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Insight: Commend See (RVNG Intl) & Phantom Experiences in NYC

Words by Živa Brglez

Commend, a small New York City record shop, gallery space, and the gravitational centre of the RVNG universe, launched the Commend See program a couple of years ago. For the founders, this programme “represents and reflects the way we [they] present and enjoy musical experiences and offerings at Commend”, said Commend co-workers Nina Bower Crooke and Jaclyn Miller. At Commend, they “started making these releases within the first year of being open, as a natural response to what was happening in the space”, the pair continued.

Commend See was thus conceptualised as an audio-visual series that would operate both as a collaborative platform and as exhibiting space. It would be a place where artists from different disciplines, musicians and visual artists/artisans could work together to produce and display the results.

Effectively, the project “pairs sound with object, document with art object, site-specific with ephemeral/transportable”, Bower Crooke and Miller described, the ephemeral being the display/performance and the transportable being the means of distribution. Indeed, each project results also in an artist’s edition of vinyl and a finite number of cassettes.

Each See release is multi-faceted, artful, and intricate, with its own unique world and language. So the challenge is presenting the work within the constraints of the series and still telling the story, explained Bower Crooke and Miller.

To this date, Commend’s space in Manhattan’s Lower East Side hosted four editions of Commend See. The first was in 2016 when they paired Ramzi and Jessica Hans. In the same year, Lena Willikens and Sarah Szczesny presented one of the first versions of their performance Phantom Kino Ballet.

It was a very intimate and special work experience, and we felt connected to its interdisciplinary and collaborative nature”, Bower Crooke and Miller recounted. Consequently, the project was picked for the fourth Commend See release (out t last September). This time, they made an exception since it did result in not one but 15 vinyl pieces – and also in 300 cassettes that capture two alternate takes of the soundtrack.

In this edition of Commend See, Lena Willikens represents sound, and Sarah Szczesny represents the object. For the DJ and the visual artist, this is their second collaboration. After Phantom Delia in 2015, they created another phantom – Phantom Kino Ballet.

They conceptualised it as a mixture of theatre and club, as an aesthetically-charged experience, like a hallucination, which is always on the move, transforming the perceptions of sound and surroundings. They call it an audio-visual drama, an assemblage of performance, installation, soundtrack and video.

The performance itself is a mixture of sonic and optical distribution. The video collages from film scenes and interviews “dance with kinetically captured, painted, woven, and other manipulated surfaces”. Performers are dressed in puppet costumes with phantoms on their backs, which with the use of smoke machines and strobe, made them appear to be moving through space – and guiding the audience through the experience.

Furthermore, the experience composes of a lot of intentional misunderstanding and fragmentary occurrences that make the performance hard to read or explain rationally – It evades it completely. Phantom Kino Ballet is, firstly and foremost, an experience and should also be interpreted as such – in a sensual, not rational, manner.

On the other hand, and more importantly, the Commend See project has a social angle, as the proceeds of the releases are donated to charity organisations. For this one, all proceeds will be donated to agisra e.V., a non-profit organization advocating on behalf of migrant women and against sexual and racist violence (agisra is based in Cologne, Germany, which was chosen by Lena and Sarah).

(Pictures courtesy of RVNG Intl)
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