Crushed watermelon, slime, and a visceral puppet show turn the postgame of this year’s fundraising gala into an immersive stage for experimental performance

The night air whips around the East River-adjacent streets of the Financial District, forming a giant wind tunnel. Concrete and glass monuments—police precincts and towers leased by venture capital offices—funnel the breeze. But nested among these brutalist behemoths is a 1982 brick tower punctuated by a curving atrium of tinted-glass, which is now home to Water Street Associates (WSA), the new downtown hub dedicated to “blurring the lines of the arts,” according to Water Street Projects, the larger nonprofit behind the operation. The evening of May 9, WSA’s 30th floor—dedicated to hosting fashion, arts, culture, and, as one of the white tuxedo-ed elevator attendants tells me, “food events”—houses Rhizome Forever, a fundraising gala and afterparty for the digital arts-centered nonprofit.

Left: Poncili Creación joined by Aliya Ultan, Matt Bent, Kevin Eichenberger, and Caratoes. Photographed by Sidewalk Killa. Right: Young Boy Dancing Group joined by Dusty and Madison Wada. Photographed by Jae Kim.

Since its formation in 1996, Rhizome has been dedicated to platforming and preserving net art, becoming an affiliate in residence at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in 2003. The dinner portion of the night is a benefit to raise funds for the organization’s microgrants, a program that provides technology-focused artists with mentorship. Honorees during this year’s event include hacktivist filmmaker Shu Lea Cheang; artist Lauren Lee McCarthy who invented the p5.js programming library; technologist, activist, and Obama-era advisor to the White House Office of Digital Strategy Anil Dash; and artists Jennifer and Kevin McCoy, whose body of work seeks to disrupt the corporatization of the internet. After dark, however, begins the afterparty organized by Rhizome Community Designer Bri Griffin in collaboration with Ben Shirken of NYC-based record label and performance series 29 Speedway—a deliciously experimental affair featuring hot wax, slime, and puppets.

Left: Young Boy Dancing Group joined by Dusty and Madison Wada. Photographed by Sidewalk Killa. Right: Young Boy Dancing Group joined by Dusty and Madison Wada. Photographed by Jae Kim. 

Beyond the Balenciaga-esque red velvet entryway and past a bendy set of stairs, mirrored elevators deposit guests at the penultimate floor lit by dark red LEDs. Neon-green rays illuminate a group of people sitting at a small games table who, upon closer look, are playing parallel games of chess. The corridor extends into a hall of vendors selling zines, merch, and even flash tattoos by techno-prosthetics designer Joe George. Performance by elekhlekha อีเหละเขละขละ presenting Jitr จิตร: extended gong ensemble and animation studio Laser Days are the culprits behind the flashes of light and imagery projected on the walls, a welcome counterpoint to the subsequent live performance. The piece is a movement experiment by Swiss dance collective Young Boy Dancing Group featuring Dusty and Madison Wada, involving lit candles mounted on dancers, dancers mounted on dancers dragged along a slimy plastic runway, and dancers bathing in mysterious streams of water pouring out of leather handbags mounted on the ceiling. The soundtrack to the soiree includes a face-melting techno set by UMFANG, the Discwoman co-founder and monthly Bossa Nova Civic Club resident. A for-grownups puppet show by troupe Poncili Creación brings partygoers to criss-cross applesauce seats on the cushy upholstered floor to watch twins Efraín and Pablo Del Hierro jump inside giant spandex frames that bend and fold into blinking, winking faces, eat their foam hand-puppets, and then eventually reveal little smiling flower-shaped friends poking out of their butts. The puppets’ internal quest from mouth to ass is vocalized with cartoon-y growls by illustrator and sculptor Caratoes, who’s accompanied by cellist Aliya Ultan, drummer Matt Bent, and bass extraordinaire Kevin Eichenberger.

Left: Vending from publishers, Primary Information & Txtbooks. Photographed by Sidewalk Killa. Right: Photographed by Jae Kim.

As patrons make their way back through the silvery maze of elevators to the lobby, a young woman rides a scooter through the vast, ecru-carpeted main room. She zips past a group of loiterers who cheer her on as she goes for another lap. The silly yet simple act of riding a scooter inside feels remarkably tame after the immersive performances from earlier, what with all the nudity and fluids freely exchanged (at one point, Young Boy Dancing Group crushed a watermelon into a chef’s plastic quart container and drank its juice in a very non food-safe way). Rhizome Forever reminds audiences of the human component behind digital-inspired art in a time where technological advancement feels more bureaucratic than beautiful, planting the seeds for a future where this kind of experimentation may flourish.

The party would not have been possible without support from WSA and their incredible staff as well as Zora.

Major program support for Rhizome is provided by Mellon Foundation. Program support for Rhizome is provided by Teiger Foundation.