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The Interactive World of 'Return to Foreverhouse'

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Patrick Michael Ballard's "Return to Forever House." | Photo: Courtesy of Machine Project. 

Foreverhouse was a children's TV show from some indeterminate period of the past, but it was more than that -- it was home to a vivacious cast of strange entities and garrulous characters. At some point, the human audience went away, and Foreverhouse shriveled up, the characters locked in stasis.

Thus is the backstory behind Patrick Michael Ballard's "Return to Foreverhouse," an interactive performance that is a cross-stitch of the puzzle-solving video game "Myst," the psychedelic kids show "H.R. Pufnstuf," a ropes course, Jim Henson's otherworldly movie "The Dark Crystal," and murder mystery dinner theater.

Gathering outside Echo Park art space Machine Project, which has ominously blacked out its windows, a group of six audience members enters the room, but not before a caution that "the fire extinguisher is real, don't throw anything, and don't mess with the light fixtures. The first room will be dark, just wait in the middle, and you will receive further instructions."

Exterior of art space Machine Project during the run of Patrick Michael Ballard's "Return to Foreverhouse." | Photo: Machine Project on Instagram.
Exterior of art space Machine Project during the run of Patrick Michael Ballard's "Return to Foreverhouse." | Photo: Machine Project on Instagram.

These forewarnings would all become clear after passing through a dark room where you meet Sentry, a Sweetums-meets-Samuel-Beckett's-"Not-I" disembodied mouth, who tells you about the "perils that lie ahead." Namely, that you'll be locked together inside of Foreverhouse for the duration of the performance, but not before an emo dude named Elmer takes your "talismans" (cell phones). There are traces of the former world left inside, and the group of six has to work together to solve puzzles (unlocking something called the "Grimlock," helping a blind goblin retrieve his favorite teacup, and playing a "symbolophone" for a red-headed monster in the wall). A final hilarious finale takes the form of a tea ceremony.

The idea of the cracked artistic take on the children's syndicated variety show has been explored before -- Alex Bag's 2009 Whitney Museum installation "The Patchwork Family" comes to mind -- but Ballard's "Return to Foreverhouse" plays out like "Survivor: Magic Mushroom Edition." The audience is thrust into a situation where they must interact, search for clues, and play nicely together.

Patrick Michael Ballard's "Return to Foreverhouse." | Photo: Courtesy of Machine Project.
Patrick Michael Ballard's "Return to Foreverhouse." | Photo: Courtesy of Machine Project.

 

Patrick Michael Ballard's "Return to Foreverhouse." | Photo: Courtesy of Machine Project.
Patrick Michael Ballard's "Return to Foreverhouse." | Photo: Courtesy of Machine Project.

It's part of a recent spate of relational artworks in Los Angeles, the most recent example being "Hopscotch," Yuval Sharon's "mobile opera" that took place in a series of limousines, and asked audience members to participate by acting as cinematographers. Artist-constructed social experiences are nothing new, but the way that artists are dealing with the idea of how to make a space cooperative, and to foster communication with the art, is always shifting.

But possibly the most impressive aspect of "Return to Foreverhouse" is the realization that Ballard is running around the already ambitiously designed set, playing sometimes three characters at once -- the characters are often sealed in the "darkness of backstage," unseen to the audience, where Ballard gives life to the characters that surround the set. It's an Eddie Murphy-esque performance that is nothing short of brilliant.

At the end of "Return to Foreverhouse," Ballard reveals that by solving the puzzles and unlocking the gate, the human audience has freed the souls of Foreverhouse and restored the lifeblood. A reunion performance is scheduled for the near future. Or as Ballard puts it, we will "return to our regularly scheduled show."

Patrick Michael Ballard's "Return to Foreverhouse." | Photo: Machine Project on Facebook.
Patrick Michael Ballard's "Return to Foreverhouse." | Photo: Machine Project on Facebook.

 

Patrick Michael Ballard's "Return to Foreverhouse." | Photo: Machine Project on Instagram.
Patrick Michael Ballard's "Return to Foreverhouse." | Photo: Machine Project on Instagram.

 


 

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