Outline: A Festival for All Seasons
The Knockdown Center is a former window and door-frame factory in Maspeth, Queens, that has been transformed into a multi-purpose arts center. It has hosted concerts and exhibitions in the past, but has now taken a big step forward by starting to produce events of its own. One of these is a new series called Outline, which began on Leap Day with an event called Outline: Winter. The name refers to the products the factory once produced (doors and windows “outline” a space), as well as a "structure that can be filled in and transformed radically, depending on what’s held inside." Based on its initial presentation, this looks to be a serious festival that doesn't stint on pleasure.
Stepping into the cavernous space on a seasonally frigid night, the visitor was greeted first by several art installations. These included installations by Catalina Ouyang and Dakota Gearhart. Ouyang's is called it has always been the perfect instrument and features a central figure with a distressed expression and multiple rows of breasts, an upended couch, and a screen that drips out individual words, suggesting fragmentary evidence regarding an unknown crime.
Gearhart presented The Sextant of the Rose, which, in the artist's words, "investigates beauty as economic capital." Manipulated video imagery of roses is projected onto a variety of surfaces. In one of these, poetic phrases are wound into spirals, speaking of the individual set amidst the masses—being one of "the numbing billions," yet individuated like the singular flower. Gearhart herself is a florist, and she deconstructs the rose's meanings and reconstructs its presence in myriad ways.
The two stages were set by an immersive, glittering tinsel installation by Aya Rodriguez-Izumi that set an ideal tone, evoking an otherworldly realm through the most economical means. Performing primarily on synthesizer, Rena Anakwe opened the series with an invocation that established the wide parameters for what was to follow. As an artist who works with sound, visual materials, and scent, she was well suited to the task of suggesting a range of possibilities. What began with layers of electronic exploration wound toward a ritualistic playing of several gongs, gesturing toward inner and outer worlds at once. The night was launched.
Composer and multi-instrumentalist Ben LaMar Gay was next. Working alongside instrumentalist Rob Frye, he performed a restlessly inventive set that was as likely to stop time as to swing it. Coming out of a Chicago jazz-based tradition that reaches back to the Art Ensemble of Chicago and beyond, Gay investigated, as he described it, "sound and color and all that shit." He and Frye employed a variety of strategies and voices, ranging from a sludgy blues chug to a kind of Caribbean futurist aesthetic to the simplicity and possibility of the breath. Their instrumentation varied widely, too, with Gay occasionally crooning (at one point latching onto the phrase, "Like it always do") or blowing a modified cornet, and Frye tapping on an object that resembled a bicycle wheel (evoking a synthesized Duchamp) as well as a flute and other instruments. The net effect of all this free-ranging experimentation was what poet Frank O'Hara called "sleeping on the wing," spanning the worlds of conscious and unconscious, combining it all into a deeply personal conceptual groove. Gay is highly touted for his originality, and his set definitely lived up to the hype.
For the next set, Don Slepian performed solo on keyboards, a one-person piano whirlwind who was ready to incorporate and interpolate familiar themes into unfamiliar, wide-ranging explorations. Described as "a computer engineer turned ambient artist," his playing acknowledged the central role of the keyboard in creating recognizable melodies, which were then interpolated and newly refracted. At times he would consciously "overload" a classic, sugar-rushing and complicating it, moving freely from Beethoven to "Bei Mir Bist du Schoen," taking "When You Wish Upon a Star" and exploding it. He even played the showman and turned to the audience for requests; when someone asked for "Clair de Lune," he played it in several styles, from straight to bombastic. In person, he gave off the air of a polymath academic, with a refreshing lack of pretense, but his playing showed a mind and hands that were full of invention.
The critic Whitney Balliett once called jazz "the sound of surprise," but the biggest surprise of the night was a pure pop confection called Patience. Fronted by songwriter and lead singer Roxanne Clifford, formerly of the band Veronica Falls, she took the proceedings in an entirely different direction. A simple blue neon sign spelled out the group’s name, and Clifford, wearing a tam o’shanter and singing in a beautifully plain, affectless voice, led the three-piece band in a fantastic evocation and updating of ’80s British electro-pop. With synths creating a soundtrack punctuated with bursts of electric guitar, Patience brought in a whole different sound. Certain phrases lingered in the air—“all the girls melt into one,” “only memories now”—and cast a melancholic glow, evoking the deadpan, tamped-down emotionalism of Depeche Mode and New Order. I could have listened for hours, but they cut the set short with a charming, “Sorry, that’s all we know.”
The last act I caught was solo synthesist Katie Gately, who performed dense sound designs from Loom, her self-released latest recording, a tribute to her recently deceased mother. With her plaintive vocals floating in the mix, she managed to integrate pop and experimental approaches, suggesting aspects of Kate Bush filtered through her own distinctive sensibility. “This one isn’t a song yet,” she said at one point: “We’ll see.” It was intriguing to imagine where it was headed.
I didn't stick around for headliners Debby Friday, Boy Harsher, and John Maus, but I got my fill just the same. Following this initial showcase, Outline is planning to return with Spring, Summer, and Fall presentations. The Knockdown Center may be a long way from the closest train line, but based on its initial presentation, Outline is a festival that is well worth the journey.