Finding Answers And Fighting Fear At The ‘House Of Yes’

MIKE SHANE VIA FLAVORPILL

A few days ago, I went to The House Of Yes — a former Brooklyn ice warehouse — and laid on the floor with approximately 50 of my closest complete strangers, while watching FOUR, a sci-fi-influenced techno-infused aerial acrobatic burlesque/art show. It thrills me to write that. It’s not a “look at me, aren’t I interesting”-type thing, it’s just that that declaration stands as further evidence that I’m becoming less and less of a shut-in. It also means that when I tell people that I’m committed to a life shift, one in which I embrace new and interesting things, I fucking mean it.

If I don’t explain why a small thing like going to a quirky Brooklyn art show feels like climbing a mountain to me, a lot of the rest of this piece is going to feel overdone and pointless. I’ll try to make this as quick as possible because intimate confessions make me squirm. Here we go:

What was supposed to be the fun half of my twenties started with me sick on my back and mostly stuck in my bedroom, lost in a haze of images on a screen and worries over my shrinking future. My legs were unsteady, causing me to occasionally collapse when I tried to walk (once landing on my head, once nearly crushing my cat) and my arms were weak. My eyes often wanted to stay shut and my head hung down… Hey, what’s it called when something is a metaphor and a hard truth all at once?

My sickness (which I prefer not to name) got so bad that a friend told me that he would have killed himself if he were me. He wasn’t me… luckily for me. Eventually, my body healed (save for some occasional aches and unshakeable fatness) and I tried to leave all of the sadness, missed opportunities, and disappointment in the rearview. I had to move on, I figured, but my determination to do that didn’t stop the fear from lingering or my once abundant confidence from being shattered. In the aftermath of my sickness, I got used to saying “no” a lot. I was living on the sidelines. It wasn’t a bad life, certainly not compared to the crushing atrophy of what I had been through previously, but “no” is very boring. It’s life in a box — which is no way to live your life.

Sometime within the last three years, thoughts about saying “yes” more became prominent in my mental landscape. It got to the point where the “yes” drumbeat drowned out the “no” chorus. Chalk it up to massive FOMO and seeing friends and co-workers embracing life in ways I envied. Something had to give. Finally, in 2017, I took a leap forward in my efforts to shed preconceived notions about my limits, my likes, and the world. Long-delayed experiences were embraced, trips were taken, cities were explored, fun was had, and fear was faced over the pained screams of a sometimes anxiety riddled inner-me. There was also a lot of food. Unshakeable fatness!

In doing all of this (even though a lot of it might seem minor to most people and I’m not nearly as far along as I’d like to be), I seized back some of the independence that I had surrendered years before and, in the process, regained a bit of the swagger that I’d been faking for so long. The me that said “yes” to a night out in Brooklyn at the literal House Of Yes doing the least “me” thing I could possibly imagine feels like the me I hoped to be.

But that isn’t the epiphany. It’s just the prelude to the epiphany.

FLAVORPILL

* * *

I’ve lived in close proximity to New York City for more than 20 years, yet it’s always felt like another continent. In my mind, buildings are cartoonishly tall and people move at a rapid pace, zipping along, living lives that are far less ordinary than mine. Some of those ideas have begun to fade with more exposure, but my awkwardness at parties seems to be here to stay, causing me to stick to far walls and feel completely isolated from everyone in the room who isn’t being paid to pour my drinks or tied to me by previous association.

And so, at The House Of Yes, I took my place at the outskirts — gently bopping out of rhythm to the music and the buzzing chatter of everyone else — while standing along a ledge and underneath a pair of giant unblinking eyes that never looked down at me.

Ten minutes past the scheduled start and I was getting antsy. I didn’t have anywhere else to go, it was just the curiosity biting at me and a desire to sit (or lay) after throwing down a couple of vodka, mint, cucumber, and lime cocktails called “The Basic.” That name felt so right considering my “stranger in a strange land” profile and my separation from the other revelers, who seemed most assuredly not fresh to the world of these kinds of events.

Anya Sapozhnikova is one-half of the creative team, (with Kae Burke) that powers The House Of Yes, a performance space and club that originated a decade ago and continued after a fire at one location and rising rent at another. It was impossible not to notice when she entered the room wearing a skin-tight white costume and climbed atop the bar to gently turn down the volume of the crowd with her presence.

Anya explained that we were about to be treated to something unfinished (the show will debut for real on Friday, though it will still be free) which defied genre. She and her team (Ricardo Romaneiro, James Barnes, Dan Alaimo, Sir Kn8, Indigo Nai, Al Cummins, Daisy Press, and Melissa Aguerre) had been up for five days straight but she begged for patience and people’s attention (with their eyes, not through their phones) and for all of us to sip what she called “truth serum” and fill out a piece of paper offering an answer to “What the meaning of life is” The serum looked like juice to me, but I’d attached so much wonder to Brooklyn and this mysterious experience that I half-believed her (and therefore fully resisted). The fear isn’t all gone, apparently.

After a bit more waiting, the doors opened up and we were all guided into a large dark room with a stage at the front, yoga mats on the floor, and several screens above that rose and fell at the whim of Anya and the other similarly attired performers (save for one woman dressed in a Marilyn Monroe dress and at least one man in a full white suit with neon wraparound glasses). I sat with legs folded and watched as one of the performers placed people around the room like puzzle pieces, laying them down beside one another with an eye on keeping a path clear for the heavily choreographed show. Begrudgingly, I tried to half lay down, worried that I’d accidentally graze a stranger, kick someone, or get stepped on. The idea that people who have reportedly not slept in five days were about to hover and dance overhead did spark a worry too.

FOUR began with loud thumping music that made my heart rattle in its cage. Projected on the screens was a wild and colorful mix of images that were both indescribable and vaguely alive. Unfortunately, I felt nothing for these images and got restless waiting for whatever was supposed to come next. Call it curiosity, call it fear that I had signed up for little more than a techno dance party sans the dancing.

“The FOUR stood patiently, as the suns silently died in the void, conducting a four billion year ritual,” reads the show synopsis. “They were lords of physical principle, representatives of particle and wave, the avatars of sound and light and motion. And another; the last guardian of Life itself,” it continues before seemingly offering an explanation for the deliberate pacing: “Their ceremony was all patience with spurts of action millennia apart. Injecting time into the AI algorithm, was their final effort of arriving at natural intelligence one that could work out an equation to preserve the only thing worth saving.”

FLAVORPILL

The intrigue and promise of action and aerial gymnastics was, of course, what had brought us all there, and when one of the performers emerged from a cloth cocoon above us, we were treated to a display of beauty, grace, and sensuality, as she moved toward the center of the room and was soon joined by another female performer, at least ten feet above our heads (I believe this was Anya, but it was very dark). While occupying a plain white rectangle and then a plain cube made of pipe, the two aerialists moved back and forth, at one time apart, and at another moment intertwined. As the purple and pink lights partially obscured them, the music felt like it switched from a cold techno rhythm to something slightly more seductive.

Breathtaking as that all was, however, what I saw from the show didn’t matter as much as what I saw in the audience. It’s not a normal thing to view so many people laying in front of, behind, and beside you — their faces all different, their eyes all processing what they were seeing, shuttling those thoughts through the filters of their unique lives and what feels interesting, depressing, exciting, sexual, and chaotic to them. In short: I was watching people have an experience.

In that room were people watching through phone screens, capturing memories they’ll never sift through. Lovers benignly caressing each other’s arms, the bored, the awed, those pulling the strings that adjusted the screens and helped guide the aerialists, and those people that walked in as isolated observers (hello). We were all assembled to look up toward the dark in search of something, as we mucky little marvels of energy and light tend to do. And, as corny as it is to say, in this time of self-awareness and detachment, I realized that what we were each looking for mattered less than the fact that we were all looking at the same time.

While that human observation and experience may not have been the planned takeaway from the show, the art opened my mind to that notion and moved me to hold it for more than a fleeting instant, as I felt a connection to everyone in the room — which is something that sort of freaked me out considering my cynical and often cranky default setting. Another reminder of the things that can happen and the energy that can be perceived when I embrace the chaos, resist my carefully arranged status quo, and get out of my box.

FLAVORPILL

* * *

“What is death?” Anya asked audience members, microphone in hand and Marilyn Monroe beside her. She wove silently through our sprawled out bodies, finding people to answer.

“What is death?” she asked again.

“Closing myself off from experiences,” I thought.

“Who are you?”

I supplied another answer inside my head: “Someone still afraid, but finally trying not to be.” I was even ready to say it aloud, but Anya never got around to asking me.

Nearby, I heard someone say that these questions had no answer, and that may be true. But coming from where I’ve been, the answers I came up with, and the overall desire to answer challenges with “yes”, felt good enough for now.