In Performance (Art) Begins Responsiblities
by Norman Kee
It's not easy being a performance artist, even though I am among the top 10% of American practitioners. Sure, it seems glamorous, like it's a non-stop world of black turtlenecks, imported cigarettes, and careless sex, but it is a job. For every Karen Finley, Ms. Grant-Gettin' Diva living the high life in her comfortable 6th floor Alphabet City walk-up, buying take-out and name brand 'cheese and macaroni' with all those royalties she keeps getting for being sampled on every fourth trip-hop record, there's a dozen guys and girls and in-betweens like me, stuck in the basement of their parents' Staten Island home, working part-time at Tower, and trying to keep-on keepin' on. And they don't make it easy. (I think you know who they are.) Finding a performance space alone is hard enough; it seems like every black box space in this freakin' city is running a revival of Equus or staging a one-woman version of Oedipus (subtitled "See Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me"). Everyone is afraid of anything with a little edge to it. It's just art, for Chrissakes! If I call to book a room, they want money up front and a security deposit, which I give them, and then always at the last minute, it's some shit like, "Oh, we thought you were an Installation Artist. I'm sorry, our policy is no Performance Art." Yeah, right - like they didn't recognize my name! I swear to God, let this be a lesson to the lot of you: All it takes is a couple of feces-flingers to ruin it all for everybody.
I wasn't always a performance artist. I didn't really get started until right after my 38th birthday. It was just after my dinner theatre company's production of Fargo ended its run, and I had some time on my hands. I started to reread the voluminous dairies in which I had chronicled my life in art. I realized how little I had learned or achieved laboring in off-off Broadway one-act/ballet pieces, as an advisor to a friend's attempt at a musical version of The Right Stuff, or in any number of endeavors that could best be described, with a condescending Rex Reed-ian flourish, as 'darling and daring'. I stayed in two long-term relationships that wore at my self-worth because I thought they would help inspire me with my two major works thus far, a funk-flavored tragi-comedic pageant called Absolutely Nothing: The Un-Enabled Life, What Is It Good For?, and a book of haikus, entitled My Mother Told Me/You Will Not Be Any Good/At Least Be On Time, neither of which have done anything. As I read my diaries, I realized that the only good stuff I had embellished beyond all recognition, for instance, transforming the time that Danny Glover said 'Nice lid' to me on Houston Street into my big break as Mel Gibson's understudy in Lethal Weapon II. I had tried to make my art my life, and I had failed.
It was at that point that I decided if I couldn't make my art my life, I would make my life my art. On the evening of February 26th, I made my diary entry for 2/27. It said: "I enjoyed myself as I snarled traffic on the Verrazano Narrows Bridge." That was it - I was pledged. The next day, armed only with purple bike shorts, a t-shirt with the American flag on it and the bold legend "Burn, Baby, Burn", and about two dozen rice cakes perfect for flinging frisbee-style, I knotted traffic not just on the Verrazano, but on the George Washington Bridge as well. I was a performance artist, and a pretty fucking good one. Since then, each entry has varied in elaborateness. Sometimes they run along the lines of "I called in sick at Tower, watched talk shows, had Tang and Fluffernutters made with Eggos and masturbated three times." One memorable day the entry was "I hope I live to regret today, when due to unforeseen circumstances, I became unable to meet my responsibilities and liabilities. Actually, I had both my forearms and my neck badly bruised and possibly fractured while trying to get a piece in Boston's accurately named Combat Zone." I moved the action out of New York since I figured it would be too hard to pull that off in the new, Disney-ified Times Square, plus I knew we would be visiting my Aunt in Somerville.
One evening, I wrote in my diary for the following day, "Not much happened today. Worked at Tower, took the train home, and went to bed early to ward off depression and because Letterman was a repeat." So I went to work, and everything was fine until this guy said to me, "I'm looking for the Pet Shop Boys on cassette. You look like you would know where they are." I just snapped. "What the fuck does that mean!? Do you think every guy in his late 30s who wears eyeliner and has an asymmetrical haircut is into your precious, precociously ironic Pet Shop Boys?" I might have been OK had I stopped there, but I didn't. "And on cassette? Get your head out of your ass and into the 90s!" I was fired pretty quickly. Apparently, they had never much cared for my work there, and were just waiting for me to slip up. In retrospect, the guy probably thought I looked like I would know where Pet Shop Boys cassette were due to the stupid red vest I had to wear. So I flip the bird to my supervisor and the Ricky Martin cardboard standup, storm out, and walk fast towards the river, just to walk.
After a while, I suddenly realized that I didn't know where exactly I was, but that I had stumbled upon building after building just aching to be used for performance art! A dollar sign started to dance in my head. I would borrow money from grandparents and buy an old warehouse. My fellow performance artists, most of whom had never conceived of a concept as brilliant and freeing as my diary-in-advance notion, needed space to stage their work. They would beat a path to my parents' door. Soon, I would be able to get my own phone line, then maybe someday, move out.
I started to double-back and retrace my steps, hoping to nail down where I was and how to get there. Unfortunately, I soon ended up back where I started my search. It was starting to get dark and I was starting to get nervous. I was almost relieved when two girls in a Camaro stopped to ask for a light. I'm not in the habit of taking rides from strangers, especially from those in Camaros, especially from those obviously from Jersey, but at this point I couldn't be picky. When they offer a lift, I took it.
When they offered a hit of the joint they had need a light for, I took that as well. I guess I didn't really mind, or maybe didn't notice, when they said they had to make a detour. What happened next, I can only guess. The only thing I know is that I woke up on the beach at Coney Island, and my picture ended up on the cover of The Post.
I'm thinking of publicizing this whole event as yet another brilliant performance piece, however, it means I will have to go back and change my diary entry, and that means compromising my art for the sake of success. Is this selling out?