Experiencing Experience

Saturday night found me privy to the last of a week-long series of private concerts by The XX at the 66th Street Armory in New York. They’d been showing since the previous Thursday and playing two shows a night, every night. The sets were intimately held for groups of 45 invite-only guests.

On Saturday night, we entered the armory through a nondescript side door just off Park Avenue, and were quarantined in a small waiting room for about fifteen minutes. There were small, makeshift plaques resting on surfaces in the room that read, “Let’s Get Social,” divulging Instagram, Twitter and Facebook information. In the previous week I hadn’t seen a single Instagram image, or tweet, or repurposed Facebook photo from any number of the sets The XX had played but fifteen minutes into languishing in quarantine, a coordinator appeared to ready us to be escorted to the show venue.

“We ask that you not just refrain from taking photos, but that you please shut off your phones,” she said before we began a short walk through the basement of the armory into what looked like a very small, white foam room. Though I have no true recollection of what my mother’s womb looked like, I imagine it was akin to the soft square space, which was dewey and crowded in spite of the paltry contingent of people standing around a square shaped enclave, replete with instruments and musicians, in the middle of the room.

The set lasted 45 minutes and as it progressed, the cramped room grew larger. The ceiling was lifted, the white curtains that elicited that dewey feeling were dropped and there we were: 45 people (Madonna, Jay Z and Beyoncé included) smack in the middle of the armory, hovering over The XX as they enunciated their i’s and we swayed against their tempo.

It was an incredible experience. One that doesn’t happen very often, but not because cool concerts aren’t frequently occurring — they are. Because it was an experience that would forever exist only for the people who were actually in the room.

When the curious and uninitiated asked how it was, I was forced to rely on my ability to describe (as opposed to show photos) to pronounce the concert’s details. (I know writing teachers will argue that as a writer, you must show, not tell, but in 2014, I think there’s abundant value in relying on your ability to tell).

And no matter how astutely I can, or did, or will depict the events of that experience, it will never live up to actually having been there the way that most other experiences, which are disseminated, interpreted, often even reviewed based on the encouraged use of video and photo, do. This particular evening will forever remain an incident that cannot become convoluted by those who were not there. It will remain an event that only 45 people can recall accurately and that feels, I don’t know, sacred.

So I guess the question is, without resorting to the extreme of iPhones in airplane mode, how do we bring that sense of private holiness back to our respective experiences with experience?

  • Much akin to Sleep No More at the McKittrick Hotel where you are in an immersive play but if you follow the rules and don’t use your phone you are only allowed to recount your experiences through memory and vivid mental imagery.

  • Reading this post was a far more satisfying experience for me than just seeing the same photos being filtered through Instagram. Not everyone has the ability to “tell” though, so short pieces of fired off social media are the only chance at the “LOOK WHAT I AM DOING!” thrill. As far as the ending question goes, here is one possible solution: perhaps just take one or two pictures, but make sure the time you take to crop and filter on site doesn’t pull from the overall experience. Let the photo marinate in the iphone album for a bit, that’s what a #tbt is for, right?

    who wrote this?

  • Morgan

    Great post. I love any reason to get on my soapbox about social media!

    In all seriousness, the problem of endless self-promotion and self-fulfillment saddens me. No, I’m not immune to it nor am I above it. I am reminded of concerts I used to go to with my best friend when I was younger, before social media, and how tangible and treasured those memories are to me. I really think I am able to vividly remember those experiences because the thought or desire or anxiety attached to sharing or impressing or hashtagging wasn’t there. Those things can subconsciously cheapen experiences can’t they? They lessen the value of raw life and almost whore it out for likes. The only solution I can think of is to find more value in full real-time life than in digital remnants. If we value those things and somehow rise above the pressure to perform and share then maybe we can restore private holiness. Easier said than done!

  • It seems here that capturing is not the root of the problem, but the gratuitous sharing that follows. And why do you share, if not for others to judge, validate, or learn? By nature we are social little creatures, and we’re hardwired to naturally share with others… if we think it benefits us.

    Convince yourself that there is no value in sharing private/holy/extremely exclusive experiences with others, or believe that someone else is accurately capturing it for you, and you’ll no longer feel inclined to capture every second for someone else to see later.

    No one kept a stream-of-consciousness diary a la W Faulkner during The Last Supper, but the word still got out. Take a quick photo (else screenshot one from the zillions that will be on Instagram, anyway) and enjoy the rest of your show.

  • Namrata

    I love The XX. It’s on my bucket list to watch them perform, and if I can have the experience you described, it would be the best!


  • Bird

    Recently, I met someone I really look up to at a highly publicized event. I found myself so in awe of her personality and aura, the space, and the people around me that it felt almost disrespectful to disrupt and actively engage in social media whilst experiencing such an unlikely occurrence. While others Instagrammed casually, I still couldn’t bring myself to announce to the world that I’d been there. Social media often weakens connection and communication within the moment, and creates a “just for approval” aspect that I’m unsure if I’ll ever be able to chew on.

  • Louise

    Great post. I am that writing teacher and I’d like to clarify that by “show don’t tell” I mean “show” with words, not photos. (Show me your character is angry by describing something he does in anger, don’t just say ‘He was angry.’) So you pass! It sounds like a remarkable evening, thanks for sharing.