The Re-Performance Art of John Fleck

(This article is re-published from The Brooklyn Commune blog.)

John Fleck just Re-Performed himself.   That sounds as if he just gave himself a BJ (which he didn’t, for the record, I swear, stop defunding him already, NEA!) but he did do something thought of as equally impossible and intimate.  He Re-Performed himself.

Re-Perform, reimagine, reinterpret, re-enact, appropriate, repurpose, remix, react, mash up, hack, steal – What does it all mean?

“Blessed Are All The Little Snowballs in Hell” was presented in the downstairs theatre of the New Museum as a work-in-progress on the evening of June 20th, as part of the NEA4 in residence.   “Blessed Are All The Little Snowballs in Hell” is defined as a mash-up of “Blessed Are All The Little Fishes” (defunded by the NEA in 1990) and “A Snowballs Chance In Hell” (Fleck’s 1992 response to being defunded).

Surrounded by toilet paper- a reference to Fleck’s toilet props in the 90’s- director Travis Chamberlain uses Fleck and the space to full capacity.  Fleck and Chamberlain use toilet paper as a smart new aesthetic framework- it became a script, a belly, breasts, an iPhone, a newspaper, a wig, milk, shit, cum and an enclosure for the audience.

“In, out, in and out, eating yourself” Fleck says at one point, reading or “reading” from the TP.

But he wasn’t quite cannibalizing himself.

He was performing beside himself- sometime literally, as he followed himself live with a video from 1992 on the back wall. “I still look as good as I did then.” The audience laughed. He quickly jumped in, “Fuck you, I do!”

The mash up is defined as “Something created by combining elements of two or more sources.”  And Fleck mashes time and style – it’s not reenacted, not re-acted, not re-imagined, not reinterpreted, but a mix of old and new.

As the director (of the show, and curator of the NEA4 exhibition) Travis Chamberlain said later, “It’s a show about memory, but it in itself is not nostalgic.”  It’s a show about art and time; that just happens to use Fleck and his own experiences as subject matter.

Some of the evening’s most poignant moments came from the friction between past and present- Fleck’s corporeal body in front of us was just one element of this. He was older, yes, and had less hair.  He was fit and strong and wore the same grey slacks and V necked white T-shirt he wore in “… Little Fishes.”

He used the best techniques of memoir- what does he know now that he didn’t know then?  What do we know? Fleck seems particularly suited to a mash up of his own performances as an experienced actor who appears regularly in film, TV and theatre in LA; at times he is in full actor mode, sweating and intense.  Then he pulls back, lets the audience breathe, and falls into himself, just in the room with us, “When I wrote that I…” His stream of consciousness lists mention everyone from Suzanne Sommers to Miley Cyrus.

But the times have changed- he was originally surrounded by piles and piles of newspaper, and now we are all on our little computers. He and director Travis Chamberlain give us quotes from Jesse Helms in the 90’s next to Michelle Bachmann from more recently. Twenty years have passed and we are fighting the same fights- gay rights, women’s rights- and Fleck mines those intervening years for laughs, boos, hisses and discomfiting shivers.   There was palpable anger in the air as the audience collectively acknowledged times haven’t changed that much.

Does anyone remember the culture wars?  In the 90’s I read about the NEA4.  I saw Kaposi Sarcoma on the streets. But I had never seen Fleck perform.  I was a student at NYU, where I was handed a pin that said “Cultural Elite.”  I didn’t quite get it:  Culture was elite, or wasn’t?  Or they were saying it’s only for the elite?  As a scholarship student in the mid 90’s, I put the pin on then took the pin off and kept my mouth shut.

James Davison Hunter’s book Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America popularized the term – making abortion, gun control, gay rights (just “homosexuality” back then) and obscenity the issues of the day.  And clearly, even though it seems Obama would prefer to ignore it, the war is still on.  Tea party anyone? Just look at Texas and SCOTUS.  (Though religious fundamentalism may now be treated as a mental illness, another topic altogether.)    And the word, whether on a touchscreen or HD or in a newspaper, or spoken from a morning news commentator, still has power.  If someone in  “power” says it’s true- then it is.

Which is part of what Fleck’s performance is about.  The WORD and its power. He talks about his a conversation with the wonderful Holly Hughes about how after the NEA defunding, they couldn’t make art.  (read Alexis Clements’ interview with her here). They didn’t have time. They were too busy defining themselves.

Which again is what the NEA4 series is exploring- how do you define yourself as an artist with or without money, or support, or funding?  Earlier this spring I saw Performing Funding Beyond Limits at the Museum.  Salley May was dressed as a giant dollar bill. She works completely outside of the institutional setting.  (Except at Bellevue, her day job.) In fact, many of the artists in this series openly mocked the museum setting- the Neeeeeeeewwwwwwwww Museum, fancy.

The audience was a veritable who’s who of performance in New York- just in the row in front of me were Peggy ShawEllie CovanMartha WilsonSalley May and Reno. It was like a feminist performance art party.  I also saw Nicky ParaisoDavid SchweizerVallejo Gantner, and Mark Russell. These were some of the artists and producers I idolized as a younger actor and performer.  (Full disclosure, I am now a co-curator at Covan’s wonderful Dixon Place, a place I was scared of when I was 18- “It’s in someone’s loft?  They do what there?”  I was just a Catholic girl from Buffalo.)

The woman next to me (Nice clogs!  Forgot your name!) said something like, “People still don’t want to see real bodies in museums.”

“I’m shocked that we are still shocked by this,” I said to her. “We are still talking about the same things we were talking about 20 years ago, still fighting the same fights!”

“But we aren’t talking about it,” she replied.  I looked more closely at her and realized she was younger than I thought.

I recognized a young artist, Joseph Keckler, but I wondered why there was no one I knew from the Bushwick performance art scene. Oh, right.  Moneyand power. The younger performers I know don’t always have the $12 plus $5 for the subway to go into Manhattan to see a show.  The rage against the machine extends to arts institutions – how can you fight something you are inside of?  Don’t ever go inside.

I see this in all aspects of culture – academia, publishing, music. Institutional backing isn’t something many younger artists want – why would they, when they have their own spaces, their own scene, their own performances, where everything is free and you just bring beer from the deli?  But these are issues and themes around the NEA4 exhibit: public funding and radical business plans. How do you make art, and support yourself and have a life?   Many of the spaces in Brooklyn are artist run, often collectives like Panoply Performance Lab; that the artists sometimes work 3 jobs to sustain.

I wish these worlds met more often.

It’s a generational divide where I sit squarely in the middle.  The NEA4 are now in their 50’s or early 60’s.  The performance artists I work with in Bushwick are in their 20’s and 30’s.  I am, as the World Famous BoB puts it, fortywonderful.  I’m a member of The No Wave Performance Task Force, a feminist performance art collective, and three of the core members are younger and had or have their own spaces, usually with other artists. Ivy Castellanos’ IV Soldiers Gallery, Lindsey Drury’s Woods Collective, and Esther Neff’s previously mentioned Panoply Lab.

Fleck mentions in an interview that he started making smaller work, with just a few props, because he could do it without funding.  Which he stopped applying for because it “left a bad taste in his mouth.” Economic conditions do affect the production processes of performance, and therefore affect its perceived value. Is Fleck’s performance worth less because his props can be bought at the dollar store or at Costco instead of drafted and hand sewn?  We work with what we have – and it might be harder for artists of my generation to accept this, the economic booms have produced some highly stylized work that looks like money.  That sometimes just IS money. Jeff Koon’s diamond encrusted skull comes to mind- and the fact that he was part of a consortium that bought it and therefore drove the price of it higher.  That piece was just money.

The Brooklyn International Performance Art Festival  is (Brooklyn Commune’s Bastille Day ShareBQ is a part of it!) exploring many of these same issues. It’s all in the air.  We are all looking for sustainable practices.  But how do we tolerate this structural change?  Performance funding is affected by the dismantling of traditional top down funding.

Kickstarter gave more money to artists this year than the NEA did.  Only time will tell what exactly that means.  Did we just fund ourselves?  Or is there really a large base of individual arts donors out there? Is it a gift economy? What is a gift?  What changes when the money is not tax deductible? What determines value now?

One of John Fleck’s recurring gestures involves a hand/finger wiping/drawing on a window/mirror. He has an amazing array of vocal tricks, deploying the squeak of water droplets on glass as if he were singing an aria.  The last time his larynx made the noise that evening, I cried.  Fleck’s body was right in front of us, spitting and sweating, letting us know that we are still rooted and fragile, wailing against injustice.

Christen Clifford is a writer, performer, curator and scholar. She teaches performance art at SUNY Purchase and is a curator at Dixon Place. Find her online at http://christenclifford.tumblr.com and on Twitter @cd_clifford