We ate chicken at the Thai place around the corner—we couldn’t believe how much chicken for how little money—then walked to the gallery to see the performance-installation critiquing the mass production of meat. Our stomachs digested dinner as our minds pondered (to quote from the press release) “the ecology of the industrial animal.” But the irony didn’t occur to me until now.
On the way to the restaurant, I had spotted Christine from more than a block away, following in her tracks on the sidewalk. Her puffy black coat was one of many waddling down Court Street that night, but it was her gait that I noticed, a succession of subtle visual cues (the swing of the arms, the angle of the feet as they hit the pavement) coalescing into the familiar image of a friend.
Take the intimacy of that moment—the comforting, almost instinctual recognition between two people (two animals) who have known each other for a while—then imagine its frigid, impersonal opposite, and you have something close to the atmosphere of Harrison Atelier’s VEAL, which premiered at the Invisible Dog Art Center in February. Everything in this production seemed to unfold beneath a sheer, icy glaze, regardless of our physical proximity to its many parts: in the smaller back room, the three extraordinary dancers; in the larger space out front, the singers and musicians, the massive video projection, and the imposing sculptures that doubled as musical instruments.
VEAL is the latest exploration of the friction between nature and technology by Harrison Atelier, a design collective founded in 2009 by Seth Harrison and Ariane Lourie Harrison. He’s a writer, designer, and biotechnologist; she’s an architect and professor at the Yale School of Architecture. For VEAL, they worked with the composer Loren Dempster and the choreographer Silas Riener. (Their first dance collaboration, in 2010, was with Jonah Bokaer, who, like Riener, is a former member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.) Their sources here included Timothy Pachirat’s 2011 book Every Twelve Seconds, which exposes the inhumane inner workings of a Midwestern slaughterhouse, and the Greek myth of “The Flaying of Marsyas,” in which the satyr Marsyas challenges Apollo to a musical contest (reed pipes versus lyre), and Apollo, triumphing, skins his opponent alive.
Arriving at the dimly lit gallery, with its high ceilings and rugged wooden floorboards, we joined the herds of people clasping cards (white or black) that would tell us where to go, with lyrics, like these, inscribed on one side:
Efficiency effaces the animal
Productive monotony drowns the low
The chattel escapes the cow
We had a few minutes to examine the beautiful, peculiar instruments. Over by the entrance stood a kind of futuristic lyre, strings stretching vertically between rectangular frames, each adorned with what looked like a porcelain doughnut. On a screen covering the back wall, projections of those doughnuts (and related cellular shapes) cascaded toward the ground, digital avalanches evoking shattered teeth and bones. A herd of bulbous, bovine creatures occupied the center of the space, frozen but oddly animated, like livestock drained of life mid-feeding. Their hollow bodies, milky white shells perched on brittle legs, would aid in a bagpipe performance later on, a momentary reincarnation.
A conductor, standing on a raised platform and wearing, like some of the other performers, a black butcher’s apron, wordlessly signaled that the show was about to begin. Holders of black cards flocked to the back gallery, where we found three sinuous dancers (Cori Kresge, Rashaun Mitchell, and Riener) already in motion, disregarding our arrival as we surrounded them on three sides. Running urgently in winding pathways, hands hidden beneath their filmy beige smocks (designed by Trevor Ballin with Julia Donaldson), they struck me as ancient warriors in the midst of combat, though what they were fending off (or fleeing) I couldn’t tell. It proved more satisfying to stop rummaging around for a story and focus on the subtleties of the tense, viscous movement, as reckless as it was mechanical: a quivering leg supporting a perilously off-kilter torso, an impossibly deep lunge, a muscular arm reaching for something it couldn’t grasp, but trying nonetheless.
Strains of the musical performance out front—operatic voices, the plunking of the lyre, the drone of bagpipes—reached us periodically. A lighting fixture made from test tubes snaked across the ceiling, its neon glow matching the accents of lime-green fur on each dancer’s costume. When Riener, who had exited briefly and then returned, maneuvered himself into a plastic sling, hanging upside down like a carcass in the window of a butcher shop, that was our cue to leave.
We swapped places with the other half of the audience and spent the next half hour in the front gallery, fully immersed in Dempster’s rich, sonorous score. We saw that the voices, which we had heard from afar, belonged to countertenor Biraj Barkakaty and soprano Julie Haagenson, whom we trailed through the space as they sang of “manbuilt worlds” and “eukaryotic cell machinery” and “soap, leather, gut strings, surfactants” (though their words were hard to decipher without consulting our cards). We witnessed Riener’s brief exit from the other side now, as he stumbled in from the back room and balanced in front of the video projection on one leg, computerized debris falling through his body.
I wanted to feel that the pieces of this grand puzzle were slipping together in illuminating ways, clicking into place to reveal something larger than themselves, but they never did. Instead, I had the sense of peering in on a thoroughly researched, meticulously crafted world that wouldn’t let me in beyond its glassy, attractive surface, a world fenced off by its own kind of efficiency. (That haunting line, “efficiency effaces the animal,” replays itself in my mind.) Maybe the effect was intentional, a reflection of the systems that VEAL set out to question. But either way, it left me cold, searching for my companion in the crowd, craving the simple human interaction of walking with each other in the brisk night.
SIOBHAN BURKE is a writer and dancer based in Brooklyn. She contributes regularly to the New York Times and Dance Magazine.