Discovering Hidden City Philadelphia

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Philadelphia’s Metropolitan Opera House theater had sat silent for decades-until two nights in June, when an audience sat in the balcony of the cavernous, tarp-draped space, watching dancers in street clothes moving to sounds of an invisible choir. The collaboration of choreographer Wally Cardona and composer Phil Kline was one of many moments of re-animation that took place as part of Hidden City Philadelphia, the month-long cultural project mounted from May 31–June 30.

Philadelphia possesses an embarrassment of riches in the area of forgotten architectural landmarks, thanks to the city’s age and its variety of boom periods.  Hidden City Philadelphia, a project produced Thaddeus Squire’s Peregrine Arts Productions, looked to bring some of that heritage back to the city’s awareness, inviting eighteen artists and four performance groups to transform spaces in nine buildings-forgotten, ignored or near-ruined, many of them architectural treasures, like the Metropolitan-with art installations and performance events. To its credit, the project included buildings in neighborhoods outside Center City, from the massive Founders Hall at Girard College in largely African-American North Philadelphia, to a factory building in the working-class neighborhood of Tacony.

A view of the Metropolitan Opera House in Philadelphia

 

Artists have explored old and vacant sites here for decades; memorable performances by Eric Schoefer, New Paradise Laboratories, Janet Cardiff, Thaddeus Phillips and Mark Lord’s Big House Company have been staged in crumbling warehouses, churches and theaters as part of the city’s Live Arts/Fringe Festival, and at the historic Eastern State Penitentiary. Hidden City’s distinctive intent—making each building’s history and character the starting point in the curatorial process—gave the buildings greater weight in the site-specific formula; the crowds who attended shared a palpable sense of discovery, enhancing the experience of the artworks and performances-most of them at least thought-provoking, and some of them, stunning.

The performance of Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang and choreographer Leah Stein’s Battle Hymns, inside the capacious, crenellated Armory of the First Troop City Cavalry (built in 1901), stood out for its moving alchemical synthesis of place and work. Lang’s settings of deconstructed Civil War-era texts were sung by members of the Philadelphia’s Mendelssohn Club chorus, whose singers processed slowly through the space, punctuated by the more sinuous, urgent moves of Stein’s dancers. (Stein has a long history of site-specific choreography, outdoors and indoors.)

A barn-like building at the 150-year-old Disston Saw Works, the industrial heart of the Tacony neighborhood, was transformed by Philadelphia-based artists Carolyn Healy and John Phillips. In its darkened space, Running True offered a haunting environment shaped with found objects-from saw blades to blueprints-video, and sound, evoking a lost time of economic growth. At the historic African-American Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church, New York-based Sanford Biggers offered a low-key alteration of  the sanctuary by hanging traditional quilts that mirrored the geometry of its stained-glass windows, and created a “celestial map” handout documenting the city’s Underground Railroad sites, with Mother Bethel as the North Star. Shiloh Baptist Church hosted two very different installations: Steven Earl Weber’s bouncy, theatrical installation Like Lambs deployed a grouping of ceramic lambs, some suckling from a blood-red wall, and a sentimental video of the holy mother and her suckling child; Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle’s remounted sound installation Sonambulo (1998-2009) came to eerie life in a smaller attic space, suffused with blue light and filled with the sound of a single bullet, multiplied many times to sound like pouring rain-at once soothing and chilling.

Some of the architecture was a lot to live up to. The complex, miniaturist response of Steve Roden’s installations—an artist’s book, a group of wooden boxes, small paintings, and sound, and a free-form wooden structure—barely engaged the overblown monumentalism of the interior domed spaces in Girard College’s Founder’s Hall. The vast, disintegrating interior of the Metropolitan Opera House (built in 1908 by Oscar Hammerstein Sr.) nearly swallowed whole the music and casual, abstract choreography of frequent collaborators Phil Kline and Wally Cardona-though just to drink in the theater’s century-old aura gave its own reward. The smaller but equally time-eroded Royal Theater felt fitfully jazzed to life by fragmented silent footage shaped by Bill Morrison, with music composed by Todd Reynolds; a more expansive video piece by Anri Sala featuring free-jazz legend Jameel Mondoc (live and in the film) gave the space’s melancholy room to breathe.

Aleksandra Mir’s subversively witty Newsroom 2009, in the Philadelphia Inquirer building, managed to make news with her exhibit kicked upstairs to the old clocktower-actually a more interesting space-and all 5,000 specially-printed Inquirer look-alike broadsides (accidentally) thrown out, and with the entire story duly covered by the Inquirer itself.