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Walker Contemporaries: Haunted Basements, Biennials, and Spooky Speakeasies

Warning: spoiler alert. The weather this fall took a sudden turn in mid-October, leaving the brave Contemporaries attendees of our visit to The Haunted Basement at The Soap Factory rubbing their hands together from the cold, as well as nervous anticipation. We entered through the back of the building, where the music of a catchy, yet […]

Warning: spoiler alert.

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The weather this fall took a sudden turn in mid-October, leaving the brave Contemporaries attendees of our visit to The Haunted Basement at The Soap Factory rubbing their hands together from the cold, as well as nervous anticipation. We entered through the back of the building, where the music of a catchy, yet rather disturbing screaming baby sample was overlaid on blaring dubstep beats. For anyone not familiar with the reputation of The Haunted Basement, it was the first indication that this was no ordinary haunted house. The Soap Factory is known for this fact. The Haunted Basement now in its seventh year of production and sold out for the season, but Contemporaries members got exclusive access for the night. Every year is completely different, exploring a different concept through a major artistic installation and a cast of actors that aims to be the most exclusive Halloween experience of the year.

After a portion of the group went through the basement, second-year director Noah Bremer spoke about some of the elements specific to this year’s work.

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Contemporaries members relax in the Spooky Speakeasy.

The information page on The Soap Factory’s website lists that one may encounter insects, crawling, and sexual situations, which it seems many of the participants experienced. Expanding on those leads, Bremer highlighted the concept of mixing the human with the non-human, both through dehumanization and hybridization. I couldn’t help but think of Kafka when Bremer mentioned the incorporation of insects, and still wonder if it was meant to be a philosophical inclusion or just a correlation. In any case, he seemed strongly interested in pushing the boundaries of what a “haunted house” can be, even if that puts the definition of The Haunted Basement in question.

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Noah Bremer (in blue cap) answering questions about all the behind the scenes details of the Haunted Basement.

Recently, I sat down with current development and membership intern Kate Heller to discuss our shared experience from that night, as well as the current biennial exhibition “,,,” on show at The Soap Factory.

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Kate Heller emerging from the Haunted Basement.

KS: So, Kate, you went through the Haunted Basement and I did not. What was that experience like? I hear you had to don suits at the start.

KH: Well, the suits were needed to protect our clothing, but it really made the experience more intense. We had to wear these helmets, like the ones used for paintballing. The helmets inhibited my peripheral vision, which made me more nervous and uncomfortable. The limiting quality of the helmet on top of the fact that I couldn’t see in the dark really heightened the experience.

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Emma Berg and Kristoffer Knutson prepare to enter the Haunted Basement.

KS: But you didn’t come out with that on…?

KH: No, this bug prostitute woman took the helmet off in a creepy seductive way and the next thing I knew, I was shoved into a dressing room and the grim reaper was telling me to take off my clothes! I assumed he meant the suit, which I did and handed to another bug prostitute woman. I was surprised how scared I got because I was suddenly alone. In the beginning I was with Kate Tucker and The Haunted Basement felt more funny than anything else. But by the time I got to this part of the basement I was pretty terrified!

KS: You also didn’t come out with Kate Tucker, who I remember you going in with. What happened there?

KH: Once we were shoved into those dressing rooms, I never saw her again.

KS: So for you, how does this experience differ from other Halloween haunted house experiences?

KH: This experience was more focused on the whole performance. There was a distinct theme with talented actors. The installation itself was very artfully done. They didn’t use expensive special effects. Instead there were the different ideas of the makers at use. They used very atypical materials like pizza boxes and pantihose.

KS: Will you go again next year?

KH: Of course… if someone will go with me!

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John Marks and David Petersen, curators the biennial exhibition, discuss the show with the Contemporaries.

KH: Now let’s talk a bit about the curation of the Biennial and the artwork exhibited the other night. Would you like to elaborate a little on that?

KS: Well, I have not been to The Soap Factory before, and the first thing you notice about it in October is that it is not climate controlled! So as someone who knows about artwork, I realized that every work they showed had to be able to withstand the weather. And the other thing about really large rooms, tall ceilings – the work is uninhibited by the space it’s in, making for a great space for the biennial. I can’t think of any other spaces in Minneapolis which could host this type of show the same way.

KH: What was the artwork like in that space?

KS: So there are two galleries used for this show. We entered through the back door, which was apparently the last room of the exhibition. I remember it had larger than life cartoon characters (Broc Blegen, Allen Ruppersberg, Big Trouble) and huge pile of towels that was rather Robert Morris (RO/LU, Here There Then, Here There Now). I liked the feel of that room, things were similar colors and sizes – it all worked well and was aesthetically pleasing to the eye. Everything made sense with everything else but had enough space to give its own statement.

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But when I entered the larger of the two rooms, where the Spooky Speakeasy was hosted, something felt off. The room led in multiple directions, with several videos, the Spooky Speakeasy performers’ setup, a piece on the floor of boards laid out in a diagonal — which I couldn’t tell if it was an artwork or just covering up a hole in the floor. If it was an artwork it should have been indicated, but none of the other works had labels so it was difficult to tell. The room had a diverse spread, but the bar set up for the speakeasy disrupted the space, so many people did not make it over to see the last third of the room. It was more difficult to make sense of the art in that second room. Although it was not overcrowded, it was overwhelming.

The curators, David Petersen and John Marks, spoke about several bad critiques they got of the show. I admit the Hyperallergic one is pretty rough, although they have some good points. Calling a show a “biennial fail” in the title is a big statement to make!

KH: Yeah, they mentioned some bad critiques but they also had some valid defenses for the exhibition. Petersen and Marks created a gallery guide which explains the best way to approach the artwork and the path to take. Using the gallery guide makes the exhibition less overwhelming. Biennials are also known for having a lot of different artists with varying ideas, so having all their art together in one show and then on top of that under one roof, can make the experience confusing for the viewer. The curators also made sure to have artist talks, so to further explain the art more individually. Apparently, the bad critiques came from individuals who did not utilize the gallery guide or even attend the artists’ talks. I agree with your opinion of the show, but I also would have like to attend the artist talks and get a more thorough look at the gallery guide. I feel that my experience may have been different if I had.

KS: I agree. Our group that night also got a different experience than someone who might come when the speakeasy isn’t up, for example. The curators were going for a hands-off approach, which leads to no one shared experience by viewers, but can also lead to confusion by those not experienced with contemporary art.

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Both the basement and the biennial defy the assumed limitations of their definitions. Perhaps the basement is not truly a haunted house, but an interactive art installation. The biennial, rather than a perfectly crafted aesthetic experience, maybe is more of a do-it-yourself discovery project. But despite any contentions about their experiences, the evening mood was received well by everyone. Live accordion, violin, and theremin tunes provided a spooky setting for drinks and chatter late into the night.

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Johnny Michaels, cocktails guru, was on-site making drinks in the Spooky Speakeasy.