(Disclaimer #1: This review/interview, much like the book itself, is not meant for people under the age of 18.)
Hank and Larry are performance artists in San Francisco's underground performance art scene. But when the mind-numbing grind of their corporate jobs drives them over the edge, they plot the ultimate revenge: to kidnap their company's billionaire CEO and brainwash him into becoming a manic performance artist.
When I saw the cover of "Two Performance Artists Kidnap Their Boss and do Things With Him", I was wondering into what I had gotten myself. I have never (knowingly) seen a display of performance art. And it was certainly a switch from my normal "Murder, She Wrote" vein of cozy mystery.
But I have come to look at reading "Two Performance Artists" (for short) as a cleansing of my literary palate. I love my cozies and always will, but sometimes you have to step outside of your comfort zone in order to grow.
"TPA" (Ok, so that's the Reader's Digest condensed version of the book name) is told in the first person by Larry, who with his friend Hank are performance art aficionados turned artists, who are forced to work in the corporate computer world in order to eat and live. Being an erstwhile performing artist (different from performance artist) myself, I can understand their frustration and anxiety at trying to fit their square pegs into into round ports on some office equipment.
This is definitely not a book for children. The language and situations are not for the easily offended. But it fits the world of performance art, especially in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco. I was surprised that I felt drawn into Larry and Hank's story, like I was walking beside them, or maybe one of those little 'angel/devil' characters that sit on people's shoulders in an attempt to influence their actions.
The more 'conservative' you are, the less likely you are to enjoy the book. Plain and simple. But Mr. Wichmann's writing is authentic(he writes what he knows and not necessarily what is popular), and his characters have enough, um, moxie to follow their dreams. The world would be a better, perhaps more interesting place, if more of us did that.
1. What drew you to performance art?
I remember watching the Kipper Kids, a performance art duo, perform on Bette Midler's "Mondo Beyondo" TV show in the early 1980s. I sensed that it was art, though I doubt I knew the term 'performance art'; I just knew I enjoyed watching two funny-talking men making an unholy mess in a public bathroom.
A few years later, I saw Darryl Hannah do a performance called "Put Out The Fire" for Robert Redford in the 1986 movie, Legal Eagles. The piece was created for the film by performance artist Lin Hixson. I don't know how it's held up with time, but to my 14-year-old brain, Darryl was positively gripping—she haunted me for months.
Then, while studying English and film in college, I wandered into a performance art class by John M. White, a famous performance artist, painter, and teacher in L.A. John did a few short performances and I was blown away. I didn't necessarily understand the literal meaning of what he was doing, but it made sense on a deeper, intuitive, more primal level—a shamanic level. It was a shock to my baby brain. When a piece would end—and if it was good—I'd look around and realize I'd lost track of time. I'd been transported to a universe of the artist's making. Performance art was hypnagogic. Ordinary objects were magically transformed: a water glass became a performer's mother; a shoe became a black hole; a hair net became an instrument of mental torture. Pieces would stick in my melon for months afterward. Every new performance was like seeing a brand new art form for the very first time. I've seen a lot of theater, painting, sculpture, and dance; it's rare that any of these has me asking, "What in the world am I looking at?" Performance art, by contrast, does that to me all the time.
2. Who are some of your influences in the craft?
Other artists have been a huge influence. Bas Jan Ader was lost at sea; Rudolf Schwarzkogler tried to cut off his penis; Fluxus were hilarious pranksters; Joseph Beuys, with his wolf and buckets of fat; Robert Rauschenberg's globby assemblages....
Film has played a role as well: David Lynch, Luis Buñuel, Maya Deren, Jack Smith, David Cronenberg, Harmony Korine...they're all giants for me.
And then there are my own interests, which developed long before I started doing performance art: spies & spying, sideshows & freaks, true crime, Hollywood celebrities, abnormal psychology, dream interpretation, parapsychology and the occult, experimental music, martial arts, literary theory, drinking...my performances have, at various times, drawn from all of these.
3. How is performance art different from 'the performing arts'?
"The performing arts" is a general term that refers to mainstream, traditional live arts: Drama, Dance, Circus, live music, street performance, and the like.
Performance Art, by contrast, is a specific art form with its own art history you can trace, just as you can trace the art history of Painting or Sculpture. Performance Art involves an artist who does an experimental performance for an audience, where the performance can't be readily categorized as belonging to an existing art genre (Drama, Dance, etc.). A "good" performance art piece, for me, is one where it appears as though the performer has made up an entirely new art form. Seeing a piece like that is an incredible experience, because you don't have a readymade context for understanding what you're seeing; it's up to you, the spectator, to learn the language of the performer in order to make sense of the performance, and in so doing, you're often left questioning your own values, your world, your place in it, and perhaps even reality itself.
I once saw a woman come out on stage and begin slapping herself in the face while wearing a pig's bladder under her arm. I've done performances where I've snorted shaved mouse fur, or shoved razor blades into my underwear while asking audience members about masculinity. How would you categorize acts like these? As dramatic plays? Not really; there's no fourth wall, the performers aren't "acting" as anyone but themselves, and Aristotle's rules of dramatic action are often flat-out ignored.
In very broad strokes, performance art's history can be traced back to Dada, an early 20th century art period that was a reaction by artists to the horrors of World War I. Distrustful of every establishment, Dadaists sought to subvert everything—beauty, elitism, commercialism, nationalism—to take art down from its commercial and elitist pedestal so it could be given to everyone. This meant, of course, with "everyone" doing art, that pretty much anything could become art, or sculpture, or a performance, depending on your taste. Art had become, at least in the Dadaist world, truly Do It Yourself. Following this conceptual art line of thinking through Surrealism, then Action Painting (where the canvas became an arena for the performance of painting), then Happenings, we're left with a live art form in which spectators go to watch an artist do something—and that performance, often having no readymade category for it (since, ideally, the artist has made up his or her own art form) is what we call Performance Art.
The fact that performance art can't be bought or sold—which means it has nothing to lose—makes it a powerful tool against people in power. To wit: www.scotchcomedy.com/square
4. Where do you see performance art on the mainstream-fringe continuum?
For me, a successful performance art piece is one that's difficult to describe afterward because the artist succeeded in showing you a brand new art form. When you see a piece like that, it can be shocking because you have no readymade tools for evaluating it. It can make you question the artist's sanity—or your own. Performances like that are revolutionary, dangerous, and will always be on the fringe because the mainstream public has no clue what to do with them, especially when they're spun up by the media as sensationalist. A Russian performance artist who nails his scrotum to Moscow's Red Square (www.scotchcomedy.com/square) will be portrayed as entertaining, absolutely, but also as dangerous and crazy. People will laugh or shake their heads, then dismiss such a piece out-of-hand because they don't understand it. (People in power, on the other hand, and people drawn to the fringes, will understand it perfectly).
There are performance artists who regularly draw large art crowds for their popularity, but who've managed to maintain their edgy integrity to a degree. And then, of course, there are others who have crossed over from their edgy performance art roots into more bland stadium acts where the intimacy and magic of a performance artist gambling it all just a few feet away from the audience have been lost.
5. Have you ever gotten injured during a performance piece?
A broken rib was the worst injury so far. But I've fallen on concrete many times, sprained toes, cracked a tooth (while trying to eat somebody else's old tooth), been punched in the nose, and was once sliced open by a flying paper sack filled with kitchen knives.
6. What advice do you have for people (young or otherwise) who think performance art might be their calling?
Go for it! Just start doing it! And keep doing it! It's the most flexible art form there is! Let everything you see and hear in everyday life pass through your performance art filter to help add nuance, depth, texture, and context to your work. If you don't have a performance venue nearby, host your own evening of performance at a gallery, in an alley, on a bus, or in somebody's garage, and invite your friends to watch. Document your pieces with photography or video. Always consider the audience; connect with them; make it a goal to get your performance into spectators' heads, where it can transform them like magic. And while you're busy making pieces, absorb as much performance art history as you can through books, films, or video, both for inspiration, and so you discover what's been done.
7. In your opinion, what makes a good piece of performance art?
Beyond #3 above, a good piece catches an audience off guard with its uniqueness, its intimacy, and its ability to reach deep into the minds and imaginations of spectators. Performance art has its clichés, just like any other art form. How many boring still life paintings of fruit have you seen? Exactly. Same goes for performance art. Breaking dishes, wrapping yourself in cellophane or duct tape, smearing yourself in paint, masturbating, sitting still for hours, putting things up your butt—yawn. These are done every day by well-meaning young artists who haven't seen enough performance art to know where the boundary lines are, in order that they may be transgressed...which is why it's important to study performance art history, so you can break new earth.
8. What does a performance artist do to relax?
He or she dies.
9. Hollywood is for movies. New York is for theatre. Is there a Mecca for performance art?
Just as performance art has remained busy rejecting its own conventions, its geography is always shifting. Zurich, Paris, Berlin, New York, and London were packed with Dadaist performances and Happenings between 1916 and the late 1950s. After that, New York, Los Angeles, Amsterdam, and San Francisco took turns at the forefront from the 1950s through the 1990s. Today, you'll find experimental galleries around the world that regularly feature kick-ass performance art.
Although there are long-running performance arty venues like MOMA or The Kitchen in NYC, or Highways in Santa Monica, the Internet and the Earth's 24-hour news cycle allow artists to gain exposure from anywhere like never before. A quick Google search for performance art just today popped up Cleveland, Tokyo, Cologne, Hongdae.... More than ever, performance art can be wherever you are, if you're inspired to curate and/or make it.
10. When someone comes to see you perform, what do you hope they take away from the experience?
When spectators go home, I hope the performance stays with them, acting on them like a spell that entertains, incites, transforms, or heals. A lot of my performances are about turning myself inside out—becoming crazy, so that I might study the crazy, and understand. And the audience, coming into contact with that—it's highly contagious, you see—comes to understand as well—or at least that's my goal.
For me, Performance Art is the jungle, the performer is the shaman, and his/her performance is the ayahuasca.
11. You are engaged in many creative endeavors (performance art, writing, stand-up, etc.) Do you have a favorite?
Writing is my first love. For me, all other endeavors are borne from writing.
12. Commercial space travel looms on the horizon. Would you like the first performance art gig on the international space station?
Yes, please! Where do I sign up, up, up?
13. What would you like readers to know about your book?
My debut novel is called Two Performance Artists Kidnap Their Boss And Do Things With Him. It's a caper comedy about two fame-hungry performance artists who cook up the ultimate performance: to kidnap their billionaire boss and turn him into a performance artist. It was a first-round finalist in the 2013 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Contest, and it went on sale in April.
I wrote the book because, after doing performance art for 23 years, I realized that nobody had yet written THE performance art novel—one that captures the grit and unbridled creativity of performance artists and their world—and especially one that shows how somebody becomes a performance artist. So, in 1999, that's what I set out to do—to write what in German is called a kunstlerroman—a novel about the becoming of an artist. Everything that I know about performance art's magic, I wrote into the novel. I completed the first full draft in 2006, and finally: here it is!
If you're crazy about creativity, art, dark comedy, capers, madness, or magic, I think you'll like it.
Two Performance Artists novel website: www.2p4m.com
My website and blog: www.scotchcomedy.com
(Disclaimer #2: I received an e-copy of this book from the author and publisher via NetGalley and WorldWind Virtual Book Tours in exchange for my honest opinion/review. No other compensation was offered, requested or received.)