So ... y'wanna ride a Big Wheel down Lombard?
By Jeremy Mullman Wednesday, Aug 7 2002
The mix is perfect.
Sooner or later, tourists must approach a debris-filled Mazda flatbed truck sitting in front of a shop best known for the giant inflatable legs kicking out of the window directly above it. When they do, the curious glances, double takes, and outright, slack-jawed stops begin.
After all, even on Haight Street, it's not often that you see a grown man in a referee's T-shirt attempting to "ride" a stationary bike against traffic, while another referee, wearing a red baseball cap adorned with a squeaky rubber "raw steak" dog toy, plays a drum strapped to his back.
The traffic, of course, doesn't know quite what to make of a lunging, hopping, straining referee scraping along on a one-wheeled exercise bike, either. A Muni bus driver swears and raves, waving his arms wildly and honking his horn. Other drivers stick their heads out their windows. About a dozen onlookers, having absolutely no clue what they are watching, clap along with the drumbeats.
The only evidence of the nature of this absurdity is a flier posted on a long wooden plank leaning against the truck:
SLIV & DULET ENTERPRISES
AND TIME TRIALS
That explanation, of course, is no explanation at all, leaving the same questions on the lips of nearly everyone present: "Who are these idiots, and what the hell are they doing?"
The idiots themselves aren't much help.
"Would you like to drive the exercise bike today, sir?" the ref in the "meat hat" asks a man in speckled painter's garb. "You can compete for a free barbecue."
The man walks by, chuckling nervously. As other would-be cyclists pass, the "meat hat" referee explains the pitch: The person who can ride the modified, "front-wheel drive" stationary bike -- which, of course, has a horizontal metal bar where an ordinary bicycle would have a back wheel -- wins a mobile cookout from the idiots, who say they'll deliver it from the Mazda flatbed, which will be filled with sod and a barbecue grill.
This entices Scott Mazzola, who works for the IRS, to attempt to ride the bike the length of a parking space, counter to Haight traffic. Almost immediately, a crowd of nearly two dozen gathers as Mazzola mounts the bike and Jon Brumit, under the alias Kyle Sliv and still wearing his "meat hat," pounds out a drum roll.
No one is quite sure what's happening, but everyone knows watching Mazzola's laboring, lunging attempts to make a stationary bike move are pretty funny. He's a clinic in wasted motion, with agonizing effort and extension adding up to barely any bicycle motion. Eventually, the stress on the equipment becomes so great that the bike's chain gives out, leaving Mazzola -- urged on by Brumit's drumming and enthusiastic-if-confused clapping from the crowd -- to hop up and down on the exercise machine, until it skitters past the finish line.
Mazzola is eventually followed by five other biking volunteers.
On the curb, Brumit's partner, Marc Horowitz, under the alias of Burt Dulet, is handling the "creative counseling" section of the ... whatever it is that's going on.
Mostly, "creative counseling" consists of Horowitz (with a stuffed buzzard sitting, parrotlike, on his shoulder) asking people if they need advice. "Excuse me, ma'am, would you like to ask the bird a question?" he inquires, utterly deadpan, of a twentysomething woman who walks by with a facial expression that suggests she's smelled something foul. Horowitz shrugs, saying, "She's hardened by the city streets," to no one in particular.
Another twentysomething girl, this one decked out in a tie-dyed shirt and wool hat, takes the bird up on an offer to learn the future.
"I foresee you traveling around the world," squawks Horowitz.
The girl laughs pleasantly and walks on.
Over the course of an hour, "Sliv" and "Dulet" manage to attract enough of the area's other strangeness, mostly in the form of quirky drifters, to draw the ire of the boutique they've parked in front of. A store manager asks them to leave; they demur, correctly and politely noting that they are neither blocking the store entrance nor using store property. The manager calls the police; Sliv and Dulet are handing out "free ideas" on pink Post-it notes when the cops arrive. (Example: "Would you like a helpful product?" one member of the duo asks. "Sure," the passer-by answers, and is subsequently handed a Post-it note containing the following text: "Helpful Product.")
The manager from the boutique, a sour-looking woman with a whiny, surly temperament, emerges to state her case through the squad car window.
"These people are doing this ...," she trails off. "They're doing this creative counseling, they're giving away ideas ...." She trails off again, perhaps realizing that what she's saying makes no sense. No sense whatsoever.
The officer in the passenger seat motions Horowitz over and asks him if he would mind clearing out. Horowitz agrees to leave, but not before offering the cop a Sliv & Dulet business card.
"One other thing," Horowitz says. "Would you like some chili con carne?"
The cop nods.
Horowitz takes out a Sharpie, writes "chili con carne" on a Post-it, and hands it to the cop.
"Where do I get it?" the policeman asks.
"I don't know," Horowitz shrugs. "Maybe at that Mexican place up the street."
The officer, utterly puzzled, rolls away.
Brumit and Horowitz couldn't have been much happier with the outcome of their Haight foray. They were one step closer to accomplishing their goal of becoming the best-known jackasses in San Francisco.
To be fair, Brumit and Horowitz are classically trained painters with some standing in San Francisco art circles, and their quest is probably less about being known as idiots than about getting an audience. All the same, they do list the rotisserie-hawking Popeil brothers and the death-metal icon band Slayer as primary influences. And clearly they want to be known, far and wide, for a brand of absurdity that at times approaches, and even becomes, sheer stupidity.
To achieve such renown, on May 17 the pair formed Sliv & Dulet Enterprises. The move is part parody of local business culture (like so many dot-coms, they have no clue how they'll make money, and no useful product to offer) and part social experiment (they both claim to be obsessed with human idiosyncrasy).
But it is also an exercise in branding.
Wherever Brumit and Horowitz go, their logo and Web address follow. They want people to see them acting like idiots and to know that it's not just ordinary idiocy, but the Sliv & Dulet brand. To date, there's been no shortage of material.
Much to the befuddlement -- and occasional horror -- of strangers who have no idea they're interacting with performance artists, the duo has played "stuffed animal golf" over and along the Great Highway; consumed a "smoothie" consisting of rotten bananas, tuna, Tabasco sauce, and suntan lotion in front of a crowd of 200; and given -- and received -- haircuts with a hammer and chisel.
Before the two officially became a team, Brumit orchestrated a race of more than 30 adults on toy Big Wheels down steep, serpentine Lombard Street. Horowitz once hosted an art gallery opening that lasted all of 60 seconds.
Together, they figure they can make a name for themselves.
Or, at least, a brand.
"I guess we would like to be those guys," Horowitz says. "And then whenever anyone sees the logo they'll go, 'Hey it's those guys who were at that thing, drinking awful stuff!'"
Last November, Jon Brumit went down to Fisherman's Wharf with a modified drum strapped over his face, a few spare drumsticks, and a sign around his neck that said: "Drum on my face, $1."
He made $100.
"It's hard to interest people in beating on your head," says Brumit's mother, Lola, with an evident trace of pride in her soft Southern drawl. "But that's Jon."
Brumit, who sports a permanent half-grin that makes it difficult to tell when he's kidding, grew up in a place less accepting of eccentrics than San Francisco. "This is Chattanooga, Tennessee," his mother says. "We're very conventional here, and Jon was always really strange. ... It's a real challenge to have a son like that, because you find yourself always wondering what he's going to do next."
Growing up, she recalls, Jon's "next" thing tended to involve his skateboard, and a hospital visit.
"I was always very impressed because he'd build these huge ramps in our back yard," she recalls. "And then he'd go off these horrific ramps and [into] empty swimming pools, and he'd be doing flips no one else would try. ... I think it's safe to say we visited every ER in this town."
If Brumit's whimsy amused his mother, he says it got the opposite reaction from his father, a retired military officer.
"I don't know what's worse," he says. "Having a father who's never around, or having the retired military guy who says, 'I've wanted a son my whole life, and I got stuck with you.'"
Brumit didn't let his father's disapproval keep him from pursuing his expressive side. He majored in art at the University of Tennessee's Chattanooga campus, where -- even among art students -- he was considered strange. "He used to do things like paint on the floor instead of the wall," says Alan White, one of Brumit's professors. "His work was always very, very different. He liked to explore the areas between when a painting is a painting, and when it's something else."
Brumit was the first UT-C student ever admitted into the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., a place renowned for letting students follow genre-blurring paths. While he was there, Brumit began working with unusual materials in his paintings, among them sawdust and lint. "People there would tell me, 'We need more people who do what you do here,' and they were really supportive," Brumit recalls. "The work I'm doing now feels like a very natural progression from that."
After graduating from Cranbrook in 1999, he moved into an East Bay houseboat with his girlfriend of 10 years and quickly embarked on a number of unorthodox projects, which -- like Drum on My Face (2001) -- often required participation from an audience that didn't necessarily know it was an audience.
His biggest splash to date has come from the "Bring Your Own Big Wheel" race, which sent dozens of people on plastic tricycles careening wildly out of control down Lombard Street's crooked curves, puzzling and delighting spectators and enraging Lombard's prickly neighborhood association.
The race made a big enough impression that a television production group is trying to air a version of it on the Fox Sports network. While the producer of the show denies any prior knowledge of Brumit's race, the two are currently, if tenuously, working together.
Brumit says the event was inspired by a discarded Big Wheel he found in the trash, which is frequently a source of his inspiration. "This part of West Oakland is kind of the place where people just sort of conveniently leave the gates on their flatbeds open," he says, standing outside his studio in a particularly desolate location. "It's a good place to find junk."
His warehouse studio space is a testament to that: At least 10 Big Wheels hang from the ceiling; a giant, discarded organ sits in the corner. An abandoned exercise bike rests in another. One of his favorite studio pastimes is playing pingpong with two paddles he found in the garbage, on an impossibly short work table he found at a rummage sale, using balls someone else had thrown out.
The trash theme has served him well. An exhibition of musical instruments he constructed from found objects is on display in one of the highly visible windows at Berkeley's Amoeba Music, and will be up for at least six more months. (This has not been well received by the people who hang out outside the window; they recently cut the wires to the window's speakers, which were playing music from the instruments.)
Continuing the strange-music theme: A recent organ show at Oakland's Door.7.Gallery featured Brumit -- wearing his drum helmet -- providing the percussion for an organ ensemble by taking tennis balls in the face from a serving machine.
"People were on the floor," recalls the gallery's owner, Ivan Blackshear.
There's no doubt that watching someone get hit in the face is funny, but is it art?
"I think there's a serious side to his work," says Blackshear. "Think hard about the Big Wheel race. Life really is a hard ride down a steep slope."
Blackshear's not the only one who sees merit in Brumit's art. Later this month Brumit starts a much-coveted residency at San Francisco's dump, an appointment artists seek because it gives them access to tons of raw materials they'd never get elsewhere. The residency comes with a guaranteed show at the end. It also pays $1,600 per month, which isn't a bad rate for going through trash.
Brumit first expressed an interest in the residency last summer. While attending an event at the dump's on-site studio, he met Horowitz, 26, then a San Francisco Art Institute student who had been doing an unpaid residency there. Eventually, the two became close collaborators.
"We couldn't stop hanging out. ... I'd just come out of business school and decided the degree was pretty worthless," Horowitz says. "I figured this would be my school."
Marc Horowitz has a business degree from Indiana University.
Recently, he's been weighing the benefits and downsides of living in a bread van.
Not long ago he was seen -- with Brumit -- drinking a "Smoothie for the Afterlife" that contained yogurt, suntan lotion, rotting bananas, canned tuna, hand lotion, Tabasco, hot cocoa, and aspirin in front of 200 people at the "death" portion of San Francisco's DadaFest.
And his mother is thrilled.
"Jon is a great influence for Marc," says Karen Meyer. "He's like an older brother to Marc. ... [Marc] really needs the support."
Horowitz -- whose trim build and wavy near-mullet make him look a bit like a blond version of the comedian Carrot Top -- didn't grow up with much in the way of role models or stability. Meyer says she's been sober for 15 years, but acknowledges her drinking had its effects on her son -- and that was only the beginning of the troubles. She divorced his late father, Burton Horowitz, when Marc was 7. They were living in Westerville, Ohio, a small college town not far from Columbus, but then wound up moving three times: first to Indiana, then to California, and then Marc moved back to Indiana to live with family friends when Meyer took a teaching job in the Arizona desert.
After remarrying, Marc's father wanted nothing to do with his previous family. "It's a very difficult thing to watch a father reject a son," Meyer says. "There was nothing Marc could do that would get him attention."
Now, of course, he's become quite skilled at attracting it.
After graduating from Indiana, where he remembers being "the only kid in the business school with my nose and tongue pierced," Horowitz went through what his mother describes as a breakdown. He had realized there was little he could do with his degree that didn't repulse him.
"I went into business because I wanted to make lots of money and support my mother," he says. "But I didn't realize the sacrifices it takes to make that much money. I wasn't willing to work 100-hour weeks for something I didn't care about."
So he did what a lot of young businessmen seeking easy money did at the height of the boom: He took a Silicon Valley tech job. As was par for the period, the company's absurdly generous benefits included paying for all the art books he could read and even some classes at Foothill College, where he studied painting.
Eventually, a Foothill professor, impressed with Horowitz's talent, made some contacts, and Marc received a scholarship to the San Francisco Art Institute, where he also landed a student residency at the dump. At the same time, Horowitz founded Your Local Gallery at a 6,500-foot warehouse on a rough stretch of 18th Street in Oakland. There, he attracted some critical notice for pieces that were dedicated to behavioral quirks.
One exhibition vaguely solicited "notes" from artists: The piece wound up consisting of everything from musical notes drawn on napkins to an entire refrigerator -- complete with magnet-attached notes. Another exhibit was "The One-Minute Show," in which 30 artists were given one minute to display pieces. The show, a pointed spoof on the self-important mingling typically associated with art gallery openings, drew notice in the San Francisco Chronicle and the Oakland Tribune, as well as a few smaller local arts periodicals.
One of the presenters at that show was Brumit, who by that point had already begun collaborating with Horowitz. The title of Brumit's piece, Shining a Bright Light on a Broken Object, was, as the Tribune noted, "pretty explanatory."
The next press notice for Horowitz and Brumit came in the form of a standard announcement in the San Francisco Daily Journal: A business license had been granted for Sliv & Dulet Enterprises.
Sliv & Dulet Enterprises is, as Horowitz puts it, "artists posing as businesspeople posing as artists."
To hear the pair tell it, the brand functions as an umbrella for all the absurd projects the two artists can concoct. But watching them in action, it's obvious the "business" serves another purpose: It gives two highly eccentric, creative, and attention-starved souls an excuse to stay constantly in touch.
"I was just so pleased for Marc and I to have found each other," Brumit says. "We're just so compatible. I mean, if I could find somebody like him to play music with, I'd probably just explode."
That compatibility is fully apparent during the company's "research and development" sessions, which take place at the eclectic Last Laugh coffee shop in Noe Valley, the site of Horowitz's day job.
Today's research session is a busy one. As Hank Williams blares from a CD player, the two kindred spirits work on editing a personal highlight video, which they hope will help them lobby for a grant that will allow them to put on a new event: the "Garbage Games." But that will come later; today, they need to prepare for the Haight Street performance and brainstorm ideas for other projects.
"Creative Counseling and Time Trials" is a last-minute selection. Just a few days ago, Brumit and Horowitz -- as Sliv and Dulet -- were set to masquerade on Twin Peaks or at Ocean Beach as the "Bay Area Fog Fighting Association." This endeavor would have involved a portable generator and industrial-strength fans, to accomplish the "useful service" of fog removal.
But that's been discarded in favor of the counseling event. So they must work quickly, and therefore independently: Brumit is putting together the greatest-hits video on a friend's laptop; Horowitz draws "ideas" onto muffin bags and Post-it notes, announcing them randomly every few moments. (Some of these bizarre notions become "products" offered up on slivanddulet.com.)
On the computer, Brumit watches a tightly framed video image of his face getting hit by a tennis ball thrown from a serving machine over and over again. He finds footage of a tennis ball nailing his face particularly squarely, and runs it back and forth in slow motion, so it appears the ball is hitting him over and over. "I just wanted to know for myself," Brumit says, "that I don't need the drum to take it in the face."
Horowitz is still hard at work generating ideas.
"How about a flame-retardant chicken?" he says, drawing a laugh from Brumit.
Eventually, the two get a coherent dialogue going, throwing around ideas that run from the impossibly absurd (picking an apartment building at random, replacing all the doors with Plexiglas, and calling it a living museum) to a number of more manageable tasks-in-absurdity.
One example of the latter is "The Urban Mammal-Watching Institute," which would involve setting up national park-style trailhead signs describing different types of San Franciscans in busy neighborhoods (say, in the Financial District at rush hour). Then, Brumit and Horowitz would equip themselves with binoculars and venture through the area, as if on safari. The trailhead signs would, of course, visibly sport the Sliv & Dulet logo.
"We're gonna do that," Brumit says, "but there's some serious prop building to do first."
Next month, the pair will also host a "Duct Tape Festival" in Oakland, which will feature works of art and clothing in which duct tape is the primary element. "Originally we wanted to carpet [the outside of] a building, and have 'Neighborhood Cat Day,' so cats could climb up the side of the building," Brumit says. "We were going to use duct tape to attach the carpet, but then we sort of downsized to 'The Carpet and Duct Tape Festival,' and eventually we settled on just duct tape." (The event will feature a duct tape pageant that displays clothes made from, at a minimum, 60 percent duct tape, and an exhibit of items repaired with duct tape.)
Perhaps the most ambitious Sliv & Dulet proposal in the works involves a grant application for a large event at the new Crissy Field Center, which would be (as their application puts it) "an exciting and ridiculous re-enactment of the major historical developments of the Crissy Field site."
The program, which would last all day, includes something called "rip and build," an interpretation of the Spanish establishment of the Presidio in which the object is to kick double-ply garbage bags until they rip, and then carry their contents across a finish line. In another event, the Gold Rush would be interpreted as a stationary bike race.
As silly as the event sounds, the center's staff members say they're intrigued.
"I personally love it," says Sue King, one of the planning directors at the center. "It's a way to make the center accessible to people who wouldn't normally come to a national park ... somebody other than, you know, tree-hugging white people from the headlands."
That's great for Crissy Field. But what's in it for Brumit and Horowitz?
"I saw that the Popeil brothers were one of the 25 people who changed the way people think about food," Horowitz says. "I'd love for us to go down as some of the people who changed the way people think about art."
"I think where we're coming from, there's more layers than just shits and giggles," Brumit adds. "But, you know, most of our work is either totally ridiculous or absurd. But if we can make people laugh, maybe they'll stick around, because the average time somebody looks at a painting is 12 seconds, and we can hook them for longer than that."
Even in foggy July, when no one in his right mind would visit San Francisco, the cars full of tourists back up at the top of Lombard Street's Russian Hill peak on a Sunday evening.
The timeless appeal of the world's crookedest street is simple: Its silly-yet-impeccably-manicured twists and turns embody the zaniness so many outsiders associate with the city. But on this evening, the twists and turns aren't the strangest thing about Lombard Street. Brumit and Horowitz are.
For the benefit of SF Weekly's photographer, who is seeking an image that can sum up his subjects, the pair are demonstrating something they've done many times before: They're riding plastic Big Wheels down Lombard Street.
They are, of course, wearing their Sliv and Dulet referee jerseys. And they've brought the buzzard along, too. As they did during the Haight Street performance, Horowitz is sporting a massive pair of 1980s sunglasses and Brumit's wearing his "meat hat."
They look ... absurd.
In an effort to get a good photo -- and perhaps also because it's incredibly amusing to watch -- the photographer asks Brumit and Horowitz to whip around the same treacherous curves over and over again. Brumit -- the founder of the BYOBW race -- has the better technique, fully extending his legs in front of the tiny plastic toy he's riding as if to steer by tilting, but that doesn't stop him from flipping over on his second attempt.
The tourists, who walk and drive past between takes, seem as if they'd rather stare at Sliv and Dulet than the Bay Bridge. Watching Horowitz and Brumit, children smile with amusement, parents point knowingly (as if to say, "Everything I ever told you about the crazy city is true"), and one middle-aged observer can't help but ask the same question six times.
"Is this Jackass? Is this gonna be on Jackass? This is Jackass, right? ..."
No, he's told, these guys aren't going to be on MTV's hallmark amateur stunt hour anytime soon. They're artists.
As the traffic gets worse, passengers in a few vehicles roll down their windows in attempts to figure out exactly what Brumit and Horowitz are doing. Horowitz, with the buzzard in tow, decides the time is right for some "creative counseling."
"Would you like some advice from the bird?" he asks an annoyed-looking cabby, much to the delight of the taxi's tourist fare.
"Yeah, how much longer am I gonna have to drive this cab?"
"Not long," Horowitz squawks while moving the buzzard, clamped to the handlebars of his red-and-yellow Big Wheel, like a puppet. "I foresee you will become rich soon."
The cabby laughs to himself. He drives about 10 feet before he stops and holds a crisp one-dollar bill out the window.
"That's worth a buck," he says, before driving off.
Horowitz pounces on the note swiftly, says thanks, and then looks at Brumit with awe. "Holy shit," he says, laughing.
Sliv & Dulet Enterprises just made its first dollar.