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.
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 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.
This not having money, this not wanting to be controlled and limited by money, was what sealed me into a performance life.
So I started looking for a way to work with people. I wanted to see people nude, and touch them, and to create an intensity between us.
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. Although I had played with my friends before in nonsexual eroticism, this was the first time I tried to use "sexual" acts in a non-sexual art form. I was surprised with the power that this released. Because of these scenes, the people started talking about their lives during these sessions and said it helped their other relationships. Not one person minded that there was no film. These nonfilms were the base for my career in relationship counseling.
I first noticed the nonlinear effects of private performance in these secret rituals. People whom I approached on the street came to me weeks after the nonfilm, the person usually reported changes in his life, in his relationships, in how people were towards him...all of which amazed him (and me too) because he hadn't told anyone that he had done the ritual. Part of the change in how people related to him can be explained linearly by the change in the person emotionally and even physically caused by the performance. But this does not explain how things "just happened" to him, things that were improbable, things that we both linked to the ritual.
I don't have a choice about 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.
Photos (from top to bottom): Mary Sullivan, Mary Sullivan, Linda Mac