The Condiment War



30 Washington St, Brooklyn, NY

Neighborhood: Brooklyn, Dumbo

Anyone who passed by the intersection of Adams and Plymouth on the summer evening of August 9th must’ve been confused—violent splashes of every color imaginable had turned a dull concrete lot under the Manhattan Bridge into a gargantuan Jackson Pollock painting. Not that shocking in artsy DUMBO, but closer inspection revealed that this was no street painting. In fact, the mess was entirely edible: the street was littered with chunks of hot dog, lettuce, dough, mushrooms, and coated with ketchup, mustard, vinegar, and slime of unidentifiable origin. The sort of wreckage that can only be sowed by a Condiment War.

Earlier that week, the Madagascar Institute had put out a call to duty promising “havoc, folly, and mayhem, featuring the pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war, without any of the, you know, killing.” There was to be “fierce fighting, crushing condiment cannons, and nasty weapons of mass disgusting on bikes, in carts, and mano a mano.” It could be really fun or really dorky, except that the Madagascar Institute has a history of delivering: the last time they had invaded DUMBO—the “Drive-By Arting”—was to blast syncopated fireballs off the back of their truck.

Emerging six or so years ago from the Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert (which at least one member has subsequently disavowed as the “annual naked hippie on acid festival”), the Madagascar Institute has grown to become one of the city’s most subversive art/event collectives. Their first street event was “flaming soccer,” when a bunch of folks in soccer and cheerleader uniforms spontaneously took over Ludlow St. to kick a flaming ball around. Their Halloween event on the Lower East Side entailed the mass beating of a seal piñata equipped with 100 pounds of candy and an exploding head. Their “Running of the Bulls” event in Gowanus, near their shop on Butler St., simulated the Spanish tradition— with the crowd now running from a flamethrowing bull, bicycle and motorcycle bulls with giant horns attached to their handlebars, remote control bulls, and a hipster-hungry “art bull.” More recently, the Institute kicked off summer by holding a five-minute satirical dance routine on the steps of the New York Public Library. Dancers dressed as giant rats, doughnut-eating cops, fat Midwestern tourists, and Williamsburg hipsters did a synchronized ditty culminating in an illegal fireworks display. The invite promised it would be “the most fan-fucking-tastic three minutes, nineteen seconds of your life so far, guaranteed, or double your money back. Or: Our gayest event ever.”

The Condiment War was similarly a gamble. My 19-year-old cousin was in town from Chile and I wasn’t sure whether it was the best way to “show him New York,” as my parents had instructed. But he seemed into it: when I told him the event would require white clothing and a yellow arm band, he eagerly stole some Caution tape from a construction site. So we combed my refrigerator for condiments, coming up only with some rancid mayo and some jelly that had congealed into a gooey blob while sitting in my fridge for over a year. The cabinets yielded vinegar, which was discouraged, but the 6:30-sharp meeting time was upon us and we were desperate. Finally we broke down and bought four squeeze bottles of ketchup from a bewildered store clerk. On this humid Sunday afternoon, I was dressed ridiculously in a pair of white pants two sizes too big and an oversized white dress shirt that reeked from having been stuffed in a suitcase too long. My cousin was similarly outfitted. In the subway, the smell of leaking vinegar raised still more eyebrows.

We had just a few minutes to get to the rendez-vous on Jay and York and it was becoming obvious that the G train wasn’t going to cut the mustard. I suggested we call a car service and we bolted from the subway with our condiment canisters clinking in their plastic bags. A straight shot down Flushing Avenue and we’d be there in no time. Except that halfway through the ride, the driver’s salsa music was interrupted by the crunch of metal on metal as a car slammed into our side. I looked back to see an angry punk girl with facial piercings and dyed hair emerging from her battered car. The cabbie and the woman exchanged some words. Even as my ears rang, all I could think was, “How am I going to get to the condiment war on time?” I wished the two luck, secretly grateful for a free ride, and my cousin and I bolted for the staging area.

We arrived late. No one was around. Suddenly we heard a chorus of cheers and we raced down the street just in time to see the tail-end of the hot dog eating contest. Perhaps a couple hundred people milled around, all of them in white. And then the opening salvos. From atop a coffee cart procured especially for the occasion, the Madagascar Institute, uniformed in shirts that declared “We rule, You suck,” catapulted some lettuce onto one of their rivals the Toy Shop Collective— a Brooklyn-based group of 15 to 20 artists who, like Madagascar, often mounts their unconventional displays in the city streets.

There were supposed to be four armies: Madagascar Institute, the Toyshop Collective, the Greenpoint-based art collective WAMP, and “the bloodthirsty public, banded together in an Irregular Militia.” (Several civilians also posed as pacifists, meditating in the Lotus position even as they were pelted.) The teams were demarked by the color of their armbands (civies in yellow) and stationed in opposite corners, but as soon as the schnitzel hit the fan, all was chaos. Noise makers and blow horns filled the air, as did a dizzying plethora of condiments. Suddenly I felt like I was in Saving Private Ryan. Men and women in plastic coveralls ran around spraying each other, or throwing chunks of hot dog, dough, pretty much anything edible. A woman wheeled an ice cream cart into the center of the staging area and pulled a hose out of it, spraying everyone around her. Another combatant hid her condiments in a baby carriage disguised as an elephant. Someone with a Super Soaker pumped vinegar into my eye. From the rooftop of an adjacent 10-story building, people threw balloons full of god-knows-what onto the street below. At one point I looked up to see an operative rappelling off the side of the building. The figure stopped halfway down to drop a cluster of condiment bombs. All the while I ran around squeezing my wimpy squirt bottle of ketchup, feeding off the thrill of soiling total strangers while trying not to slip on a lava bed of spent ammo. I looked over to see my cousin soiled from head to toe. He looked like he had just lost an ugly round of Double Dare.

Meanwhile a friend of mine who had been wearing a George Bush mask upside-down had fashioned quite the weapon—he was using a mop to lap up puddles of slime and whipping it at people indiscriminately. I was amused by this until he decided to turn the weapon on me and I was forced to wrench it from his hands and give him a taste of his own mop juice. At some point there was a ceasefire and a winner was declared. I couldn’t tell who it was and I have no idea how it was decided, since everyone (save the hundred or so bystanders) was layered in slop. It may have been Toyshop, since they started chanting, “Whoseshop? Toyshop.” Madagascar started loading their weapons into their pick-up. Someone called out, “Let’s go, move it, we’re not here to wait around and see what happens,” and sure enough a couple of police cars finally pulled up. An officer asked into his loudspeaker, “What are you doing here today, people? Who’s in charge here?” and I told my cousin, who was across the way getting hosed off, that we had better go. Fire trucks were racing to the scene with sirens blaring, presumably because Madagascar had crowned the event with one of their homegrown fireworks displays— or maybe to hose off the parked cars that had suffered collateral damage. The Institute was eventually stopped for questioning (with the coffee cart hitched to the back of their truck, they were the obvious suspects), but they managed to get back to their shop in time for the after-party. My friend the mop-slinger was stopped as he was about to drive away. A police officer asked him whether he was involved in the fight. Dressed only in his underwear, he responded, “You’re the detective, you figure it out.”

Meanwhile my cousin and I used an alley to change into clean clothes. We went into Pedro’s to get a beer and wash up in the bathroom. By the time we got on the train to head for the party, we looked perfectly normal. Strangely enough, we were sharing a subway car with a group of 18-year-old girls in bikini tops, caked head to toe in dirt. One of them caught my eye and carped proudly, “I bet you don’t know where we came from!”

Turns out they had been mud wrestling. I turned to my cousin and smiled. This was summer in New York.

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