Writing about the Centre for Transgressive Behaviors’ show last Friday night at Trace Gallery in Raleigh is a no-win proposition. On the one hand, offering a watered down description of the unprecedented, avant-garde, multimedia event won’t do it justice. On the other hand, describing it accurately could get the group shut down: The success of this CTB show could be measured by how many laws were broken in one evening. About 85 people with tickets were let into Trace between 11 and 11:30 p.m. before the doors were closed for good. With the gallery safely sealed against intruders, the two uniformed cops leaning against their vehicles directly outside were left to wonder what exactly was going on inside the Blount Street building. They really don’t want to know.
It’s the only Triangle show of any sort I’ve been to after which I had to immediately strip off my clothes upon returning home and throw them in the wash. My clothes had been splattered with paint, water, sweat, fruit juice and other unidentifiable fluids, as had my sandals, which I’d refused to “‘fess up” at the door. (Everyone else was required to deposit their shoes in cardboard boxes.) My T-shirt and shorts reeked of firecracker smoke and incense, and had picked up the barnyard stench that eventually permeated a packed and steaming hot building lined in part with straw. Outside later, I saw a full moon haloed by a haze similar to the cloud of funk emanating from Trace. Washing my clothes that night was like acknowledging a return to domesticity after taking part in some urban-inflected, pagan orgy.
Why am I being so coy with the details? For one thing, the participatory, improvisational, one-off event–which included live and prerecorded music, performance, dance (if you count unchoreographed tribal gyrations), painting (of a sort) and probably even astral projection–is nearly indescribable. Pieces of the event were staged simultaneously in different open rooms, and the building was crowded, making it impossible to see what exactly was going on in each cell. In addition, it’s difficult to tell how much of the show’s content is legally proscribed, putting me in a tight spot as possibly the only member of the press allowed in.
“Are you a virgin?” one of the CTBers asked within minutes of my arrival: shades of Rocky Horror. The building was full of non-virgins, people who had been to several CTB happenings, who’d come with costumes or loose clothing that could be removed with little effort, whenever the mood hit them. But this was the first that I’d seen of the nine events put on by the Centre for Transgressive Behaviors over the last two years, and I felt like I’d been initiated into some sort of private club. Reporting on the show is almost like ratting on your brothers in the Masons.
Besides, the CTB is headed by two guys you wouldn’t want to get into trouble. Craig Hilton and Steffan Persson, the group’s impishly charismatic leaders, wandered the building all night with the wicked smiles of mad geniuses on their faces, Hilton wearing a paint-splattered opaque poncho, football shoulder pads and shop goggles, while Persson, soaked with water and paint, was stripped down to nothing but a jock strap. After leading a large group of half-naked ticket buyers in a tribal wedding/dance with a Trent Reznor-inspired score (performed live by a core group of CTBers from various local bands)–during which he fed grapes to the revelers like some benign, dissipated Roman emperor–it was nothing for Persson to stand about, beaming, in his locker-room attire, and chat about the show.
“This got a little messier than usual,” Persson says, with a slight Swedish accent. He’s smiling broadly, the adolescent boy in him perversely pleased with the mess he’s made. It looks like a Sherwin-Williams factory blew up in here. We’re standing in a blue puddle, at a spot where nude virgins were dragged mock-screaming toward the pentagram-decorated Lokkenhaus for some sort of “sacrifice.”
When the 28-year-old Swede isn’t researching avant-garde artists in order to cull ideas for CTB shows, he’s busy working on a graduate degree in plant biochemistry at N.C. State. Persson, who’s been in the United States for two and a half years, is allegedly responsible for the script or outline of this event, but when I ask to see a copy, he admits there isn’t one. “It was a sort of free-for-all tonight,” he says, laughing. The purpose of the shows, he says, is simply to enhance people’s creativity and imagination. “People are stuck in front of their TVs too much,” he concludes, then heads off for a much-needed bath.
“You didn’t get it too bad,” says Hilton, coming up to examine my clothes. A stocky 27-year-old who teaches guitar at Bert’s Music in Cary, Hilton has been staging these shows at different North Carolina locations (this was the second show at Trace), and presiding over a core group of CTB members numbering at any given moment between 10 and 30. The shows were originally based on his interest in experimental music. “But you can go see a band on a stage any day of the week,” he says. He wanted to do something more participatory, using a collective of amateur actors and musicians from local bands. The band is the centerpiece of the group, but Hilton tries to build on this to create “surrealistic environments.” The previous show at Trace, he says, included a flamenco procession and a man giving birth through a huge phallus. An earlier show at Kings consisted of show trials, gladiator fights, and a finale in which a giant piñata full of food was beaten open by spectators wielding sticks.
What does all this mean? Besides the orgiastic or tribal elements, this night I’ve seen women on swings hitting each other with homemade foam bats; a Trojan dinosaur; two men conveying a 20-foot long Dr. Seussian trumpetlike device made out of plastic tubing and a funnel; women in frozen poses over metal grates; a kind of mock magic show; a knife-wielding robed figure wearing a beaked mask; and so on. But I’m not quite certain this is what I’ve really seen, either. Halfway through the night I find myself longing for some meaning-conveying narrative to help pull it all together.
At the end of the event, about the time I witness the tall, dark-haired Persson feeding fruit to gyrating dancers, I’m approached by a painted “virgin,” who hugs me and rubs my chest, leaving her colorful mark on me. Despite the giant, red-tipped papier-mâché phallus and breasts bestriding the band’s stage, I realize that the point is not sexuality, but sensuality. While the sexual content is self-consciously adolescent and performed with a wink, the show’s sensuality is palpable and profound, and manifested in all its seemingly random formal aspects. The participants are as comfortable in their bodies as ravers jacked on ecstasy, but without the drugs, and in a tight environment that encourages a ’60s-style communality. Even mere onlookers feel the charge off these surroundings. While the artistic value of the show may be dubious, its experiential value is undeniable. As far as its meaning goes? Well, I’m just praying it doesn’t mean jail time for its unconventional creators.