Banzai! Bids the Red Lotus Farewell

By
Photography Christopher Gabello

Published November 14, 2013

PHOTOS OF ERIC SCHMALENBERGER AND MUFFINHEAD, ABOVE, BY CHRISTOPHER GABELLO

When the Coen brothers built a set for their new film Inside Llewyn Davis (a love song to the 1960s folk scene in New York) within the hollowed confines of The Red Lotus Room earlier this year, they understood that they were contractually obliged to destroy it once principal photography wrapped. When the time came for destruction, however, Juliette Campbell, lease-holder and guardian of the cavernous Crown Heights event space, decided instead to let the façade stand. Campbell felt it ultimately contributed to The Red Lotus Room’s nostalgia-inducing aesthetic, bolstering the carefully curated illusion of a rollicking underground speakeasy for outcast musicians, rebel artists, and social misfits.

It’s been four years since Campbell opened her doors at The Red Lotus Room, and this Saturday, November 16, she will do so for the last time: the building’s owners are selling (out, presumably). The highly anticipated sixth incarnation of BANZAI!, a multi-media art party extravaganza, will function as the space’s last official event. Eric Schmalenberger, a theater producer, actor, and art-world impresario and Muffinhead, the human performance art enigma, will once again share hosting and curatorial duties.

BANZAI! has grown in tandem with the explosion and subsequent absorption of circus and burlesque into New York’s larger contemporary performance and nightlife scene. The evening’s hosts claim they crafted this year’s BANZAI! especially to function as 2013’s definitive one-night macrocosm for these smaller underground performance communities while providing gallery space for over 50 visual artists, including the elusive Muffinhead himself.

Schmalenberger, who has worked with Juliette Campbell for over six and a half years on the cabaret series Shanghai Mermaid, found yet another a kindred spirit in Muffinhead in 2010, after uniting at the behest of American art collector and former head of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, Jeffrey Deitch. Despite a wide range of varying interests and responsibilities, the two have been inseparable ever since.

The playful, complementary, and highly entertaining pair briefly caught up with Interview on a recent afternoon at The Red Lotus Room to discuss the past, present, and future of BANZAI!—moments after dressing up and, more surprisingly, dressing down, for an intimate photo shoot.  

KURT MCVEY: This will be your sixth semi-annual BANZAI! It will also be the last event ever at The Red Lotus Room in Brooklyn. Does this bring a bittersweet sense of urgency to the proceedings?

ERIC SCHMALENBERGER: We definitely want to go out with a bang and really celebrate everything that we’ve done here. February 20, 2010 was the first one we ever did, and some years we even managed to fit two parties in, hence the “semi-annual.” The Red Lotus Room has always been our home. Juliette Campbell who runs the place is in many ways the “mother” of BANZAI! She has been so generous over the years.

MUFFINHEAD: She takes pretty much all of our crazy ideas and only complains in a really minimal way if we destroy something or have a huge art problem or make a huge mess.

MCVEY: Juliette has said that she opened The Red Lotus Room to create a place that invoked the atmosphere of underground parties of Paris, Shanghai, and New York the 1920s. Do you think, despite its growing size, that BANZAI! has held onto that character?

MUFFINHEAD: BANZAI! and other parties that we’ve done have always maintained this underground element. I think we’ll always have that, despite the fact that we’re very much trying to raise the bar each and every time.

MCVEY: How did you two meet?

MUFFINHEAD: Eric started out at Deitch Projects. If Juliette is the mother, than Jeffery Deitch is in a way the absent grandfather of BANZAI!.

SCHMALENBERGER: We met through the first art parade put on by Jeffrey. I was an assistant and before the parade we were dividing up projects and Jeffrey said, “Who wants to work with Muffinhead?” I didn’t really know what a Muffinhead was, so I raised my hand because it sounded like fun. [laughs]

MUFFINHEAD: This was right when I moved to New York from L.A.

SCHMALENBERGER: We immediately became friends and started talking about doing an art party together that would feature live performance and video and all of these things. The first one we tried to do was at The Zipper Factory, but it got shut down.

MUFFINHEAD: So Juliette just kind of called us over one day and asked us if we wanted to do something in her space. We imagined we would start with something relatively small. It was only when we actually walked through The Red Lotus Room—this insane, cavernous warehouse—that we knew we could do a big, crazy, maximalist event, something kind of like Lollapalooza in the ’90s with all these different mediums. It was unexpected, the way it just snowballed.

SCHMALENBERGER: As extreme realists, we’re always going for sensory overload.

MCVEY: Are there any artists you’re particularly looking forward to this year?

SCHMALENBERGER: Shane Shane!

MUFFINHEAD: Me personally, I’m a big fan of Ryan Burke. I guess you could call him a drag fashion photographer. He takes these really exquisite portraits of himself doing his drag looks before he goes out. I’m so proud to be showing his work.

MCVEY: You’ve been in New York for about 10 years now, Muffin? How does the L.A. underground performance scene compare to the scene in New York?

MUFFINHEAD: Oh, I got this. [laughs]

SCHMALENBERGER: [laughs]

MUFFINHEAD: When I started out showing work, it was at places like Cannibal Flowers and The Hive Gallery, all in downtown L.A. At that time [in the early 2000s], people were just starting to throw big group art shows in warehouses with street artists, graffiti artists, DJs, everything. I did get that side of me from my time out west, this idea that you don’t need a résumé; you don’t have to kiss anyone’s ass. If we like the work, we show it. It’s that simple.

MCVEY: How important is it for you to sell artwork at BANZAI!?

SCHMALENBERGER: It’s not really the focus, though we would love to sell work simply to support the event and of course the artists—and these are all artists whose work we love. We’ve sold work in the past. It’s difficult when you only have one night.

MUFFINHEAD: That’s really why we’re looking into showing at larger, perhaps more traditional galleries, to provide these artists with the time their work really deserves.

SCHMALENBERGER: One of the artists we’ve shown pretty consistently throughout the years is Wonderpuss Octopus, which is PJ Linden and Sarah Stuve. A curator at The Museum of Sex saw their work at a previous BANZAI! and ended up curating a Wonderpuss Octopus show in their gallery space. Actors, photographers, directors, dancers, musicians, designers—a wide variety of people come to this event and make all sorts of connections.

MCVEY: Will you be showing any of your new studio work, Muffin?

MUFFINHEAD: I have a few pieces in the show. I’ve been working with Plexiglas a lot lately, which requires a fair amount of graphic design and laser cutting, especially for costume pieces. I’ve been leaning quite a bit towards fashion in the last year. I am making this corset out of Plexiglas right now, which I hope will be finished in time to be featured in the show.

MCVEY: Do you ever daydream about hosting parties like BANZAI! decades into the future as wrinkly old performance-art matriarchs?

SCHMALENBERGER: Auntie Mame and Vera Charles! [laughs] I definitely would like to continue doing this for as long as possible and for it to just grow. We’ll always be searching for new talent, and we definitely plan on working with Juliette again once she finds a new space. I have to say, looking back, to know that we’ve encouraged so many artists friends to produce great work is by far the most rewarding thing about BANZAI!.

MCVEY: Can you tell us where the name “Muffinhead” came from?

MUFFINHEAD: Yeah. It was, um, a long time ago. You know, I smoked a little too much the night before, fell asleep and I woke up in the morning and I’m not kidding, I just heard this name whispered in my ear. It said, “Muffinhead,” and I just knew right away, that was my name. I was about to show some work in L.A., and I was struggling with the fact that I didn’t want to give them my natural name, I just didn’t think it would properly represent my work, which is a big part of what I do; I need to embody a name and a vision that represents my work. I altered everything in my life to be able to do that. Everything.

THE SIXTH INSTALLMENT OF BANZAI! WILL TAKE PLACE TOMORROW, NOVEMBER 16 AT 9 PM AT RED LOTUS ROOM IN BROOKLYN.