EXPERIMENTS IN MAGICAL CHANGE
I always have a problem when someone who has not experienced one of our performances asks, “Well, what was your performance about?” Within this question, there are a number of concepts about performance which are undermining limitations.
I became sucked into performance not to tell stories, not to paint pictures for others to look at, not even to reveal something about myself or about the state of things, and certainly not for fame or fortune. It was simply the best way that I saw to create the intimate community which I as a person needed and that I thought society needed as an alternative to the personal isolation....
O.k. Let’s cut the b.s. The above is true, but boring. In a lot of my performances, I spend the first hour boring people, usually by asking what each person does, how did he hear about the performance, etc. I drive in my wheelchair up to each person and tap out these questions slowly on my letterboard. Talking to this strange person in this strange way may be interesting as a confrontation. But listening to trivial chatter between this disabled man and each person in this “painfully slow” way can become an active boredom in a room which looks as if nothing else will ever happen. This active boredom is a slow increasing shock that makes people who want quick-paced, high-energy entertainment suddenly bolt out of the door.
This is one of my screening processes for the audience. This active boredom is actually a light trance in preparation for the altered reality which will be created within the piece. This trance is an active linking of the people into one another in the room. This causes those who are not ready to put aside the passive programming to leave.
I am not t.v. I am not the show, art should not be a show. There are a million shows from t.v., movies, school, sports, music, theatre, the stock market to the news and politics...all with the illusion of participation, but with the reality of grand passivity and short attention spans.
What I am as an artist is a channel through which a whole host of factors actively can mix together, creating a performance, creating a community, creating change. I do not see the performance as my own. Many artists get overwhelmed by taking on the whole responsibility of the performance, by thinking the performance is themselves. They get pumped up when a piece succeeds; and they get crushed when a piece bombs. They get boxed in by fear of failing, blocked from experimenting. It is similar to a spiritual healer who forgets that he is not the one who is actually doing the healing. The magic usually leaves him.
I recognize I am only one factor in creating the altered reality which is a performance. If a piece is a dud, I first look at if I could have done things differently to be a better channel, to provide a safer environment for magic. In this way I become a clearer performer. But I next look at if the audience took its responsibility. Was it lazy, wanting just to sit back and be entertained, not wanting to risk, to become involved? The performance is a community effort, and the audience is a big part. If the audience does not work, the piece will not work.
I next look at the cast’s function in the same way. Were they vulnerable enough? Were they personally connected together?
There are times when everyone has done his best, but the magic just is not there. There are many unknown and unseen forces at work in a performance. Frank Moore, the performance artist, is in reality a fictitious front man for personalities and forces that really create performances.
When a performance succeeds, I look at it and examine it in the same objective way. I know it was not I who did it. This has given me a great freedom.
Being in a non-normal body has made it clear to me that life is a process of performance. My body and my attitudes toward life break taboos and change things even by my just sitting in a fancy restaurant. A sexy woman (my wife, Linda) is feeding me, laughing, having a good time. Peas and beets and mashed potatoes are running down my matted beard. For me and Linda, it is just everyday life. But for the up-tight, high-class society lady at the next table, it is a terribly gross, disgusting attack on her neat clean reality. I cough, loud and long. A knife cuts the normal world. A young homely girl at another table thinks, “If he can have fun, why can’t I?”
In this way, I have always been a performer. But I started dabbling with formal performance in the early ’70s by dancing with a rock band, risking being called a freak, having fun; doing political pranks, like rolling into the Marine recruiting office to join, wanting to push “the button”.
But my first major performance began in a spiritual commune in which I lived. This commune was itself a liminal altered state in which 350 people went around doing their everyday duties, but talking about who they were in past lives, going into trances, channeling spirits and other things that I, as a skeptic, thought were weirdnesses better suited to cheap horror movies than to real life. But the people would not listen to me when I tried to tell them this spiritual business was spacing them out of this human life. But then one day, when I was typing, a spirit who later introduced himself as Reed, came through me, typing, “You are not typing this, Frank.” At the beginning, I thought I made Reed up to get the people to listen, to get the woman of my dreams, and to start creating my ideals in the world. But I may have been taking more credit than I deserved because Reed and two other spirits/characters/persons took on reality for themselves. People waited for the next “lecture” to come through. The spirits talked to people, guiding them (and me) to create a new personal community. Even when I left the spiritual commune, reading the new lectures for the people around me became performances aimed at them. People started seeing Reed and the others in their dreams. The question of whether Reed is “real” is not a useful question in shamanistic performance--that is, performance for change. Reed is real whether he is a spirit floating around somewhere, or my alter-ego, or a conning fiction which I used as an invisible puppet. His reality is the change he created in the outer world.
Reed lasted for three years as an active performance. He as a performance contained the qualities which shape all my work. It was aimed at building a personal community which by its very existence threatens the established order of isolation and fragmentation. Its parts, the lectures, used the people around me to get to universal concerns. Reed was a framed process running parallel to, but braided with, my normal life.
During the last year of Reed, I was searching for a method to work with people in an intense, direct way. Ever since college days, I had been writing nonsense scripts dealing with nudity and nonsexual eroticism. Also during my college days, I read such books as Toward A Poor Theatre and The Theatre And Its Double. But it was not until I and my communal family took a very intense film-making course in Santa Fe in 1972 that I was able to put my weird ideas into performance reality. We made films of rolling nude down a hill, smearing bodies with baby food, nursing by a sexy woman. But when the film course was over, I did not have the context to do these magical acts. I did not have money to make films. I could not see putting my energy into getting money to make films, could not see putting up with the compromises and outside control involved in an artistic context requiring big bucks. For me, the act of breaking a taboo is what is magical, what effects change...not someone seeing it in a film.
I had been painting oils for years, painting with a brush strapped to my forehead, painting nudes from magazine photos. One day, a rich woman asked me to paint a nude of her. My wife set me and my paints up in the fancy living room as the woman undressed. On that day I realized how art can give people permission to do what normally is forbidden. It gives a frame that switches realities from the narrow normal reality to the freeing altered reality of controlled folly. If you go up to a stranger on the street and ask him to show his body to you, you will be lucky if he just walks away and does not hit you. But if you sincerely (and sincerity is a key) ask him to model for a painting or be in a video that involves nudity, there is a high chance he will do it because you are offering him a key to a new, different, and temporary reality.
This began my street series. I sat on the center plaza, “selling newspapers”. But selling papers was only a context. The context for me was an excuse for watching people, talking to people who had the slowness and the insightful curiosity to stop and talk...a way for me to ask them to model for me. These special people were my real targets for my street pieces. They saw past the mask of the cripple. The masses used the mask of the cripple to relieve their guilt, to reinforce their fragile superiority of being “normal”, to make themselves feel better by throwing money (up to $20 a throw) at the less fortunate at whom they would not even look. The third type of person was made up of the poor and the kids who gave money as a pure spiritual act. When the special person stopped to talk, a crowd gathered around to listen. Money fell on my board when I was asking the special person to model.
The newspaper selling quickly fell away. All I had to do is sit there on the sidewalk, being available to talk. It did not matter that I dressed fancy, or had a sign saying “I don’t want money; I want you.” The money kept falling. But I did discover that there are special spots and special ways of sitting which attract people. Sit at a slightly different angle, or on a spot a few feet away from the special spot and you become invisible.
I have done these street performances across the country. I have gotten tickets to the Joffrey, filled a couple of workshops, got my cameraman for one of my films, all from the street pieces. I almost caused a riot in front of Caesar’s Palace in Atlantic City, N.J. The crowd did not take kindly to the casino guards trying to push me away because I was taking Caesar’s money.
I painted a lot of the special people from the street performances. I noticed the changes in the people when they took off their clothes; how they relaxed, how they started talking on a deeper level about important personal things. After I got a taste of direct inter-personal acting out of erotic dreams, painting became too static. I began a series of private performances called nonfilms. I asked the special people from the street performances to come to my home, into my study which was my first cave. Within this cave, cut off from the normal reality, we created scenes which no camera would shoot, nobody would see.
Within these scenes we explored a nonsexual eroticism. By using a seemingly contradictory term, it opened up another reality. Within this altered reality, intense emotions could be released, intense acts could be performed, outside the normal slots. The person started crying, or laughing, or telling deep personal secrets, or started intimate sensual acts, safely beyond sex. I never knew what would happen when I entered the cave-room with the person. This not knowing keeps what I do exciting and new for me, keeps me flexible and vulnerable. Within the cave, I began to see dramatic changes taking place within the person’s body and emotions. But I was shocked when people started to come back to say that somehow the nonfilm reality powerfully affected their normal reality and relationships in ways we did not understand.
These private performances became the backbone of what I do. What the public comes to see, what is usually thought of as “the performance”, is in reality only the tip of the monster, the magic, the work, the vision that is controlling me as an artist. It is one dream which is growing, developing, evolving in a braiding pattern through private and public performances. In this way, I have been doing the same evolving piece for years. I am not in control of the art. I don’t have a choice what the art is like, can’t change it to suit the art fashion to keep up with the times. It is a living monster pulling me along in its zigzag evolution. Real art is like that. Art is a calling, not a career.
The nonfilm pieces were active physical mutations of the psychic, literary lectures of Reed. Both the Reed lectures and the nonfilms were created around the particular people in my life to call forth an alternative reality to the normal one. I do not function all that well in the social, political, casual, sexual, economical, competitive world. So I look to performance to create a world of community, intimacy, and human intense interaction. For me, art is a matter of survival.
But I began to see the nonfilms were magical intense nonsexual one-night stands which were not building a sense of expanding community, the heart of the vision that controls my art.
I somehow stumbled upon a book, Environmental Theater by Richard Schechner, a book about a theater of active involvement and participation, of nudity and intimate physicality, of risk-taking and change. It was right up my alley. Richard’s insights and experiments were inspiring to me.
But it seemed to me the performance group of Richard’s was not well-versed in, or committed to, a living communal intimacy, so they retreated from the edge when they were expected to live the personal vulnerability and inter-personal intimacy they were acting out. The book fit so well with my own experiments, philosophy and vision, it became a base of the next stage of the work.
I used my communal family of four as a core to start a weekly drop-in workshop held in a Santa Fe pre-school. I never knew who would show up each week. People from my street performances, free-spirits who heard rumors about this naked happening, a Wait Until Dark cast of straight actors whose director required them to come, all were thrown into this crazy experiment. I never knew what I was going to do because I never knew whom I would have to work with, or what I would have to deal with. This madhouse gave me a flexibility and a trust that the vision would guide me to create a temporary communal reality from those who were there. But the casual drop-in format placed a limit on how deep the intimacy could get. In my communal family, we were creating a way of being which was an underground base for the art. This base was a powerful influence. But it wasn’t yet the clear focus of the work.
In May 1973, the end of this stage was a twenty-four hour performance. I became aware of the magical quality of extended time lengths when I attended an all-night peyote ceremony of the native american church in Taos. Time was as powerful as the magic medicine in creating a group reality trance. To try this time factor, I took my cast to Albuquerque to do what amounted to a 24-hour performance. For the first six hours, we approached people on the campus of the University of New Mexico, people with whom we would like to play, inviting them to an audition that night in the college art department for a happening. Then, after dinner, we did the workshop exercises with the 12 people who showed up. Slowly taboos were broken, a community of performance magically appeared...which was lucky because I could only book the room until midnight. Then I had to truck the performance across the city to the University of Albuquerque. The sense of community was strong enough that everyone came along. At dawn, as we stepped out of the studio, there was the crisp feeling of being born into a new world.
Our communal living situation, the nonfilms, the outrageous events of the workshop, and my physical visibility all created a mysterious, kinky, threatening reputation in the small city of Santa Fe, which made it increasingly hard to get new people for projects. I could not tame the art down because I knew this reaction was telling us what we were doing was right. So eight of the cast decided to move to N.Y.C., a big city with a lot of people on which to draw. One of our fantasies was to charge admission to our everyday life. (I now am playing with the idea of selling tickets to my natural death.)
We set up a workshop space in our loft at 32nd and Fifth. This time, the workshop was closed and committed, lasting several months. I got some actors from auditions. But most came from my street piece, people ranging from an ex-hooker to an angry cabbie/comedian. While failing to develop into a true community, this group performed at a ballroom a ritual I created from two of Schechner’s exercises. Again, we got our audience by approaching people in the village and inviting them to that night’s event. At this performance, I began a practice of screening the audience at the door because of the intense, vulnerable, and erotic nature of the work. It took me a couple of years to realize that people will not do what they cannot handle; so there is no reason to shield them. Moreover, there are better ways to handle sleazy people. Boring them is one way. There are other ways.
The only person that night whom I felt I should not let in was, to my chagrin, Schechner, my hero and artistic father, playing a dirty old man. Against my better judgment, I let him enter. Sure enough, in the middle of the piece, he set his sights on an actress, convincing her that if she left his side, he would die by stopping breathing, which he did when she tried to leave him. Showing a weakness in my workshop discipline training, she bought into it and would not follow the ritual or my directions. There was a part in the ritual where everyone lies down, eyes closed. When this point was reached, I took my cast, except the woman, out into the lobby for a huddle. In the script, there was a point when everyone was to be frozen, then to be unfrozen by a kiss. I told my cast just to not kiss Schechner and the woman until the end of the play. But they would give the two a loving massage. With this plan, we went back in and continued the performance. Schechner was amazing as the frozen figure, the ritual flowing uninterrupted around him for over two hours. I think I passed his test to see what I was made of and to see how flexible I was.
We did this performance, Inter-Relations, on a Thursday and a Friday. The trance of the temporary community was so great that the same audience came back for the second night. This often happens in my work.
Inter-Relations was focused on clothes...undressing, dressing, exchanging clothes, using clothes to tell your life story. After I did it a number of times, I began to realize that I could never predict what the performance would be like. The cast, in street clothes, came in with the audience. Every one sat on the floor, so that there was no way to tell who was the cast and who was the audience. So when the cast started to do their unspoken ritual, members of the audience slowly copied the actions, even undressing in slow motion. I began to think that this merging into one group was the natural beginning of the ritual; that is, until one night I stupidly left a piece of carpet on a part of the floor. The real audience crowded onto the carpet, leaving the actors the bare floor. So that night, the audience watched from the rug a boring ritual...boring because there was no magical participation by the audience. I learned the hard way that everything in the performance reality is important, even a rug!
Even though this was a scripted ritual, there were parts which could change the whole night depending on how they were done. For example, when each person, one by one, re-dresses, he describes each item as he is putting it on. There are many ways of doing this. When the first “real” person said: “This is my red sock,” I knew the piece would be short and shallow, because all the real audience members would follow the short pattern. If, on the other hand, if the first real person said: “This is the slime green shirt that Bobbie left when we broke up...,” I knew we would be there for hours because each person would bare his soul. I learned how to pick the right first person, someone who was sensitive. For some reason, it didn’t work to pick a cast member for the first person. These are the kind of secret things the artist only learns by doing one piece over and over.
I was not satisfied in N.Y.C. I never broke into anything. The permanent community as a lifestyle did not spread from my New Mexico group into the workshop. In the summer of 1975, I moved with the five original New Mexico members to Berkeley to be joined by two others coming from New Mexico in Berkeley, I met Linda Mac and Nina Shilling. With this core communal group as a base, I started developing very quickly. I got a Baptist seminary to give me a room where I could conduct workshops and talk to people.
Evolution is not a straight line up, or even the up-and-down line of the stock market. Instead, it zigzags all over the place, weaving seemingly unrelated things together, sort of like this article. To use evolution, the artist has to not only be willing to fail (failing is vital in creating anything worthwhile) and to risk, but he has to be willing to not know how he is getting to where he is going. At the start, my art was based on private performances such as Reed and the nonfilms. Through the workshop, the focus shifted from private to public performances to such an extent that the truly private pieces all but dried up.
But in Berkeley, that suddenly changed. A fellow, who did not want to do my workshop, demanded that I meet with him in private sessions, to talk, to guide him, to play with him, to do anything with him...and he, would pay me for these private sessions. Being flexible, I giggled, rubbed my hands, and said, “Why not?” This fellow turned out to be a psychic teacher whose students, when they heard that he was coming to me, wanted to come for private sessions as well as do the workshop.
The private sessions were a combination of Reed and nonfilms in which I allowed myself the freedom to say and do whatever came to me, no matter how off-the-wall and outrageous it seemed. I used nonsense, blatant insults, humor, the holy obvious, nudity and eroticism to break into the altered reality of controlled folly. It was not a professional therapy where a serious listener nods and grunts, or a spiritual trance in which an americanized guru sits aloof, spinning truisms. I was a person who wanted to mingle his life intimately with their lives, using a bigger-than-life mask-character of the trickster shaman to reach this end. This intimate focus trimmed the original flood of people over a two-year period down to 30 people who seriously wanted a community of intimate relationships. By combining these private individual “pieces” with the workshop, the communal spirit began to flow from my core family into the group.
The heart of the workshop was demanding in various different forms. The only things out of bounds both in the workshop and the group were actual sex between non-mates and harming violence. This created a safe environment in which people could allow one another to trust, to be demanded of. In the workshop, I picked a person to make a demand either on a particular person, on whomever he picked, or on the whole group. The demanded one must satisfy the demander. The demander must stay with the demand until he is truly and fully satisfied. This puts both the demander and the demanded under the pressure of honesty and vulnerability. I never had any idea whom I would pick for the demander until the workshop. This forced a rugged spontaneity. Some of these lasted for weeks, some for a minute; some were ruthlessly silly; some were intensely personal. Because actual sex was off limits, the demands could be erotically free and wacky. The demands as private performances revealed secret, over-the-edge characters, hidden fantasies, and other silliness which once released, seeped into normal life. One week, we played war games as kids, using Berkeley as our battleground. Next week, we buried one of us alive in a coffin to have a rebirth. A third week, we had a gross-out contest, the winning act of which was someone drinking his own piss. All of this outrageousness was made possible by being in the state of innocent play together for over three years. From this altered state, households and businesses began to form. (The Berkeley fashion boom came from this workshop.)
Public performances naturally evolved from what was created from the workshop. The first major public piece was a fantasy costume parade through Berkeley, flaunting brightly painted skin and see-through costumes of net and lace. The parade ended up with a free punk concert in the park. I have talked about how my art is not made of separate public pieces but is an evolving monster; for example, in this parade, an inner character of one of the cast members, Diane Hall, emerged. This character was a middle-aged, middle-america-on-acid, fast nonsense talking, dizzy dame in a skin-tight Frederick’s-of-Hollywood gown, long fake eyelashes, and a two-foot bee-hive bleached blonde wig with blinking christmas lights. This creature grabbed the mike away from the hippy M.C., Wavy Gravy, and started hosting the concert. A year later, when I needed a bridge between a wacky stage show and the audience, I brought back this Woolworth babe.
After a second parade had gotten out of hand and turned into dulling sleaze, I organized an indoor multimedia carnival in a large San Francisco warehouse, The Farm, where adults could play like kids in a safe environment. Providing adult playgrounds is one of the basic goals of my work. Since I think playing is a safe, mind-altering drug, I called my carnival The Erotic Test after the acid test of the Merry Pranksters.
In order to do more public pieces, I moved the performance work into a Berkeley storefront. A major public performance in the space was Glamour. I based this environmental play on actual strippers in a divey North Beach joint. I used this play as a process to get one of the actresses to become a dynamic performer. As part of the rehearsals, I had the actresses work 8-hour shifts at the real joint with the real girls whom they were becoming. As another section of the bringing out of a dynamic star, I put her into a 24-hour nightmare inside a cold swinging box. This nightmare again revealed the magic of extended time.
For the play, I turned the storefront into a copy of the dive. The play surrounded the audience, making them play the role of the joint audience. On the nights that the actors didn’t create the realism, I would stop the play, give the audience their money back, and invite them to return the next night. They did. I am ruthless in pursuing the inner quality I seek in people.
During the rehearsals of Glamour, when the strip joint got unbearably boring after hours upon hours, I took a walk along Broadway, into what then was the west coast hardcore punk center, the Mabuhay Gardens or the “Fab Mab”. Since I did not have anything else to do, I asked the gruff manager if I could do my next production at his club. To my surprise, Dirk Dirksen was a visionary who, instead of seeing a crip asking for a hand-out, saw me somehow as a misfit artist perfect for his new wave cabaret. Dirk gave me a sheltered theatre for six years, with complete artistic freedom and moral support. The first production was a raping of a high-brow comedy, Meb, which I turned into a multi-media farce, full of camp, nudity, sex, violence and rock’n’roll. The straight playwright walked out in horror, the club owner wanted us out, and only a handful of people came. But Dirk wanted to extend the run. He loved it.
An important character came out of this play. She is Dotty. She was created when an actress just could not remember her lines, cues, or anything. Finally, I made her a mentally retarded free spirit, wandering around in slow motion wherever she pleased, doing whatever she pleased. Dotty (played by different people), has been climbing over my audiences ever since, playing with them.
A few years ago, I was sitting in a cafe...a coffee house...I spend hours sitting in coffeehouses, playing cards...anyway, this older political-type woman leaned over from the next table and asked if I had been involved in an East Bay theatre group about six years ago. She had seen something that I had forgotten ever having done. After Meb I started directing Lysistrata. I had always wanted to do it because it is lewd and bawdy...I even rewrote it to get back to the original dirt. I cast it with a mix of workshop people and new people. I also had Barry and Peter, who are in wheelchairs, play regular, normal, traditional characters. We did it in the same over-the-edge style as Meb. One rehearsal night I decided we needed an audience, so I took us to the Berkeley UA movie theatre which has a great outside foyer. There were long lines for four movies. There we rehearsed. As the woman in the cafe six years later described it, these people were talking funny, in Greek style obscenity...pretty girls humping guys in wheelchairs right there next to the movie lines. This was at the height of the disabled human rights movement...we crips had sat in at the San Francisco federal building for a month, blocked buses, picketed Jane Fonda’s movie, Coming Home...this woman was aware of all of this...then she comes to a movie (she can’t remember what it was) and she sees women and crips doing strange, obscene things. She said for her, the piece made the disabled movement more human and added humor to it.
I don’t think you have to worry about making a comment on the social, political, or whatever condition. I don’t think you can help making a comment. It is automatic. What you do is always colliding with what is going on.
What impressed me about the woman in the coffeehouse is that she remembered five minutes of obscene silliness after six years. I hadn’t remembered it.
I never staged Lysistrata because what was supposed to be a one-night semi-real take-off of a beauty contest transformed, right before my eyes before the first show had ended, into a tacky, wacky stage revue which caught the imagination of the press. We did this show for three years, usually once every week, but often twice a week. The Outrageous Beauty Revue looked like tacky entertainment performed by untrained people just for fun. This was how my cast also thought of it and of themselves. One of my major failings was that I didn’t pass on the deeper purposes, magical influences, and hidden dimensions of our performance work.
I quickly saw that the O.B.R. was the apex of my work until then and of three years of work. In the ritual pieces and in the workshop, we were battling the social fragmentation and isolation by underground channels, avoiding standard rules and criticisms and values. But by using an entertainment channel to subvert entertainment, we broadened the attack and our vulnerability to attack.
It looked like entertainment; but it really was a medium to spread the playful communal spirit which we had worked years on fine tuning. This underground spirit of communal fun, of playful folly secretly sucked in the audience. This spirit allowed us to do things, which would normally be violent or sexual, in a freeing, playful innocence. This became obvious when I tried to let non-cast people do acts in the show. They never reached the intensity or the tightrope edge which the cast took for granted.
The tacky, wildly colorful, loud show of bad taste was really a cover, a distraction of the audience’s attention, so that the hidden magical trance could take them over. A trance can be cast by showing them something out of their reality. Little kids often become frozen on the spot when they see me, my special body, in a cafe. We just greatly magnified this trance process in the show by throwing out many of these trance inducing images of taboos, of crip rockstar, of pregnant nudes, of silly sex and violence. Then the real show happened within this inner trance.
There was a vision in the show...the vision that has led me throughout my work. Art comes from the soul that anyone can tap into. I created the show from modules that I could combine in countless ways. Each module was a fantasy either of mine or, more often, of the person in the act. I worked on a module just enough to make it performable. But I would not allow it to be polished, refined. I wanted a module to grow and change in performance so the performance and the audience would get the full evolving magic. I kept changing the order of modules to encourage fresh evolution. I took modules in danger of becoming polished out of the line-up, putting them into an ever-growing module library to be pulled out when the need arose. In this way, the show was always evolving into something new while remaining what it was. I have used this module structure in my recent ritual work, giving me the ability to do complex rituals lasting from 5 to 48 hours without killing myself.
There was tremendous pressure on me to polish the show up to make it more sellable, more entertaining. This pressure did not just come from the critics, but also from friends and cast members. “Add rim shots, tighten it up. Then the show will be a commercial success.” “We should rehearse more, then we could be good theatre, good music.” But the vision was not about commercial success, nor reaching alot of people, nor about good entertainment, nor art. The vision is to create trances and realities which will bring change. This is my vision. The vision has me. I am its tool. If I had not stayed within the vision, I would have been lost within the artistic pressures. Art should be a vision quest.
Other kinds of pressures were to change the content, the tools, and the focus of the work. People always say they like the work because it is strong, but I should get over my obsession with sex and nudity, and get on to more important issues; you should not get “stuck” in one vision. What they do not realize is what they like about the work, the strength, comes from being committed to a single vision, no matter what the current trends and fashions are. I cannot imagine more important issues than sex and freedom symbolized by nudity. But, as this paper shows, these are not my ultimate focus. Sex and nudity are powerful digging tools to reach the intimate community. By limiting the tools of art, art itself is limited.
Rawness in itself is threatening because it opens the way for everyone to express their feelings directly. Rawness inspires. It breaks the chains of the rules.
The show was in bad taste, was called “exploitive”. What made it thus was not just what was done, but who was doing it...crips, women and other “untalented” unfortunates. The first assumption of the people who were offended was that these were able-bodied actors making fun of crips; then, when it became clear we were real crips, the leap into dumbness was that someone was exploiting us. When they got it into their heads that we had created our own acts, the new way to deny our power was to say we were exploiting our own bodies. Forget nudity. Forget being sexual. Just by getting up onto the stage we were exploiting our own bodies. Women share this hidden yoke of suppression. By breaking this yoke, by offending a lot of people, the show released, inspired, and liberated a lot more. Artists and musicians come up to me today and say they saw the O.B.R. when they were kids and thought if we could do that, they could do what they dreamt.
But my cast saw none of this because I could not impart the vision to them. They saw the show as an outlet for their fantasies and creativeness. It was not very good theater that they did for fun. It was something that could be left behind because it was not important. This lack of a bigger vision of both the historical roots and the magical social impact spelled the end of the community.
During the time of the O.B.R., I felt the need to go back to the core of the ritual work. I started creating 48-hour pieces. These created an altered reality around one person who undertook this journey to obtain a list of life goals. I was his guide in this. I had a team of assistants known to the pilgrim. But I also had actors, unknown by the pilgrim, whom I placed in the normal world to interact with the pilgrim. By saying, “I have planned everything you (the pilgrim) will experience during this process as well as everyone whom you meet...but I may be lying,” it melted the normal reality with dream reality to form a liminal state. In this liminal state anything was possible and anyone could be a conspirator in this dream production. This was not true only for the pilgrim, but for everyone, including me. Real waiters, whom I had never met before, acted as if I had paid them. This liminal force occurred even before the actual process. For an example, I was painting a woman the day before a process. She turned out to be the pilgrim’s girlfriend (one of many) whose very existence he had been hiding from me. To his shocked amazement, she appeared in an erotic scene in his process. I had to be flexible and open enough to use everything and anything that the dream gave me.
Within the liminal state, what usually is unbelievable, corny, tacky, suddenly becomes extremely powerful. Pilgrims not only swore I made beautiful women appear out of thin air, they gave me power to make the women disappear back into the same thin air, even though that was not a part of my trick. Things like water became potent magical drugs just through words. Within these temporary living myths, time became very plastic, as did other forms of reality. In these trance myths, I could use a wide range of ritual from smearing mud-food mixtures on nude bodies to high tech audio-visual spectacles. Another tool I discovered in these prolonged spells is to hide the powerful erotic rituals from the pilgrim audience by performing them inside a locked box, hidden cave, or secret tent. In this way, the unseen ritual affects the audience on the feeling level directly, without being filtered by the mind. But I was serving two masters in these 48-hour dreams: the dream’s vision and the pilgrim’s goals. This became increasingly uncomfortable for me because the dream’s vision would lead us into a much deeper, richer soil of realities than the goals would allow.
So when the group, with the exception of my intimate family, broke up in the early ’80s, I went back to the trance rituals out of which I had begun my evolution. With the help of Linda Burnham, I began to meet artists such as Paul McCarthy and Karen Finley, who also use trances to break taboos and to subvert reality. I also rediscovered the Living Theatre, Grotowski, and others. This community of weird artists as a security blanket helped me regain the wider context for my work.
I returned to the small channels, as opposed to the mass channels, of communication. While my intimate communal family was still the base of my art, only Linda and I did the performance work. I went back to the private performances to create a special language for the altered reality of physical trance. On the surface, it appeared that these performances were not affecting the world because they were one-on-one. But in truth, these hidden performances had magical effects on every level, effects that continue today.
This is also true for the series I did at U.C. Berkeley for three years. Tom Oden, another of those visionaries, brought me to U.C.B. to give students mind-expanding, mind-exploding experiences similar to drugs. This was my mandate. So two nights a month, students in the hall on their way to class would get detoured by a smell of incense, or a strobe flash, or a sight of nude skin, or strange music from a classroom. When they entered the classroom, it turned out to be a magical tent where nudes smeared chocolate and whipped cream on one another, or people were getting wrapped in cellophane and foil, or a weird nude guy just lies and moans at them. When the student stepped out of this crazy room, he was back in the college world. Usually about five people came in. Sometimes none came. Rarely there was an audience of thirty; but often I considered these nights as bad because the audience would just want entertainment.
I never canceled any of these performances because too few people came. It was a lab where new modules could be born, where magical energy could be released, without pressures of money or judgment. I was back to not knowing who would show up, cast or audience. So I could not really plan anything until I got to the room and saw whom I had to work with.
I was happy with this smallness. After every piece, Linda and I would walk home, talking about what amazing things happened, what worked and what did not, who came. From the outside, it looked like nothing was happening. But in these small events, I explored the trance inducing gestures of rocking, of wrapping bodies...I cannot list all of the discoveries of smallness. Recently, while I was lecturing at U.C.L.A., I was shocked at how many students were afraid to try their ideas out because they might “fail” or be a “mistake”. These small pieces gave me freedom from this deadening, unnatural, unhealthy weight put on creativity. But I have always taken this freedom to make mistakes, to fail, as my birthright as an artist.
I would have been content to remain in the smallness. But the smallness created channels which have allowed me to perform five-hour pieces all over the country, using combinations of the modules developed in the U.C.B. Series. If touring had been my personal goal, I would never have done the U.C.B. Series because I would not have seen how that would have gotten me to my goals, or even how it was linked to them. But by following blindly the zigzagged, braided path of evolution, led from one step to the next, guided by one inner vision, I can actively watch the whole, large performance unfolding.
That leaves me in the present. More than ever, my public performances are just fragments of a larger performance. The main form that the public pieces take is long rituals which create a temporary physical community by using physical trance. An intenser version of this is a semi-private all-day dream, before which I hand-pick the audience, making sure each person is willing to go into controlled folly deeply. There are signs that this performance wants to be extended from 12 to 24 hours, because plastic time has the nasty habit of shrinking in the trance. There is a much shorter ritual of rocking and wrapping which we have slipped into various different formats, including singing gigs at punk clubs. At one moment, the audience is being “entertained”; the next moment they are literally wrapped up in ritual.
But these are just reflections of a larger performance. The search for community has led me to set up a shamanistic performance school, the University of Possibilities. This presently contains ten apprentices who have signed up to train for a certain amount of time. The focus of this school is to create a mythic life as an alternative to the world we see around us. The mere existence of this mythic life will subvert, change, the normal world. Creating this mythic life is done through performing privately. This school has already deepened my public pieces.
People sometimes ask, “Where is your work heading? What do you want to do next?” It is not my work. It is not my choice. For me, it is not a question of a next thing. It is a growing, evolving vision. I am carried along in this vision. A performance does not have a beginning or an end. It is just a tiny bit of the vision. The vision is like this essay. It braids around itself, flowing on. I do not know where the vision is taking me. I have not been down this vision before.
One thing’s for sure. We humans are not the end of evolution.