By Jay Chary
On a July night last summer, just before midnight, I received a strange, unsolicited email from a person by the name of Allegra Sauvagess. I had no idea who this person was, did not know how they got my contact information, nor was there even a body within the message aside from the words, “See attached.” The attachment looked like it could have been any of the 453 pages of the Mueller report. It was a roughly Xeroxed dossier-style invitation to the New York-based multimedia artist Alex Lee’s latest film screening and live performance, titled Tryna Find a Handgun In The Dark. The invitation was a series of detailed instructions, the most recurrent one demanding my non-disclosure for even viewing the page on my phone, let alone if I planned on attending or not.
Needless to say, I responded “CONFIRM” before I even finished reading it.
The screening and performance took place the following Friday night somewhere in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. Lee would be viewing the playback of the film for the first time while providing a live audio edit to accompany it. Immediately after the screening, both the VHS that contained the film and the cassette that would contain the live audio track would be auctioned on eBay for 24 hours with a starting bid of $0.99. The winner of the auction would then have full rights to do whatever they pleased with the contents, whether it meant erasing its physical existence indefinitely or broadcasting it worldwide.
Entering what seemed to be an apartment, everyone’s phones and cameras were subsequently collected into a bucket and turned off. From there, we were led to a window with a makeshift tunnel extending out of it. Upon crawling through the tunnel, we arrived to the performance space. A dark gutted formerly-residential dwelling with not much more than a grimy bathtub, scrap metal, and an asbestos claim waiting to happen in it. The room was somehow hotter than it was outside, a day already christened with a 107-degree heat index.
People situated, sweat droplets were beginning to puncture the dust-caked floors, shirts were taken off, and the screening commenced. No introduction was made, just a life-sized Lee projected on the wall alone and pacing. Crouching behind a structure that was once a dresser or shelf, hidden from the audience’s view, Lee began the live audio edit with synthesizers from a familiar track by dark electronic duo, Boy Harsher. As the track began to hit its stride, so did the projected version of Lee, slowly but surely dancing in unison to the music. The audience, an eclectic mix of some 40 musicians, graffiti writers, artists, corporate wage slaves and beyond, was, naturally, a bit perplexed.
The music continued, as one track ended, another track began, each time a little bit faster and more intense. Projection-Lee’s dancing followed suit, moving from a timid bobbing interspersed with walking and contemplation, escalating to emphatic movement, not unlike raving. After 15 minutes or so, people were beginning to grasp the concept of the piece, finding peace through solitude in its purest form– dancing by oneself. Now nearing a steady 135 BPM of industrial techno, Lee contributed an additional layer of spoken word over the pounding bass. Repeating phrases like the show’s name, “Tryna find a handgun in the dark,” his rhetoric resembled much of the internal dialogue ravers everywhere experience (drug-induced or otherwise); an analysis of the self, their surroundings, their psyche when processing this music, and above all, a verbalized exploration of how they can find a highly sought-after release that seems to be further and further obstructed by the very things that seem to keep us “connected” to the world – phones, technology, even banal communication with peers.
All of a sudden, the dancing came to a screeching halt and the music was cut off. An Apple ringtone was suddenly heard, leaving us to wonder whether it was accident or intent. The audience found Projection-Lee doing something unthinkable at that moment– checking his phone. Out of breath, disheveled, and slightly disappointed, Lee reenacted the phone call taking place on the screen. An otherwise innocuous chat with a roommate about a delayed flight turned into a disastrous record scratch, literally and figuratively. In a second’s notice, the momentum that had seemingly taken ages to achieve was reset and we were back to square one, chasing the release.
He concluded by enlightening everyone in attendance that they just so happened to be trespassing on private property, a misdemeanor criminal offense punishable in New York City, if convicted, with up to three months in jail and/or a $500 fine.
I reached out to the person who led me here in the first place, Allegra Sauvagess, to discuss more. They provided me with a number and instructed that I only contact them via the encrypted messaging service, Signal.
Interview layout by Alex Lee & Jay Chary