Breathless: a Fishbon Mainstage Event
Friday, August 10 and Saturday, August 11
Visitors to Santa Barbara, particularly those from San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York, or from outside the United States, sometimes ask a question that is not always easy to answer: “What’s happening here that’s underground?” And for these adventurous, art-minded folks who love to travel, that’s a big question. The beaches and the galleries and the museums, check, but without an underground culture, they seem to imply, what’s it all worth?
Last weekend, the Fishbon collective gave us a great answer the next time this issue is raised, because the two-night Breathless event they staged was the definition of an underground art event in Santa Barbara circa 2007. Part art house, part fashion show, part costume party, part theatrical event-how many parts is that so far?-Breathless easily surpassed the fun quotient of any currently operating dance floor in town, and that was before the floorshow at 12:30am. Things got crazier afterwards.
“One entered Breathless through an enchanted forest-a black-lit ground-floor room filled with painted plywood trees, mirrors, and LED strips. It was like one of the haunted house mirror mazes you might remember from childhood, but with a fundamentally different agenda.”
What goes into a successful underground event? First, you must prepare the physical space. People have to be amazed and transported from the moment they enter, and this is not going to happen unless some serious thought and many hours of work gets put in in advance. Fortunately, with many veterans of Solstice involved, and several years of similar events for previous experience, the Fishbon crew was up to the challenge. One entered Breathless through an enchanted forest-a black-lit ground-floor room filled with painted plywood trees, mirrors, and LED strips. It was like one of the haunted house mirror mazes you might remember from childhood, but with a fundamentally different agenda. This was a seductive forest, and it did a great job setting the mood. Once you crossed the magical footbridge, saw its tiny lights, and heard it make its weird popping and groaning noises, you knew for certain that you were on your way to a wild night.
The second floor main stage area was really a combination dance floor and theatre-turned-inside-out. As a fully participatory event, with the majority of people in some kind of costume, the action took place everywhere, but kicked up a notch on the 100-foot runway that encircled the dance floor. This runway, which was big enough to accommodate a stripper pole, a bed, a full live band, a DJ booth, and at least 20 people dancing, played a major role in the proceedings, offering participants a way to express themselves simply by stepping up to a higher level of visibility.
Everything about Breathless was hand-customized, from the make-up on people’s faces to the images on the walls, floor, and ceiling. The main room was decorated with big murals on cloth which included a recurring image that could have been lifted from Matisse-a beautiful young man’s colossal head rendered in fluid, jazzy single lines.
The runway and the dance floor were covered in stenciled arrows, broken lines seemingly drawn from the vocabulary of public works. These arrows so saturated the space as to render the idea of ever going just “ONE WAY” absurd.
With a perch for changing costumes just a short ladder climb away, and a bar staffed by happy people so committed to making the party work that one offered me a backrub with my Tecate, the main room remained a constant center of energy. The DJs played a soulful mix of electronica and house that somehow merged perfectly with the additional live accompaniment.
Floor three was, by contrast, the chill-out room, although it percolated with its own social vibe. A love seat on the landing between floors two and three was probably the ultimate place for crashing or mischief. At one point on Friday I saw a group of three who had moments before been raging on the dance floor reduced to a big, lovely pile of bodies by that convenient and tempting roost.
OK, fine, A+ for physical space preparation, but what else was there that made this event so “underground,” Mr. Hipster? I’m glad you asked. The second and perhaps most crucial element in a successful underground event, and you can quote me on this, is unresolved sexual tension. This Breathless had in spades, especially on the truly manic opening night. Fishbon, knowing and understanding this principle intimately, took it as the point of departure for their show, which was a kinky dramatization of the legend of Eros. Mixing the verse styles of Queen Elizabeth’s Shakespeare with the lingerie styles of Queen Victoria’s Secret, performers circulated the catwalk while spellbound people who had moments ago been dancing frenetically sat transfixed and cross-legged on the floor. The length, tone, and mystery of it were balanced to a degree that seemed just right. I was there for both nights, and I felt every bit as stimulated, and confused the second time around. Both effects were clearly part of what was intended.
Praise to Fishbon and all the spirits who rose to the occasion of this magically non-commercial and blessedly ephemeral endeavor. And attention, all you San Francisco people, New Yorkers, downtown LA types, and arty Europeans, let it be known that, yes, Santa Barbara has an underground, and-no surprise—it is a smart and sexy scene. See you there next time.