"I thought there was going to be alcohol at this thing."
These words were pronounced by a visibly disgruntled man in his early 20s on Friday in MoMA's atrium. Shortly after his realization that alcohol would not, in fact, be forthcoming, he turned around and stormed out.
The object of his wrath was the widely advertised collective performance-art experiment "Singles Night." And, indeed, after checking in as a participant at the museum's information desk, being given a paper accordion fan, shuffling into a roped enclosure with the other singles in the second-floor atrium, and being gawked at by Italian tourists, I was starting to feel the same way. If I was going to be a casualty of some sort of "happening" that was meant to introduce me to other art-loving singles, alcohol seemed like it was going to be a necessity. Nay, a requirement.
But there was no bar to be found, merely somewhere around 40 participants with darty eyes sitting in the singles pen, waiting to see what would happen next. It wasn't clear what was going on, much less if I was going to be able to make a "I can't believe we met at MoMA" toast at my wedding reception. The facts I knew were these: Grand Openings, a collective of five artists, had been given free reign to organize events at MoMA from July 20-August 1, not unlike the collaborative book production they staged in a PS1 conference room during last October's "Greater New York." The events scheduled at MoMA during this period included a day of formal attire, two singles nights, and a wedding — a real wedding. And so, I didn't really know what to expect when slight, sprightly Brooklyn-based Japanese artist Ei Arakawa emerged as the evening's MC.
In order to get the event going, Arakawa ordered the assembled, presumably art-loving singles to divvy themselves up into four corners according to locale: Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and "out of town." Much to his chagrin, the groups were heavily uneven with a handful of Manhattanites, even fewer people from out of town, and no one at all from Queens. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Brooklyn group loomed large as Arakawa repeated over and over into a Britney Spears-style headset microphone "No Queens?, No Queens?" Finally, with a shout of "we need more singles," he decided that the solution was to bring in some stray singles from the crowd of what had to be about 200 onlookers, who shrunk away from the very thin rope separating them from humiliation as Arakawa asked the crowd who was single and wanted to join the fun.
There were no takers.
As soon as it was determined that the groups were simply going to remain geographically uneven, the main event began — a mix between Allan Kaprow and a strange mating dance titled "Mad Garland" created by painter and Grand Openings member Jutta Koether. She brought a few black three-foot-long planks of wood into the center of the singles and began to explain the real reason why we were all there — to collectively create a work that was "more than just a thing on a wall." She explained, "This is not a performance, nor a program, nor a theory — it's a struggle. These planks have nothing to do with this world but everything to do with you... Use them to get together because you're all singles..."
In case those instructions weren't clear, we were each meant to pick up a wooden plank and find a partner to hold the other end. Then, once everyone had paired off we were encouraged to move in a circle and "Form a coiling snake... to make together a rising dying subjectivity construct." What this amounted to for me was a lot of awkward giggling while my partner (a skinny, bespectacled young man) and I tried to chat whilst weaving between a lot of singles holding wooden boards. We were encouraged to weave between each other while one couple held their board high and the other ducked underneath. Meanwhile Arakawa was chanting "Singles! Singles! Singles!" into the microphone over an instrumental version of the J-Lo/Pit Bill hit "On the Floor." Finally, the ceaseless circling amongst a sea of singles (not a bad metaphor for my dating life, actually) came to an end and the participants collapsed into a relieved circle on the floor.
Now the enthusiastic and barely intelligible Arakawa hopped into the middle of the crowd and declared it was time to decide who had done enough mingling to garner the title "Best Couple." By this point I was starting to feel as if I'd fallen into some sort of alternative Brooklyn artists' prom — replacing slow dancing to Boys 2 Men with wooden boards and subjectivity constructs. Unsurprisingly, "Singles Night" turned out to be a lot more about sensational arty antics than really allowing any mingling to take place. Aesthetics? Perhaps. But relational? Not so much.
So, how to decide "Best Couple" in a crowd of people that certainly hadn't paired off in any comprehensible way? Why, a dance contest of course! And not just any dance contest, either: a dance contest that integrated a wooden plank, which we all know has "nothing to do with this world."
The first couple to volunteer was a man with big enthusiasm but very small shorts (who I must disclose waggled his eyebrows at me) and a woman who seemed rather reluctant to be his partner. The routine that followed was a lot of swinging the board between them and him straddling the board. During this spectacle, the woman sitting next to me and I decided that we could certainly do a better job. I was at least hoping a few shimmies would win over the judges. And that was how I found myself dancing with Lisi from Brooklyn — and a piece of plywood — in the middle of MoMA's atrium. While tango-esque music played we did our best to use the board as an asset with a lot of twists and spins that were a pretty substantial effort on my part. Lisi, more or less, led.
The third — and final — couple willing to volunteer was a thin, well-coiffed man in his mid 20s and a woman wearing a scrunchie in her 50s. Their entry in the contest was pretty wild, mostly due to a lot of questionable grinding on the part of the woman. And so, finally, with no other intrepid singles willing to participate, the winner of the contest was decided by the strength of the audience's clapping.
I'd like to say that my refined and exuberant plank dancing won the day, but unfortunately the third couple (the one with all the grinding) won the loudest applause and the title. Well, if provocative thrusting wins you the gold, then so be it. As for Lisi and I, in the end, we took second prize, which was good for a mug with MoMA's logo on it. Not exactly the same as coming away with the love of my life, but hey, my expectations weren't that high going in.
Oh well — there's always the next singles night this Friday, which according to MoMA's website will be a "Zombie Dance Dress Rehearsal." When asked if the next singles event will indeed involve zombies, Arakwawa mysteriously replied, "possibly," while Koether revealed that it will be inspired by Kathyrn Bigelow's film "Near Dark." "The next singles night is going to be very different. The planks will be more retreated... It's going to be a dance," she said.
So, what's the final verdict on MoMA's first-ever "Singles Night"? I think more than one earnest single was disappointed with Grand Openings efforts at matchmaking. Michael, who heard about the event on Twitter, explained his feelings to me: "It was entertaining. It was more like an entertainment kind of event, I felt, than like a meeting singles thing." And indeed, in the end, I have to admit that it did feel like an entertainment thing — though perhaps the post-post-modern commentary on loneliness in the technological age was simply lost on me. Or maybe I just needed a drink.