RIP Body Actualized Center, Bushwick’s New Age Hot Mess

From all-night raves to cosmic yoga, the Brooklyn DIY Venue rolled partying and self-improvement into one.

December 11, 2014

Did you ever stop to wonder what was going on inside that tidy white storefront at 143 Troutman Street in Brooklyn? Just a couple weeks ago, peering in from the sidewalk, you could still see the neat little coatroom, with the floorboards and cubbies built from blonde wood—or the white-tile walls of the main space beyond, striped with rainbow light from the crystals hanging in the front window. There's a bundle of yoga mats rolled up in a corner, a table littered with singing bowls, tuning forks, incense holders. Burnt palo santo and sage nips at the inside of your nose as you pass the threshold, and as you close the door behind you, the cacophony of Bushwick in the late afternoon—trash trucks, barking Rottweilers, middle-aged men playing dominos out on the street—disappears with a click. Inside, you're greeted by the swollen drone of a single synthesizer note, or the icy rustle of chimes bouncing off the walls and ceiling.

This is Body Actualized Center, a weird, wonderful, at times controversial DIY space that quietly closed its doors last week, due to a rent hike presumably related to new high-end residential developments in the area. By day, BAC was a New Age spiritual center, a yoga studio offering up to five classes daily, and a residence housing four live-in artists at a time. At night, it was a fully functioning performance venue, offering mini-raves with experimentally minded machine musicians like Ultrademon and Teengirl Fantasy, as well as films, workshops, and meditation-friendly concerts with New Age legends like Iasos and Franco Falsini of cult-favorite Italian outfit Sensations' Fix.

Over an hour-long phone conversation, BAC manager Brian Sweeny—who opened the center in 2011 with a crew of eleven psychedelically inclined 20-somethings—refers to it, variously, as a “post-capitalist experiment in vibe," a “New Age sex cult," a “future-primitive music exploration zone," and, my personal favorite, “a lifestyle synthesis space." Some party people may have known 143 Troutman as a place to get pummeled by techno or kick a couple of Tecates around the bonfire crackling in the backyard, but you could also go deep down the rabbithole when it came to the center's less conventional programming.

During the space's three-year tenure, you could visit BAC for the odd chaos magick workshop, offering spellcasting techniques developed by occultists like Aleister Crowley and Genesis P-Orridge. Alternately, you could take a Qigong class, where students worked to align body, breath, and mind via ancient Chinese knowledge, sometimes to a soundtrack of star-gazing deep house courtesy of L.I.E.S artist Terekke. Then there was the 56-hour sleepover that ushered in the end of the Mayan calendar on December 21, 2012: Brian Eno's right-hand man Laraaji performed live, and a selection of Indian classical music accompanied a public self-pleasuring ritual (yes, masturbation) led by co-founder, yoga teacher, and tantric healer Amy Jenkins.

"I ended up getting naked in front of this huge group of people... and I was basically being touched and rubbed all over my naked body," she recalls over the phone from Austin, Texas, where last year she co-founded a tantra temple offering sacred sexual healing and erotic body work. "Then I had this beautiful projectile orgasm, where I squirted all over the yoga mat. It was so beautiful, like truly one of the most liberating experiences of my life."

The BAC story begins in the summer of 2010 on the rooftop of the Market Hotel, a semi-legal music venue and residence a couple blocks over from Troutman Street. Founded in 2007 by local nightlife entrepreneur Todd P, the Market Hotel was one of New York's best-known DIY venues at the time—the crowning jewel in a network of punk houses and quirky show spaces stretching across North Brooklyn. "It was basically like a squat-type situation with all these artists and weirdos, and [that summer] everyone was taking acid and hanging out on the roof," says Aurora Halal, a Brooklyn-based producer, DJ, and promoter whose much-loved Mutual Dreaming night grew out of those casual rooftop get-togethers. "The parties were totally ridiculous, but in this way that's really special to look back on, because it was this super experimental zone that's really specific to being young."

That soot-covered rooftop—with the nonstop rumbling of the elevated JMZ train passing by on its way to Manhattan—also played host to the first iterations of Cosmic Yoga, a weekly yoga class organized by BAC co-founders Jan Woo, a musician and DJ, and Etienne Duguay, former drummer from the indie rock outfit Real Estate. "[Cosmic] yoga is (humbly) trying to facilitate the hypnagogic group mind by paying ample attention to vibe," they explained in an early interview about the project, answering questions with an over-the-top Be Here Now affect that at times seems to tip into the realm of self-parody. When asked about their personal backgrounds, they respond: "We are all just instruments in the vast arkestra called 'life.'"

"It was just New Age nonsense or whatever, but even New Age nonsense makes more sense than mainstream society nonsense." Etienne Duguay

Classes were accompanied by live psychedelic music and supplied by a raw food cafe, and as the purple evening glow melted into night, they would often explode into dance parties of their own. The group's loose guiding principal from the get-go was "healthy hedonism," Duguay tells me over the phone, a philosophy that's all about maintaining your physical and spiritual equilibrium while also indulging in late night adventures fueled by recreational chemicals.

A cast and crew began to emerge out of the impromptu jam sessions, yoga classes, collaborative art projects, and hazy after-hours discussions that took place at Market Hotel—as well associated events, like Woo, Duguay, and Sweeny's roving Vibes Management parties and Halal's pastel-lit Mutual Dreaming affairs. In addition to Woo, Sweeny, Duguay, and Jenkins, the first planning meetings included co-founders Anna Fitzgerald, a Market Hotel resident and member of Bushwick-based pagan sisterhood Moon Church; and Angelina Dreem, a video and performance artist. "We just started having meetings, riffing on what we wanted to see in the world and what needed to happen," says Angelina Dreem. "It was nice that we could be idealistic, but also realistic."

The co-founders were later joined by Nicholas Schneider and Andrew Sellers, who played alongside Woo and Duguay in the gender-fucked R&B outfit Splash; Duguay's sister Danielle; woodworker Jon Wiliams; and a yoga teacher named Austin Samsel who was clearly vibrating at the same frequency as the rest of the team. Each had their own vision for the venue, one that would need to accommodate performance, ritual, healing, video art, noise music, and late-night dance parties. After a few meetings, the group settled on a consensus-based voting structure, which gave each of the co-founders equal sway in important decisions—when they found their storefront in the fall of 2011, eight members threw down a thousand each bucks for rent, and began building their utopia from the ground up, using found and Craiglisted materials to a build a kitchen near the entrance, four bedrooms in the back, wall-to-wall wood floors, and a mosaic of reclaimed windows looking out onto the street.

The BAC crew never pinned down a core philosophy. There was no manifesto or dogma guiding them along the way, more a curious pastiche of values, beliefs, and symbols that touched on everything from "Sufism, to drone music, to ancient Egypt and aliens," Jan Woo explained to me over the phone from BAC. More so than anything, the co-founders say they were brought together by a commitment to radical openness and sensitivity: within themselves, amongst each other, and to the many forms of new and ancient knowledge that have been suppressed by modern scientific and religious regimes.

Ideological battles were fought—some small, some explosive—and as the organization matured, so did the ethos of the endeavor. "When it was at the Market Hotel—when we were first brainstorming—the idea [for BAC] didn't have the sex cult component," says Jan Woo, referring to the tantric ceremonies and erotic rituals that became part of BAC in its move from Market Hotel to 143 Troutman. "It had all of the New Age stuff and the yoga and the drugs, but then Brian took it to the stars." As the organization settled in its new home, its original founders' curious interest in synthesizer music, body movement, and New Age aesthetics began to crystallize into something more spiritually minded, resulting in an offering of workshops with titles like "The Journey to Embody Your Spirit Animal" and "Introduction to Herbal Healing."

"It's interesting to see that what started slightly ironically became something really earnest," says Halal, who watched the organization shift as the center's core crew began to interface with other pre-existing New Age circles in NYC and beyond. "Because we weren't hippies, but then the true hippies started showing up."As some of BAC's founding members began to travel deeper into the cultish world of sex and magic, others began to distance themselves from the community. "There was a time when I renounced the space, and renounced the operation, and was like, 'I want nothing to do with it!'" says Angelina Dreem, explaining that with its increasingly overbearing sexual focus, the space's appeal started to sour for her. "I wanted to have donation yoga for everyone in the neighborhood," she continues, "and have it be a uniting factor in the area. And it was, for a little bit, but that fell off when it became this sexual-body-love den thing. [It became] one of those places where you walk by, and you're like, I don't know, that's where they do all that weird mystic stuff."

BAC's history is peppered with all sorts of fallings out, but rather than bemoan what may have transpired between them, most of the founders already looking forward to the next chapter. "Impermanence is the only thing that lasts," Duguay explains from his home in Los Angeles. "I've already moved on." He and Woo are hatching plans to open a vegan cafe in the Phi Phi islands in Thailand, while Sweeny is busy planning a rural upstate retreat center where New Yorkers can escape the city. Jenkins will take time off from her tantra temple in Texas to travel to Big Sur, California, where she'll study spiritual massage at the historic Esalen Institute, and Angelina Dreem is busy finding a permanent home for her PowerPLNT project, a community-supported computer lab that teaches essential skills for surviving in an increasingly techno-centric employment pool.

"It's interesting to see that what started slightly ironically became something really earnest." Aurora Halal

New Age is a divisive term, to say the least. People either see it as a radical path to enlightenment or a bunch of burnout nonsense propped up by delusions of enlightenment. Indeed, a large part of the ideological struggle within the BAC community has revolved around re-imagining the meaning of New Age for a new generation. With its aestheticized spin on a culture that had theretofore been extremely un-hip, the center offered young New Yorkers a means of participating in psychological and physical self-improvement, stigma-free. It also offered a space where spiritual seekers (or even just the curious) could come together to dream of other possible worlds outside of square society. "It was just New Age nonsense or whatever," says Etienne, "but even New Age nonsense makes more sense than mainstream society nonsense."

It's this particular double-consciousness—the mix of self-critique and complete earnestness—that made Body Actualized so magnetic. Basically, Body Actualized was whatever you made of it—or, as Sweeny describes it, "a temporary autonomous zone" that "takes on whatever form its inhabitants want." You could wade in the shallow waters of psychedelic techno or dive into the open ocean of kundalini yoga and chakra energy power. And despite the occasional power struggles and moments of wide-eyed naivety, the feeling that lingers among its founders is a positive one: a healthy mix of melancholia, optimism, and pride at what a handful of freaks were able to accomplish on their own.

"I'm having a mourning moment," says Angelina Dreem, laughing and crying at the same time over the phone. "I was just over at Body getting some plants, and just seeing it all come down was kind of surreal. I keep hearing the Cat Stevens songs, like, Where will the children plaaayyy—that's all that's going through my head right now." With the recent closure of Brooklyn DIY spots 285 Kent, Death By Audio, and Steel Drums, it's unclear whether this recent windfall is just another turn in the New York underground scene's ongoing game of cat-and-mouse, or if it means we've reached a point of no return.

No matter where your own opinions fall on the spectrum of "New Age nonsense," the life and death of Body Actualized leaves us with one important lesson: that despite New York City's crushing individualism and money-obsessed profiteering, it's still a place where a bunch of starry-eyed transplants can hole up together and build the world they've been dreaming about. Even in the seat of power, a city where divide-and-conquer legislation tends to extinguish the collaborative spirit before it rises to the surface, this three-year experiment is a testament to the fact that the opportunity exists if you care to seize it. And in the end, maybe you can't beat the city, but you can get ahead for a while, and that moment is when the magic happens.

"Body Actualized Center Ambient Tribute Mix" courtesy of Jan Woo.
1. Steven Halpern - Harmonic Convergence
2. William Aura - Enchantment
3. Brian Eno - Discreet Music
4. Laraaji - Universe
5. Brian Eno - A Clearing
6. Iasos - Cloud Prayer
7. Kevin Drum - Snow
8. Belong - Vowel
9. Zoviet France - Shamany Enfluence
10. Markus Guentner - Track 2 from In Moll
11. Cornelius Cardew & The Scratch Orchestra - Paragraph 7

Large image #1: A Party at Body Actualized Center. Emma Kathan.
Large image #2: Body Actualized Center, Interior. Brian Sweeny.
Large image #3: Body Actualized Center, Backyard. Brian Sweeny.
Large image #4: Iasos performs at Body Actualized Center. Brian Sweeny.

Posted: December 11, 2014
RIP Body Actualized Center, Bushwick’s New Age Hot Mess