THE CUT: Artist Ventiko Wears Milk-Carton Dresses to Meet Strangers on the Subway

There’s a brownstone turned art collective dubbed Unruly in the heart of Bushwick, which for last weekend’s purposes hosted an orgy-like one-night-only exhibition titled “WWW III,” curated by the avant-garde artist Ventiko. She designed a multisensory experience investigating the internet’s influence on the future of humanity — one of several events she’s hosting in New York this month.

On Saturday night, Ventiko’s pet peacock, Dexter, was the last to arrive because his Uber driver missed the correct pick-up point — she regularly transports him via Uber, or by subway on a leash. The “WWW III” installations featured outdated Dell computer screens and stairwells laced with discarded electrical cords. Projectors played a mesmerizing preview of a video to be released in full later this week, titled Hungry, of Ventiko devouring a chocolate human-shaped sculpture.

Other performers ate strawberries on a live sex cam or ceremonially sliced onions in Unruly’s crowded rooms. The night ended like most parties don’t: Ventiko ushered dozens of guests into a circle and instructed pairs of strangers to silently stare into each other’s eyes for three whole minutes.

This craving for human interaction — to “create a moment of pause in the hecticness of day-to-day life,” she says — is reflected in many of Ventiko’s art projects, some of which New Yorkers may recognize from riding the subway. She started her artwork nearly a decade ago, as a way to keep herself preoccupied during her mother’s chemotherapy for breast cancer. She began to collect discarded milk cartons at Bushwick United Nursery School and recycled them as “wearable sculptures”: extravagant dresses and hats made from hundreds of cartons that she stapled together by hand. “I was an only child watching her mother have a part of her body amputated,” she remembers. “I needed catharsis.”

The milk cartons inspired her ongoing project Sylva Dean and Me, a silent, interactive performance that provides a similar kind of catharsis for viewers. In the piece, which she’s performed occasionally on New York City subway platforms and most recently at the Venice Biennale, last June, she wears a milk-carton dress and is followed by a crew of androgynous “Milk Carton Monsters” — her artist friends, also dressed in milk-carton outfits, who communicate solely through their gestures. She says the silent performance allows her to uniquely connect with strangers within the confines of her character, Sylva Dean — the piece is meant to dissolve barriers based on race, religion, gender, and socioeconomics. “No one is gonna let me touch their face [as Ventiko] … so it’s this really privileged moment of personal interaction,” she says. Some commuters let her get close to their faces, or steal their bikes and ride circles around them.

But Sylva Dean is the least mobile of the performers, due to her corset dress. “She’s exemplary of the fact that it takes a lot of work to be beautiful,” Ventiko explains. “She is beautiful but her face is broken and she doesn’t speak. She can only be this forced doll with limited gestures.”

Sylva Dean and Me will perform this Wednesday, July 26, from 7 to 9 p.m. at Socrates Sculpture Park in Long Island City. The full release of Kelsey Brewer’s Hungry will show July 27–29 at Fat Free Art on the Lower East Side. For a preview, see photos of Ventiko’s Venice Biennale performance in the slideshow ahead.