Fish Out of Water: Ritual Abjects

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The tight-knit nature of Columbia’s art and music scene makes for some truly eclectic shows — you just have to know where to look.

I’ve scraped the surface recently.

A show at the Music Farm here, a local gallery showing there, and the occasional Trustus show peppered between. Time spent perusing local performances made something clear: a lack of performance art.

Columbia manages to stock the stages of the tiniest venues, such as New Brookland Tavern, and fill the largest of shows like those at the Colonial Life Arena. But 20 years in Columbia and I’ve never found myself in the crowd before a performance art show. Maybe my aversion to visual art as well as theater is to blame. I’ve also never understood what performance art meant. Is any act that finds itself before an audience performance art, or is there a formula to follow?

With these questions on the forefront of my brain, I found myself in Conundrum Music Hall one late Tuesday night. Conundrum stands detached from surrounding buildings. Once a small storefront on Meeting Street, it’s since been converted to something that your crazy uncle would have built. It houses a small stage and a surprisingly well-stocked concession stand. I arrived before the show started and watched the small space fill with a diverse group of people.

I was there to see Ritual Abjects, a group which describes themselves as a “radical pomo witchcraft collective" that explores both noise music and performance art. 

Their spot was preceded by three openers: Ahomari Turner’s synth and vocal show, Lucas Sam’s electronic music project, Pray For Triangle Zero and Queens, New York-based experimental rock group You Bred Raptors? Ritual Abjects took the stage slowly amid gentle anticipation. Front-woman Alice Wyrd’s voice started soft but powerful, backed with synth and backup vocals from a pair of girls toying with a ouija board. The entire performance ran with a projected montage of psychedelic graphics and scenes from The Wizard of Oz.

As the scenes of The Wizard progressed into the more climactic parts, Wyrd’s voice and message became more intense. The performance ran for almost an hour, with commentaries on sexuality and perceived gender binary. There were talks of our meaning and origin on this planet and who or what might be watching over us. At one point, Wyrd and her collaborators called upon the demon known as “Zozo.”

Towards the end, she asked the audience to join in by grabbing an item from a pile that she placed on the floor earlier. Antlers, a white mask, a keyboard, foam swords and various oddities were picked up by the audience. "As an audience, being a part of the performance is a very different experience than purely watching from the crowd," said Sean Force, third-year media arts student. 

As the audience joined in the last couple minutes of the performance, Wyrd moved about the room asking, “Are you a good witch, or a bad witch?” But none of it felt too forced or too prompted.

That's not to say I didn't feel a bit uncomfortable at times. Ouija boards and contact with the "other side" isn't my cup of tea, especially when you begin summoning a demon. The visuals were fantastic and crucial to keeping the audience active. The brooding synth notes aided in making Wyrd’s voice more cadenced and controlled. There was confidence in her work.

I found myself focusing too much on what she said. I was trying to interpret every word and analyze every idea, but that’s far from the point. It’s about the performance in its entirety. The visuals, the sounds, the objects and the spoken word are each performances on their own, each playing a role in the greater vision at hand. "Where else can you go and see [in Columbia] that can match the unique experience of Ritual Abjects?" Force said. Agreed.




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