Tree of Codes and the Park Avenue Armory

By Paul Jeng

The first exhibit I attended at the Park Avenue Armory was in the spring of 2012, Tom Sachs’s SPACE PROGRAM: MARS, an expansive, irreverent rendition of an imaginary expedition to Mars. From the beginning it was clear that the exhibit was designed with active audience engagement in mind. Visitors at the entrance were directed by a hand scripted sign to view a series of short, PBS-style video lessons on the rules of the Mars enterprise before entering the main floor to observe reproductions of a Mars Rover, mission control station, Lunar lander, and others. The large installation pieces–crafted by sculptor Tom Sachs from modest materials such as plywood, duct tape, foam tubes, and exposed bolts–were deliberate in their oxymoronic simplicity, as if the blueprints to impossibly complicated technologies were stolen from the belly of a NASA engineering laboratory and fed to a local Home Depot instead.

"Audience members walking to their seats before Tree of Codes". Photo credit: Paul Jeng
“Audience members walking to their seats before Tree of Codes”. Photo credit: Paul Jeng

At face value, the concept behind crudely reproducing sophisticated machines seemed only to offer trivial amusement, yet I found the painstaking craftsmanship and earnest appreciation for space exploration underpinning the exhibit to be very affecting. However, to me the success of the show was rooted in its contextualization within the exhibit space itself, a 55,000 square-foot former drill hall with a soaring, barrel-vaulted roof girdled by arched iron supports. The massive hall, one of the largest unobstructed spaces of its kind in New York City, was only dimly lit above the ground level, creating the sensation of actually hovering within the abyss of space. The whole experience felt good-naturedly absurd, encouraging the viewer to delight in the cognitive dissonance of challenging an infinite void with flimsy wooden ships. As a relatively new consumer of installation art at the time, I was amazed by the power that a venue could exert over the visitor’s relationship with its art. In SPACE PROGRAM: MARS, Tom Sachs wanted to explore contrasts–exotic machines made from household materials, bright colors under dark skies, feelings of simultaneous awe and amusement–and the Armory itself was central to the impact of his message.

The Park Avenue Armory was originally constructed in 1880 to serve as the headquarters for the 7th New York Militia Regiment. The building, a national historic landmark since 1986, occupies the entire Park Avenue block between 67th and 68th streets, intersecting the otherwise homogeneous rows of gray apartment buildings with its distinctive red brick and Gothic revival-style towers. As stewards of the building since 2006, the non-profit Park Avenue Armory Conservancy has sought to showcase “unconventional work that cannot be mounted in traditional performance halls and museums.” In that respect it has been remarkably successful, playing host to an extensive variety of shows during the tenures of artistic directors Kristy Edmunds (2009-2013) and Alex Poots (2012-2015), including lecture-series, Shakespeare, and immersive audio/visual musical performances.

Since 2012 I’ve attended several more of these uniquely curated programs at the armory, all of which felt as if they naturally gestated within and sprouted out of the walls themselves. In Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s The Murder of Crows, a room full of speakers projected an auditory installation which utilized the echoing cavern of the armory to create haunting, shifting soundscapes. Anne Hamilton’s The Event of a Thread saw an enormous, silk white sheet hung on the rafters of the Armory’s halls, billowing at the will of audience members who controlled its movements with large wooden swings. Even the relatively guileless annual Art Show by the Art Dealers Association of America, a modular exposition of art hung in cubicle-like booths, felt infused with an air of grandeur under the brooding Armory ceiling.

On September 7th I visited the Armory again for the opening night of Tree of Codes, a contemporary dance collaboration between choreographer Wayne McGregor, visual artist Olafur Eliasson, and producer/composer Jamie xx. Probably like much of the younger audience demographic, I was drawn to the show as a fan of Jamie xx. He is a member of the well-known indie rock band The xx and an accomplished solo musician in his own right. He just released his critically-acclaimed debut solo-album In Colour earlier this year. I have had very limited experience watching live professional dance, so my expectations of the show were informed primarily by my love for Jamie xx’s music—textured, pulsating dance anthems spun out of equal parts melancholy and joy.

The show derived its name and thematic premise from a hybrid book and sculptural artwork by Jonathan Safran Foer. He systematically excised words from the pages of The Streets of Crocodiles by Polish writer Bruno Schulz (the title Tree of Codes is itself merely the original Schulz title with 11 letters cut out). The work compels a visceral feeling of rhythmic disorientation, forcing the reader’s attention on both content and negative space. This theme was apparent upon entering the show, where a stage, exposed on all sides, was filled initially only with shifting colored lights, through which audience members walked past in order to reach their high rise seats at the opposite side.

As Jamie xx’s beats began to churn, the hall fell into darkness and one by one human shapes began to twirl on stage in black costumes dotted with white lights. After a few minutes of dim contortion by the dancers, the stage exploded with a roar of color and sound, exposing a brightly lit mirror which served to double the dancers’ numbers throughout the show. The stage was a dynamic element throughout the performance, parading out colored neon lights, half-circle mirrored doors, and glass cages in dazzling succession. In one scene, a partially transparent, reflective sheet was lowered in the middle of the stage between two rows of dancers and a large rear mirror, creating the illusion of infinite columns of bodies.

The dancers in the show were composed of members from the Paris Opera Ballet and as well as McGregor’s own Company Wayne McGregor, and all (to my untrained eye) seemed technically flawless with their hypnotic, impossible movements. At several points it seemed as if my attention was purposely being drawn away from the central action. In one section, rotating lights appeared from within the stage and cast the dancers into giant shadow puppets on the side armory walls. At another point, a spotlight began panning through the seats and singling out audience members, as if to remind the crowd of our role in the performance. With all of the different elements at play and no core storyline, it felt at times like the collaborators were at odds with each other. Were the visuals showcasing the dancers, were the dancers’ props for the stage design, or were we all just players in an elaborate music video? The entire performance was riveting, so perhaps it didn’t matter.

In an interview with The Creator’s Project, Olafur Eliasson described Tree of Codes as a “reversal of normal theater”, where the audience is not “here to consume, passively,” but is instead a part of the broader “relationship between the dancers, the audience, the stage…the music.” I left the show that night feeling that Tree of Codes could not have found a better home for its week-long run than at the Park Avenue Armory.