Let CHERYL Ruin Your Life (Part 2) by Elias Tezapsidis

Is CHERYL a raging dance party wherein participants share blood, glitter, and a penchant for freaky felines? Hell yes—but that’s only the beginning.

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Photo by Bubi Canal.

What is CHERYL?

CHERYL is an artist collective birthed by the evil and corrupt minds of Destiny Pierce, Stina Puotinen, Nick Schiarizzi and Sarah Van Buren. They were bored together one night after an evening of bacchanalian debauchery in South Brooklyn and found themselves without a local landing spot closer to home to use as their very own danceteria. It is here that the saga of CHERYL began and how it became a household name, a performance art party, and even a verb—To Cheryl.

The CHERYLs possessed the insight to make this a memorable engagement by attempting to make it as strange as possible: they added cat masks, played music that did not come from the most recently released pop charts, and added a little glitter and guts to the mix. While hearkening back to the playful Club Kids of an ’80s Tunnel-era New York, they still remembered to forget taking themselves too seriously. Far from Alig-murderous, an evening with CHERYL still promises (fake) blood on the dance floor.

For some, it can be hard to consider a hedonistic party as artistic practice. How can a party be art? In CHERYL’s case, how could it not be? To find the footloose and silly at an art opening can be a challenging task in an art world that rarely cracks a smile. Yet, CHERYL seems to be bridging the gap. Is contemporary art ready to rage? To have fun again?

In an attempt to categorize art collective and dance party hell-raiser CHERYL on his art approval matrix, Elias Tezapsidis hits the group with twenty questions, lowbrow and highbrow alike. This is the second and final part of the conversation—aptly dubbed The Highbrow Haught.

The Highbrow Haught

Elias Tezapsidis How would you describe the social practice role the parties and CHERYL overall serve?

CHERYL CHERYL as an entity was never about the four of us. It’s a pulsating organism comprised of a very tightly-knit community of people, who are now friends and collaborators because of the initial situation CHERYL set up. We didn’t expect this, but then again, that’s kind of how we interacted as friends before CHERYL existed, so it makes sense. Positive, fun weirdos attract other positive, fun weirdos. And we are lucky that the group keeps expanding and we keep meeting even more fun weirdos, all over the world. We definitely have found our people in places like Lisbon, London, and Amsterdam. Who knew?

ET You have frequently been compared with the Club Kids in the press. How do you feel about this comparison, and how do you think CHERYL goes beyond being a hedonistic nightlife party? What is it that makes it an intellectual event?

CHERYL I think both Club Kids and CHERYL reflect the (very NYC-centric) ideal of going as far as possible with an idea; losing control; losing yourself; expressing your inner-whatever through costume and performance. But that’s perhaps where the comparisons stop. At the end of the day, Club Kids wanted to look cool, no matter what (sometimes at the expense of dancing), while CHERYL gives people the opportunity to ultimately just not care. It is all about the dancing, and not about seeing and being seen. This mass-movement celebration is the ultimate goal at our party. And this mass-experience can be translated to the artistic aspect of what CHERYL does: to immerse participants in a creative happening; no one is a bystander, everyone is involved, working towards a transformative experience. Another aspect is that we just don’t take ourselves too seriously. It’s just not possible. Think about a stripper: what she is doing is deadly serious. Sexy is serious. We just can’t handle that, because to us it’s actually hilarious. The same applies to the Club Kids. They would be wearing a giant green Christmas tree for a hat but looking really blasé at the same time. How is that not the funniest thing you’ve ever seen?

ET Why do you think it is that there is a comical element in horror? Why is it funny to use blood and gore themes for the attendees of your parties?

CHERYL On some level, horror needs comedy to exist. Many horror movies—the best ones, really—often have a moment of comic relief, where you get to breathe, or where the funny adds to the overall weirdness and then you get plunged back into scary shit. Or else they can be unintentionally funny, which makes them rad bad. We’re a little divided—a few of us love horror movies and some of us watch through their fingers, if at all. People have a strong reaction to the fake blood at our parties, which is interesting. We really didn’t plan it out in any way; we just happened to have some fake blood lying around and decided to put some on. And then, it was kind of like an addiction or something. We needed more and more. At some point there was so much of it that you just had to laugh, it was so ridiculous. Now, it’s become a signature thing, and if we aren’t using it people usually are asking us for it. The grossest party moment was really when we had those cow hearts from the video on the dance floor for Thanks for ruining my prom, CHERYL way back in February 2009. We don’t always plan what makes it as a theme—basically, whatever makes us laugh the hardest makes the cut. We have a weird collective sense of humor.

ET Do you think that the dollar-store aesthetic of excess you encourage in your events is an indirect one-upping of people of a privileged background? Or is it a result of your privileged background and expresses a rebellion against it?

CHERYL Our use of dollar-store items is influenced by a few things: we are poor and we want to encourage people to use cheap supplies to create stuff, and we try and draw attention toward the weirdness of the cheap plastic items coming out of china these days, which are meant to be passed off as utilitarian. We’ve found some crazy shit. There’s beauty and weirdness lurking all around us … at the dollar store, or anywhere else for that matter. Many of our ideas, costumes, and video shoot locations reflect the fact that we four are often taking a long look around at our immediate surroundings and finding the hidden gems at our feet. It also levels the playing field so that anyone can feel comfortable participating in our events, regardless of their socio-economic background. We aren’t enforcing a black tie-only attire. We are basically giving people a free pass to use whatever resources they have to do anything they want. Our motto is—do whatever the fuck you want.

ET It’s a huge accomplishment that the CHERYL parties became notorious, infamous and respected all at the same time. How do you manage to garner respect from traditional art institutions while bathing in excess?

CHERYL We come off like maniacs sometimes, but we are hard workers. We are lucky to have found in each other insane amounts of dedication and a tremendous work ethic. This is why we’re still doing it three years later. People pick up on that and know that whether it be a dance party in a warehouse, a video shoot on an abandoned boat, or a museum installation, we are going to put everything we have into it. We toe the line between extreme professionalism and openness/complete spontaneity/total loss of inhibition. We like to think we have honed our skills at creating organized chaos. Art institutions more recently have been eager to do something fun and participatory, and we fit the bill. What we do is hard to define, and we are inherently flexible in our practice, so we’re easily able to take an event and make something weird and CHERYL out of it while still addressing the needs of the event, the institution, the audience.

ET For the P.S.1 MoMA Move project you collaborated with American Apparel. How did that partnership come to fruition, and was it you who chose the label or the other way around?

CHERYL The curators paired the artists and designers. They were the ones matching performance artists up with designers. To our knowledge, AA didn’t know anything about us before then. We had several meetings and kicked around different ideas, with the curators throwing out certain designers they thought would be a good fit with us. However, in the end we mutually settled on AA because we weren’t so interested in having a designer custom make things for us and this event; we’d ruin whatever they made. We can’t have nice things. Part of the spirit of CHERYL has always been DIY and about spontaneous costume creation on the spot at an event or party. AA allowed us more of that freedom. They donated loads of fabric and then specific monochrome clothing items we requested that people could take and wear, or shred, or turn into a mask anything they wanted—during the event. We were wearing t-shirts as pants, scarves as jockstraps. It worked well and was fun to see people create looks with the basic elements that we asked AA to provide.

ET You dislike the exclusive door policies of many current nightclubs. However, you manage to attract a crème de la crème audience to your parties. How do you think CHERYL succeeded in doing that?

CHERYL Our version of crème de la crème is having New York’s most insane, creative, and friendliest crowd. Super smart, uninhibited people. Friends told friends who told friends. And one day we looked around and noticed that we had hundreds of people at an event doing this CHERYL thing with us. So many of these people we now count among our best friends, lovers, and collaborators. The usual exclusivity in NYC comes down to having money, connections and being hot. We don’t care about any of that. There’s just more to a party than a fucking door list. And apparently a lot of other people think so too.

ET Does CHERYL act as an actor or as a reactor? Since the success of the events have so much to do with the attendees, how do you manage to engage crowds when they seem less willing to play?

CHERYL CHERYL is definitely an actor: we are the catalysts for something bigger than ourselves. We somehow stumbled upon and gave an outlet to an overall mindset/feeling/mania that was brewing collectively. We just gave birth to it. We don’t control CHERYL, we just move it around and guide it along. In the beginning, especially, we thought long and hard about different ways to engage the crowd together as a group. Good music and costumes aren’t enough. We have several different ways we work a crowd, depending on their willingness to get involved from the get-go. Sometimes we have to go up personally to people and draw something on their arm and cover them with shiny hologram stickers to get them to connect. Sometimes all it takes is a parachute and people lose their shit. We have found that passing out masks we make also helps, since it makes people kind of invisible to one another and they can let down their guard a bit—they feel like they’re anonymous but also part of something. This is particularly helpful when you don’t speak the same language. We have materials set out with instructions for people at events so they can create with us and each other on the spot, and then sometimes duct tape the whole crowd together and do other unexpected things that get everyone involved. We’ve had a giant twister board, a maypole, a parachute, baby pools…

ET What have been some significant differences in the CHERYL events you have hosted in NYC and the ones you have hosted abroad?

CHERYL Same deal over there and over here. Some people get it, some don’t. Some are excited to get down and dirty, and some are concerned with looking sexy above all, and don’t get too into what we’re doing. Every party is different. The main difference between what we have done here, whether that be a party or art event—and what we have done in Europe has often been about overcoming a language barrier. It is hard to explain anything, let alone what the hell is going on here, when you don’t speak Portuguese and are on a packed dance floor with loud music. We have to communicate through physical interaction, impromptu costume interventions, and large scale visuals, like our videos, or large mural signs translated into the local language that we dance with and rip apart during the parties. Just from watching the videos, people get it and we can’t tell you how happy we were to arrive in Lisbon and have a group of people hop on stage with us who had learned the CHERYL dance and were ready to do it with us all night long.

That was special.

ET Can you see yourselves continuing to CHERYL—used here as a verb to signify rage hard in a similar way when you are 60?

CHERYL Definitely. CHERYL was born because we four felt the need to party hard and be creative while doing it. We hope that we have the same energy and excitement for life when we’re all much older. CHERYL is a term that can be applied to general zestiness and lack of inhibition in life, no matter what you’re doing. It’s sort of like Aloha, it can be used many, many different ways. It’s just a relief to finally have a name for it—for our general experience so far on this planet. We’ve been CHERYLing since the day we were born and we don’t ever plan to stop.

Elias Tezapsidis thinks CHERYL is highbrow brilliant, because she is smart. CHERYL makes you think.

CHERYL is coming to a Bell House near you Saturday, October 29th, 2011. Interested in ruining your life? More information available about CHERYLWEEN IV: PRELLRAISER can be found here. Or watch their promo video below.

What’s CHERYL like in a gallery space? Come see for yourself. The group will be participating in American Idolatry, which launches Saturday, October 29th at the Invisible Dog and runs through November 5th.

Elias grew up in Thessaloniki, Greece, prior to attending Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He is a regular contributor to Thought Catalog. Elias has primarily worked in finance, which he genuinely does enjoy, but he has also always kept a notebook.

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