NEW YORK NEEDS CHERYL
A Conversation with the Performance Art Group CHERYL
By Lori Zimmer
New York needs CHERYL. The self-proclaimed dance party “that will ruin your life” is not just about dancing. It’s about sweat, glitter, costumes, dancing, and fun. At one of their parties one can expect to find all of the above plus cat masks, fake blood/vomit, dollar store masks, feathers, neon makeup and a choreographed performance. Nick Schiarizzi, Stina Puotinen, Sarah Van Buren, and Destiny Pierce started throwing parties as CHERYL, and together have mostly dedicated their lives to the power of the ridiculous.
CHERYL parties are where art, music, and performance collide, only they welcome you and actually insist that you become a part of it. To attend a CHERYL event is like feeling you belong to something–not in a culty way, but being at one of their parties has a magical effect that leaves your head filled with creative ideas that you can’t wait to get started on when you leave.
CHERYL events go on at bars like The Bell House, art houses, galleries, and even at MoMA. Each has a theme–like Tropical Hospital, Prell Raiser, and Fowl Play–and guests are encouraged to dress accordingly. Hawaiian shirt with stethoscope? Feather headdress with neon makeup and spandex? Giant shampoo bottle/dress? CHERYL’s parties forget sexiness and focuses on the fantastical fun of just getting weird.
Lori Zimmer: Each of your parties has a loose theme, giving inspiration for your guests’ costumes (which totally reminds me of my teenage rave days). How do the four of you decide on just one?
Nick Schiarizzi: We run through a lot of theme ideas. Sometimes a party theme comes to us right away and we all agree on it. Other times, the whole group isn’t sold on an idea and we have to keep brainstorming. We usually end up picking the theme that makes us laugh the most. We envision producing a video on the theme of “Tropical Hospital” or “Cheeto Sphinx” and then having hundreds of people dress according to that theme, and if it feels right, we go for it.
Sarah Van Buren: Yeah, we brainstorm together, and sometimes ideas just pop out of nowhere, from our collective unconsciousness. Our creepy combo-brain. Or sometimes someone says something completely ridiculous that ends up as a theme. For example, a long time ago Stina used the phrase “joyous touchstone” to describe CHERYL, and we all agreed immediately agreed that it needed to be a party. Other times, we labor for days, weeks, even months to come up with the right idea that everyone is jazzed about.
Stina Puotinen: We think about what makes us laugh, what would be good for costumes, for a performance, what might be part of the video, and then if all the different parts come together we go for it. We often ask, would we go to a party called this? If the answer is yes, it happens! We also usually have a list of themes we like that we wait to present till the time is right. Tropical Hospital was on the table for months before we actually used it for a party theme last month.
Destiny Pierce: It is true that we four share a similar brain for this sort of thing. Sometimes I have an out-of-body experience where I listen to our very earnest conversations about CHERYL-related issues, and I realize that it sounds like we live in an alternate reality. Our working process is very organic and really flows out of our friendship and the amount of time dedicated time that we spend together. There are still viable themes that are on the table that we came up with in 2008 when we first started working together. Recently we used a character in a video that was originally part of the cast of a musical that we started working on a couple of years ago. We have a very CHERYL common language that we immediately begin to reference when we are together and it makes things for the most part pretty easy, except of course when we are in a heated debate for weeks over whether a theme should be Pioneer Puppet Hospital or Tropical Hospital.
LZ: The four of you work well together to accentuate the same awesome visual absurdity. Have you always shared similar aesthetics and ideas, or did you dream up guide lines for CHERYLisms? Do you have art world backgrounds?
NS: We four strangely share basically the same exact sense of humor, and that ends up informing a lot of what we do together. We all have some sort of art-related experience, but none of us were on a career trajectory toward becoming full-time artists when we started doing CHERYL.
SVB: Agreed with Nick. And we all have pretty strong art backgrounds, all in different types of media, which actually has worked really well to make CHERYL fairly versatile.
DP: I think we definitely share a similar sensibility, however we each definitely have our own take. There are no strict guidelines or rules and we try to ensure that each of us is allowed room for individual expression. That’s what keeps it interesting for us all. I am still surprised by the ideas and the costumes and the objects that the others make and that is why I love being part of CHERYL. And as far as our backgrounds, yes, as the others have said, we have varied backgrounds that are definitely art related but none of us went to art school. Collectively I think we make a strong team with a background ranging from philosophy to film to art history and dance.
LZ: In my head, I like to imagine you all as investment bankers or librarians by day, and wild explosions of creativity by night. What are your day jobs?
NS: I am currently a full-time unpaid employee of CHERYL. I had an advertising day job that was super easy, but I quit it because I was feeling sassy.
SVB: I have two super-low-key part-time day jobs so I can do CHERYL pretty much full-time. I quit my “real job” two years ago. I think I speak for everyone when I say that CHERYL has ruined our respective finances, but has made our lives complete.
SP: I’ve been working full time (with part time jobs on the side) in museum education since I moved to New York City seven years ago, but just very recently have made the jump to freelancing in an effort to pursue CHERYL in a more full-time way.
DP: I used to have a normal person day job working in museums and the non-profit world, but I gave that up to become a full-time unpaid employee for CHERYL for a bit and now I am freelancing and pawning my valuables to pay the rent.
LZ: I love that museums, galleries, and the general art world has taken notice of your creative force. Did you ever think that you’d be throwing parties for Cindy Sherman? Or was that your plan all along?
NS: Well, we threw the MoMA party in conjunction with Cindy’s retrospective, not necessarily for her. We heard rumors she was in attendance at the beginning of the party. I think they like us because we are serious about what we do, but we don’t take ourselves as seriously as most artists do.
SVB: What Nick said. We never intended to grow into this. It was all organic, but I feel like that breeds creativity and a feeling of realness. I think people pick up on that.
DP: Yes, it was organic, but I think that we had such honest drive, enthusiasm, and energy behind what we are doing that it seems natural in a way that we now have the opportunities to translate our performance and ideas into a bigger arena. A long time ago, Nick and I were riding the subway together and we were talking about the future of CHERYL and we were both like, we want CHERYL to be a color and a gender and a number and natural disaster. I think that force behind our feelings and work with CHERYL have played a role in where we are today even though we didn’t start out with well laid plans to get here.
SP: Being involved in the art world wasn’t necessarily our original plan when we started four years ago, but it’s definitely part of who we are now. We’re headed to two month-long (and more) residencies this year in the UK and US. We’ve gotten a year-long fellowship at the Museum of Art and Design for art and nightlife people. All these projects–residencies, gallery shows, museum events–they’ve helped us see ourselves in new ways, reconsider what we do and where we’re headed, and it’s helped keep us excited about what we do. New challenges–at a club, at a museum, wherever it is–keeps us interested, thinking, and working.
LZ: With the age of the Limelight, club kids and that whole party scene gone, CHERYL seems to be one of the few keeping that spirit on- dressing up and dancing and forgetting it all. Are you at all inspired by the club scene of the 80s and 90s?
NS: We don’t necessarily assemble in an editing suite with piles of VHS surveillance tapes from Limelight, analyzing what they did way back when and how we can improve upon it. Far from it. In a way, what we do with CHERYL feels like a natural, organic phenomenon, even though it may, on the surface, seem like we’re continuing a tradition.
SVB: Agreed with Nick. People do compare us to the club kids a lot, but I think it’s mostly a surface comparison because of the costumed partier thing. I’m not sure our videos or installations or other interactive stuff have much to do with them. However, there is some essence or energy that comes from a deeper place inside of us that I think we share with not only the club kids, but any psycho-weirdos that have come before, like the Dadaists or the dudes in Monty Python or the Muppets.
DP: I don’t necessarily feel a connection to that culture, and I am sure that has partly to do with the fact that I came to NYC after the end of the club kid culture era. It was a time when you were hard-pressed to even find one decent dance party anywhere. I mean CHERYL was even partially born out of our boredom with the music and dance parties that were happening in NYC a few years ago. When asked about our reference points and influences, I sometimes joke that we create CHERYL in a vacuum, but that actually feels pretty accurate to me. As I mentioned before, it also feels like we have invented our own language that we speak with each other.
SP: I think we’re all aware of what came before, but we weren’t really living in NYC during the heyday of the club kids so unfortunately didn’t really experience it as first-hand as we may have liked. As Destiny mentioned, most of us came to New York during the aftermath of all that, where there were very few dance parties happening. We respect any and all super freaks from any era, and we’re flattered to be compared to people with vision.
LZ: Party or performance? What is the driving force behind CHERYL?
NS : The driving force behind CHERYL is fun above all. We want people to have fun and be weird and stop caring about being sexy.
SVB: Agreed. It’s all one thing. It doesn’t necessarily need a definition. It’s some hybrid of art and fun and going insane.
DP: I agree it is hard to separate the two. CHERYL is celebratory and euphoric and is both elements of a party and performance no matter what the venue or the audience we with. I do feel strongly that at our parties, we are inviting people into a space that is about a collaborative group performance. We are creating our own space, our own world, and our own rules for a night together. CHERYL sets the wheels in motion, but then it is anyone’s guess as to what is going to happen within that space once 500 people show up and start participating with us.
SP: Part of the fun of CHERYL is that we’re somewhere between dance party, performance, artists, fashion, nightlife, cult, and whatever else people associate us with. I think it’s hard to define what we do because we’re always re-defining what we do. We take on new, different, interesting, and weird projects as we think of them, or as they’re offered to us, because anything can fit into what CHERYL is. We’re not one thing or the other; it’s whatever we want or need it to be. CHERYL is life.
LZ: What do you hope people take away from your parties/performances?
NS: I hope that people leave our parties feeling refreshed that something like this is happening in the world.
SVB: I think people may get a sense of the community around CHERYL. None of this would have happened without these people. We have a really amazing group of friends and collaborators–many of which we didn’t know before CHERYL existed–that are now a huge part of our lives. CHERYL has brought all of us together, and it’s really allowed us to support each other and make life positive during an otherwise really fucked-up and depressing point in history. Thank God it happened.
DP: I want people to turn themselves inside out and turn the world upside down on its head for a bit. I want people for a moment to feel, even for a moment, that anything is possible and that CHERYL is a space/idea/thing where magic happens.
SP: If someone goes home with glitter in their pubes, we’ve done our jobs.
CHERYL is a Brooklyn based dance troupe/party makers/art creators consisting of Nick Schiarizzi, Stina Puotinen, Sarah Van Buren, and Destiny Pierce. They are currently bringing their dance parties around the globe, with their next NYC affair in June.
Written by Lori Zimmer
Edited by Meaghan Coffey
Photography by Jonathan Grassi
Style by Delvin Lugo
Styling Assistance by Rasaan Wyzard
Design by Marie Havens
CHERYL, Downtown Brooklyn, New York, April 2012, Photography by Jonathan Grassi
Clothing & Accessories:
Sarah Van Buren: