After lunch, we were told that the next scene would have us cheering the Egyptian god Horus, as he entered the Brooklyn Navy Yard like a boxer stepping into the arena.
Horus would have a Don King-style entourage, naturally. They would wear tracksuits, and one of them would have Jheri curls, a moustache and the 1980s dork glasses that a bartender in Williamsburg might wear today. There would also be a four-piece band in feathery Native American costumes, with guitar-class instruments—ukuleles, banjos. Horus would have a close-cropped haircut and a chunky gold necklace. His feet would be wrapped like a gymnast, and he would wear a white terrycloth shendyt that had clearly been fashioned from a towel. On his left arm, he would carry a live falcon.
“It’s very important that you not touch the falcon,” the first A.D. told a group of extras in the warehouse and then moved down to repeat this injunction to other groups.
Horus could be seen preparing just beyond the swinging chain-link fence at the entrance to Dry Dock 1. He scowled hard, like he wanted it to stick. Just behind him, the men in tracksuits mingled, and the one with Jheri curls held a gold-plated rod, combination crowbar and hammer, an approximation of an ancient Egyptian was scepter.
The background made two columns near the fence. Some of us were told to climb it so we could get a better look at the actors, like in the opening of The Warriors.
The fliers had seemed innocuous enough, stacked neatly on the white front desk at Gladstone Gallery.
“RIVER OF FUNDAMENT Seeks Volunteers for Film Shoot,” it began, then dropped a line.
“On Saturday, June 29, Remains, LLC will be filming scenes for River of Fundament, an art film collaboration between artist/filmmaker Matthew Barney (Cremaster, Drawing Restraint 9) and composer Jonathan Bepler, which combines cinema with elements of live performance and opera. The film is loosely based on Norman Mailer’s novel Ancient Evenings, which is set in ancient Egypt, though told in a very contemporary way. The depiction of Mailer’s Egypt is violent, erotic and humorous in a way that feels more like a dystopian mafia/family drama set in New York City in the ’80s.”
Potential extras were warned that they had to be in “good physical condition and willing to get [their] feet wet.” They would “be asked to participate vocally” and needed to be “willing to stay up for 10 hours.” “The location is outdoors,” the flier continued. “And it will be hot.”
There were no details beyond these prerequisites, which made their precision a little ominous, especially given the nature of the films that made Barney one of the biggest artists of the 1990s. Rife though those movies are with Mounties, blimps, Vaseline constructions, beehive copulation, Masonic rites, Richard Serra cameos, Guggenheim climbing, zombie horses, prolapsed anuses and slices of Barney’s leg fed to Björk, there aren’t many extras in them. Who knew what such a volunteer opportunity would entail? How could something that will probably lack much dialogue (like Barney’s other multihour films) be violent, erotic and humorous? If the ’90s are back, does that mean Matthew Barney is relevant again? And why were our feet going to get wet?
Maybe it was a desire to answer these questions that led some 100 people to hand over 12 hours of their lives to an artist who had once named a film series after a scrotum muscle. But it might also have been the mythic status that has arisen both around Barney and this particular project. Since 2007, Barney—who has made just a handful of films since the five of the 1990s Cremaster cycle and had his Guggenheim retrospective a decade ago—has worked on little besides this six-hour film, which, given that he is a fan of metempsychosis, may have been intentional, as Mailer worked on Evenings for a decade (though The New York Times still called Mailer’s 1,000-page Hilary Mantel-meets-Stargate-esque opus “not simply a failure” but “speaking bluntly, a disaster”).
At 8 a.m. on the already hot morning of June 29, we, the background, sat on rows of plastic chairs, like troops awaiting deployment, in a Brooklyn Navy Yard warehouse large enough to hold a freighter ship. The first A.D., a skinny, professional woman in a Black Panther Party T-shirt, rallied our attention to give us a George Patton-style pep talk. Her other duty was to summarize the plot of the film in five minutes, insofar as that was possible.
We would play a crowd that had gathered to watch a fight between Horus and another god, Seth. (It would be around the time Horus appeared on set that the rest of the crew would start referring to us nonactors, in earnest, as “background,” e.g. “Do we need background in this shot?”) “At times, you will be asked to become belligerent with one another,” the first A.D. said through a bullhorn. “At times, you will be asked to draw your attention to a car, which is also a god, that has risen out of the river.”
(The car that was also a god was an overturned Trans-Am at the bottom of the dry dock that appeared to be sinking into, or emerging from, some ornate mud.)
The organizers broke us into three groups, each with a leader who would tell us what to do in each scene. We were also to check in with them if we were having any medical issues. “This is Matthew Barney camp,” I heard one leader tell his group. “And I am your counselor.” We scooted onto a ledge inside Dry Dock 1, at a rate so slow it must have been determined by an insurance company. The dock had been drained that morning and would be the focal point for most of our shooting that day.
The gradated walls of Dry Dock 1 comprise some 15 tan brick tiers, each about two feet tall and wide, climbing in a way that resembles an amphitheater or the face of a pyramid. It is circular, with each tier making a large U, the upper part of which abuts the East River. Other groups joined us, on lower levels, and the counselors told us to spread out two feet apart until we took up the entire side of the wall. Across the way, on identical tiers, members of the full-scale film crew set up cameras for our first shot, dwarfed by the rusted buildings and cranes of the Yard. Two new cranes held additional cameras.
We stood up straight as though filming would begin at any moment. The flier had said nothing about our dress beyond recommending sturdy footwear, and, well, the simplest way to say it is that we appeared, drastically, to be what we were—a group of hipsters and South Brooklyn yuppies. Some of us wore tanktops, some sleeveless chainmail shirts, and there were a good number in polos, flouncy dresses and (on both genders) linen blouses. Also, there were two people I know who work in Jeff Koons’s studio (dressed in all black).
Barney has always had a specific vision for his films, so this must have been what he wanted from us clothing-wise (in one documentary, he can be seen correcting the harpoon form of a Japanese whaling crew in a way similar to how, on the day of filming for River of Fundament, he would take Horus’s scepter from him to demonstrate how to wield it, above the head, supported by two straightened arms). Maybe this was even his point: Like it or not, we were the inheritors of Mailer’s Brooklyn and not actually so different from the borough’s former residents, if you squinted your eyes—the way Cremaster 2 implied that Harry Houdini was Gary Gilmore’s grandfather. Or maybe we just weren’t going to be in that much of the film.
Across the way, a man in a red-brimmed hat separated himself from the rest of the crew. He carried a bullhorn, wore a T-shirt for a metal band whose name could not be read because of the ripped-edge effect around the letters and tended to incorporate his shoulders into his walk. On a closer view—later, during the Horus scenes—we would see that he was pale and that his patchy beard was coming in gray. He would wear a piece of long white cloth under his baseball cap to protect his neck from the sun.
“Hi, everyone, I’m Matthew,” the man said, his voice soft in the bullhorn. “The director. Thanks for coming out today.” Barney explained that this first scene we’d shoot was one of the last in the movie. As he spoke, eight people in black baseball caps fitted with foot-long wires coming out the top positioned themselves among us. These were our musical leaders, like the counselors but for the vocalizations, as they called them, that we would perform throughout the day. The tips of their antennae held tiny microphones to pick up our voices. For this first scene, we were going to sing a hymn.
“It’s O.K. if you can’t follow the lyrics,” Barney said as crew members with black paint cue cards spread down the opposite wall. “It’s most important not to look confused.”
After a few rehearsals, we sang: “We have seen the battle/Crown Victoria/we await/our king.”
The pitch was the only difficult part, as it was generally of a higher octave than most people are comfortable hitting in public. The first line began very high and then fell slightly. We went up again on “Victoria,” though the last two lines remained flat but were still choirboy-high. The cue cards did not seem necessary, but each crew member still shuffled his two for each verse, and these were all we could stare at, as at that point we had been forbidden from looking at the car.
The counselors informed us that the next scene would have us marching and chanting. A few ports at the far end of the dry dock had been opened, and it began to fill with green water. The Trans-Am burped pockets of air as it went under.
We trudged along the ledge staring forward and said, in the cadence of our choosing: “Seth/will be king of all lands/and conquer.” The lower two levels went the opposite way and said this for Horus. On the other side of the dry dock, Barney had put on his glasses and paced along the edge, watching our scene through a handheld monitor with blinders that showed him what the camera saw.
We had still received no context for any of this, and it seemed that if Barney wanted anything particular he’d tell us. Our orders came from him, but almost divinely, through levels of walkie-talkie crew bureaucracy until the counselors, each with a curly Secret Service-style earpiece, vocalized them.
“Matthew hates anything obvious,” Chelsea Romersa, then Barney’s assistant, told Michael Kimmelman in 1999. ‘’Often, we have to ask practical questions, but we never ask direct questions about content. By osmosis, you begin to make connections yourself, which is the real point of art anyway, don’t you think?’’
“What should we do with our hands?” one woman asked.
“Good question,” Jordan said. She consulted her earpiece. “Leave them at your sides.”
For the next take, we were told to do the same thing but also look at the slowly vanishing wheels of the Trans-Am every now and then, “as if you were at a football game and wanted to watch it as you were headed to your seat from the bathroom,” a counselor said.
At 11 a.m., we finished the scene. The sun had come out, and we broke for sunscreen and water, both distributed by the counselors. We had to wait for the car to fully submerge, and so we sat on our ledges, lending the dry dock a stadium vibe, though it wasn’t exactly the same due to our fashion choices. Think Pavement plays Citi Field.
The scale and weirdness of Barney’s projects seem to encourage gawking (this article is itself guilty of some of that “did you hear about the time he did this?” gossip). Between shots, a competition emerged in which Barney die-hards tried to out-Barney one another by recounting the strange things they’d seen and done in the six years since Barney began making this film. A tall man with curly hair said he’d been in Detroit for Barney’s seven-hour opera, where an FBI agent, reincarnated from the goddess Isis, had had sex with the chassis of a Chrysler, which had been filled with snakes before it was melted piecemeal in rivers of molten iron.
“You should see what we were dealing with at the studio, dude,” one of the counselors said. Barney’s Long Island City space had recently built a recreation of Mailer’s home, placed it on a barge and shot scenes in it as it floated down the East River. “I’m talking porn stars, dead animals.
“Like this one time, we had to get a dead cow from the butcher, right? We get it, the actor cuts into it on camera like he’s supposed to, and out comes this baby calf. The cow had died pregnant, so along with all the organs and stuff out came this tiny cow! We just kept rolling, and the actor had to improvise.”
“Why the porn stars?” someone asked.
“We have this scene where Maggie Gyllenhaal just reads her lines straight into the camera, and in the background two of them are eating each other’s asses out,” he said. “We also have this scene where one of them just pees, just urinates right on a table. I was giving her water for hours, and then she just had to hold it until we said ‘go.’”
Over bagged lunch, three punky guys who’d driven up from Baltimore asked a Barney crew member what the fight between the gods would be like.
“Oh,” he said. “Well, it’s going to be pretty cool. The car comes out of the mud, and then the two guys, the gods, they start playing these trumpets with their buttholes. And then they, like, shit into the trumpets and vomit into the trumpets.”
“Shit, yeah, dude!” one of the Baltimore crew said.
“Fuck, yeah,” the crew member agreed. “It’s gonna be awesome.”
For the next scene, the musical leaders instructed us to yell sports-like invectives across the way to invisible opposing supporters and the camera crew. The tone for these ranged from something that wouldn’t actually sound out of place at a football game, to mystical, to spittle-flinging angry:
“Seth [pronounced ‘set’]! Seth! Go-ing down!”
“Ho-RUS! Of the rising sun!”
“Shit! On! Seth! SHIT! ON! SETH!”
“Ass! Fuck! Seth!” “Ass! Fuck! Seth [punctuated for how it sounded, but it’s the verb ‘ass-fuck’]!”
“Ho-RUS! Will fuck you!”
We did a quick scene where those who felt capable of more scampering scampered down the pyramid wall to gawk at where the car used to be. Then it was time to vocalize for Team Seth. “Seth!” we chanted. “Of the New York Sky!” “Seth! Seth! Seth! Dom-in-ate!” “The boy [Horus] is fucked!” Then everything went slower as we sang “Fall haaard! At the Navy Yaaard!”
At the chainlink gates, the musical leaders took up positions among us, and we were told to cheer as though we were excited, without-precedent excited, to see Horus as he entered, at times putting the normal cheers on hold to follow their lead in an awed chant of “Hooo-rus, Hooo-rus” and sometimes simply “oooh.” Between takes, one of the musical leaders tried to build our enthusiasm for the fight. “Man, I hate that Seth guy,” he told someone next to him. “Right? That Seth is always messing things up for us.” Some people nodded in agreement. It’s possible we were all on the brink of sunstroke.
“Roll tape,” the first A.D. said. “Now background action.” We began to act excited. “Aaand action!”
As Horus, with falcon and crew, moved through the crowd, background tried to touch the boy god, as we had been instructed. The entourage shoved them away without breaking stride—not roughly, but background had also not been informed that they would be doing this. Horus remained ice-cold with his falcon, going at something just short of a saunter. A Steadicam walked backward ahead of him, and, just ahead of the camera, Barney led the way with his monitor. The entourage passed, and background formed a procession behind it.
Then we squared off under the cranes West Side Story-style as musicians plinked ominous tunes and we parted like the sea for our gods. Seth was dressed just like Horus, though with a dog wrapped around his neck instead of a falcon on his arm. He was older and had longer, grayer hair. His entourage was more pinstripe gangster than Don King. After we’d finished filming the scene, we vocalized again, just for audio, “Ass! Fuck! Seth!” We yelled at the boom mics, “Ass! Fuck! Seth! Ass! Fuck! Seth,” until we were hoarse.
The final shot of the day was rushed. We were losing the sun. Seth was to take a spiteful glance over his shoulder at Horus, and then, after a beat, a crowd would sweep him from one side of Dry Dock 1 to the other, while Horus’s congregation circled him like electrons. All of this would be recorded by two overhead cameras. We were to walk “as quickly as possible without running,” along the long outer rim of the dry dock U, taking Seth with us. At the climax, Seth would dive into the water.
“Excuse me,” Seth said quietly when we reached the other side. He was not tall, and we’d forgotten to let him through to the front.
“Matthew wants you to stay under the water for about 15 seconds,” a production assistant told Seth, during a cut before the dive. “If you’re comfortable with that.”
“I mean, sure, look,” the god said. “If that’s what he wants.”
Seth came up after four seconds and a shallow dive, sputtering. “Couldn’t do it,” he said. “Nuh-uh, sorry. Can we go again?”
We could not. People seemed to have forgotten that a Barney ephemera raffle had been promised for the end of the day, and we stood, exhausted, around a bucket in the warehouse as a counselor pulled tickets from it. Off in a corner of the warehouse, Barney signed poster after poster.
The numbers were announced with a bullhorn. Most winners came forward meekly, like it was wrong somehow to have received something material from the experience. Except for one guy, who, upon discovering he’d won, pumped a fist and yelled, “Ass! Fuck! Seth! Ass! Fuck! Seth!”