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Kitchen Memories: Smoking in the Stairwell

By Neal Medlyn

Mar 30, 2020

Please visit The Kitchen OnScreen to read this post along with other texts published in Kitchen Magazine.

“Kitchen Memories” is a new series of first-hand reflections on past programming. Spotlighting a diverse range of perspectives from our community—including those of current and former staff members and artists—these posts reveal the ways that The Kitchen’s events, performances, and exhibitions inform these individuals’ work and thinking. 

This Kitchen Memories post is written by Neal Medlyn, Box Office Manager.

I came across Chantal Akerman’s work when I first moved to New York City in August 2001. My future wife, a native New Yorker, told me about News From Home (1977), a film made up of long static or panning shots of the city—mostly empty platforms, mundane East Village corners, and the like. I had begun doing solo performance work only about a year before, and by the time I did my first city performance at P.S. 122 on September 10, 2001, performance had taken over my life.

At first, I had done weird little performances for friends in my living room in rural East Texas. Then I started writing semi-idiotic plans for performances in a little notebook I carried around with me. I wanted to do things like set cows free at night and/or jump off of buildings. I think I initially wanted to create some sort of excitement out of nothing. I didn’t have many friends, had never been to art school, and was living in a little apartment with my friend Michelle and her son. I just thought I’d very much like to shake things up a bit for myself and others.

Neal Notebooks Composite Resized

After a while I actually began doing some of these performances in public, although the cows of East Texas stayed safely in their pens and fields. I would rent a hotel room at a local Motel 6 and advertise in the paper an elaborate performance workshop called “Feeling & Finding the Neal Medlyn Way.” I announced a performance art campout in a local park gazebo, only to have people arrive and find me “dead,” with a cassette playing my requests for them to do a series of activities together. I was young then, you guys.

Somehow doing this kind of thing became my life’s work: making performances. From Texas, I moved to Berlin, set off some fireworks indoors, ran out of money, and then eventually moved to New York and walked over to Kim’s Video on St. Marks Place and rented News From Home.

In it, the voiceover is letters from Akerman’s mother. We never hear the artist’s responses. We just see the long, slow pans. The empty shots of platforms. It was my favorite movie. It somehow seemed to be made for me—recently arrived here, utterly in love with New York.

I watched other films of hers. I just loved her implied presence, the sense she was just hanging around, not needing to comment, just there. Her work is very beautiful and has a sort of quiet, lonely, slow madness to it.

Then when she had her show at The Kitchen, Maniac Shadows (April 12–May 11, 2013), she literally was suddenly just around in my life. I had been working in the box office at The Kitchen for six years at the time. At first, it was just a few shifts here and there as a house manager, a way to make some extra money that my friend Adrienne Truscott hooked me up with. Later, when my life as a dancer in work by Adrienne and David Neumann and my occasional sound design work with Miguel Gutierrez petered out, I became part-time as the box office manager.  Most people who work at The Kitchen work upstairs, so the ground floor can be empty for long stretches of time. Sometimes, based on show schedules, I open or close the building, going around turning on (or off) breakers and opening doors. 

During Maniac Shadows, I was making a show about Pina Bausch and doing some of the writing while at The Kitchen during slow times. This is what I wrote:

Chantal Akerman had a show at The Kitchen and she hung around the space a lot. I would be going up the stairs and just find her on a landing. She’d go in the elevator and then disappear somewhere into the building for a long period. She was forever smoking cigarettes secretly in various hidden places around The Kitchen. The whole building smelled of smoke. I really love Chantal Akerman.*

 D853009 Credit Ian Douglas Edited

It didn’t necessarily make sense that I loved her work so much, or maybe I should say that I was haunted by her work so much. All my work is usually pretty messy and loud. As a performer I’ve always wanted to feel the kind of out-of-body ecstasy I’d see in my Pentecostal church three times a week when I was a kid. I wanted to make massive, unwieldy work that relied on presence. But I like to think there’s a lot of the same kind of internal asperity and meticulousness and rigor in my work as there is in Chantal Akerman’s. Or maybe it’s safer to say I admire those things about her.

I’m not sure why she kept finding new corners in the building to smoke in. I never asked. I’m pretty sure she wasn’t supposed to smoke in there. I only came upon her actually smoking once. On a landing between floors. We said “Oh hey” to each other. I loved that month or so that she was there. It was nice knowing she was there, the way she was there in her films when I first came here. It was a special time for me at The Kitchen.

* Excerpt from the text used as a scrolling backdrop to Neal Medlyn’s I <3 PINA, commissioned by Kampnagel in Hamburg, Germany for Dance Future II Fokus Pina Bausch, January 2017 and subsequently presented by American Realness in New York City, January 2018.

Neal Medlyn is an artist whose work straddles the lines between theater, performance art, comedy, and music. His most well-known works are his seven show Pop Star Series and Champagne Jerry, the subsequent iteration of his work with popular music. He has been gainfully employed at The Kitchen since 2007.

Images and Videos: 1) Drawing by Neal Medlyn, date unknown. Courtesy of the artist. 2) Flyers by Neal Medlyn, 2000. Courtesy of the artist. 3) Neal Medlyn, I <3 PINA, 2018. Performance view, American Realness festival. © Ian Douglas. Courtesy of the artist. 4) Neal Medlyn, I <3 PINA, 2018. Performance view, American Realness festival. Courtesy of the artist.

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