Part performance art, part gallery exhibit, this 934 show purposely leaves viewers with more questions than it answers
It’s just after 7 p.m. on a Monday in mid-October and I’m standing inside 934 Gallery in Milo-Grogan, positioned on a white, circular pad set in front of a large sheeting of foil, the doorway to the room closed off with clear plastic sheeting.
On a table toward the front of the room rests what looks like an inverted bug zapper flanked on each side by large glass containers filled with clear fluid. Behind that table, a somewhat frenzied man in a white lab coat alternates between jotting notes on a clipboard, taking measurements and triggering various knobs and levers. Within the next few minutes, he’ll pick up a large foil net and begin swinging it around the room in wild motions, as though catching unseen butterflies. He’ll later inform me that he was actually catching my thoughts, most of which in that moment had to have been a more explicit version of the same question: What the heck is going on in here?
Upon entering the gallery, Gabe Michael Kenney, the frenzied “scientist” responsible for the entire surreal scene, asked me to take a number from a deli shop-style roller (I drew number 101). He then left me in a room dubbed “The Effect” and retreated to the lab (aka “The Event”), where he could be heard but not seen, the various banging sounds and muted utterances increasing my anticipation and, yes, unease.
The Effect and its neighboring room, The Investigation, Kenney said, are both meant for exploration, filled with diagrams and ephemera that offer clues as to the goings on, but which also deepen the mystery. Included in this is a camera, which, when peered into, reveals an image of Kenney tapping in to an alternate dimension, speaking with a ghostly version of himself that hovers upside-down above him.
Kenney has dubbed his show, which falls between performance art and gallery exhibition, “The Observation Effect,” its name taken from the theory that the mere observation of a phenomenon inevitably changes it in some way.
“The show isn’t one where you go, ‘I’m going to go and look at art and there it is,’” said Kenney, who will conduct an artist talk at 934 Gallery today, Oct. 17, beginning at 7 p.m., after which visitors will be able to take part in the experiment itself. “It’s like the participants become the materials, so the audience itself now acts as a paint color,” changing the experience for every other visitor.
“It’s generally about the power of the mind, time constructs and the power of patterns and the unspoken, unseen things in our world, the strange, the bizarre,” the artist continued. “Things like clairvoyance and the sixth sense, all those things about the human condition that spark wonder and massive curiosity.”
On opening night, Kenney was flanked by “employees” in hazmat suits, and he would randomly eject participants and scold guests for improperly effecting outcomes, heaping praise on others who registered “record high” readings, behaviors he described as “borderline sociopathic … but also playful.”
“A lot of it is make-believe, but there becomes a point where it does become real to the participants,” he said. “Some of it is comical, but then a lot of it gets really strange and mystical, in a sense, because a lot of the mystical stuff in life — metaphysics, quantum physics, all the weird, sacred shit — is asking [the question] where do science and spirituality collide?”
Kenney, who has no background in science (“I was a terrible student”) or theater (“I took an elective that was an intro to theater, but I’ve never acted formally in a play”), said his immersive performance art pieces are driven by a long-held curiosity, each one catapulting him closer to the answer he’s seeking while simultaneously obscuring it.
“When you look at all of my work as a massive body, I teeter on that edge of, ‘Welcome… but be careful, it’s scary in here,’ or, ‘C'mon, it’s fun… but a little bit frightening.’ Just that duality of life, the light and darkness,” he said. “And I would say [each event] pulls me deeper, like I’m in the water and looking for the bottom, but it just keeps going. This, out of all my shows, was more of what I would call tight, or in the pocket, like, ‘Ooh, this is snug. This is working.’ Usually I have a show and there’s just something that’s missing, and that’s usually what leads me into the next show, that question, ‘What am I missing?’ I think that’s the same for most artists. It’s why painters paint the same painting over and over again in different ways, because they’re searching for something, whether it’s a new perspective or that ‘a-ha!’ moment of discovery.”
Asked if he has a sense of what it is that he’s searching for in his work, Kenney replied without hesitation.
“I really don’t,” he said, and laughed. “I think that’s the cosmic joke: The transcendental object at the end of time isn’t there, but we think it is, or we do feel drawn to something. … But there’s curiosity here, and it still feels like there’s something to be discovered.”