inside 'authority figure,' the immersive psychological experiment taking over a ny factory next month

Incorporating six choreographers, seven installation artists, 150 performers, and an original score from musicians including Devonté Hynes and SOPHIE, 'Authority Figure' is a seductive and discomforting analysis of obedient relationships. It begins...

by Hannah Ongley
27 April 2016, 3:15pm

signe pierce

In a cozy studio underneath the M train in Bushwick, seven dancers are glitching like overworked computers in front of a wall-length mirror. It's one of the first inoffensively humid days of spring and some sort of diffuser is issuing a scented mist into the air. An original piece of deceptively sweet electronic music by New York producer Nick Koenig (aka Hot Sugar) is playing through a Macbook resting in the midday sun. Choreographer Monica Mirabile (one half of performance duo FlucT) is voicing the importance of maintaining robotic expressions and vacant eyes. Particularly after navigating the indoor-outdoor labyrinth that comprises the entrance to Otion Front Studio, the sleepy yet eerily surreal atmosphere feels a world away from Myrtle Avenue. Next month this small sequence of choreography will move out of Otion Front and into the Knockdown Center, glass factory-turned-arts space in Queens, as part of Authority Figure: a massive, immersive "social psychology experiment" incorporating six choreographers, seven installation artists, several musicians — including Dev Hynes, Caroline Polachek, Dan Deacon, SOPHIE, Pictureplane, and Eartheater — and over 150 performers.

Mirabile and her Otion Front partner Sarah Kinlaw came up with the idea for Authority Figure after collaborating on Mirabile's Strict Governing Hands performance at Art Basel Miami back in 2014. "The original idea was to bring in the vocal with the choreography, and it sort of escalated into this big project based on themes we were thinking about," says Kinlaw after the rehearsal has finished. The overarching theme is obedient relationships, into which fall subplots like surveillance, agency, objectification, history, and gender. Mirabile and Kinlaw aren't purposely seeking to mess with the audience's minds, only making them more conscious of obedience and agency. Though, "it's maybe a little manipulative," concedes Mirabile with a grin, referencing the compulsory "Personality of Endurance Quiz" that one must face before purchasing a ticket online. 

After the dancers had filtered out of the studio, we talked to Mirabile and Kinlaw about why the most valuable relationship advice you ever receive could be found at a former glass factory on Flushing Avenue next month.

Are all the musicians people you knew already? Why was it important to have so many different musical collaborators working on this performance?
Monica: Yeah, all the musicians are friends and collaborators. Sarah was a touring member of Caroline Polachek's project Ramona Lisa, where she also met Jen Monroe (Bad Taste) who is one of our installation artists. I've toured with Travis from Pictureplane, and Dev is a friend who comes to FlucT shows. Dan is a best friend and I've worked with him a lot, and Hot Sugar I've used his music in a lot of my choreography. Eartheater is a bestie. The reason that there are so many musicians involved is because the show is so complex — different feelings are a big part of it, and it fluctuates in and out of being very severe to very dreamy.

How did you connect with all the dancers?
Monica: Most of it was through social media. We put out an open call on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, which is generally the way that we work. I think because people know us as choreographers, and know the space too, they just latched on. We can't pay the dancers what we would like to because we don't have any money, but we think that the content and the motive behind the performance is important. We didn't know what was going to happen, so it was really cool that so many people responded. Our goal was to have 100, and we had 150 people respond. They responded with not only enthusiasm for auditions but for going to rehearsals, which is difficult to do in New York because everyone is busy. We taught them a very simple choreography, and asked them if they wanted to sing for us. As they were doing the choreography we took very precise notes on everybody based on the way they moved, which was sort of a psychology observation or analyzation in itself. Then we placed them with each choreographer based on those things.

It seemed like you were reworking the choreography to give people some agency over their movements. Is that something you intended from the outset?
Monica: A lot of it is taken from the concept itself. It's a massive choreography about obedient relationships, and the obedient relationships are ones that are determined by the authoritative systems in our lives. We are all affected by them. They affect us psychologically on deep levels, and we have been learning them our whole lives. Nobody is separate from that experience, so we are using that understanding as a way to create the choreography. We are creating the framework, and then we're working with people to fill in the skin around it. That's not to say that everyone has total free range — a lot of people aren't comfortable with moving abstractly. But there are times when I definitely want to incorporate real experiences. "How did you experience this in your life, and how can we turn that into a new language that you play with?"

It seems like a lot of the subjects you're dealing with are quite personal. There was one scene where you mentioned a sexual encounter that might not be entirely welcome.
Sarah: A lot of the process is built on storytelling. Even between us, it's very therapeutic in that way. We might start a session and just talk. There have been times when Monica has asked, "What's going on with you?" and I'll start sharing something and I'll start crying, and Monica will say, "What does that look like in your body?" Then we would start workshopping from there. So when we are saying that we are creating a framework, it's true. Then when the situation is right, asking the dancer or artist to participate in sharing the stories — internalizing the stories.

Monica: The very first rehearsals started like that too. We went around in a circle and talked about how obedience and authority plays out in our lives. It's different with everyone but it's also the same with everyone. It's employee/employer, parent/child, even dog/owner. Then it's more intricate in other situations — the way you shop, for instance. It's been really interesting because once you start to think about it, you can't stop seeing it everywhere. Which is great, that's the point. The whole point of it being an immersive performance is that everyone will take something away from it. The hope is that people gain agency in making the right decision when it comes to obedience and authority. Because it's not a negative thing all the time. As a woman, especially, I am constantly in situations where I have to be strong and I have to be like, "No, this is what I'm demanding." And that looks like something in your body, and it sounds like something in your voice. This is a performance that you play all the time. And that's a powerful and empowering thing. We're not trying to make a statement, we're trying to make people aware of it.

What sort of role does technology play in Authority Figure?
Sarah: Looking at the piece as a whole, Authority Figure address these relationships through physicality. We were talking the other day about the lullaby, or a parent using different tactics to soothe their child — things that aren't always necessarily bad but it's more historically written into us as humans, like with religion and chanting. It's all touched upon in this piece.

Monica: It's really a wide range of storytelling. But the big data, surveillance, technology — this is a reflection of culture. We're working from what we've experienced, and big data is something that is affecting all of us right now, whether it be legislative, intimately, or through social media. We're all coming to realize how much it's actually affecting us without having time to process it. A big part of the choreography is playing with how it affects us psychologically in the body — how we hold our bodies. It's very therapeutic because of that. Even the way that we're constantly on our computers or on our phones plays a part in how our bodies are shaped by our cultural experience. We want people to gain power over that again.

'Authority Figure' runs from May 20 - 22. Support the project on Kickstarter here


Text Hannah Ongley
Photography Lanee Bird

Dev hynes
Monica Mirabile
Sarah Kinlaw
authority figure