Employees of Vice Media gathered in the atrium of their Williamsburg office on Tuesday afternoon and pointed their phone-cameras out the front door as a group stood on the sidewalk chanting, “Out, demons, out.” Led by jazz-pranksters Talibam!, a group of almost three dozen followed the procedures of the exorcism, overseen by keyboardist Matt Mottel. “Out, demons, out,” the assembled continued to chant, as the snow fell harder and faster. Small children beat on drums, and noise came from an electric guitar, a harmonica, and hand percussion. A man in a ski mask and blue crash helmet (topped with a cone of insulation foam) pierced the din by fairly expertly playing a balloon. The noise, in turn, triggered a car alarm, which bleated and flashed in sympathy with the oppressed. Almost everyone on both sides of the glass seemed to be documenting the event.
The stated goal of Talibam! Public Assembly #1, at least going by programs distributed by drummer Kevin Shea, was the Levitation of Vice Media into the East River. “Spirits of the Displaced and dormant creative energies underneath the foundation of Vice Media’s HQ will be unleashed, once the building levitates into the East River & a creative re-flowering of the Williamsburg Waterfront Communities will generate,” they’d announced. Tough orders, all around, but why not?
Inspired by The Fugs’ 1967 levitation of the Pentagon (though The Fugs had only intended to rotate it) and putting the word out through various social networks, the musicians in Talibam! managed to gather some 30 people to stand in the wind and snow on a truly unpleasant weekday afternoon in March. It was hard to tell what other miracles they might be able to manifest.
While Vice Media have been residents of Williamsburg since 2001, the company’s recent acquisition of a building complex on Kent Ave. and South 2nd St. caused a stir after its tenants, beloved low-key rock clubs Death by Audio and Glasslands, closed their doors last year. Never mind that the landlords would’ve sold out sooner or later anyway, and the buyer just happened to be Vice (or that Vice itself is being forced out for a 12-story retail/office building), Death by Audio was a classic loft-style live/work space for musicians, and Glasslands had its roots in the same. It’s not hard to read Vice’s impending move to South 2nd St. as the latest symbol of absurd gentrification. Down the block from Vice HQ, a new eight-story (and counting) apartment building rises where a former industrial space recently housed band practice spaces. With the gaudy lights of the Wythe Hotel and Brooklyn Bowl blinking over the north side, Vice now leads the charge towards Williamsburg’s south. If Williamsburg is going to remain a stand-in for global gentrification trends, then the ever-promotable Talibam! (with their own delightful brand) thought it best to fight symbolism with ridiculousness.
The group makes three efforts at levitation, repeating an exorcism written by The Fugs’ Ed Sanders in 1967, and there are those among the assembled who quickly claim that they see the building jerk slightly into the air during the final round of chanting. It is almost unquestionable, however, that Talibam! Public Assembly #1 levitated a good number of the Vice employees on the other side of the glass, sending them back to their desks or cubicles or standing work-stations or gravity-boot terrariums just a little bit higher than they were before.
“We can’t just accept this and move on,” says Matt Mottel, standing in front of his brightly painted van. “Artists have been in isolation for too long and they need to have a cultural and political response to the situations they find themselves, rather than meet them with antipathy and say, ‘Whoa, bummed.'” A onetime Vice deliveryman, Mottel keeps tabs on parallel exorcisms at Vice HQs in Berlin and Los Angeles. Not so much a demand as a suggestion, Mottel would like to see Vice donate some of its new space and money to community arts, pointing out their $6.5 million tax break. Inspired by a recent screening of William Greeves’ 1968 film Symbiopsychotaxiplasm, Mottel began pondering the notion of “participatory engagement without strictly defined leadership.” Coming back to the Fugs (who, like Talibam!, recorded for ESP-Disk), Mottel landed on the idea of the exorcism, itself drawing on the semi-anonymous mid-’60s street theater of the San Francisco Diggers, progenitors of a counterculture that seems like the Lower Jurassic in these days of the swelling Vice empire.
Judging by structural damage, the levitation is a failure, Mottel allows, but as an art event, it worked wonderfully, yielding them weirdos they’d never met before — like the dude with the French accent in the insulation-cone helmet and ski mask who, during the exorcism, produces a sequence of unlikely objects from a backpack-suitcase labeled “Debris Bouquet,” including one that resembled a marionette-dreamcatcher made from a small coyote skull. There’s an older couple, seemingly of the old lefty persuasion, who make Woody Guthrie jokes when Mottel places a broken guitar in the Triangle of Truth (“this guitar killed gentrifiers!” one cackles) and give Mottel guff when the lyrics to his “Offertory Song” don’t rhyme. A woman trades email addresses with Mottel and promises to bring a troupe of circus performers to future events, which Talibam! hope to hold.
The helmet-cone guy with the French accent (who also wears a necklace of gently jangling silverware) presses his face against the glass of Vice HQ, peering inside. Finally, he opens the door and goes for it, walking up to the front desk. It is the only time since the exorcism began that anyone from one side of the glass has directly interacted with someone from the other. He comes back out, looking dejected even under the ski mask and helmet. “I do not understand,” he says, “how they have so many people in there yet they do not have a bathroom?”