The author and artist Amber Lee. Photo by Renée Regan.
The author and artist Amber Lee. Photo by Renée Regan.

This past weekend, in honor of its 25th anniversary, DC Arts Center (DCAC) exhibited art nonstop for 25 hours. The goal was to one-up the First 24, the venue’s inaugural all-night show that celebrated its opening in 1989. That show, recalls DCAC executive director B. Stanley, was a resounding success, despite being broken up by the cops after getting too raucous. This time around, Stanley hoped to recreate the first show’s level of rawness and emotion without police intervention.

From 7 p.m. on Friday, July 18, until 8 p.m. on Saturday, July 19, the center invited any and all local artists (or ambitious civilians) to hang their work in the gallery for as long as they cared to, provided that they accompanied it the entire time. And next door, in DCAC’s black box theater, performance artists filled the entire 25 hours with a wild and woolly variety of acts.

Inspired, intrigued, and honestly a little skeptical that a local art show could even last for 25 hours, I decided to stay for (and live-tweet) the entire thing. Here’s what went down:

Friday, 5:51 p.m. After ransacking a CVS for supplies, I head toward DCAC on foot from Thomas Circle. My inventory includes:

  • One package of off-brand beef jerky (I was told that protein snacks help ward off sleepiness)
  • One package of peanuts
  • One package of Utz pork rinds
  • One Macbook, iPhone, and respective chargers
  • Four emergency energy shots, to be used if things got dire
  • One refillable water bottle
  • One bar of soap
  • One deodorant stick
  • One toothbrush and travel-sized toothpaste
  • Three “trail mix” granola bars

6:38 p.m. I arrive at DCAC and find Stanley at the top of the stairs. He’s finishing up a few last-minute preparations, one of which is installing a wall shelf for a projector. I unpack my laptop and charger and set up shop in the corner of the gallery.

7:09 p.m. The first artist, D.C. native Mazin Abdelhameid, arrives and begins screwing a small shelf to the wall. This is for his interactive exhibit, “#Found.”

7:27 p.m. A few other artists and patrons have trickled in. Abdelhameid finishes his piece.

7:41 p.m. Still only a few patrons in the gallery. The main activity seems to be in the theater.

7:54 p.m. I catch “Silent Celebration,” by artist Carolina Mayorga, who dances exuberantly to audio reports of discovered human remains. She’s wearing a colorful tutu, black tights, and duct tape over her mouth. The harder she dances, the more harrowing the juxtaposition becomes.

7:56 p.m. Upon emerging from the performance, I find that a staffer nailed some of my supplies to the wall to be displayed as art. I’m cool with that, actually.

8:16 p.m. Hardly any activity in the gallery. Kind of an empty space at the moment.

8:32 p.m. Stanley tells me you don’t actually need to stand by your art to have it displayed, you only need to be in the building. This means artists can view shows in the theater while their art hangs in the gallery. So that’s where everyone went.

9:01 p.m. Upon paying the $10 entrance fee, a patron remarks “there’s not much art on the walls.” I don’t think that guy knows about the performance art!

9:19 p.m. Patrons have been side-eyeing my nailed-to-the-wall snacks all night. But someone finally approaches me to talk about it like I’m the artist. “What’s it called?” he asks. Uhh. “Snacks,” I shoot back. He nods. I nod. OK.

9:29 p.m. I return to the theater for another performance. It’s a little too quiet in the gallery for my tastes. The theater, with a crowd of 20-or-so people, is pretty social.

9:42 p.m. A performer starts pouring whiskey shots from a tube that runs from a bag in her bra to one leg of her pants. She tells us not to drink it yet, but it’s no use. Everyone is throwing it back—-except me, because I think whiskey would quickly impair my ability to stay conscious.

9:45 p.m. The show begins. Three performers—Megan Chriss, Bradley Chriss, and Chanan LeAnn Delivuck (the performer with the alcohol stashed away in her bra)—read from a trio of works while sucking down dangerous amounts of whiskey. I wonder if this is just an excuse to get wasted in front of an audience. Megan Chriss reads silently from Jane Eyre while her husband yells passages from Georges Bataille‘s horror-erotic tale, Story of the Eye. All the while, Delivuck sucks on the booze tube and screams excerpts from The Ethical Slut by Janet Hardy and Dossie Easton.

10:05 p.m. In only 15 minutes, Bradley Chriss has consumed the better part of his whiskey. Delivuck’s feeding Megan Chriss, who’s on her knees now, shots of liquor from the tube. I start to worry about their wellbeing. Having lived through several hour-long open bars over the course of my life, I know the effects of drinking too much in a short amount of time, and it’s not good.

10:07 p.m. The performance ends as the trio stumbles off the stage and into a few seats up front. I briefly contemplate calling an ambulance as it looks like the performers are enormously, possibly dangerously, drunk. But I also really, really enjoyed seeing three people get wasted onstage for reasons I can’t completely explain. Good show!

10:21 p.m. I return to the gallery in the time between shows. A small crowd has gathered in front of “Snacks” in my absence. “What does it mean?” someone asks me. “It’s a comment on consumerism,” I tell him. He nods knowingly.  I feel kind of bad for doing that.

10:30 p.m. I overhear that there will be a “life-changing” performance at 11:10 p.m. Between 40 and 60 people, a good mix of young and old, are in the gallery now.

11:03 p.m. I return to the theater to find improv artist Bud Wilkinson challenging members of the audience to come onstage and scribble on a whiteboard, which he’ll then turn into a coherent drawing. The white board keeps tipping over, frustrating Wilkinson. At the end of his performance, he smashes his whiteboard to bits onstage to the delight of the audience.

11:10 p.m. Delivuck emerges again with her bag of liquor. Audience members suck the last few shots out of it.

11:34 p.m. I learn from the event’s curator, Eames Armstrong, that the “life-changing” performance I’d heard about earlier has been cancelled. From what I can piece together, the show was supposed to star Bradley Chriss and Delivuck, who are pleasantly incapacitated. I return to the gallery and find a new crowd ogling “Snacks.” Like it or not, I’ve become part of the art.

11:40 p.m. Artist Megan Chriss is throwing up in a trash can, but this isn’t a performance. She’s just really, really drunk.

11:59 p.m. Back in the theater, performer Kunj Patel crawls across the stage in his underwear and vomits quarters into a metal basin full of water. The theater is packed, but I get the feeling not everyone knew what they were getting into; a couple in front of me whispers, “we paid $10 for this?” During the performance, Patel pours a circle of salt across the stage, wets a long, opaque sheet and stretches it across his body, and feasts on fresh coconuts. Throughout the show, a pair of audience members yell “YAAAS,” and I can’t figure out whether it’s heckling or encouragement (I find out later it’s encouragement from a friend). The performance concludes with the artist literally shoving handfuls of baby’s breath down his throat to induce a second round of vomiting. I look for the disappointed couple when the lights come up, but it looks like they left mid-show. Well, I thought it was good.

Saturday, 12:38 a.m. I take my first energy shot only five-and-a-half hours in. 20 hours to go.

12:45 a.m. Artist André T. Singleton takes the stage, burns a big bundle of sage, and dispenses some wisdom learned from his grandmother in a piece called “Ain’t Nothin Open This Time of Night but Legs and Hospitals.” He tells us he uses “art” as a verb, “as in, oops, I arted again.” I retreat to the gallery to find that most of the artists have left for the evening.

1:32 a.m. Performer Ziad Nagy ties a male volunteer’s shoelaces together, then leaves the theater. The man (Matt Dunn, who took photos of the event for Arts Desk) is left to fend for himself.

1:37 a.m. Armstrong introduces a work by multimedia artist Renée Regan (no known relation to me, although we later muse about our last names for a while). Then, the lights dim and a projector streams a TED Talk on the “power pose.” Throughout the talk, we hear whimpers and cries from backstage, and after five-or-so minutes, Regan emerges, crawling, pitiful, and draped in a red blanket. Throughout the show, Regan turns toward the talk, and seems to draw energy from it. Eventually, our protagonist has enough energy to stand, flex, and imitate the power pose to a tee.

2:12 a.m. Regan’s power has increased to the point that  unfathomably confident. Instead of crawling and crying, Regan is onstage sewing homespun “power accessories” into the armpits of several dresses, which the artist wears. Also, instead of a TED Talk, the projector now streams music videos of powerful songs like “Eye of the Tiger,” A-Ha‘s “Take On Me,” and “The Final Countdown.” Regan whoops and hollers along with the songs, clearly loving being on stage, and we love watching. At one point, the entire audience belts out a rendition of Technotronic‘s “Pump Up The Jam.” The piece ends as Regan pitches the sewn products to the crowd, takes swigs from a bottle labeled “The Power,” and sells the homemade power pose fashion accessories, worn on the armpits to initiate the power pose more often. I am woken the hell up.

2:43 a.m. I return to the gallery to munch on some of my beef jerky. A patron sees me and yells out, “Hey! Don’t eat that! That’s art!”

2:49 a.m. Stanley and I exchange how-you-doings. I’m tired. Stanley’s obviously tired. I wonder if either of us will make the full 25 hours, or if this is just another flagrant example of the hubris of man.

2:58 a.m. The audience inside the theater has dropped off significantly; I’d say there are only 10 people left. The frequency of posts on my Twitter feed has dropped off, too. Save for random scheduled tweets from the Huffington Post and the New York Times, my feed is basically devoid of content other than mine. For a moment, it feels like I’m alone in the universe. I’m also yawning a lot.

3:06 a.m. A faceless, hooded figure emerges from backstage. This is Melinda Diachenko, a moon goddess, starting her “witching hour incantation” performance. For 15 minutes, Diachenko arranges, stares at, and rearranges a bean-shaped circle of candles and crystals. She cuts off and burns a lock of her hair, then scrawls a third eye onto her forehead with black paint. To be honest, I’m not really feeling it, so I gulp down my second energy shot.

3:34 a.m. Then, almost as if Diachenko’s inhabited by a demonic spirit, something changes; she moves differently, sees things that we can’t. For what seems like an eternity, she stares into the audience, but she’s not looking at us. OK. I’m into it. And creeped out. Thoroughly. But the performance ends before I find myself gripping the armrests in terror. I’m awake again. Maybe that’s just the energy shot?

4:05 a.m. My schedule says there’s supposed to be an “endurance” performance between 4 and 8 a.m. by artist Amber Lee. I’ve been talking about this performance all night. What kind of performance art lasts four hours? I’m eager to discover.

4:09 a.m. Lee emerges from backstage, but it’s not quite time to perform—she has to light a few dozen tea candles first. There’s a handful of people left in the theater, all of them performers now: Armstrong, Regan, Patel, artist Lo Bil, and a couple of others. We’re a ragtag group. Lots of yawns, eyelid flutters, and sleepy periods of silence. Onstage, Lee lights the candles as fast as she can and hurries backstage, promising a good show. Once again, I’m skeptical. Four hours! Good luck.

4:26 a.m. Lee walks slowly, carefully, onto the stage clutching a knife and an apple. She counts the audience from the stage, and slices just as many pieces from the fruit. She kisses each piece and hands it to us one at a time before returning to the stage. The apple is really sweet and provides a much-needed sugar boost. “That’s the most formal I’m going to be for this entire performance,” Lee says with a laugh. “It’s 4 o’clock in the morning. We’re not doing that shit.”

4:29 a.m. Lee explains that she’ll be performing this piece in the nude, and sheds all of her clothing. “For four hours?!” I think. After reciting a poem, she invites us to disrobe, as well, or join her onstage for some naked yoga. Lee also dumps the contents of a bag of markers onto the stage. “Write what you want to remembered by after you die somewhere on my body,” she explains. “I’ll do some poses until each one of you writes on me.”

5:05 a.m. Several audience members have already scrawled their legacies on Lee. They range from intensely sexual mantras, to deeply meaningful life lessons. I’m one of the last ones that hasn’t gone, and I really just don’t know what to write. I feel like I was supposed to be an observer, but again and again, I find myself part of the art I’m observing. Regan’s onstage now, explaining what she wrote, “RBW,” and circling Lee like a predator. Lee looks kind of nervous. “RBW is a lifestyle. Can you guess what it is?” Regan says. RBW stands for red, black, white; the power colors. I think we’re all just really tired.

5:08 a.m. I duck out of the theater to use the bathroom. “Where’s B?” I ask the gallery manager Setara Habib, who arrived a few hours earlier. “He went home to bed,” she says.

5:14 a.m. I’m back in the audience now, trying my best to hug the wall. Then, Lee breaks her pose and points in my direction. “Just because you’re writing doesn’t mean you’re exempt.” Damn! I think really, really hard about what I want my legacy to be, gather my courage, and step onstage. I reach into the pile of markers and find a skinny black washable Crayola. Though other audience members scribbled on her thighs, legs, and arms, I ask Lee to turn around so I can write on her back. I feel like it’s the least invasive place to write on someone’s nude body. What did I want to be remembered for? Well, for being “not bad.” Or, at least, that’s what I wrote. Lee asks me to sit onstage with her and talk about it. “I feel like it’s better to be mediocre, because in the end nothing will matter, and who wants to be bad?” I say. Whoa. That was a little melodramatic. But I keep talking. I’ll be honest: After the fact, I don’t totally remember what I talked about—I think space and being a skeptic and the heat death of the universe or something—but Lee listened with the open ears of a good therapist. After I finish pouring the contents of my fragile mental state onto the stage, Lee grasps my hand and blesses me. “But I’m skeptical of your skepticism,” she says with a smile.

5:37 a.m. By design, Lee’s performance piece unravels into a big beautiful mess of stomping strawberries with moon boots, willful bondage, big feelings, grand confessions, and games of hide-and-seek and never-have-I-ever. It’s basically a sleepover, but for adults. We talk about nudity. We talk about insecurities, fears. I wander in and out of the theater during this portion and, to be honest, I don’t remember a lot of this, even though I clearly tweeted through the entire thing. At this point, I’d been up for nearly 24 hours, since 6 a.m. Friday morning.

6:22 a.m. I drink a pint of Red Bull and walk to the gallery’s front door. The sun is up. How long has it been there? Jesus. One more full day to go.

7:17 a.m. Lee’s performance ends as we burn three strips of paper that read who we were, who we are, and who we’d like to be. I wrote, “Tim,” “Tim!” “Tim!!” and lit that sucker up in the alleyway. The sunlight is dull and pastel-colored in the early morning, but it’s effective, and I’m awake again. But Lee’s performance is over. The next performer takes the stage in 45 minutes. The hell am I going to do until then?

7:26 a.m. I eat more beef jerky and check Twitter.

7:34 a.m. More jerky. More Twitter.

7:43 a.m. Finish the jerky. Tweet some more. Judging by my newsfeed, the world is awake and already obnoxious.

8:06 a.m. A chipper performer, Eve Henessa, takes the stage and introduces herself. She’ll be bellydancing and performing a Native American ritual. As she lights up some sage, my eyelids droop. I have to leave the theater to keep myself conscious, and spend some time pacing around the gallery.

8:26 a.m. Third energy shot. Could really use some of Renée Regan’s power now.

8:38 a.m. I return to the theater. Henessa’s recruited three volunteers from the audience. I’m the only one left sitting there. I’m the only audience member.

9:03 a.m. Armstrong informs us that the 9 a.m. performance has been canceled. Next performance will be 10 a.m.’s “Sexxy Brunch,” leaving me an entire hour to fend for myself. I’m not thrilled. What am I going to do in the meantime? At least a performance gives me something to focus on. This is the first time I seriously worry about falling asleep.

The author. Photo by Renée Regan.

9:24 a.m. I leave the theater momentarily and return. There’s now an act onstage, but nobody in the audience. A shrouded figure crouches in Patel’s water basin, holding a half-eaten coconut in its mouth. Bil, now clutching handfuls of baby’s breath, slowly runs the tip of the flowers across the figure’s bare chest. I feel like I’m dreaming for a moment, but then it dawns on me: this is improv art. These people are artists. How else are they going to fill an hour?

10:07 a.m. I fend off sleep for long enough to catch “Sexxy Brunch.” She brought coffee. COFFEE. The show begins normally enough, with performer Rachel Hynes asking us to remove our clothing. Wait. What? No! I like my clothes! I want them on! I’m sleep-deprived enough to argue. I say something like, “I am a member of the media and an observer!” I just really, really didn’t want to strip after enduring a sleepless night. Hynes compromises by asking me only to remove my cardigan. I later apologize to Hynes for my behavior.

11:00 a.m. After seductively feeding Patel a hot dog, making out with Armstrong through a croissant, and reading from three hilarious self-authored tales best described as erotic historical fiction, Hynes bids us farewell. Nine more hours. I can do this. I think.

11:09 a.m. The artists have begun hanging their work in the gallery. It’s a better turnout than the night before. Stanley is back, and everyone is smiling. I’m faking enthusiasm, but all I really want to do is sleep. Every once in a while, I shut my eyes tight for three or four seconds. That sleepy burning feeling on the inside of my eyelids is the closest thing I can feel to sleep, and I love it. I can’t get enough of the feeling. Nine hours. Nine. Hours.

11:26 a.m. I park myself beneath “Snacks.” I’m kind of proud it survived the entire night.

11:33 a.m. I tweet the following:

12:14 p.m. My girlfriend brings me a huge coffee with a double shot of espresso. I gulp it down in ten minutes while pacing the gallery floor and revel in the jolt of energy it provides. “This is where I die,” I think, “or become a god.”

12:44 p.m. I devour two empanadas from Julia’s Empanada’s. They are really, really good. But the spiced meat and potato filling makes me sleepy again.

12:59 p.m. I return to the theater and catch the tail end of what sounds like a great musical podcast by Philippa Hughes and Karen Yankosky.

1:08 p.m. I fight to open my eyes again every time I blink. It’s a struggle to keep myself upright at times, and sitting is very, very dangerous. I drink as much water as possible, hoping that the constant urge to urinate keeps me alert. It works.

1:53 p.m. I forget whether it’s Friday or Saturday and contemplate asking someone. Then I remember it’s Saturday. Ah, right. I keep that one to myself.

2:20 p.m. I’m hunched over in the back of the theater, defeated, but not quite asleep. I have a new thought: I worry about dying. I think back to that South Korean guy who keeled over after a marathon Starcraft session. Could that happen to me? My heart flutters. Before I can leave the theater for some fresh air, the lights dim. Another show. Three performers take the stage and sit on the floor. They introduce themselves as Annika Lewis, John Moletress, and Laura Zam. This is the start of a show called the “Sofa Dialog.” But I can’t tell you what it was about, as I sleepily bobbed back and forth throughout the whole thing. Some key points I can remember:

  • They passed out shots and Lewis taught us a Danish drinking song.
  • They discussed the 2008 election of Barack Obama and compared it to the fall of the Berlin Wall.
  • A “special guest” came out and disrobed onstage. Lewis, Moletress, and Zam discussed nudity at length. Then Bil got up on stage and disrobed as well, so they talked about differences between male and female nudity in art.
  • More shots, more drinking songs.

I drink my last energy shot in desperation.

3:45 p.m. I realize I’ve been at the event for for 21 hours, awake for 33. Nothing really makes much sense anymore, especially abstract performance art. I affix a permanent smile to my face hoping it will prevent speculation that I’m now mentally unconscious, which I am. Thought and logic is difficult. My brain is raw hamburger.

4:34 p.m. I watch artist Rachel Hrbek eat sushi off of artist Robert Weimann‘s ass. The sushi rolls rest on his buttcheeks, though, so it doesn’t seem that gross to me.

4:39 p.m. The mixture of caffeine and melatonin coursing through my body creates funny thoughts that don’t make a lot of sense after the fact. I tweet the following:

4:42 p.m. Bil starts her show, “What Does The Archive Say?” She steps onto the stage covered head-to-toe in papers, books, and journals. She explains that she’s trying this piece out for the first time, and one by one, she tears them from her body and reads whatever deeply personal passages they contain to the audience. Some are sad, some are funny, some are coincidental. Each reading reveals more and more of her nude body until she’s completely naked and vulnerable, both mentally and physically. She says it’s her first nude show, but she sure seems comfortable baring it all up there. I muster up some energy to applaud more than usual. That took guts.

The author. Photo by Renée Regan.

5:57 p.m. Raki Malhorta starts her show by handing props out to the audience; roses, a pair of rubber gloves, a key. I receive a Caesar-esque laurel crown. Finally, some respect around here! She asks the audience members who received items to come onstage and help her prepare the scene: Fill a kiddie pool with mulch! Dig a pit in the center! Hand out daisies! Then, Malhorta sends us back to our seats, disrobes, and sits nude in the center of the mulch. Almost instinctively, the audience returns to the stage to adorn her and clothe her nudeness. I place my laurel crown on her head. She kinda earned it.

6:48 p.m. Performer Geraldo Mercado kicks his own ass onstage in “Bubblegum, Bubblegum.” It’s hypnotic, violent, and downright spooky at times. He slams himself into walls, paints lipstick onto viewers’ lips, asks audience members to flog his bare back with a riding crop, and pours candle wax into his eyes over the course of an hour. The audience is clearly shocked. Each new routine in self-harm elicits gasps and nervous laughs. Near the end of the performance, as Mercado walks on broken glass Die Hard style, Bil calls out from the audience, “why are you hurting yourself?” She’s interrupting his art, and I’m not sure if this is planned or not (I later find out it’s not). “You want to see why I’m hurting myself?” he says back. She nods. Mercado walks over to a tape recorder and presses play, which blares the familiar opening beat to New Order‘s “Bizarre Love Triangle.” He starts this goofy, overly happy dance, and the audience laughs in relief. Although he screams out some of the lyrics and throws himself around a couple more times, the mood in the room has shifted to something a little more lighthearted. Then, Mercado invites nearly the entire audience onto the stage for a big, flamboyant dance party. Well, that’s one way to end it. After the performance, I catch him limping to the gallery’s bar for a beer. Right on, Mercado.

7:00 p.m. One hour to go. Words have left me at this point. I buy a beer because, why not? “It’s on the house,” says the bartender. I stuff two bucks in the tip jar anyway.

7:27 p.m. I return to “Snacks.” Ah, faithful “Snacks.” It’s mostly destroyed by this point. I’m actually not sure who’s been eating it, but the only item left is the pork rinds. I reflect on all the stuff I’ve been through on this weird journey; the drunkenness, the puking, the nudity, the self-discovery, and the absolute sheer weirdness. Stanley and I talk for a while about the gallery and where he hopes it’ll be in 25 more years. “I hope this is the kind of place you’d find in SoHo,” he says. “Although, if this was SoHo, I’d have a lot more money.”

7:55 p.m. I’m back in the theater to ring in my 25-hour mark. Onstage, the performers of “Cocoon” slither around the space like a giant human blob monster. They split off into smaller blobs, absorb them again, and eat a couple audience members. It’s absolutely, totally terrifying, despite the fact that I know it’s an act. I think sleep deprivation can induce the same kind of strange paranoia that bad acid trips can. For some reason, I’m convinced that someone’s been taken inside that cocoon beyond their wishes. The thought of a poor audience member, stuck inside that hot, claustrophobic nylon beast is horrible (by the way, it’s not hot, nor is it claustrophobic inside the costume, performers later said). I alert Armstrong. “EAMES,” I call out, “THERE IS SOMEONE STUCK INSIDE THE COCOON THAT DOESN’T WANT TO BE IN THERE.” “Who?” she says. How is she not freaking out about this? “I don’t know, I saw someone go in, some guy!” She shrugs and smiles, as if to say, “oh well, it’s art,” which freaks me out even more. I’m in the audience wringing my hands together. I contemplate tweeting about it. I do send out a panicked tweet, something like, “THERE IS A MAN INSIDE THE COCOON WHO DOESN’T WANT TO BE THERE AND HOLY SHIT GET HIM OUT OF IT” but delete it immediately. My panic is simultaneously embarrassing and, well, panicky.

But then it’s over, and everyone climbs out smiling and shaking hands, and I calm down. God. I need to sleep. I look at my phone. It’s a quarter after 8 p.m.

8:25 p.m. I emerge from the theater and shake Stanley’s hand. 25 hours. Jesus, what a trip. I’m so out of it that I start to head down the stairs, but he stops me. “Wait, don’t you want to see the cake?” Yeah, sure, I’ll see the cake. What’s five more minutes?