Friday, April 11, 2003

Hit me with your rhythm blog.

It was almost warm today, even downtown close to the lake, which has a cooling effect. Walked about around noon, savoring the air.

To pick up the thread from yesterday: There I was, part of a performance art session in Nashville in the summer of ’86. The artist Dave Lefkowitz (a painter, mostly) had recruited me for this event, at the behest of Dr. Don E., an art professor at Vanderbilt. The event was masterminded — if that’s the word — by Professor Don, who called it “The Twelve Deadly Sins.”

Of course, medieval tradition only enumerates seven, but for the occasion Professor Don had added five, including “Calumny,” “Rudeness,” “Frippery,” and I don’t know what else. He also provided each of us volunteers with t-shirts with the name of our deadly sin, which we had drawn at random. I got one of the Original Seven instead of the one of the expansion-team sins, and to go with it was a dark blue t-shirt with distinct orange letters: LUST. That was our only compensation for volunteering. I lost that shirt a long time ago, dammit.

We sat in a circle. Ringed around us was another circle of rectangular black boxes, each about three feet high, forming a sort of cheap Stonehenge without the crosspieces. There was one box for each Deadly Sin, and on top of each box were cut-out photographs standing more-or-less upright, supported by sticks glued to their backs. Other photos were taped on the boxes. The photos were mostly of naked people, but not all. President Nixon was on my box. He was not naked, fortunately. But he was taped to the box.

There were other items too. On my box there was a plastic bottle of talcum powder, a woman’s shoe, and a bowl of wrapped candies (little peanut butter cups?). Outside the Stonehenge of boxes were a number of TV monitors, and an audience who could see them. Professor Don had a video camera, and he panned it around from box to box. I believe our directions were to do something interesting with the objects during the time Professor Don focused the camera on our box. We were able to keep track of his movements because we could see the monitors, too.

I hope the audience — a few dozen people — hadn’t paid extra for this show. It was, as I reflect on it now, an imitation of the kind performance art done in Manhattan or London a few years earlier. Perhaps. I have to admit that my education in these matters did not (and does not) extend much beyond the satire of it ca. 1984 in “Doonesbury.”

I did find that later, as I told people about this happening, we got stuck on the concept of “performance art.” It was a slippery thing to describe, much less explain.

I don’t remember there being a soundtrack, though some off-the-wall electronic music might have livened things up a little. Or some perverse narration by Professor Don, but I don’t think he did that either. In any case, I did my little bit when the camera came to my box. First, I squeezed the talc and sent big puffs of it upward. That was mild fun. But then I got the idea of taking the shoe and tapping the box with it. From there to Nixon was a natural progression. Whack! Whack! Whack! Square on the 37th president’s forehead. The audience laughed a little.

At that point, someone else who had candy had the idea of tossing them at Nixon. I wouldn’t call it a food fight — that would have been more entertaining — but the portrait of Nixon did take some thumping from peanut butter cups for the next few seconds. As I recall, that got a giggly reaction from the audience, too.

It was over before long. I haven’t done anything quite like it before or since. I probably don’t need to again, to live an interesting life.


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