In the middle of a circle of black chairs, a woman struggled with an imaginary object. She pulled it toward her, and then pushed it away, and then brought it back to her body. With each shove, she inched one foot closer to her invisible target. The other remained fixed. Her muscles tensed, and her bearing communicated determination and defiance. A ring of five globe lights on tall poles brightened and intensified. Just as it seemed she could hold the position no longer, she released the object, spun away gracefully, and came to rest for a moment by the top keys of a vintage combo organ.
The woman with the invisible ball was New York City choreographer Rebecca Margolick, who danced vigorously between those lit-up spheres without ceasing for over a half hour. The bearded, impassive man at the organ was the electronic musician David Moore. He hardly moved or betrayed emotion as he played, but his music told a different story.
The joint performance commemorated the closure of “The You Voice,” an expansive multi-channel video installation that occupied the ground floor exhibition gallery at MANA Contemporary (888 Newark) for the first months of winter. Creator Derrick Belcham put excoriating monologues on the lips of nine actresses, shot the women in mid-castigation, and played the whole thing back, all at once, in a darkened hall.
“The You Voice” simulates the experience of an inner monologue so acidic that it fractures into a mess of unanswerable questions and stinging accusations. You might have experienced something like that yourself during quarantine. Belcham’s show, which was curated by MANA director Kele McComsey and Irene Mei Zhi Shum is a portrait of the artist going nuts, and on Saturday, Margolick and Moore responded to the video installation in the language of their own mediums. That meant a dance that foregrounded solitary struggle and the futility of reaching out, and music that channeled monomania via dense, warbly chords, sustained notes rich with ominous overtones, and occasional frantic eruptions in the treble register.
In his footage, Belcham lit the faces of the actresses only when they spoke, swiftly fading to black between words; Moore rigged up his combo organ to intensify the globe lights the higher on the keyboard he ventured. Just as “The You Voice” was a constant, mirthless play of searchlights and shadow, the “You Voice” performance happened under constantly shifting illumination. The light was like something a stargazer might see on a windy night when clouds are obscuring the moon.
If I told you I’d spent my Saturday night watching a woman gyrate to pedal tones and taped paranoia while lights flickered on and off — and that I quite enjoyed myself in the process — you might not necessarily assume I’d been to MANA. SMUSH and Deep Space Gallery also host wonderfully weird multi-media events. Many of these are, like “The You Voice,” one-shot deals and free to attend. What MANA Contemporary offers that other experimental art labs can’t is scale. MANA has the space for genuine spectacle. There’s no beer to be had in the Biergarten Gallery at MANA, but the intoxication generated (for some of us, anyway) by the grand, brawny post-industrial architecture compensates for that. The globe lights triggered by the organ and the filament bulbs on the floor weren’t the only sources of illumination for “The You Voice.” City light also poured in through the high windows and tickled the wide walls and concrete floor of a space that reminded visitors of MANA’s not-so-distant past life as a factory.
High ceilings also generate their own signal-warping acoustic effects. Combos are generally associated with garage and pub rock — think of Steve Nieve playing “Radio Radio,” or “96 Tears” — but the combination of outboard effects, his foot pedals, and the echoes in a space as wide as the Biergarten Gallery made Moore’s red meanie feel as imposing as a Medieval pipe organ. Moore is a practiced hand at working with ambience and signal processing. In Bing & Ruth, his usual musical project, his main tool for sound-sculpting is a treated piano. At MANA, he brought a heavier chisel.
Moore found thick intervals and saturated them with echo and tremolo, generated machine hum, buzz, and grinding-gear noises, and occasionally reached for quick-trilling passages that put his dexterity on display. His piece had no discernible reaction to what Margolick was doing, even when she drew close to him. Margolick’s relationship to the music was unclear, too — she seemed to be responding to the lights (albeit lights that were connected to the combo) as much as she was responding to the organ. When the music stopped and nothing was audible but the sound of the chastising voices of the actresses, she found it in her feet to dance to those chastising voices. She did the only thing you can do when your interior monologue becomes excruciating: she grabbed her head in frustration, and tried, mightily, to shake herself free.
By the end of the piece, there were signs that she had. Her gait changed and her posture relaxed; she became less frantic and attuned her body to the world around her. But her character spent most of “The You Voice,” battling private phantoms and grasping for emotional equilibrium. The same could be said about Moore and Belcham. Theirs was work conceived in concert with other artists, but carried out in the solitary confinement of personal experience. Margolick was adjacent to Moore’s music, and she had the memory of Belcham’s videos to motivate her, but fundamentally, she was dancing on her own.
Her choreography was true to the spirit of the lockdown period, when even artists who were working “together” were often occupying rooms on different continents and e-mailing files to each other. In its investigation of the corrosive effects of solitude on the minds of creators, “The You Voice” might be called the ultimate pandemic project. Derrick Belcham and his fellow riders in the storm stood up to their own self-doubt and, shakily but surely, kept right on creating. But we’ve indulged the voices of inner demons long enough. Maybe it’s time for artists to direct our attention to those outer demons who forced us all inside.