of house as heart — with plumbing, walls, and corridors — whereas A@R is a former hospital.
Sited work is particular. It’s not like transplanting a proscenium work to a stage where you adjust the lights and wings and find out how many steps to the green room. We have transformed the entire floor level to a labyrinthian sensorial journey.
twi-ny: Did you have to make significant changes to the space to incorporate the main themes of the show, or did you make any changes in the performance to mold it to the space?
Jody Oberfelder: One of the challenges was to carve out the flow of traffic. We conceptualized this piece as a moving in one direction like the flow of blood, through four chambers. And each room has different needs in terms of architecture, lighting, technology, and space. The floor was too hard for the performers to really go for it, so we built a custom sprung floor and created specialized wall space. (I don’t want to give too much away.)
twi-ny: You mentioned your set designer, architect Juergen Riehm, who is also your husband. What is the collaboration process like between the two of you? Is it possible to separate the professional from the personal?
Jody Oberfelder: Fun question. Let’s just say we have a rule. We set up appointments to talk with each other about the piece. Otherwise I’d be bugging him first thing in the morning, at every meal, etc. There is crossover, of course. It’s great to have a production stage manager (Katie Houff) as intermediary. On the upside, Juergen Riehm knows me, and is very sensitive to my needs, won’t let me go the way of kitsch, or schlocky, catches my abundant imagination and helps me hone.
Thankfully, there are other key collaborators. Video artist Jason Bahling has been part of this piece almost from conception. And visual elements figure in prominently. Sound is now a major factor — since Governors Island, Sean Hagerty has come in and worked some magic.
twi-ny: On Governors Island, the performers did multiple shows in one day. Will some of the dancers again be doing back-to-back shows? The performance is extremely physical. Is there any special training involved?
Jody Oberfelder: The dancers do two shows a night. Physically, dancers are athletic and endurance poses no problem. I look for dancers who are unique, not cookie cutter, whose “technique” is present and ever felt. What takes energy in 4CHAMBERS is a discreet attention to audience members. It’s like being in a relationship for a night. The ratio is 1:2. We call the performers “docents” — we guide the audience, as a museum docent might, and encourage audience members to be in their bodies — to connect. That’s an evening of intensity.
twi-ny: There is a lot of interaction between those “docents” and the audience members, whom you refer to as “guests,” including a lot of touching. Were there any surprises for you regarding how that relationship between guest and performer played out on Governors Island?
Jody Oberfelder: We’ve found that people are hungry for real experiences. That putting away multitasking for an hour and slipping into a present dilated moment is something we all are craving. The performers are instructed to try to meet guests where they are and guide. We don’t have a “toolbox” of techniques for this but have practiced and learned each guest is different. It’s individual. The most intellectual people living in their heads also have a body under their necks, and once you crack that code, the rest is porous and smooth sailing. Yes, some guests are self-conscious at first, but that goes away. That’s why we’ve chosen to do it this intimately. There are no outside voyeurs. It’s intimate.
twi-ny: What’s the most significant thing you’ve learned about the human heart during the whole 4CHAMBERS project?
Jody Oberfelder: Everybody has a human heart. The body is a container for this vital organ. We often do a drive-by of living, plow through life, with our heart doing its job of keeping us alive. I’ve learned that the heart and the mind work together. 4CHAMBERS gives people a sense of being alive.
4CHAMBERS runs January 21 - March 22 at Arts@Renaissance and is performed by Megan Bascom, Zachary Denison, Rayvawn Johnson, Joey Kipp, Mary Madsen, Shane Rutkowski, Mercedes Searer, Lonnie Poupard Jr, and Lily Bo Shapiro, with set design by Juergen Riehm, lighting by Kryssy Wright, sound by Sean Hagerty, and music by Matt McBane, Richard Einhorn, and Jonathan Melville Pratt. Film and video feature appearances by Ishmael Houston-Jones, Edward Einhorn, Dr. Wendy A. Suzuki, Dr. André A. Fenton, Sarah Trignano, Lonnie Poupard Jr, Christina Noel Reaves, Jake Szczypek, and Jessica Weiss.
BERNARDÍ ROIG: THE MIRROR (exercises to be another)
513 West 36th St. between Tenth & Eleventh Aves.
Through January 11, free, 10:00 am - 6:00 pm
The centerpiece of Spanish artist Bernardí Roig’s latest exhibition at the Claire Oliver Gallery in Chelsea, “The Mirror (exercises to be another),” is the all-white title work, a sculpture of two men on a platform facing each other as if looking in a mirror, a bright fluorescent light both blinding and dividing them. Cast in polyester resin and marble dust, the men stand barefooted, their bellies hanging over their unbuttoned pants, one of the figures with his fingers in his ears, the other having apparently just ripped off part of his face, including his mouth and an eye. It’s a wry comment on one of Roig’s primary themes, people’s inability to communicate in contemporary society, slyly referencing the iconic “See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” trope, while also engaging in a search for truth and reality, as one man is a distorted version of the other. In the far corner, “The Invisibility of Memory (La invisibilidad de la memoria)” features a similar white figure (though with a third arm), his head downtrodden, his body defeated, hanging from a metal frame that holds a video screen showing unclear images that eventually fade away. Roig also includes fourteen charcoal drawings, inspired by Ingres’ “Portrait of Monsieur Bertin” and Federico de Madrazo’s “Portrait of Gertrudis G. de Avellaneda,” which, like the sculptures, examine identity through the subject, the viewer, and the artist.
Roig, who was born in Palma de Mallorca and had the first show in this space back in 2002 — he’s been with Claire Oliver for fourteen years — recently said, “Images are like the foam of the subconscious mind.” Although his sculptures are instantly engaging, extremely pleasing to the eye, they are loaded with deeper meaning, inviting those who gaze upon them to go well beyond the surface. “It is gratifying to see the response to his work from curators, critics, and collectors alike; we have watched him grow as an artist and are proud to represent his works,” Oliver told twi-ny. “Working with the artist is a pleasure; Roig is highly intellectual but remains grounded and humorous as well. His thought process is deliberate and the works produced, without exception, are of the highest quality.” A provocative thinker with a strong art-historical bent, Roig discussed language, dialogue, running out of ideas, and the human body while staying in New York City with his family during the run of the show, which closes January 11.
twi-ny: What was your initial impetus behind creating all-white sculptures cast from real people? Do you have favorite models?
Bernardí Roig: I started by casting my father’s body, which was what was closest at hand, to address the symbolic figure of the great castrator. It was a big, heavily built body . . . and then afterwards there came other similar ones, always bulky and always people connected to me. Once positivized, they are white for two reasons: firstly, to gain in visual lightness and refute their affirmative and statuary quality so that they are simply images and, secondly, to help me detain the moment. Sculpture is an instant trapped in a form. All Goethe’s Faust can be reduced to one single sentence: “Time stands still! You are so beautiful. . . .” Only then does one understand that the moment is white. This brooks no doubt. And in all certainty it is white, because light, once stilled, coagulates. We might then say that the gaze has been submerged in a glass of milk, and in this glass of milk we recognize the annunciation of a form of knowledge where the signifieds have still not copulated.
twi-ny: These white figures, especially when bright light is projected onto them, are a kind of blank slate, setting up a potentially wide-open, complex dialogue between object and viewer. While some of your regular themes involve blindness, death, and the individual’s uneasy search for identity, there is something inherently aesthetically pleasing about your sculptures; people immediately react with happiness upon seeing them. Is there an intended contradiction there?
BR: I’d say that the intentions are contradictory because they are made of opposites, just like our thoughts. The themes my work engages with are by no means strange; they are embedded in the medulla of all thinking people. I’m not very sure of people’s relationship with my work. It’s hard to really tell, and I imagine that the spectrum of readings is as wide as the number of individual spectators. The images we make come from deep down, from far back, and they rise like foam to the surface of the unconscious.
Language was invented to try to bridge the gap of noncommunication, but it obviously falls short. I also accept that a convulsive image can produce a feeling of happiness, something that also happens with Surrealism.
twi-ny:The exhibition at Claire Oliver also features charcoal drawings, including several based on Ingres’ “Portrait of Monsieur Bertin” and Madrazo’s “Portrait of Gertrudis G. de Avellaneda.” What struck you about those two portraits?
BR: I started out from two historic paintings to make this new series of fourteen large drawings which I’ve called “Je est un autre.” Seven male portraits reinterpreting the “Portrait of Monsieur Bertin” by Ingres (1832), housed in the Louvre, facing seven female portraits reinterpreting the “Portrait of Gertrudis G. de Avellaneda” (1857) by Madrazo, on view at the Lázaro Galdiano Museum in Madrid. The title of the series, “Je est un autre,” is a celebrated sentence from Rimbaud’s Lettre du voyant (“Letter of the Seer”) to his friend Paul Demeny, where the poet accepted the loss of identity and splitting of the self through negation.
These fourteen drawings play with the superimposition of reflected identities, revealing how any representation of identity contains the latent experience of its opposite. “Monsieur Bertin” is a frontal depiction of a bourgeois man, opulent, arrogant and powerful, even more powerful than the emperor himself, while Gertrudis de Avellaneda is an enlightened, cosmopolitan Spanish poet, born in Cuba, who represents female resistance to the hermetic, masculine, and oppressive academic world in Spain in the mid-nineteenth century.
twi-ny: For “Instante Blanco,” which is currently at el Museo Nacional de Escultura, you placed your white sculptures among the institution’s polychrome works, creating a kind of intervention. Are you pleased with the way it turned out? Do you plan on doing more of these types of installations?
BR: The use of polychrome is in search of realism, to bring the carved wood closer to the truth, to try to produce belief through a whole itinerary marked out by the palpability of the flesh. Most of the works in the Museo Nacional de Escultura were originally devotional religious images whose contemplation held out some kind of guarantee. What I proposed was an itinerary of whispered dialogues with the space itself and not so much with the works.
When you work with historic museum spaces you expand the boundaries of experience. Each exhibition I do has to produce the unforeseen. Though my works hit you immediately as sculptures, I work above all with places and for each place I pose different questions. But I don’t try to answer them. I don’t believe that the purpose of art is to come up with answers but perhaps to hone the incisiveness of the questions.
I’ve already done these kinds of interventions in the Cathedral of Burgos, in Cà Pesaro Galleria Internazionale d’Arte Moderna at the fifty-fourth Venice Biennale, and at the Lázaro Galdiano Museum in Madrid, and at the current moment I am working on a project for the “Intersections” program at the Phillips Collection in Washington.
twi-ny: You’re often quite critical of your own work. You recently said, “I have the feeling that I am always repeating the same ideas and that I am incapable of saying new things. . . . Every time you want to delay more the moment of showing anything, but you have to do it.” Is it difficult for you to let go and open a new exhibition? Is it hard for you to accept praise? The general public, and critics, seem to take pure delight in your work.
BR: It’s true that I find it increasingly more difficult to add something to what has already been said. . . . The edges of words are more and more frayed all the time. That said, it is equally true that you are part of a chain of images from which you can’t escape, and that’s why it is better to get them out of your head before they explode inside it. These images are often only leftover scraps that the head spits out; other times they have the necessary density to guarantee the meaning of the work, just at the moment when the unforeseen appears. That would be the most fertile ground. As Guido, the character played by Marcello Mastroianni in Fellini’s 8½, says: “I really have nothing to say, but I want to say it all the same.”
twi-ny:You just spent the holidays in New York, and now you’ve gotten to see the city blanketed with snow, in a way emulating your sculptures. How are the holidays different in New York than in Mallorca?
BR: There’s one big difference: right now in New York there is a major exhibition of an artist who, in a place infested by banal low-intensity images, makes you believe again in grand Art: Richard Serra. It is worthwhile living in a world where an artist can still produce a shiver in the gaze.
LOCAL COLOR — ZIPPER: CONEY ISLAND’S LAST WILD RIDE (Amy Nicholson, 2012)
136 Metropolitan Ave. between Berry St. & Wythe Ave.
Wednesday, October 30, 9:30
This past August, Amy Nicholson’s compelling, bittersweet documentary Zipper: Coney Island’s Last Wild Ride opened to wide acclaim during an extended run at the IFC Center. Winner of a Special Jury Prize at the 2012 DOC NYC festival, Zipper follows the fate of Eddie Miranda’s Zipper amusement park ride as a microcosm of the controversial rezoning and commercialization plans that threaten to change Coney Island forever. In her director’s statement, Nicholson, a longtime marketing creative director in New York City who has taken the film, her third documentary, all over the country, explains, “I have two ambitions for Zipper. First, to expose how and why the ‘poor people’s Riviera’ became the prize in a fight between a billionaire developer and a billionaire mayor. Second, to remind the world of Coney Island’s true character, so that other great cultural icons might be valued more for their sense of place than for their real estate.” Her next stop is Nitehawk Cinema in Williamsburg, where she’ll take part in a Q&A following a special “Local Color” screening on October 30 at 9:30. As an added bonus, each attendee gets a free Coney Island beer. In anticipation of the Nitehawk event, Nicholson recently discussed with twi-ny the Zipper, the advertising business, the future of Coney Island, and more.
twi-ny: What was the genesis of the Zipper project?
Amy Nicholson: Believe it or not, I was looking for the Jumble in the Daily News when I came across an article about the Zipper leaving Coney Island and my heart sank. I loved that ride as a kid; it’s the quintessential crazy carnival contraption and the perfect symbol of all that’s great about a place like Coney Island. Originally I was just going to do a short homage to the Zipper, but I got sucked into the politics of why Eddie Miranda and a lot of other small operators were leaving. The more I looked into it, the bigger it got.
twi-ny: What kind of personal connection did you have with Coney Island prior to starting the project? How would you say it has changed since then?
Amy Nicholson: I have lived in New York since the late ’80s and my best friend and I would go down to Coney Island on hot summer nights and just hang out and people watch. It’s really the best place in the world to soak up that beach/carnival/melting pot atmosphere. As Joey says in the film, “Once you get the sand in your shoes....”
(Sidebar about riding the Zipper in Coney: Eddie’s Zipper was an older hydraulic model, which meant it used a lot of oil. If the temperature was hot during the day — and cooler at night — the Zipper would spin a lot more aggressively as the oil cooled. The loader, Freddie, and I made a pact to ride on the last night after the very last shot, but when he chickened out, so did I. Apparently the conditions were perfect for making the Zipper spin like crazy that day and he said there had been a lot of barfing!)
twi-ny: How would you say it has changed since the late ’80s?
Amy Nicholson: Coney Island is a really addicting place for so many reasons. I can never sum it up as well as the guys do in the last scenes of Zipper. But I can tell you for certain that’s been the biggest change. The complexion of the place is very different now and not in a good way. There are still a few of the old guard there, but the rest is either an empty lot or new construction that feels soulless. The new rides are nice, but Coney Island is well on its way to being sterilized.
twi-ny: Has anything changed in the rezoning/development fight since the film was released?
Amy Nicholson: When the film leaves off at the end of 2009, Bloomberg was just reelected to a third term. A deal was made with Thor Equities to purchase about half of their property for around $100 million, and the city leased newly created parkland to a single operator. Since then, Thor has built one retail building and Central Amusements International has brought in new rides, primarily in areas where there were rides before the fight began. There have been some nice improvements, but there are still plenty of empty lots and none of the promised affordable housing or hotels have materialized. Nor is Coney Island year-round — the reason the public was told the rezoning had to happen. We are also coming up on the one-year anniversary of Sandy, which did some horrific damage, but almost all of the rides and games survived. The final super[title] of the film that states what the resolution was after all the years of battling still stands.
twi-ny: How do you think documentaries like yours can make a difference in such battles?
Amy Nicholson: I think documentaries like mine not only serve as a record of history, but I hope they exposed the truth about how politics and the constant need for growth can change cities far too quickly and not necessarily for the better. As a regular citizen, you would have had to follow the story for six years, digging around, attending meetings, and asking questions. It’s a lot to ask for a busy public, and in the end, the public process is pretty much a joke. So on the most basic level, you can watch Zipper and see the whole story unfold in seventy-seven minutes and at least walk away with a basic understanding of why there’s an Applebee’s in Coney Island now.
twi-ny: You’ve shown the film all over the country. How do audiences in other cities react to such a New York story? Coney Island has a unique legend, but most of those people have probably never been there.
Amy Nicholson: The film speaks to people everywhere because there has been such an increase in development like this where cities decide to proactively stimulate economic growth with developer incentives. The easiest way to do that is to change the zoning. Right now, Los Angeles is doing exactly what New York did with a huge zoning overhaul. It hasn’t escaped anyone’s attention that small businesses everywhere are being displaced by chains.
And then there are the sweetest older people everywhere we go who attend the screenings and they just want to relive a little bit of their Brooklyn childhood. When we get compliments on how well we captured the feeling of the place, that’s when I think we’ve been successful. That’s the best.
twi-ny: You’ve spent a lot of years in advertising. What kind of impact do you think that has on your filmmaking style, as well as the film’s promotion?
Amy Nicholson: Well, in this case it gave me a fairly keen understanding of the attempted branding of both Coney Island and Brooklyn. (In the case of Brooklyn, the city has been far too successful!) It definitely gave me the radar to know when I was being sold something. I could feel it in the interviews, and twice I found “talking points” left behind in the rooms we were in. As far as how it applies to the marketing of the film, I can’t take all the credit. Coney Island was the most amazing place visually. And I had help. That best friend who I went to Coney with on hot summer nights is also an amazing designer. We just did our best attempt to bring it to life.
twi-ny: You’ve previously made Beauty School and Muskrat Lovely. Do you have any plans yet for your next film?
Amy Nicholson: I have to recover financially from this one first (we could not get funding), but I have a few ideas rolling around in my head. Stay tuned....