Well, Is It?
In Matt Groening's "Annoying Performance Artist Magazine," Binky finds himself covered in stinging ants and contemplating the emotional utility of flinging peanut butter in the face of his live audience. If Binky were not a cartoon rabbit, this would be considered a completely valid form of artistic expression, especially if one of Binky's friends projected black-and-white 8mm "bathtub films" on the wall behind him. After all, there are art degrees given for such things; there is even a festival (in Cleveland) and a dedicated "Performance Art Week" (in Chicago). Performance artists abound. We've all seen a few.
Up North, Fish, or the Exotic Man as he is otherwise known, presents "The Flaming Love Tunnel Show" in which he impersonates Charles Manson while his longtime buddy Meatboy dances around naked with only pieces of pork to hide his genitals. In Dallas, TSD, an American collective that creates modern-primitive body sculptures, stages insurgent "body suspensions" and "ball dances" in public. (Both involve hooks and fishing line, and an elevated pain threshold.) The Gummy Glo Mermaids cover themselves in Day-Glo paint and Gummi Bears while dressing the audience in yarn. Mexico City native Lorena Wolffer lies motionless on a surgical table for six hours while 30 liters of cow's blood dribbles onto her naked body and a voice monotonously intones, "Danger! You are approaching Mexican territory." In New Orleans, a teenager is given his first mohawk in front of a crowd of 60 paying customers at the Spellcaster Lounge, while a live organist provides a deranged accompaniment. In St. Louis, Joseph Nippon sets up an easy chair, a color television, and a large generator in the financial district, where he proceeds to watch daytime television and eat cheese puffs for nine hours.
I have sat in a little red wagon pulled around a swimming pool by a ring shoved through some guy's dick while playing "Yankee Doodle Dandy" on the kazoo.
This, I believe, was the direct consequence of an early psychological scar left by a chance encounter with an East Indian performance artist in the late '70s. I stumbled upon her one sunny day in Golden Gate Park. She had just clawed her way out of a salmon-colored cocoon of cellophane when I caught sight of her. She was nude and glistening, licking a red, gelatinous substance off of her arms and legs. When she was clean, she began to scream until a man in black robes wrapped her in a large white beach towel. She cooed and began to crawl. She began to walk and suck her thumb. She was given clothes. She recited the Lord's Prayer and was given a confirmation headdress and a mint. She sidled up to a man in the crowd and asked for a cigarette. The figure in black robes gave her a sharp reprimand and pulled her back by her hair. The woman protested, running her hands along the curve of her hips. The man in black closed her lips with clothes pins and suggested that she be seen and not heard. During the rest of the performance, which lasted longer than the sunlight, the woman cried silently until she found the strength to pull the pins from her face and sing a revised version of "I Did It My Way" while dancing a soft-shoe -- thus reducing the man in black to a pile of crumpled cloth.
After the performance I asked the woman her name.
"Y," she said dismissively.
"Y?" I asked.
"Yes, Y," she said.
"Why?" I asked.
"Exactly," she said, fulfilling the expectation of every Abbott and Costello fan.
This encounter gave me my first realization that, in San Francisco, people often consider their lives to be art that can and should be translated directly into one-man shows or performance pieces: Grown-up people can dress as babies and smear themselves with chocolate pudding; waitresses can splice together transcripts of their therapy sessions and read them over static; poets can paint themselves green and sit in trees in Golden Gate Park, reciting inventory forms and lines from "The Waste Land"; grocers can write their biographies, eat them, and shit them out on camera; and Tom Orr -- creator of the beloved parody Dirty Little Showtunes! and childhood fan of Diahann Carroll -- can put on his own semi-autobiographical one-man show with guests and interpretive dance.
At the oversold opening night of Sweet Parody! at Venue 9, folks carrying bouquets of flowers jostle for position, trying to score the two remaining seats while choreographer/stage manager Joe Landini tries to direct the stream of crushed expectations: "I'm sorry, that seat is reserved for someone who's sleeping with the director of the show."
"I've slept with the director," cries out one desperate lad.
"Present tense," corrects Landini with a smile.
Musical director Birdie-Bob Watt sits down at the piano, looking ever so elegant even without a lacy frock and padded brassiere. He tickles the ivories while Orr is announced from backstage. ("The W and H are silent.") Orr enters, immediately engulfed in applause from the "very intimate" and adoring crowd, and begins singing "If My Friends Could See Me Now" from Sweet Charity, with original lyrics written to suit the occasion ("It's my first solo show/ At the Venue 9"). "I'm Calm," from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, becomes "I'm Tom," a synopsis of Orr's life featuring his first show and his beloved Joe. Then we go back in time, with revised show tunes that explore Orr's childhood. (According to the program timeline: Judy Garland dies on June 22, 1969, and Tom Orr is born on June 22, 1970. Orr is taken to see Guys and Dolls in May of 1977. He gets his first blow job in May of 1985. He loses his virginity at "Gay Skate Night" in May of 1988; then again, to a girl, just two weeks later. It was a very confusing time.)