Hi. Hello. How are you? I’m fascinated by shopping malls. The sounds, the smells, the decor, the people wandering around. Growing up in Northeastern Pennsylvania (NEPA), I would spend my Friday and Saturday nights wandering around the Stroud Mall. Now, fifteen years removed from my high school age, I’m still drawn to malls. Not necessarily blowing my paycheck on items, but just by wandering around, seeing how malls function, how they can function, and how a Spencer’s Gifts is still hanging on. The time you spilled your moo goo gai pan from Panda Express in the food court on your brand new Skechers The time you spent your month’s allowance trying to beat the high score on Marvel vs. Capcon at the arcade The time you were stood up to go see Blue Crush The time you spent wandering Waiting Loitering Trying to find yourself Listening to “Lose Yourself” You shouldn’t wear your skinny jeans any more No more side parts Don’t want to appear old Baggy, straight fit jeans are in style Did you hear Jnco jeans are coming back? The same song plays over and over again, you are able to recite the chorus of the American Top 40 Hit. You know you’ve been there before, even if you’ve never been there before. Flashes of neon, sharp lines, fake palm trees soothe your soul. Makes you dream of another time. A time before today. But is this nostalgia a trap A marketing scheme Has it always been a scheme We ask ourselves why we’ve bought those items. These have been the old dances. The ways in which we operated. The ways we were told to do. The ways that felt comfortable. The ways that brought us joy. The ways we look back on and say, “those were the day”. The ways we look back on and say, “yikes, how did I let that happen, why did that happen” But We are adapting to the new dances. The new ways. Six feet a part. A non-stop game of distance, space, and precautions. We’ve adapted before. We can adapt again. We see alternative ways of spending income, online shopping, local boutiques. Retailers trying new tactics to lure you in. Deals Deals Deals. Experiential design, tied to your social media, trying to bank on Influencers followers. Downloading an app that connects you to their instagram, that connects you to their mailing list, that connects you to their promotion list, that saves you 5% on your next purchase. But you’ve never new Purple could look even more purple, and that it’s your perfect color, and that you need to get everything in purple. This is a project that lives in between the dances of yesterday and today. A project that wrestles with the American Mall. Ponders where it was, where it is, and where it could go and how we occupy public space with each other.
“How do you say ‘pretzel’ with a German accent?” — Steven A. Wright, Mallbodies actor, performing Victor Gruen, 2021 “Let me just put on a different hat real quick here” — Jennifer James, Congregation Rodeph Shalom Director of Youth Education, leading youth Purim festivities on Zoom, 2021 “A mode of extension and the idea of that mode are one and the same thing, but expressed in two ways.” (2p7s) — Baruch Spinoza, 17th century philosopher, and tragically, a misogynist (ofc) i had the pleasure of joining this project as a dramaturg back when it was titled “the american dream” and meant to take place in response to and within the american dream mall in bergen, nj. back when performances were still being imagined with live in-person tour guides and performers. this was before many further iterations of this project would be conceived, before mike and i wrote the new script in tandem, editing one another’s edits. in co-authoring the work, i lost the distance and perspective of a dramaturg, and instead became a co-creator. before the creation of the new script, we brought dylan onto the project to co-create with us on all things voice, sound, music, web design, and concept. there was a point in time when the narrative of this project might have revolved around/inside a nightmare being experienced by victor gruen, the multi-hyphenate father of the american mall, architect, theater performer and designer, and third reich escapee jew. the nightmare would have been set to take place around 195X and would have been about the then impossible unknowable future of corporatism, hyper-capitalism, consumer-retail-fealty, and the tragedy of the monopolistic e-giants. of course, gruen was already very much familiar with the other more timeless systems of oppression still extant today: inhumane factory work and conditions, ghettoism and segregation, racial violence, and the war on the poor. also, to clarify - and tragically - there was never actually a point in time when this project might have been a nightmare had by gruen, it was just a thought i had had; one which i could never quite justify. but to be clear, the modern mall is — if nothing else — a gruenian nightmare. in an early creative meeting, we did tool around briefly with the possibility that we could combine form and function of the mallbodies experience (by ‘experience’ i mean: an audience member live at the mall using headphones to listen to a pre-recorded performance) and purport to the audience that the “live” experience they are beholding and locomoting in, is instead actually an instance of virtual reality, one in which they are ‘playing.’ we imagined that, literally, the pre-recorded-performer-voice would tell the audience member that they ‘are wearing goggles and are embodying a gruen-avatar walking around a 21st century mall’, with his thoughts playing in the user’s head via the headphones. we couldn’t quite justify that either. for mallbodies to work, one must be very much present. we couldn’t have addressed the american mall’s rise and fall as a multi-coded semiotically potent signifier of the overwhelming socio-political and socio-economic upheaval and subjugation in our nation (and world at large) in this moment without implicating gruen. with the strong work ethic of a young jewish austrian survivor running from a continent on fire to the economic mecca of the world, he found a nation that was actually quite isolating and socially distanced, well before 2020, in blatant contrast to the communities in his viennese experience. somehow he found his artistic kin in nyc, and in keeping a promise to his ‘political cabaret’ group in vienna, and with a wealth of experience from four years of activist performing, he made a splash on broadway with ‘the viennese refugee artists group’ but quickly gained success in architecture and commercial design in new york city, stealing him away from the theatre. this work would lead him to larger commercial architecture endeavors in california which, newly armed with the perspective provided him in his travels across the continental u.s., would lead gruen to imagineeer the american mall as a necessary communal space. he grieved the loss of neighborly community found in europe and hoped he could correct course for american suburbia. of course, coming from the theatre with a background in performance and design, gruen was well equipped to tantalizingly translate the flashy and pathos-ridden theatrical relationships of audience-and-performer to the commercial world that we exist within now. everything from social-media influence to contemporary advertising and experience design might very well be (although somewhat narrow-mindedly) reducible to the entertainment influences of this single political protest performer turned retail-set-designer in the heyday of america’s baby boom. his aesthetic and socio-commercialist philosophy became all-consuming in american civil engineering and city planning. all because he understood that america required a gathering place. he simply failed to realize the central tenet of american development and progress: our abilities to live is, was, and always will be at the expense of the consumer industrial complex. eg. as i write this, developed nations the world over are subsidizing their workers’ incomes while their citizenry stay home and work partially, remotely, or not at all, to best ensure a successful rebuff of covid-19, while the united states surpasses 500,000 covid-19 deaths, all in the name of ‘economy’ and better yet, ‘state sovereignty.’ like most of us, gruen regrets his creation of the mall. nonetheless it prevails. for now. i’m overly grateful for steven a wright’s work on mallbodies in bending time and space to allow victor gruen’s existence to continue and be acted upon and extended in terms both real and imagined, in an impossible confluence of american/midrashic proportions. and my overwhelming appreciation to vanessa ogbuehi and courtney cooke for making the work come alive, and for making it thrill and hurt the listener more than i thought it might. to dylan for breathing life into through sound and image into a muddy idea of the world that mike and i could only write about. and to mike for constantly continuing and renegotiating the work of his own imaginings and curiosities, and more significantly, for finding their intersections with the world at large and the needs of its people, and more significantly, for not stopping; and then more thanks in choosing to involve me in your exciting and essential experiments. [i can’t recommend enough that the reader take in malcolm gladwell’s not-as-long-as-it-looks 6000 word essay on gruen in the new yorker written in 2004 and titled “the terrazzo jungle” which i surely have failingly attempted not to at all plagiarize here - it is a creative biography very much worthy of your little time. read it before bed instead of scrolling]