All the leaves are brown and the sky is grey
I can’t stand the rain
It’s raining men
Rain on me
It’s a cruel summer
I was met by an aggressive softness when I entered Nikita Gale’s Other Seasons, a live performance included in this year’s Performa Biennial. Thick, artificial fog held the space. If rolling mist on a theatrical stage suggests a gentle ambience, the fog I found was an affront. I couldn’t see three feet ahead of me. As I moved further inside what appeared was a former factory or gymnasium, folding chairs faced a small, floor-level stage set with a metal armature and standing speakers. Mounted lights on scaffolding projected out of the structure into the audience. Spotlights awaited activation. My friend tried to get me to stand in the glowing light to take my picture, I refused. After discovering that the stage was two-sided and there was another batch of seats on the other side (it was difficult with low visibility), I took my seat.
Born in Alaska, though residing for many years in Atlanta, Gale is now based in Los Angeles. She addresses the politics of space and sound in sculpture, installation, video, and text. Music features heavily in her work as do forms like microphones and barricades. Performance is troubled as it pertains to labor and violence. Although performance is the subject of much of Gale’s work, it is notable that this commission is the first time the exhibiting work itself is a live performance.
The materials of the event were immaterial but enveloping: the aforementioned fog, but also light and sound. Even more intangible, but integral: cadence, pacing, and anticipation. After the well-documented summer of Beyoncé and Taylor Swift blockbuster tours, Gale implemented the visual language of a stadium show. But the live experience was tweaked—emptied of the assurances of a glittering performer distantly swaying on stage, the vacuum replaced with only a sense of unease. No performer can be seen; it is a blindfolded spectatorship, of sorts. Booming sound, singing voices, acrid lights, and then, jarring silence. The musicians, vocalists, and conductor from The Unsung Collective were protected, shielded from view by black scrim curtains. This was not latent tension; everything was too close, too loud, too bright.
Peel away the pop star dressing and you find a Vivaldi concert. More than a reference, the work was structured around and featured The Four Seasons. The music was familiar even to classical music novices like me and can be heard today in film scores and commercials. When first performed in 1725, the concert sparked controversy because it represented the sounds of nature rather than alluding to them. The music replicated the world, a mimicry of sound. In Spring, there are twittering birds and a running stream; in Summer, an impending hailstorm; in Fall, a slower pace and preparations for a hunt; in Winter, rain fall and the sound of someone slipping on an icy path.
Gale’s iteration of a musical composition that was criticized for over-articulation played to a visual void. Obfuscation and seduction, an entangled rather than oppositional duo, were a central presence. Throughout the work, my eyes struggled to find form. In flashes, I saw an awaiting microphone, the sharp jut of a violinist’s arm, the slow lowering of the conductor’s hand, a quick inhale of breath. I am left with teasing moments of impending action; time filled with almosts. In the ever-escalating prelude, the gestures of performance are hidden but not invisible. Entertainment collapsed in on itself.
Now for the fun: interspersed throughout Vivaldi’s seasons was bass-bumping, head-bopping pop music. The first time it happened was a surprise. Lady Gaga’s “Rain on Me” interceded Vivaldi belting: It’s coming down on me / water like misery / It’s coming down on me / I’m ready, rain on me / I’d rather be dry, but at least I’m alive / Rain on me, rain, rain/ Rain on me, rain, rain. As the pop music interventions accumulated, I giggled with delight. Recognition and relief were instrumentalized.
I was struck by the strange blend of live orchestral instruments and perfected synthetic sound coming from the speakers, each pointing to the limitations of the other. The artist was tuning my ear, priming me to listen for something I could sing along with, and the gang was all there: Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Missy Elliott, and Lady Gaga, a lineup of queer icons. The songs were layered and remixed. Not all came from Top 40 of the last few years. Pop classics like The Mamas & the Papas’ “California Dreamin’” was included, and in a moment of sheer joy, The Weather Girls’ “It’s Raining Men” triumphantly rattled the room. Accompanying a Hallelujah, was a rainbow of lights that illuminated the space to the greatest degree of the entire performance. In that moment, I wondered: is this about to turn into a dance party? It wouldn’t have been a drastic leap in the empty warehouse setting and the anonymity offered by the fog, but everyone stayed in their seats.
Even in these instances of levity and excitement, my discomfort didn’t dissipate. In fact, it heightened. In sound, composition, title, and lyric, the subject is weather. Weather in excess, weather that is imposing, unstoppable, relentless. Weather in which it is RAINING MEN. Vivaldi’s measured progression of the seasons was interrupted by a repetitive chorus about downpours and personified summers. And then a third sound entered—crackling fire. I recalled Gale’s life in California as well as the Canadian wildfires this year that draped the East Coast in smoke. I instinctively breathed deeper as I remembered the images of thick air and orange skies that made New York City look like Blade Runner. Yet, it is important to note that nothing shared by Gale seemed other worldly. No speculative future. Everything was here and now, in this world we inhabit. It all framed up the inescapable truth: climate disaster is upon us.
Early on my unease begged the question: how will this performance end? This thought did not come from lack of interest, but an enduring curiosity about this aspect of performance art. An ending is fundamental to a live experience. It is a time when reality and artifice meet. A flip of a switch, the required closure is almost always uncomfortable. I can’t help but weigh the ending heavily. Where does it leave the viewer? Now, without distance and defined expectations, what is the audience/performer relationship? Endings offer a framework for viewership and tone, while also speaking to art historical lineage. Does the performer bow? Walk off stage? Thank the audience? But as this performance crescendoed, the ending of this climate disaster anthem took on a new meaning: how does it all end?
I consider the through line Gale sees between spectatorship and climate change. Where might a jet setting (and fossil fuel burning) superstar philosophically cross paths with the catastrophic loss of the environment? But instead, I think about my own stillness. Among blaring lights and escalating sounds, even in moments of elation, I sat so still. Paralyzed like everyone else, I watched patiently, expectantly even, knowing that the fog was for show and the crackling fire was digitized, for now. Meanwhile, my mind toyed with the distinction between atmosphere and atmospheric. Entranced by the theatricality in front of me, I was occupied. The performance ended in silence and darkness. If Gale was scoring the end of the world, what was my role in this devastating spectacle?
I realized, I am the reporter, of course. Imagine me out on assignment for the Weather Channel, wearing a rain slicker with a hood. I am drenched and being pushed sideways by the wind. As I struggle to stay upright clutching my microphone, I demonstrate the force and severity of the elements—you know, I am dry, sitting inside, waiting out the storm that will never end. In broadcaster’s English I say, “Coming to you live…”