Heard about The Philadelphia Experiment? No, not that twisted bit of occult paranoia involving extraterrestrials, space-time teleportation, and the US Navy. The Philadelphia Experiment I am talking about is an arts collective that has embraced the community and philosophy of Burning Man, and who have launched an inspired new scene in the City of Brotherly Love.
Recently, I found myself driving from Brooklyn with a Burner couple to a major PEX event. They are a costumed hula-hooping duo that performs together at numerous New York functions. Resplendent in their colorful spandex, glowing fur boots, matching face makeup and glitter, and light up hair accents, they are fixtures of our local scene and not easily impressed.
Along the way, my friends asked, "Why are we traveling two hours, to another Eastern city, for a party that will have the same type of people in the same sort of costumes that we go to in NY?" I tried to assure them that this would be new and different, with its own community vibe. Still, I was unsure: would they like it as much as I had on an earlier visit?
Aries Rising was the theme of the night, and besides the inevitable horned Aries costumes there was also at least one ninja (it's apparently his thing), a robot (with an Aries tattoo on his arm), and a Fish (ahh, the creative Pieces – passionate enough not to deny its true identity, but too creative not to dress up). The list goes on. Those who failed to arrive in costume didnt' fail at contributing to an eclectic scene that ranged from your typical raver caricatures in baggy strapped pants and candy bracelets, brandishing Aquafina bottles, to the five or six members of a hearing impaired family (father and son and friends/brothers) signing to each other on the dance floor and text messaging with their sidekicks, to two couples in their 50's from Long Island – all of them small, less than 5 feet in height – wearing different color pastel polyester bowling jackets, tapered jeans, the men, dyed fu man chu's, the women, dyed hair-sprayed friz, gripping their rum and cokes with their body building biceps, muttering "Oh My God," "I told you you had to see this" over and over. (At a scenester sex party in New York, I've seen 50 yr old Hasids standing together and muttering the same amazed phrases as they marveled at the Long Island couples around them. Entirely different worlds can cross harmoniously at such parties, depending upon the energy in the room and the balance between the people and the space.)
The Philadelphia Experiment resides in an old three-story warehouse with large wooden rafters, floors, and winding, rickety staircases. It is beautifully raw. As you enter the first room you find the bar/lobby/lounges/bathrooms, the space between the main dance floor and the upstairs rooms. The main dance floor, 4,000sq ft of it, is surrounded by little nuggets of fun: There's a swing in the corner near some lounge couches, and next to it, a cordoned off section for fire spinners and hoopers.
Above the spinners they have cut a large section of the second floor away for aerielist entertainment as well as an overhead view for those above. A fire sculpture adorns the corner with curling copper tubes intertwined like four horned creatures entangled at the head with flames pulsing from the tips of the horns. The far center wall hosts the DJ set. Opposite of the spinners, across the dance floor is a two-tier stage for the dance performances. To the side is a late 60's convertible Caddilac/lounge/dance space. The heavy body has been painted with a flaming front end and the interior adorned with colorful faux fur including the converted trunk/lounge (have you ever partied in the trunk of a Caddy?).
Early in the night, as the crowd amasses, the PEX crew announces the first performers. The crowd shimmies around the stage as an ArcheDream performer pokes its head through a black curtain.
Everyone's attention was seized by the glowing neon face. ArcheDream is a Philadelphia original, a dance troupe that uses contrasting darkness and electric-bright body paint, and, in their own words, "archetypal characters that perform allegories, or dreams, to personify vital issues pertaining to our lives. 'Costumes' are illuminated with ultra-violet light, which accentuates the supernatural aspect and reveals the dreamscape as the action unfolds." To live drumming, six more dancers mesmerized the audience.
As people caught their breath and paused from jumping on the hood of the Caddy, the DJ announced the next act. UnCut Productions, another Philly based performance collective followed with 8 dancers painted chalk white with deep blood red accents across neck and face in tribal loin cloths who danced in physical combat.
Accompanied by tribal drumming from the four men on the stage, a woman emerged, similarly painted, with a fiery hoop. She split the crowd with her flaming dancing rotations as the men continued their tightly choreographed dance. As the flame from her hoop expired, the music and dancers had finished their breathtaking performance.
This time the audience had no time to catch their breath, or stop dancing on the Caddy as the dj segued into some solid dancing vibes. The party was in full effect. But what could be upstairs? The décor and sound of the main room was the brainchild of the Philly based Psytrance collective, Gaian Mind. Gaian Mind has been around for nine years, six of which they've had a monthly event in Philadelphia, and six of which they've had the annual Gaian Mind Summer Festival, coming up again next month.
Talking to my friends, the Burner hooping couple, some drunk guy thought it okay to "holla" at the girl in spandex – like any tacky clichéd "man whistles/barks/clicks at woman scene" you could envision. She told him to fuck off, and he did. I looked at the couple with a concerned smile and asked if they were having fun. To my relief their only problem was the behavior of a couple of the aforementioned guys, but the guys were easy to deal with and obviously out of place. They confessed their amazement with the performances, and with the vibe in the space.
The worries I had in the car were long past, and I was becoming convinced that my intuition about the PEX being something special was correct. By 8:00 in the morning there were 15 -25 people still in the warehouse. Since the sound systems upstairs had been shut off, the remaining people funneled together in the main dance space. Ten of us were dancing as dj Lee Mayjhas spun. Others were on couches just holding on. A couple of people were doing yoga stretches to prepare for the long haul. I knew one of the sweaty dancers from the 10:00 a.m. crowd at another party, where we first met. Earlier we exchanged a smile and "I'll see you at 10:30." 10:30 came and here we were in the final throws of celebration. I looked over at a girl dancing and thought to myself, "Man she's dancing just like me. Is she mocking me?" As I turned around I felt a tap on my arm and it was the girl. She exclaimed, "You move just like me and I love it!" and danced away from my heart that thumped: "I love how you move too!" I continued to dance to that thump until the final song at 1:00 in the Sunday afternoon.
We felt like a family in that brief silence of the end. Then one of the family said "Where we going to eat?" So the family went to brunch and the family went home and the family lived happily ever after.
I hadn't felt that much a-part-of-something in a long time. On the way back to NY, I couldn't stop reflecting on the experience – not just my experience, but the collective experience, all the connections made that night and all the love that went with the effort. I thought about it for the next week, trying to identify exactly what made it so special. It's like I found a lost sect of my family. And they're great.
I'm sure that there's more of them out there. All I have to do is look.
Pictures by The Philadelphia Experiment and Pedro P Polakoff III/ Diable. Check out more pic's of Aries Rising at www.jerseydevil.net