June 3, 2009

Tina Helisten

Tina Helisten was the dancing diva of Williamsburg. The Finish hottie performed at venues throughout Brooklyn in the early 90s, and she performed at Gargoyle Mechanique and other venues in Manhattan. She was a local celebrity, and a poster girl for the new sensibility that was emerging on the Brooklyn waterfront at the time. This was a turn toward organic forms and weird environments, and away from the didactic allegories and imagery of the postmodern 1980s.

I was mesmerized by Tina Helisten one night at El Sensorium, a truly dystopian, Bladerunneresque club fast by the Williamsburg Bridge. The place was set low, in a semi-basement, and it was large and deep, and tricked out like a cross between a submarine and a rain forest. A throbbing bower of weirdness the likes of which I've never seen before or since.

Tina was dancing completely naked, in a flood of unearthly light and vapor. The club was full of water, in all phases of composition — from ice to waterfalls to rain to vapor. Clumps of wet moss covered the bar. And threaded throughout was a great ganglia of electrical circuitry to feed audio and lighting effects of every concoction. It was a city cabaret inspector's wet dream (pun intended). Sensorium was a slightly later and more evolved species in the netherworld of illegal nightclubs in Williamsburg in the 90s. (Galapagos was another, but because it was legal, it had a slight competitive disadvantage.)

Tina was sexy as hell, and there was not a trace of irony or sleaze about her. And that was something quite new in an underground nightclub at that time. She was heathen grace. And feisty too. Nor was it just a rarefied clique of hipsters who drank her in. The place was packed, raucous, full of homeboys, club kids, wayward preppies, and bohemians. It was hardcore. But it was also imbued with a kind of urban code for which the word "chill" would have been an understatement.

This special mood and environment had been cultivated to near perfection by a few dozen visionaries. Though it is often associated with Williamsburg, the "warehouse" or "immersive" aesthetic evolved simultaneously at a few locations on the Lower East Side as well, notably at Gargoyle Mechanique and The Collective Unconscious.

The wizards of the movement were audio and installation artists, and guerrilla cultural activists. Performing artists came to the scene a little later, and they did not always "get it" at first. Tina got it. She and a handful of performers understood the movement implicitly. Dina Emerson, Ken Butler, Andrew Hampsas, Dan McKerreghan, Yvette Helin, Lauren Szold. And Dina was probably the first dancer to embody the scene, literally and metaphorically. A real goddess, with a way of engaging the weirdness of these environments that was vulnerable and captivating.

Ethan Pettit

photo by Eva Schicker 1993