Volume 73, Number 44 | March 3 - 9, 2004

Gekko, mistress of the Lower East Side Tesla coils

Gekko, inset, with the larger of Collective Unconscious’s two Tesla coils.
By Lincoln Anderson

It was a recent show of the self-proclaimed Downtown Art Babes at Collective Unconscious on Ludlow St. Anna Montana, a performance artist from Europe, had done a strangely mesmerizing “alternative burlesque” in the buff with a mop as a partner. Faux Maux, another Babe, who has a condition that is forcing her posterior backwards, held flash cards on said bum, which was as naked as Montana — the artist, that is, not the state. A dancer in burlap writhed on the floor as if possessed, while another woman hummed into a tape-loop device to create overlapping tone patterns.

But the highlight came after emcee Gekko announced it was time for a little Tesla coil fun. The smaller of the theater’s two Tesla coils was wheeled out, along with a trunk-sized transformer — manned by Jamie Merceness, Collective Unconscious’s technical director — which is needed to operate the Tesla.

Suddenly, it was as if an electrical storm had broken out in the darkened room.

Shooting off the Tesla were bolts of electricity several feet long, complete with sound effects — staticky crackles, bursts and pops — just like in the laboratory in a Frankenstein movie. The electricity danced and whirled around the top of the coil in a crazy pattern.

Dressed dominatrix style, in skin-tight black PVC, Gekko did Tesla tricks, like standing a few feet away and making a fluorescent light bulb glow by holding it out in the coil’s direction. She placed some anatomical objects, not suitable for printing in a family newspaper, on the Tesla, channeling its charge through them — each time Merceness first cutting the power for her to set up.

For those who stayed, Gekko treated them to a demonstration of the big Tesla coil. This time the bolts were much larger and more powerful looking. It was easy to imagine one flicking out and zapping an audience member. As with the smaller coil, Gekko warned any performers or techies walking between backstage and the audience to keep 7 ft. away, outside the “Tesla zone of death.”

Despite the lightning sizzling all around her, she showed no fear. At one point, though, she thought of executing a move where she gets the electricity to go directly from the coil to a fluorescent bulb in her hand, then thought better of it. The last time she attempted it, she explained, a bolt had jumped to the bulb and then — attracted to the nearest metal — went straight to a piercing she has in an extremely sensitive spot.

Gekko, last name Saccomanno, who lives on the Lower East Side, has been a fan of inventor Nikola Tesla since she was a kid. When she joined Collective Unconscious six years ago, she was thrilled to find they had their own Tesla coil, which Merceness had built. They subsequently bought another.

“I’ve always had a Tesla fixation,” Gekko said in an interview after the show. “And when I joined the group I was like, ‘Here I am with one of my idols.’ ”

In grade school, “I was kind of a geek and I just discovered him,” she said. She wrote a paper on Tesla, but her teacher didn’t believe the inventor existed.

“There’s Tesla technology in every radio and TV — it powers Niagara Falls,” continued Gekko, who describes her onstage persona as “sci-fi cyber chick.” “Tesla coils create ozone and are used to get the funk out of the air in sewage plants.”

Her birthday is even the same as Tesla’s. Of course, she’s already been to Philadelphia to see the new opera on his life.

Collective Unconscious’s Tesla coils are likely the only recreational ones in Manhattan. As far as she knows, Gekko said it’s legal to operate them in a theater, though, of course, with caution.

“ ‘If you’ve got a pacemaker, stay away’ is a joke we always use. I’m the only one that’s brave enough to perform with it.”

However, she has been injured, such as when she was shocked in that painful place.

“I was onstage so I tried not to show it hurt,” she said. “I’ve been shocked by the little one on a big level — and it hurt — and by the big one on low level.”

When she holds objects towards the Tesla she uses her right hand, so if she is shocked the charge won’t cross her heart.

“It could kill you, the large bolt, I would think,” she said. “If not, you would be out of commission for a long while…. Don’t try it at home.”

Also, “it gets a little loud; it makes that firing sound,” Gekko added. Yet, the only one who seems bothered by the noise, according to her, is a Ludlow St. resident whom she declined to identify other than as “the woman who hates everything.”

Collective Unconscious’s building will be demolished for new apartments and the theater must vacate by July. They are looking for affordable space, with help from Councilmember Alan Gerson, so far without luck. And while they probably won’t need a place that takes terriers, they will need one that takes Tesla coils.


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