The scene: Quinn Gomez-Heitzeberg and Astri Swendsrud, curators of the performance-art exhibition “God Will Not Have His Work Made Manifest by Cowards,” stand surrounded by a circle of several dozen art enthusiasts. Dressed in somber black attire, the pair holds between them a small framed chalkboard upon which is written the words “Extinguish the Candle, Unbuild the Fire, Clean the Slate.” A simple wooden holder shaped like a pyramid adorned with thin lighted candles sits at their feet. They ask the audience to recite the chalkboard mantra — it sounds like a ritual response in a church worship service — and they put out the candles. Then they “break” the triangle of the pyramid by separating the pieces of wood.
The setting: We’re in the big, sprawling, dilapidated interior of the Hatchery, former home to the Church of Synanon, the 1970s era drug-rehabilitation program that morphed into a cult. Located about 80 miles or so east of Fresno in the mountain town of Badger, near the entrance to Sequoia National Park, the compound is a weird and restless feeling space. Most of the windows are broken, ceiling insulation dangles precariously over our heads, walls and joints ominously sag, and about a third of the vast, airplane-hanger-sized space is structurally unsound and off-limits. (You have to sign a liability waiver before entering.) With the sun streaming in on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, the feeling isn’t so much ominous as unsettling. But I wouldn’t want to be there after dark. Knowing that this was the command center of a famous cult — and reading about some of the activities that took place here — you can’t help but sense the history.
The exhibition: Gomez-Heitzeberg (a veteran of Fresno’s Corridor 2122) and Swendsrud enlisted several Los Angeles-based artists to help them spend an afternoon at the Hatchery engaging “with ideas surrounding the actualization of utopian ideals.” With the rambling decay of the building as a backdrop, the audience follows a program of performance pieces from one to another, all the while avoiding broken glass and trying not to inhale asbestos. Some of the works drew specifically upon the site’s utopian/dystopian’s history. Like any program such as this, some of the pieces are compelling and others not so much. (Jason Kunke’s piece, presented as an art lecture about “object making after relational aesthetics,” for example, didn’t feel fully formed and seemed a wasted opportunity, missing the mark.) But taken together as a communal experience, there are some memorable moments.
A favorite: Los Angeles-based artist Anthony Bodlovic’s “talk dirty/live clean” piece draws upon the infamous Synanon practice of “attack therapy” called The Game, in which members were encouraged to confront each other about personality flaws and shortcomings. Bodlovic strips down and puts on a ritualistic white robe, then takes a seat in a circle of chairs set up in the actual room in which The Game took place. Clunky tape recorders sit on each of the other chairs, and when he turns them on, recorded voices berate him. This could have been an outsized performance — I can easily imagine it turning histrionic — but Bodlovic’s subdued reaction to the recorded verbal abuse draws the audience into what feels like an intense interior psychological space. This is actually the point in the day when the “ghosts” of Synanon seem at their peak. I find the whole thing creepy and moving.
Another highlight: Zach Kleyn, another L.A.-based artist (who grew up in Fresno) stuffs the audience into a small, dark room and unleashes a fun and vaguely unsettling experience titled “Train Up a Child in the Way He Should go”: We watch a home movie shot by his father of Kleyn as a boy. At one point the young Kleyn engaged in a goofy shuffle for the camera, and his grown-up version (and later other audience members) manipulate the footage frame by frame in what he calls a “digitial puppetry system” to make him “dance” to a selection of DJ’d music. Kleyn says the piece explores the correlations between parenting and totalitarian social formations, and the point is interesting: Did we all grow up in the cult of our parents?
Breaking the triangle: What really sticks with me afterward, as I drive the long and winding road down the mountain, is the opening piece. As Gomez-Heitzeberg and Swendsrud, pictured above, led us from room to room in their exercise of “cleaning the slate,” the earnestness of their mission — to wipe away the cloudy vibe of the setting and replace it with an elevated form of human interaction — felt clean and compelling. For an afternoon, at least, the optimism and audacity of art was almost addictive.
(Below: me and my merry band of Sunday afternoon art adventurers.)