“FE-FE-FI-FI-FO-FO-FUM, I smell smoke in the au-di-tor-i-um.....”
Yes, and Charlie Brown is the clown, as the song goes on to say, but the Art Guys are the drug. They are at the University of Texas, San Antonio, in the University Center auditorium doing the Macarena to music provided by a wind up monkey. It is a hilarious moment, but as sometimes happens when art is blessed with magic, it will be upstaged by it’s own prop. This occurs because the monkey music keeps going off unbidden throughout the entire three hours of the Art Guys show.
135 minutes in, their heads taped together, the stupefaction is deep. You look up, planes flying over head, but through the window of video. You’re frozen in a James Seward Johnson pose, eternally late for some skyscraper courtyard rendezvous, bronze as a baby shoe. The airplane drone is hypnotic and peripheral, like the sound that emanates from beneath and behind the surface of reality when you’re tripping. The planes slide across the twin video screens occasionally while the rest of the time the monitors show blue sky with the occasional drifting cloud, or maybe your imagination provides these details. It’s all very pleasant. Might as well be laying on your back on a cool, even lawn. Nothing prickles and the temperature is perfect. Sky is blue, clouds are drifting, planes are humming or maybe it’s the sound of the azure dome itself and everything under it. Then suddenly you find yourself doing one of those Austin Powers double takes. You kind of shake your head and snap back to the messy stage.
The Art Guys have been busy, but they’re only half way through. You could’ve slipped out to your root canal appointment and come back all nitroused and ready for the finale and nobody would’ve been the wiser. They call this work Daisies, Pansies, Daffodils and Other Sweet Smelling Things Like Flowers In The Springtime After A Light Misting Rain At Dusk or 101 of the World’s Greatest Events All In Row Tonight Right Before Your Very Eyes And We’re Not Kidding And This Time We Really Mean It.
The performance is structured around the following format: artist approaches podium and reads off the title of the particular piece from a numbered list and then steps back to center stage to perform that particular sequence. The items on the list of “the World’s Greatest Events” range from the trivial, such as Rock-N-Roll In The 80’s, to the truly great, for instance Rock-N-Roll In The 70’s. Some of the other items on the list: Neckties, High Five, Math Question, Do Like The London Bridge, Cheerios, Moment of Loudness, Tape Heads Together, Jack Barely Taps Mike Very Softly, Bucket Feet, Politics, Consider The Consequences, Think About What We Are Doing For A Minute.
They are at the podium now, turning the page, returning to center stage, accomplishing the task of retaking center stage, taking a breath, beginning the sideways shuffle back to the podium. Let’s see, Number 86, Trust Us. It’s late in the show, volunteers are called for, blindfolded, forgotten. At least half an hour passes while a grueling, slowly dawning, abject misery and its philosophical antipode forms in the minds of the volunteers as they realize they’ve been duped. One, a little older and wiser than the rest, a reader of fairytales, gets out of the situation gracefully by being among the first to oblige when The Guys arrive at Number 95, Would Anyone Like To Place Something Else In Our Pants? The ex-volunteer saunters over, blindfold now in hand, stuffs it down Michael’s pants which are already bulging with cheerios, stuffed animals, beer cans and bearcat stew for all I know. A bit later, an audience member seizes the moment and adds the Macarena monkey to Jack’s jam packed pantaloons. Can you guess what happens next? It brings down the house.
There’s the trailing drone of a jet again. The artist, formerly the object of your attention, sometimes flattens out and becomes uninteresting. Foregrounded, the performer is mentally laid on its’ side until all things are equal. That’s when you hear the drone, moving from the marginal to the peripheral, a subtle gradation, but whether it is an actualization, simulation, representation, whatever, it doesn’t matter. You just know you are privy to the peace that realizes the center is big enough to contain all of it. In these moments a sweetness in the Art Guys work surfaces, like in a performance at the San Antonio Museum of Art two years prior when they patiently went through the audience of a hundred or more and gave each of us a kiss. It wasn’t a conceptual piece.
The resistant among those witnessing these miniature spectacles might say that this sweetness is a kind of charm that is deployed to deflate skepticism. These people already left. They were having a bad trip. Others might say it’s a clever disguise to conceal the fact that the performers are getting away with murder. I reject this notion as well. They just work too hard for this to be plausible. For example, within the duration of this performance, they’ve each chugged at least five Budweisers. You think that’s easy? Well, maybe you don’t realize they did it without corporate sponsorship.
I submit that the Art Guys were sent here to make us have a psychedelic experience and go to school at the same time. The moments of light which appear in the alternately dull and funny clutter of their ongoing project are some sort of shamanistic indwelling which smiles at you with your own wisdom after wearing down your resistance with the mundane humor of an attention seeking child.
Some, of course, will remain skeptical even as they prefer the more obviously likable material, like the time (also from the SAMA performance) when Jack performed Born In The USA with a Walkman and a broom. Headphoned, he could hear Bruce wailing away in that used-to-wear-a-leather-jacket way, but all we could hear was his voice singing the lyrics and his fingers riffing on the broom which obscured the air guitar we were all straining to see. It took courage for him to do this and he was smart enough to realize that for it to work he’d have to do the entire song.
Number 101 on the list is Thanks To Each And Every One Of You. They do and they also thank a number of others, including “the guy who designed this auditorium.” But they’re not perfect. They forgot to thank the monkey.
Copyright Hills Snyder, 1998 / appeared in Artlies #23, 1999.