headlines | about |

The NYC Complaints Choir is Coming. You Got a Problem With That?

I met the Helsinki-based artist couple Tellervo Kalleinen and Oliver Kochta-Kalleinen in early June 2008, during the opening of Arctic Hysteria at P.S. 1, an exhibition of sixteen artists (or artist groups) from Finland. It remains on view through September 15.

I was overwhelmed by Mika Ronkainen's documentary of the Screaming Men's Chorus, a huge screen placed at the entrance to the show with a video projection of exactly what was advertised (men in black trekking over a glacier and screaming), and entranced by the flying saucer-like Futuro Lounge, a streamlined homage to utopian architect Matti Suuronen. But of all the Hysteria, it is the Kalleinen's ongoing project, their organizing of Complaints Choirs throughout the world, that has inspired my most lasting affection and ongoing participation.

While it might seem at first blush like a bit of latter day social sculpture, the Complaints Choir project turns out, strangely enough, to be a natural charmer. It has mined a cathartic nerve among the disgruntled of the Earth, and they are legion. For who can gainsay the most basic expression of civic pride: to be able to insist that your city, yours alone, is by far the most wretched? For example, the citizens of Birmingham, where the complaints project was first realized in 2005, loudly vaunted their burg as the "arsehole of England".

So there is nothing uniquely Finnish about the act of complaining, nor a particular dourness of national character occasioned by the cliche of long winter nights and the massive consumption of vodka. But there is a Finno-Ugric word, valituskuoro, which connotes a general state of public malaise. It translates literally as "chorus of complainers." The Kalleinens advance it as the conceptual underpinning of their project, and have traveled the world, fomenting great bouts of internationally facilitated whining, and accumulating an enviable cache of frequent flier miles. Thus far, choirs have been initiated in twenty cities, mostly in Europe and North America. But as revealed in the map, certain continents still remain untouched by the phenomenon.

Here is the Helsinki chapter of the choir in action

the Birmingham group

the Russians in St. Petersburg

and some griping Chicagoans.

There were also initiatives in Budapest, Jerusalem, Philadelphia, Singapore, and one is currently forming in Copenhagen. But finally, New York will also have a chance to vent, lending a bit of authentic Big Apple attitude to the mix. A marriage made in heaven, you might say. The Village Voice seems to agree.

Since I generally have an ax to grind, and since Alanna Heiss (the boss at P.S. 1) was unnecessarily rude to me at the Finnish opening (complaint!), I decided to add my voice to the general caterwaul. This was long before I considered writing about it here, so my status as "embedded" journalist is only happenstance. But it is one of the pervasive lessons of the blogosphere: always assume that a prospective reporter is present.

I attended a preliminary organizational meeting at Mehanata Bulgarian Bar on June 8, during which complaints were jotted down on Post Its (to augment a list already sent by email), assembled by category, then distilled down to a manageable size (by various ad hoc subcommittees) from well over 600. What made the final cut? A lot of quality of life issues. People who do not enjoy the subway, their cabbies, their doctors, their noisy neighbors, the lack of privacy, bad manners, litter, insufficient city services, as well as (surprise!) money and job worries, family discord, boyfriend/girlfriend problems and personal failures of character. And when in doubt, there was always Rudy to dump on (see below).

I missed several subsequent rehearsals (I mean, what could they do - complain?), but think I will attend tonight's meeting at the CSV Cultural Center, a converted public school building on the Lower East Side. It's only five blocks from my house, and Bloomberg TV will be shooting the session for a video segment they are producing on Muse Arts.

There might be some Complaint Choir parameters which are not immediately apparent. For one, the project tends to think globally but act locally. Although there is a central structure, a modus operandi to kick things off properly, and ongoing support from FRAME, the Finnish Fund for Art Exchange, the choir is ultimately a home grown, grass roots affair. Each city has its own coordinator, in our case the amiable, proactive Marc Nasdor. Each attracts its own participants, all volunteers. For some reason there are usually more women than men. (Is there a gender gap when it comes to the serious business of bitching and moaning? And will I catch an earful of complaints concerning this last remark?) Each group compiles its own list of gripes, creates its own infrastructure, its schedule of rehearsal spaces and times. Each, most importantly, finds its own musical director.

The New York choir is lucky to have secured the participation of guitarist, free jazz aficionado and minimalist composer Alan Licht. He has experimented with popular vocal forms in his ongoing "Digger Chorus" performances at the Issue Project Room in Red Hook, Brooklyn, in which the audience is enlisted as a pickup ensemble. Licht wrote the Complaints Choir song, molding our assembled kvetching into the heart of his libretto. As a member of the choir (although somewhat A.W.O.L.), I was sent an mp3 to play at home.

The music is very Noo Yawk, very old school rock and roll, with a call and response structure and rhyme reminiscent of 1950's Doo Wop. A little Carole King, a little Dion and the Belmonts, the declamation of "Runaround Sue" and Italian-American outer borough stoop singing combined with the lilt of "Under the Boardwalk". In the interest of full disclosure, I considered attaching a music file, but will try to restrain myself. However, for the few select readers of this blog (and you know who you are, even if I don't), a sneak preview of the lyrics follows.

Public performances will occur over the next several months. Keep your ears peeled and consult the New Wilderness Foundation website. I might even post the occasional update here. You got a problem with that?

Here then, ready or not, willing or not, kicking and screaming, is the NYC Complaints Choir, lyrics contributed by a bunch of pissed off New Yorkers, compiled by Marc Nasdor and Alan Licht, song composed by Alan Licht, ©2008 New Wilderness Foundation. Can I get a witness?

New York City is not a part of the USA
New York should be an independent country
People whack my kid in the face with their bags on the subway
Babies—there’s a place for them. It’s called Nebraska!

It’s ridiculously hot and it’s not even June
The person next to me is singing out of tune
My full service building is nowhere near that
All the streets got repaved except for mine

Why can’t I get a taxi in the rain?
JFK Airport is too far away
My boyfriend always gets a little pee on the floor
Construction workers pee right outside of my door

Please wear longer shorts to the gym
I don’t want to know you all that well
Men, please close your legs in the subway
So others can have some space to sit

New Yorkers are always thinking out loud
Why can’t I have a robot clean my house?
People always throw trash on the ground
When there’s a trash can two feet away

I never get to be / home alone
Because my roommate is always there
Drivers don’t care about bicyclists
Everybody acts like they are an expert

Times Square looks like a strip mall
Bleecker Street looks like Palm Beach
Tourists get in my way on the sidewalk
You can’t tell if someone hates you just by looking

There’s so much to do here
But no money to do it with
Long Islanders think they are New Yorkers
But they are not

Doctors in Manhattan
Are much more interested
In my wallet
Than my health

I wanted Harlem to get better
Not unrecognizable
My local market was torn down
To build a luxury hotel

The landlord never makes
Any repairs
But he still expects the rent
To be paid on time

Why is it illegal
To own a flamethrower?
It’s almost 10pm
And I’m still in the office

I hate working
But I hate being broke even more
The prices all go up
But I don’t get a raise

My son’s fake ID
Looks nothing like him
My husband doesn’t like
Any of my friends

People who never
Use deodorant
Always stand next to me
On the subway

The subway platform is too hot
And the subway car is too cold
Only women stand up
And give their seats to the elderly

Why do cabbies talk
On their cell phones throughout the ride?
Rudolph Guiliani
Still exists

Pushcart bagels are the worst
Plastic bags end up in trees
The weather is too good
There are too many trailers before a movie

I am thirty-six
Why do I still have acne?
Whatever I do
It’s never enough

SUV’s clog the city streets
Really? Do you work on a farm?
Are you delivering supplies to a third world country?
Probably not

You pay too much for what should be free
Who started monogamy?
Poor people always get the shaft
How did I ever get so fat?

I can hear bad music from my neighbors
But I can’t hear them having sex
My boyfriend farts loudly when we’re in bed
College students vomit right on my doorstep

A long line of ants crossed my bedroom floor
You can’t buy wine in the grocery store
Cranes are falling out of the sky
Car alarms keep me awake every night

When I open a door for myself
Somebody else always plows right through
No one makes eye contact with me
Or even notices that I exist

“Ok, we know we’ve been complaining for a while, but there’s 12 more things we want to complain about, with your kind indulgence, ready?”

No public bathrooms
Old ladies at Whole Foods
Preachers on the subway
Cars in the bike lane
Cashier tip jars
Anonymous hate blogs
Slow elevators
Global warming deniers
Manorexic hipsters
Yelling on your cell phone
I never got a pony
Rudolph Giuliani

No public bathrooms
Old ladies at Whole Foods
Preachers on the subway
Cars in the bike lane
Cashier tip jars
Anonymous hate blogs
Slow elevators
Global warming deniers
Manorexic hipsters
Yelling on your cell phone
I never got a pony
Rudolph Giuliani,
Rudolph Giuliani,
Rudolph Giuliani,
Rudolph Giuliani,
Rudolph Giuliani,
Rudolph Giuliani,
Rudolph Giuliani,
Rudolph Giuliani,
Rudolph Giuliani.

The song.

Birmingham, Chicago