Dinner Inside a Television
Monkey Town 3: the cube of video (dinner is inside)
Way back in 2003, the same year Britney and Madonna smooched at the “MTV Music Awards,” Montgomery Knott, a video artist in Brooklyn, kicked off one of the original pop-up dining experiences. He called it Monkey Town, in honor of a book of poems by Eugene Walter, a writer who held many job titles: actor, screenwriter, artist, gourmet chef, puppeteer, you get the idea. In its original incarnation diners stepped into a loft in Williamsburg and ate while watching simultaneous screenings of movies, live performances and more. I’ve heard they even screened The Shining, which, for those of us who don’t like scary films (me), is one we might be happy to have missed.
Before closing its doors in 2010, due to a financial tussle with a difficult landlord, Monkey Town (by now in its second realization) had become a showcase for the Williamsburg art scene. In time for its tenth anniversary, they’ve popped back up, and have relocated, on a spare block in Chelsea, at Eyebeam, a non-profit art and technology center just by the West Side Highway, to recreate the experience with an even more immersive visual container, if it could be possible. They’ve called it Monkey Town 3.
When you walk into the studio you’ll first notice wood benches, a steel walkway and a curtain blocking your view. Montgomery Knott, the slim and rangy founder, greeted us with a smile and a glass of chilled white wine, which is always a nice way to start your night. Our dining companions were a mix of couples (including one artsy pair with a girl in tiny red shorts, giant gold disc earrings, and mightily stacked heels), a few groupings of single girls, and woman that reminded me of my mom (short hair and funky glasses). There were only about thirty of us, which lent it a sweet intimacy, like you were on the small invite list for the Jay-Z video at the Pace Gallery (like it was ever small).
After a quick introduction of the art we would be viewing, Montgomery told us we could take as many photos as we wanted, to share liberally on our social networks, and that we should feel free to talk, noting that on previous nights it had felt a bit hushed, and then he waved us into the darkened room dominated by a backlit glowing cube. It was like an Apple store on a desolate block of Bushwick. On each panel of the cube were layers of video, right side up, upside down, bits and fragments, all coming together to make each panel. We couldn’t tell what was happening but we floated slowly around the cube sipping our wine.
The dining room
With little formality, or dinner bell, a slim woman in a black hat lifted up the bottom of the cubes curtain. One by one we lowered ourselves, as if it starting a game of limbo, and stepped inside the dining environment. Narrow rectangular tables range around the perimeter so that each diner can watch the screens, and each other. We each had a menu, which noted both the five-course menu, as well as the video art, with titles like: My Afterlife is So Boring, The Waxwing Slain, Unique Boutique and The Fertile Swipe.
As a video artist himself, Knott is juggling several priorities in order to make a compelling evening, and I wondered which of his goals would rise to the top: the art, the food, or the experience. Montgomery clarified his hopes: “I think the grander mission is to expose more people to alternate narratives formats and artists that excel at those margins.”
I attempted to pay attention to the absorbing images, but it was hard––there was food to eat, people to watch and, at times, a disjointed audio to listen to. Midway through there was even a bit of performance art stunt work, when a tuxedo-wearing man paced the center of the cube like a caged lion wearing a headset. His name is Will Rahilly and, if you’re lucky, he’ll sit in your lap or take a swig from your wine glass.
The entrance, and two of the five courses: goat cheese & beet salad; lemongrass risotto.
The meal was attentively crafted (compressed goat cheese embedded with almonds and beets, lemongrass dusted risotto, octopus and vegetable terrine dotted with cashew pesto), along with several glasses of wine, white, a sparkling red and a deeper Cabernet. Our favorite dish of the night was the lamb merguez tagine over Israeli couscous, topped with marinated cabbage and cilantro. The flavors in this dish tasted fresh and popped with clarity. We ate slowly, the pixels flashing on our retinas, enjoying every bite. Don’t fret, you’ll get dessert too. Ours was a small glass dish, homey feeling, filled with a delicate banana tiramisu. It was just enough to fulfill the sweet tooth you didn’t know you had.
Monkey Town 3 is going on through August 11th and then, we’re told, the show may move on to another town. There are two seating’s nightly (7:00 and 9:15 PM) in addition to changes to the chefs, menu and video art. Tickets here.