HiChristina!: New York's Storefront for Creative Self Expression
By Justine Williams
I was given the address of a high-rise apartment building in midtown Manhattan and instructed to go to suite 18d. On arrival, the doorman ushered me to the elevator where I got in behind four strangers headed for the same location. I eavesdropped on their conversation: “Dude, what have you gotten us into?” I asked myself the same question.
Fritz, our host, greeted us at the door. He was just putting the finishing touches on his outfit for the evening: a tie, rumpled striped men’s shirt, suit jacket and pants, and a giant hunchback. He seated us around a table and asked us to introduce ourselves to the other guests. While we exchanged names and made awkward small talk, Christina, our second host for the evening, arrived. Dressed in a bright yellow blouse, a beaded cardigan, polka dot tie and sporting a mini-bouffant (which she referred to as her “do”), Christina started up some music on an iPod and then, disappeared into the kitchen to prepare an “exotic mystery snack”.
Fritz and Christina are the co-creators, curators and hosts of HiChristina!, a participatory performance experience that invites individuals to express themselves and to interact with one another through highly original, performance-driven, arts-based events. On any given night, HiChristina could take on many epic and amazing forms: writing a novel or comic book with a group of strangers in an hour, turning stories of trauma into a fun disco musical, a mysterious conditions support group, a themed pool party, or a variety show in which everyone presents something unique to them and brings a fruit starting with the letter “P”. For this evening’s event, we were going to participate in “The 2nd Annual Someone Else’s Office Xmas Party”.
For one evening, Suite 18d would become the headquarters of a fictitious company, J and J Industries, and we were its employees. Seated around a big table, we were instructed to pick a hat from out of a pile, one that expressed something about ourselves that we hadn’t been able to express lately. Cohort #1 chose a jazzy, be-bop era fedora that he reported helped him to “embrace improvisation” and to avoid being “too rigid”; Cohort #2 wore a giant Marie Antoinette wig fashioned out of lace and ribbon; Cohort #3 chose a leopard print fur hat; #4 donned a purple and black feather hat that made her feel like a “sexy muppet”; #5 wore an old-timey ear flap hat that was “reminiscent of childhood”; #6 wore what she called, “a fancy vampy film noir lady hat”; Fritz joined us wearing a utilitarian ski hat that made him feel “incognito”; Christina donned a tiny straw hat reminiscent of “a rural farm church choir ice cream social old lady”; and, I chose a ten-gallon cowboy hat that made me feel like George Bush. I decided that it represented the importance of embracing my inner asshole. And then, off we went on a strange office Christmas party performance adventure in which Fritz and Christina were our hosts and we were the performers/creators of a “show” that had yet to unfold.
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HiChristina was launched out of a storefront on Orchard Street in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Christina had been selling her clothing line out of the store and recalls thinking, “There are already plenty of clothing boutiques here but how many storefronts are there for self-expression?”. Fritz came to HiChristina with a background in film. Dubbed a “film guerilla auteur” by Black Book magazine, Fritz’s films have been featured on the Independent Film Channel and have won awards at small festivals.
While HiChristina is about group participation and interaction, the performances thrive off the chemistry between Fritz and Christina who are not just an artistic/producing team, but also a couple. Christina tells how they met, “Dancing. We were at a party in Bushwick, we were both wearing fishnets, we moved in together three days later.” Fritz elaborates, “Christina told me she was going to pee on the roof. I asked her if that was an invitation. Later we mooned some people on a lower floor together. She had to take off almost all her clothes to achieve this. I thought it was a good sign.” HiChristina’s events spring from their playful and eccentric back and forth. At times, Fritz and Christina conjure images of Desi and Lucy and other vintage comedy duos, but with more sweat, spandex and “bizarro” humor. Fritz is messy and a bit wild. I am not always 100% sure I am safe in his hands, but my curiosity bids me to find out where his mischief will lead. Christina is a gracious hostess, making participants feel at home, aestheticizing the event with paper crowns, nail polish or reams of tulle, and handing out towels if the evening turns wet or messy.
HiChristina’s events explore and exploit both the awkwardness and the beautiful playfulness in the desire for connection. Throughout the “performances,” a strange alchemy occurs as boundaries between performer and audience are erased and as participants find themselves in unusual scenarios where they are called upon to interact with strangers in ways that break social norms and that may lie just outside their comfort zones. In HiChristina, the audience does not just create a work of art, it becomes one. Christina reports, “the audience is the performance.” I was amazed by the openness of my fellow participants to fully engage in the unusual and whimsical scenarios Fritz and Christina put forth and in their readiness to take over the creative process. Even folks who were more reticent seemed to find a way to be involved. Christina observes, “The audience and the performers are constantly changing places and becoming one another. It’s possible to be a wall-flower, but there’s lots of ivy growing on the walls and the bees buzz by”.
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The transition from clothing boutique to HiChristina was an easy one. Christina reports,“[We] seemed to have been training for this all along. His background in film and performance and mine in theatre and fashion...It worked itself out!”. Christina asked Fritz what he would do with her storefront space. He replied, “I’d exercise in the store window…People would come in and pick an outfit for me, maybe there’d be duplicates, and they could exercise with me. Pairs of Constant Exercise.” Fritz guesses this first proposal may have been “too narrow to Christina but it had the right feeling.” According to the pair, they scribbled the specifics on the back of a paper bag and carried the bread (from the bag) in their hands. HiChristina was born.
Since the couple’s first participatory performance in Christina’s shop window, their events have included: a bike wash/body wash, potato peeling and toenail painting, strangers partner dancing with each other, learning about crustaceans from a scientist, sparkles, fake lectures, swapping clothes with a stranger, making crunching sounds, wearing bubble wrap wigs, inventing and playing life-sized games, a wedding, group Halloween costumes, predicting the future and spelunking an uncharted basement. Their shows have taken place in shop windows and gallery spaces, on rooftops, at the beach, in downtown theater spaces, on streets, in swimming pools and on the night I attended, up and down the carpeted hallways of a high-rise apartment building, into a stranger’s apartment, onto their balcony and finally, inside their bathroom.
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Back at the Office Xmas Party, after donning our strange hats, Fritz led us in a series of unusual games that included creating an opening ritual for the evening with kitchen utensils and splitting into two groups to create “people monsters” (one person is the mouth, two people operate the hands, one person speaks for the creature, and so on). We sent our two “people monsters” on a date. They made small talk around the table, ate hors d’oeuvres (enter Christina’s exotic mystery snack) and partner danced together. Then, stripping off his office attire and hunchback to reveal a shiny spandex leotard, Fritz announced the beginning of Phase Two.
The group, now comprised of about twelve people, followed Fritz out to the hallway for “sledding.” One by one, we climbed into an oversized plastic Tupperware container while the others, still wearing their iconic hats, crowded around and pushed the “sledder” up and down the hallway. Sliding along the carpeted hallways and around tight corners at top speed was thrilling. Occasionally, a head would poke out of an apartment door, flashing a look of amusement or disdain, only to disappear again. Our group took the sled up and down in the elevator. We whizzed along floors 19, 23, 24 and 25. During our excursion, we also discovered that each floor was equipped with security cameras, which led to an irritated phone call from the security desk downstairs. After everyone had taken a turn -- out of breath, sweating and giggling mischievously -- we packed up our “sled” and returned to the apartment.
Before re-entering, Fritz gave each of us a nametag, which he promptly taped to our foreheads. I recognized the familiar party game: Everyone in the group receives a card with a mystery identity written on it. Participants can see every nametag, except their own. The group is instructed to treat each participant according to the mystery identity written on their tag. Individuals try to guess who they are, slowly taking on the behavior of their new “identity” as they get closer to figuring it out. As we entered the apartment, everyone in the group began poking and tickling me and talking to me about computer operating systems. Knowing that we were all employees of the same obscure company, I began to guess – Am I the boss’s daughter? Am I a pregnant secretary? Am I a MacBook? A swirly font? A computer programmer? A “Tickle Me Elmo” doll? I was told that I was very close.
People chatted with one another, playfully hinting at the identities displayed on their “co-worker’s” foreheads. Christina grabbed a participant and transformed her into a beautiful tulle creature named “Rollie-Pollie” who became our magical tour guide through J and J Industries. She led us to the bathroom, which had been set up like some kind of imaginary file room for, according to Fritz, “washing documents.” Two brave participants were placed in the running shower and the others took turns soaping up their hands and handing their suds to one of the bathers who, in turn, washed the other bather’s face with the suds.
I finally discovered that I was a Ticklish Web Designer. Amongst my co-workers, there was a Private Detective, a Green Coffee Monster, the Head Honcho, an Alien Apprentice, an Angry Accountant, a Kooky File Clerk and an Elvis Impersonator. The “staff” then filed into the bathroom where a “Fiery Red-Headed Musician” perched herself on the sink and treated us to a soulful rendition of an original song accompanied by guitar. The unusual locale and the performer’s close proximity to her audience created an intimate atmosphere. The acoustics in the bathroom were fantastic. We then followed the Fiery Red-Headed Musician out into the hallway and Fritz shot a music video of one of her songs, starring us.
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Fritz and Christina like to describe HiChristina as “more of a ‘lifestyle, habit, obsession, need, a want to do something different and a love,’ than a single project”. Christina reports, “Many people perform for the first time in public at our shows, many others meet friends and lovers at our events.” The aesthetic is decidedly “DIY” -- tulle, duct tape, bubble wrap, cheap nail polish and spandex are staple items in their “performances.” In some ways, the aesthetic suggests a familiar kind of downtown American Apparel hipster chic, but their work is far more original and authentic than that. Their spontaneous, irreverent and slightly sloppy events celebrate the creative spirit and promote the purest form of play. HiChristina shakes up the humdrum, upsets the ordinary and challenges the “normal” ways that people are expected to act and interact with one another. For Fritz and Christina, these aims are naturally supported by an ample supply of glitter, shiny spandex, markers and body paint. Fritz comments, “We think it would be strange if we didn't wear sparkling spandex. Don't you?”
The pair has come to use HiChristina as a verb. Christina states, “Something as simple as a person playing a guitar on stage can be HiChristina’ed with wigs, backup dancers, sparkles, time-warp, and a human drum kit. It’s the spontaneity and the surprise, even for us, that keeps HiChristina vital and unique.” During the Office Xmas Party, three lucky participants donned identical sparkly spandex ice skating unitards. The trio led the group in a competitive interpretive dance-off underscored by text read from books pulled off of the shelves of the apartment (a First Aid Manual, a book on Tantric Sex, a travel book on Morocco and a Milan Kundera novel, for example).
These simple elements (unconventional spaces, found objects, sparkly costumes and shiny fabrics, re-tooled party games and the use of “particip-actors”) all come together to create a refreshing model for art-making, especially in a city where it can be expensive and logistically challenging to create and produce one’s art. HiChristina tickets are between 10 to 20 dollars. Participants come from all over – from the five boroughs of NYC, from out of town, from Europe and Japan. They hear about HiChristina through friends, from email lists or from blurbs in Time Out, the Village Voice or the NY Times. Fritz states, “They come for fun”.
Space is plentiful and art can be developed and presented with regularity when one does not need $5,000 a week to present one’s play in a conventional theater or when one is not beholden to a gallery to promote one’s work. Their approach to making art, which draws from elements of theater, performance art, dance, the local talent show and a “happening,” enables a great deal of flexibility and freedom, as well as opportunities for growth. Fritz and Christina can take risks, try new ideas, hone their project in the moment and build audiences as they progress. Fritz calls HiChristina, “a steady diet”.
Rather than the bulky methods of many conventional theater productions with their large budgets, staff and production costs (the “Titanic” model), HiChristina is more like a row-boat – nimble, responsive, transportable, able to change course easily and cheap. While Fritz and Christina have a general “map” for the evening and they do re-visit successful games and activities, each performance event is singular and unfolds organically. As soon as participants think they know what it is that they are a part of, the performance “changes course” or another strange element is introduced. HiChristina constantly subverts itself and the participants’ expectations as it develops.
Their approach also signals a shift away from the “professional” performer as the center of the performative event. While Fritz and Christina both perform and serve as curators or guides, the responsibility of crafting and enacting the event is also in the audience’s hands. In this way, HiChristina represents a populist and participatory approach to art -- two themes that hold a great deal of currency in dialogues about American governance, media and culture today. While I still like to attend professional theatrical productions in New York City and I hit the museums for a dose of high art, these artistic encounters can often feel rather thin and sometimes, remote. HiChristina fills an important niche in the art world and on New York City’s cultural landscape. Fritz observes, “There are fairs for making art, and participatory performance fairs, there are parties that feature things like body painting, there are installation dinners, and there are tea parties in the park, there are cities in the desert that are massive performance art projects. It’s a wonderful time! Performance art isn’t just pulling out your hair anymore. The difference between HiChristina and those things is that HiChristina is a way, an approach rather than a collection of conditions or a scenario.” HiChristina celebrates the idea that people have aesthetic lives and urges. They are looking for opportunities to connect through creative means and many of them are willing (and eager) to participate in the process. Does this approach allow too much freedom? Without “professional artists” to take on the art-making and performing, does the outcome become “amateurish”?
One participant reported that for their 20 bucks, they could have used some refreshments or snacks, especially because participants were there for 3 hours pushing people in plastic sleds up and down hallways and dancing in spandex. Others wanted the “production values” to be a bit higher – to feel like their hosts had taken greater care in planning and setting-up a unique and artful experience for the participants. During the evening, I worried about the owners of the apartment and what we had done to their bathroom. While the pair is not beholden to grantors, theater producers, gallerists or critics, they must answer to their audiences/participants.
The risk of going too far or being too bold is certainly built in to Fritz and Christina’s experiment. With real risk comes the possibility of failure. This potential for failure is perhaps one of the most compelling (and potentially disastrous) elements of HiChristina. At a HiChristina talent show, a woman attempted a belly dance/improvised modern dance routine to a dumbek drum. Unfortunately, her top repeatedly fell off as she danced causing much discomfort for her and her audience. Fritz and Christina are constantly trying out new games and scenarios (understandably, some are more successful than others). They are like two comedians trying out and honing their material, seeing what they can get away with, what “lands” and what misses. HiChristina walks a thin line between order and chaos, success and failure, structure and improvisation. How might they stay true to their playful, simple aesthetic and the wonderful feeling of spontaneity and pandemonium they promote, while crafting and honing a “satisfying” event for their audience? I fear that much of HiChristina’s spirit of whimsy may be lost in the “crafting”, but perhaps participant comments suggest that rather than reigning it in, the pair could actually go further as they continue to cast their unusual brand of performative magic.
While Fritz and Christina might attribute the success of each event to their audience of “particip-actors”, the success of HiChristina is also a testament to the talent of its hosts and to their infectious enthusiasm for what they do. Their performances are quirky and unusual, but they also feel inclusive. The duo always proceeds with integrity, humor and care for the participants who bravely add their talents to the evening’s event. HiChristina has amassed a substantial number of “devotees” and the first-timers in my group vowed to return again.
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The Office Xmas Party finally morphed into a dance party. Fritz turned out the lights in the apartment and Christina covered us in 50 feet of tulle. Everyone still wore their eccentric hats and paper crowns. One participant discovered that if he arranged the crowns in a little diorama, it looked like green grass and a blue sky. He quickly folded a purple crown into a kind of bird and a yellow crown into a bee and created a short one-minute “play” for his fellow revelers. Inspired by his proposal, a few people hopped through the dancing crowd pretending to be bunnies. Christina began to tidy up the apartment and to put away costumes. Fritz continued to press play on the iPod, negotiating with Christina for “just one more song”.
As the dancing petered out and participants put on jackets and scarves to brave the cold New York winter, our group felt strangely familiar, almost as if we were truly co-workers, friends or artistic collaborators. Fritz and Christina offered to lead the group downtown to a friend’s club for more dancing and revelry. Later, I asked Fritz and Christina if the idea of creating “community” was also one of their aims. Christina replied, “Yes! A community of fun-loving, joyous and brightly dressed friends who….”. Fritz finished her sentence, “create the culture you want to see.” And, “Fun,” he added. “We make sure there’s the highest chance of fun in the forecast.”
Photos courtesy of the artists. For more information, visit their website at http://www.hichristina.com
Justine Williams is a performer, writer and concerned citizen based in Brooklyn, NY. She founded and co-directs a theater company, The Glass Contraption
, through which she has performed in, developed and produced numerous original works of theater at local and international venues, such as The Public Theater, Ars Nova, the NY Clown Theatre Festival, The Kitchen, The Orchard Project, and the National Arts Festival in South Africa. The company has also designed and led numerous arts-based collaborations in partnership with diverse communities both locally and abroad. Justine leads a think tank/working group, Play Mountain, which gathers artists of all disciplines together to explore critical issues of art, place and community and the tensions and synergies between these elements. She received her BA in Theater Studies from Brown University and her MA in International Affairs from the New School. Through her theater-making, research and teaching, she has worked with theater companies and communities throughout the Balkans, South America, the Middle East, Africa and in each of the five boroughs of NYC.