Performance Art

“A put-on is not necessarily a put-down. I liken what I do sometimes to a life game, as an adventure in absurdity, an adult fairytale in which I engage people emotionally and intellectually. The audience gets involved and has to decide for itself what’s going on and what’s to be learned from the experience. Everybody is a participant.”

— Alan Abel

Don’t ask me to define it, but some of the items in my collection seem to belong to the category of “performance art” — renegotiations of the social contract out of æsthetic desire or some less-easily-defined motive.

There are artists who have specialized in the prank. Some who stand out in this regard are Joey Skaggs (or one of his pseudo-Skaggses), Alan Abel, the team of Coyle & Sharpe, Luther Blissett, Michael Jackson, Kerry Thornley, Michael Moore, Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman, Pedro Carvajal, and Paul Krassner. I notice a certain gender bias here, but nothing the Guerrilla Girls can’t fix.

Dramatists occasionally play with the audience / performer boundary, and social psychologists have adopted this form of performance art as a professional technique, renaming the performances breaching experiments.

In one example, Jim Moran went to a cocktail party, dressed for the occasion except for one anomalous accessory: a small length of string looped around his ear and extending into one corner of his mouth. Moran didn’t explain the string to anyone. He didn’t even mention it… and nobody else did either! And thusly the Somebody Else’s Problem Field was discovered.

The delightful group “Improv Everywhere” decked out a McDonalds restroom with a tuxedoed bathroom attendant and turned a Virgin Megastore into a dance studio

Mobbing is a form of semi-anonymous, quasi-spontaneous, collective performance art that’s starting to take hold. It’s “an e-mail-driven experiment in organizing groups of people who suddenly materialize in public places, interact with others according to a loose script and then dissipate just as suddenly as they appeared.”

Mobs are striking everywhere from The Mall of America to London. And while the movement started out with a spirit of absurdism and frivolity, it’s beginning to develop a harder edge thanks to some unexpected and uncalled-for repression from the humorless authorities.

One purported inventor of the flash mob explained his theory in Harper’s Magazine.

There are some delightful items in the Urban and Adventurous Artists list.

The Surveillance Camera Players arrange dramatic performances intended for viewing on surveillance cameras, then find examples of these cameras in their surroundings and put on interpretations of Ubu Roi and Waiting for Godot for the lucky security guards or video cassette recorders monitoring the scene.

Another group that toys with the ubiquity of surveillance cameras is using sousveillance cameras to turn the tables and start ShootingBack:

In ShootingBack, I confront representatives of the “Surveillance Superhighway” (establishments such as department stores where video surveillance is used extensively, yet photography by customers is strictly prohibited). I begin with my camcorder held down at my side, pointing away from a representative of the SS. Then, I ask the representative “What are those mysterious ceiling domes — those dark hemispheres…” or “Is that a video camera? Why are you taking pictures of me without my permission?” After the representative tells me that I am paranoid and that only criminals are concerned about cameras, I raise the camcorder up to my eye… At this point, the representative of the SS often shows great concern about my camcorder, and thus, in a 180 degree reversal, is self-incriminating.

Check out their PleaseWait wearable surveillance / mediated interaction technology (or perahps something more subtle).

You may also be interested to know that Michael Naimark has done some useful research into how to temporarily disable surveillance cameras using cheap, off-the-shelf laser pointers.

And, as a teaser to our Billboard Liberation section, I give you this surveillance camera-related billboard hack.

A group called Quintessenz has also been researching the vulnerabilities of spy cameras:

Members of the organization worked out a way to intercept the camera images with an inexpensive, 1-GHz satellite receiver. The signal could then be descrambled using hardware designed to enhance copy-protected video as it’s transferred from DVD to VHS tape.

The Quintessenz activists then began figuring out how to blind the cameras with balloons, lasers and infrared devices.

And, just for fun, the group created an anonymous surveillance system that uses face-recognition software to place a black stripe over the eyes of people whose images are recorded.

Andrew Epstein of Amhurst College in Massachusetts created a commentary on the U.S. War on Drugs by taking it to its logical conclusion. He posted signs that read “In order to curb the use of caffeine at Amherst College, the sale and distribution of coffee are no longer permitted on campus. Effective Immediately.” Then he shut down and cloaked the old coffee machines and sent out confederates to peddle coffee beans out on the sidewalk black market.

The best part of this is that it was all done above-board with the approval of the campus administration under the guise of an art project. “I suspect if he had come to the administration as an activist, there would have been much stronger resistance,” said Epstein’s faculty advisor. “It shows us how art has this kind of peculiar permission.”

A 17-year-old girl stopped Governor George Wallace from speaking at the Georgia State House by applauding him!

Won’t go any further without a tip of the hat to Orson Welles’ radio show The War of the Worlds which gripped the U.S. in media-hypnotized panic in 1938.

Just remember, U.F.O. seekers: A park is no place for Voodoo!

“The biggest reason I do the hoax medium is because everyone is so post-ironic today,” says Mike Z of Crowded Theater. “No one believes in anything. The willing suspension of disbelief is long gone. People have disbelief every moment of their waking hours. So I do try to craft my work so that it’s considered important information and not a goof. I think too much of our culture has been abandoned to goofing on truth and meaning. I want to address issues, and I think the best way to do that is to be taken seriously.”

The architectural activist group Heavy Trash built and installed viewing platforms that people can climb if they want to look inside gated communities to see how the upper crust lives.

Susan Griffen tells a story about surrealist poet Robert Desnos, who was imprisoned in the Nazi death camps:

One day Desnos and others were taken away from their barracks. The prisoners rode on the back of a flatbed truck; they knew the truck was going to the gas chamber; no one spoke. Soon they arrived and the guards ordered them off the truck. When they began to move toward the gas chamber, suddenly a Desnos jumped out of line and grabbed the hand of the woman in front of him. He was animated and he began to read her palm. The forecast was good: a long life, many grandchildren, abundant joy. A person nearby offered his palm to Desnos. Here, too, Desnos foresaw a long life filled with happiness and success. The other prisoners came to life, eagerly thrusting their palms toward Desnos and, in each case, he foresaw long and joyous lives.

The guards became visibly disoriented. Minutes before they were on a routine mission the outcome of which seemed inevitable, but now they became tentative in their movements. Desnos was so effective in creating a new reality that the guards were unable to go through with the executions. They ordered the prisoners back onto the truck and took them back to the barracks. Desnos never was executed. Through the power of imagination, he saved his own life and the lives of others.

Jeffrey Vallance bought a Foster Farms chicken at the supermarket, then took it to a pet cemetery and — maintaining a straight face — asked for the whole shebang memorial service and burial for his beloved pet Blinky.

A woman going by the name Terrifica puts on mask and cape and patrols New York City, looking for drunk women in bars who are in danger of being picked up on by dastardly men, and coming to their rescue.

And in Hamburg, Germany, a “gang of anarchist Robin Hood-style thieves… dress as superheroes and steal expensive food from exclusive restaurants and delicatessens to give to the poor.” According to one report: “After they plundered Kobe beef fillets, champagne and smoked salmon from a gourmet store on the exclusive Elbastrasse, they presented the cashier with a bouquet of flowers before making their getaway.”

A San Diegan who calls himself “Monte” has distributed pictures of himself dancing on Ronald Reagan’s grave and urinating on Richard Nixon’s.

One of the techniques used by the Nazi invaders of Poland to stamp out resistance was to demolish statues and monuments dedicated to Polish patriotism or heroes. Many Poles adopted the practice of pretending that the monuments still existed, for instance walking around the empty spaces where they had been as if they were still there.

Three men were arrested for throwing paper airplanes through the airspace of the U.S. embassy in Norway, while the U.S. was bombing Afghanistan.

Lorin Partridge shows up at anti-war protests with pro-war picket signs that read “War is Groovy” and “Killing People is No Big Deal.”

When four women decided to do a spoof of women’s lib protests in 1970, carrying signs reading “Ban the Man” and “Down with Men and Marriage” they didn’t know that a photo of their tongue-in-cheek protest would become an icon of feminist militancy.

“Olympia,” dressed in business attire and carrying a briefcase, abruptly went into an hour-long pole dance on the sidewalk of San Francisco’s financial district during the Christmas shopping rush.

Seattle municipal bus driver Reggie Wilson drives a route all his own:

He entertains his passengers with jokes, stories and spontaneous poems in the bus, which he’s decorated with smiley faces. He hides candies and snacks under the bus seats on special occasions, and he has a cache of stuffed animals for crying kids. He leads sing-a-longs featuring bus and work-themed songs: “If You’re Happy That It’s Friday, Say Uh-huh” and “Ride, Ride, Ride the Bus Gently Down the Street.”

Gilbert Highet writes: “It is in the realm of art, the only realm which combines the sublime and the ridculous, that the hoax belongs. When Horace de Vere Cole strewed horse droppings (procured with considerable difficulty and expense from mainland Italy) about the center of that horseless city, Venice, and then watched the Venetians gazing with a wild surmise first at the pavement of the Piazza di San Marco and then at the sky above, where nothing has yet been seen to fly but pigeons and airplanes, he was enjoying the purest pleasure of art…”

In San Francisco, California, a man by the name of Brian Anthony Young impersonated a state fish and game warden for three months, checking licenses, issuing citations and confiscating fish. He said that “boredom and drugs” led him to perform the inspections on more than 200 anglers, boats, restaurants and stores.

Speaking of fish and game in San Francisco, the S.F. Cacophony Society recently organized a pigeon roast downtown.

Brian G. Hughes struck it rich in the paper box and banking biz and decided to spend his cash and leisure time messing with people and their attitudes toward conspicuous displays of wealth: entering alley cats in cat shows (and winning!), dropping packages of glass jewels in front of Tiffany’s, that sort of thing.

William “Reverend Billy” Talen uses the model of a streetcorner preacher, the stage of a Disney store or a Starbucks, and a gospel of anticonsumerism to confront money drones and fight for their souls. We could use a hundred more like him.

In March 1999 a group of people on social welfare visited Bloemendaal, the richest town in the Netherlands. They brought gifts such as home baked cakes or flower bulbs and offered them to the rich. An accompanying note said “You pay a lot of taxes, which we profit from. With this gesture we would like to express our thanks.”

Here’s a good story: A student at MIT spent her summer days at the Harvard football field, wearing a black-and-white striped shirt and tossing bird seed around while blowing a whistle. A few months later, football season began, and when the referee blew the whistle for the first home game, the field was suddenly covered with birds.

In 1987, a teenager from West Germany flew a small, single-engine Cessna 450 miles through Soviet airspace and landed in Red Square in Moscow. The reds threw Mathias Rust in prison, but Gorbachev let him out soon after — and Gorby took advantage of the incident to can his defense minister and purge the military command, hastening the fall of the U.S.S.R.

Five stars to a Mr. Lozier, who conceived of a brilliant hack in the early 1800s. He managed to convince a sizable crowd of New Yorkers that Manhattan was in imminent danger of sinking under the weight of sprawling construction. After a few days, Lozier came up with the plan of cutting the island loose, towing it out into the Atlantic, turning it around and reättaching it to the mainland. He enlisted (I’m not kidding, folks) hundreds of people in this wacky scheme.

Or was it all just a dream?

Jane White was sick of more than a decade of monthly visits from pamphleteering Jehovah’s Witnesses. Finally, she snapped. At ten in the morning on Sunday, she banged on the door of the Kingdom Hall where the sect was having its services, then invited herself in and started offering magazines to the congregation.

The Pieman (in various guises) has thrown pies and such at such targets as Bill Gates, Jeffrey Skilling, Willie Brown, Oscar de la Renta, Michel Camdessus, Jean Chrétien, Charles Hurwitz, Lech Kaczynski, Alistair Darling, Kristin Halvorsen, Ann Coulter, David Horowitz, Milton Friedman, William Shatner, Maharaji, Howard Jarvis, William F. Buckley, Abe Beame, Ralph Nader, Jean-Pierre Chevenement, Prince Charles, Anita Bryant, Daniel Moynihan, Ralph Klein, Edward Teller, Quentin Kopp, G. Gordon Liddy, Phyllis Schlafly, Andy Warhol, William Kristol, E. Howard Hunt, Eldridge Cleaver, Rod McKuen, Medea Benjamin, David Icke, Andrzej Urbanski, Michael Wines, Randall Terry, William Colby, Helmut Kohl, Filip Dewinte, Helen Chenowith, Pat Buchanan, Michael Noonan, Bertie Ahern, Pim Fortuyn, Timothy Leary, Sylvester Stallone, Jeremy Clarkson, and Jerry Brown. “We want to give people who are so overwhelmed by the terror of modern life the opportunity to laugh in the face of people who are destroying us,” said a Biotic Baking Brigade member known as “Agent Apple.”

A crew calling themselves Los Cybrids stormed the “Internet 2010” panel to advocate the outright abolition of the internet in a splendidly flamboyant manner.

A man in Berkeley, California has been circulating petitions to try to get the city to put on the ballot a proposition to make Aristotle’s first law of logic (“A=A”) an official city ordinance.

Special categories of hoax performance art have been etched out by practitioners of The Great God Hoax and by magicians and miracle mongers.

P.T. Barnum was ever-creative in his use of ritual performance to manipulate behavior and belief. And points for tummult go to The Rensselaer Drop Squad for relentless dropping of big heavy things down tall staircases.

A group of students in Georgia threw a rave and a fashion show in a Wal-Mart. “We just wanted something we could do at Wal-Mart to bring the youth culture and the art world into kinda like a fluorescent-lit wasteland.”

The Solid Gold Chart Busters have taken on guerrilla cell phone destruction as a hobby. View movie clips of their work on-line — they promise that “[a]ll the people concerned are real members of the public and no one was refunded for the loss of their mobile telephone.”

Talk radio call-in shows are targeted by the performance artist-pranksters Goy Division, and football star-turned-actor O.J. Simpson targeted both the legal system and U.S. racial politics in his brilliant yet deadly satire, The O.J. Simpson Trial.

Sometimes it’s very hard indeed to distinguish performance art from what is commonly labeled delusionary schizophrenic antics. What do you make of Rosie Ruiz and her non-victory at the 1980 Boston Marathon? Or the amazing claims of IdEAL ORDER Psychic TV?

William Topaz McGonagall made a name for himself as an undiscouragable author of awful poetry. Ronald M. Chroniak robbed a bank and then went outside and started handing out money to people, saying “I just robbed the bank; have a nice day,” until his arrest.

Larry Walters, with the help of some helium-filled weather balloons, flew to 16,000 feet in a lawn chair.

Gabriele Paolini has made a name for himself by jumping out behind TV reporters as they are delivering live, on-the-scene broadcasts — usually waving condoms or a photo of the pope. There’s some sort of implicit activist message in here somewhere, but I’ve chosen to put this report here rather than in our Guerrilla Hacks section. This because he’s managed to get himself on TV more than 18,000 times. Good grief!

A hunter in Uganda was being sought by authorities upset over his habit of shooting gorillas with tranquilizer darts and then dressing them in clown suits.

Pete Wagner (inspired by Brother Jed) likes political demonstrations so much that he decided it was no use waiting for an appropriate issue to come around. He started holding Generic Demonstrations at which any ol’ issue would be fair game and people would hold up placards reading merely “For” and “Against.”

Wagner also joined in with some friends to liven up a feminist “Take Back the Night” anti-rape march — by forming a all-male cheerleading squad to line the parade route and cheer on the marchers.

Another group of pranksters parodied the followers of American perennial presidential candidate and lunatic Lyndon LaRouche by donning tinfoil hats and loudly proclaiming a number of loosely-connected insane notions in the public square. “One was waving a sign that said ‘Build an escalator to mars’; another sign bore the sentence, ‘Dick Cheney is a salamander.’”

For them, it’s a hobby. For Frank Chu, it’s a full-time job.

Choi Chung-ching staged regular funerals to drive away potential buyers of housing near his home, successfully exploiting a superstitious custom (but eventually getting sued).

Danah Boyd has a delightful story about spontanous group performance art:

Last night, I attended a renegade party buried in San Francisco. We could see the road from our location, but the road could not see us. When we saw cop car after cop car drive by, we knew it was over. But still, as they stopped, we crouched down, climbed trees, hid behind bushes. The officer climbed the hill with his flashlight, shining it on people. He got to the top where he realized there were at least 150 people there.

“Oh. My. God.” was the only thing he could mutter. And he kept repeating it.

In response, someone jumped up and yelled “Surprise!” at which point everyone jumped into singing “Happy Birthday” to the officer. His eyes were wide with shock, jaw still slack…

They’re calling it Munchausen by Internet Syndrome. Some people are manufacturing on-line personæ that are complete with realistic pathos, tragedy, disease, trauma or sextuplets, and then they go on to suck up the virtual sympathy of other folks on-line (and sometimes their charitable donations).

Apparently, in Virginia, all you gotta do to get a new driver’s license photo is go to the department of motor vehicles and ask. So a couple of pranksters drove from one to the next, getting their photos taken at one after another, wearing ridiculous clothes, wigs, fake beards, and mugging for the camera with grotesque expressions. Oh yeah, then they made a movie about it.

A woman in Melbourne, Australia has gotten in the habit of commandeering the public address system on the subway to make smutty announcements.

People who transform their whole lives into performance art get special treatment in our Fake Folks and Impostors pages, but I’ll highlight a handful here as well:

First and foremost was a fellow who called himself George Psalmanazar (his real name is lost to history). In the late 17th Century, George wandered around Europe pretending to be a cannibal prince from the exotic orient. He made up an alphabet and lectured widely about the pagan practices and exotic wildlife of his home nation, even teaching at Oxford on the subject. In 1704 he compiled these observations into the book “An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa.”

When Psalmanazar died in 1763, his memoirs, in which he confessed to the decades-old hoax, were published. His life was revealed to have been one long work of amazing improvisational dramatic fiction.

How could he have pulled off such a complete ethnic imposture on the likes of Oxford? Well, don’t say it is because people were stupid back in the eighteenth century. In the twentieth century, Grey Owl, an Englishman who impersonated a native American for years, wrote autobiographical books, lectured, and even visited the British royal family to tell them stories about his life. His influential books are credited with starting the conservation movement in Canada. He wasn’t found out until shortly after his death in 1938.

One of my favorite performance artists was a San Franciscan named Joshua A. Norton who, in 1859, declared himself to be Emperor of the United States (and Protector of Mexico). The Emperor’s visionary proclamations were printed up in the papers, his self-issued currency was often honored, he corresponded with other heads of state, and his renown was such that tens of thousands of people turned out at his funeral.

Lord Buckley, poet, performance artist, and hep cat, gets big points for spirit and inspiration, as does his fellow blue-blood Lady Hester Stanhope, the “Queen of the East.”

Coyle and Sharpe
Coyle and Sharpe

Bill Gates meets Pieman
Bill Gates meets Pieman

Lord Buckley (©Ray Avery/CTSIMAGES)
Lord Buckley (©Ray Avery/<small>CTSIMAGES</small>)

Francine Cavanaugh, piër of Enron’s CEO
Francine Cavanaugh, piër of Enron’s CEO

Mathias Rust, captured
Mathias Rust, captured

Emperor Norton
Emperor Norton

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