Stumbling Upon Pop-up Performance Art

A guerilla art movement positions itself outside of the mainstream art world in the form of the Uncanny Valley Night Market.


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Illustration by Minwoo Park

The invitation landed in my inbox without context. It said the date and time of the event, and warned me that it was a “confidential event in a public place.” I was only to share the invitation with trusted friends and conspirators, and was advised in very serious all-caps not to publish it on blogs or social networking channels. The Uncanny Valley Night Market did not work that way.

Being the junkie for secrets that I am, I eagerly confirmed my interest through a form, and on the morning of the event, I was sent an address and a time: 9 p.m. in a desolate parking lot, nestled between railroad tracks and an old warehouse complex way out past the Coliseum.

The 200 or so people milling about were a dead giveaway I’d arrived in the right place, but everything else at the Night Market had the perfect urban camouflage: box trucks.

The loads these particular trucks carried were a range of oddball interactive experiences created by local artists in the burgeoning field of experience design. Box trucks are cheap and accessible instant performance spaces that anyone can rent. They are able to quickly and easily congregate (and disappear from) anywhere. The Lost Horizon Night Market made a big splash in the underground art world when I first went in 2013, and though I eagerly awaited the next one, the marketing is strictly word of mouth, and I wasn’t cool enough to know the right people.

The first thing my partner Julie and I did upon arriving was get a job. Nothing is free in life, after all, and I didn’t want anyone thinking I was a simple loafer. Julie and I filled out the application, and upon getting to the front of a very short line, a stern, pretty Millennial asked me a series of important questions about my strengths and weaknesses. She soon homed in on my key skills, and pinned a cardboard walkie-talkie to me, telling me I was in charge of keeping all the installations stocked with paper clips. Julie did not get a job offer.

We put our name on a waiting list for the choose-your-own-adventure shadow play truck and headed over to a large wooden shipping crate with a big sign enthusiastically advertising “Get Punched in the Face by a Child.” Sure enough, there was an extremely pissed-off looking 10-year-old idly rubbing his one boxing glove while his father put a debilitating cast on somebody who opted not to be punched in the face for some reason. There was no waiting list.

I hunched down and clearly stated my intention with the child, and he wasted no time in putting all his 60 pounds into a mean right hook to the side of my head. I think he was aiming for my jaw. As I felt my brain bounce off the inside of my skull, I realized why I had decided to major in Soft Office Guy Stuff in college: Getting punched hurts.

The booth reminded me of the “Get Your Ass Kicked” truck of 2013, where a carnie with a baseball bat shouted at people to come and get it, because they deserved it. One by one they entered through the curtain while cartoonish slaps, thuds, and bloodcurdling screams emanated through the walls. Inside was a crack team of makeup artists, who in two minutes flat, gave you black eyes, bruises, cuts, and bloody lips, on the condition that you act the part when you stumbled out. At one point, a baby came out looking like a Walking Dead extra.

That year, the Lost Horizon Night Market happened down by the railroad tracks north of Jack London Square. Among other things, it featured a fully functioning bowling alley, movie theater, room full of actual puppies, and a bar with a fireplace whose only function was to receive the shot glass you hurled into it after draining the rotgut whiskey the proprietors filled it with. The police lingered a block away, but didn’t shut it down because no one seemed to be selling anything or blocking traffic. The only flier anyone was handing out was to raise awareness for the debilitating FOMO condition (Fear of Missing Out).

The Night Market format started in New York in 2011 when organizer Mark Krawczuk set up a free, pop-up noodle truck outside the doors of a Burning Man Decompression party. From there, he expanded the concept into the Lost Horizon Night Market. Soon other artists were bringing trucks filled with all kinds of experiences to the dark, quiet industrial corners of New York and other cities across the country—along with thousands of people, a fate the Uncanny Valley Night Market organizer Tess Aquarium was keen to avoid.

“I wanted to do it differently. I didn’t want it to be a big party,” Aquarium said. “I knew that if I tapped into the pre-existing community, I’d have 30 truck proprietors, 2,000 people. I said, ‘OK, how can I look at groups that are similar to the Lost Horizon Night Market but don’t overlap? How can I bridge that gap?’ ”

Aquarium focused on the community aspect, challenging artists from the previous night market to invite people from “adjacent” communities, as she calls them, people with whom the artists hang out but don’t necessarily do public art.

The most recent night market only had a couple hundred people and was a bit more subdued, aside from the violent children. After watching people play human-sized pinball under disco lights and an electronic scoreboard, we visited the Stellar Displacement truck, a project made by the Living Room Collective. After a guide took us along a winding “trail” around some loading docks, we climbed through a veil in the partially opened door of the truck and were greeted by the scent of pine and cedar. Tree branches, thick with leaves, hung from the walls while we each chose a place on the freshly laid grass. We listened to the sounds of crickets and distant coyotes as a hidden planetarium projector shined a vast Milky Way onto the black canvas sky above us.

We were instructed to just silently gaze at the stars and enjoy the night. It was a literal interpretation of the concept of the Uncanny Valley—the name for the phenomenon of experiencing a simulation so real that it gives you an uneasy feeling.

Albert Kong of the Living Room Collective sees this all as a part of a greater guerilla art movement that positions itself outside of the mainstream art world. “The general attitude, because a lot of this stuff is happening in an ambiguous legal context and is less public, is it’s less about the ego. It’s happening outside of institutions, galleries ... there’s no money, minimal recognition, and no prestige. It allows for more people to engage without worrying about whether it’ll be received well.”

Much of these artists’ work focuses on getting people to reset the rules of how they interact with cities and each other, from leading 24-hour group Wanderers Union walks across entire cities along a meandering series of checkpoints, to getting people to hang out in a fully functioning living room in the middle of Frank Ogawa Plaza. Engaging with the urban environment in a new way helps people better understand the world around them.

Tess Aquarium also said the goal, with her version of this project anyway, will be to bring in more diverse perspectives. “Diversity doesn’t happen on its own. Fortunately, it’s inexpensive. Renting a truck costs $80, and that, to me, is super accessible. You don’t have to have an art degree. You don’t have to know a curator. You don’t need to have any privilege, other than to know the event is happening.”

For the next Night Market, she hopes to get some funding to offer small grants and mentorship to other adjacent communities and activist groups and see what they can fit in a box truck. The city belongs to everyone, after all, and there are plenty of interesting ideas a lot of us are missing out on because we don’t have the right connection or a fun forum in which to get exposed to them. Still, it’s a tricky task, being clandestine and relying on a personal network of like-minded individuals willing to keep your secret, while intentionally inviting groups that do completely different things in different ways. Each Night Market is bound to be different.

If you’re ever driving through a particularly desolate stretch of industrial wasteland, though, far from the center of the city and happen to see a large number of box trucks gathered for no apparent reason, you might want to stick around till after dark, because one of them might have a wondrous experience waiting for you. Or at least a kid waiting to kick your ass.

Published online on Sept. 28, 2016 at 8:00 a.m.

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