Vikings, oversized bunnies, an itinerant matchmaker, a painting instructor doubling as a life coach and running on a treadmill, an impromptu dinner party, a woman masturbating under the stairs. You could find all this in Chinatown Saturday night during the third annual Perform Chinatown festival, where L.A. artists who work in the medium of performance brought together their different acts, projects and sensibilities in what, this year at least, felt like a street festival of strangeness.
When commentators call Lady Gaga or James Franco performance artists, what they mean is that the two pop performers embrace absurdity for absurdity's sake, and somehow that becomes social commentary. By appearing on General Hospital, for example, Franco is caricaturing his own celebrity, moving outside the orbit of a performing artist to become something more...meta.
But the most glaring difference between pop moonlighters and most who have made performance their thing is that, while Lady Gaga performed at the Grammys and Franco hosted the Oscars, performance artists tend to exist on the fringes of the art world. This has to do with performance's often off-putting or hard-to-take tropes -- think of artist Marina Ambramovic and partner Ulay standing naked in gallery a doorway, so that visitors had to squeeze between them, or Vito Acconci, blindfolded with a crowbar, threatening his audience. An annual festival like Perform Chinatown, which brings performance artists together in one place, is both an exciting rarity and a potential disappointment.
Perform Chinatown, formerly known as Perform Now!, is in its third year. Organizational responsibility passes from gallerist to gallerist -- last year, Francois Ghebaly helmed the event. This year, it was Tom Jancar of Jancar Gallery who took the lead, and instead of spanning out over three days, the whole event occurred from 6 p.m. to midnight on Saturday night. Most of the action happened in that little enclave off of Chung Kind Road, though a few other art spaces on Broadway and Cottage Home participated as well.
Viking character actors, hired to appear, wandered around, as did an emperor with no clothes -- literally, a mostly naked man with a crown, scepter and long, thinning gray hair. But this kind of fanfare felt flimsy next to the more compelling stuff. Artist Marnie Weber costumed actors as rabbits, unicorns, and web-footed monsters with over-sized breasts or garishly bloodied backs, and her "animals" wandered around as if in a trance. Vicki Fowler aggressively asked passers-by to go on a ride with her; those who agreed would climb into a white pick-up rented from Enterprise and filled with mementos, and become private audiences for nostalgic monologues that differed on each "ride."
While a few of the performances that occurred in galleries or on the main Chung King drag felt like esoteric high school talent show acts, the amateurishness seemed beside the point when tourists or families and couples who had just finished dining started wandering into the fray, startled and fascinated to find any of this going on at all.
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One of the best moments was on the stairs to Jancar Gallery's basement. Tricia Lawless Murray spent the evening masturbating underneath those stairs, reperforming seminal performance artist Vito Acconci's Seedbed (Acconci had masturbated under a gallery floor in 1971). Lawless Murray was streaming her version live on the web, until Ustream censored her, and she had a dildo to help her along, until its batteries died.
These haphazard accidents and road bumps made the performance far more lighthearted and inviting than I imagine Acconci's had been years ago, and then there were people wandering down into the basement with no idea what was going on. "She's doing what down there?" asked one twenty-something guy in basketball shorts, who then wanted to know. A middle-aged guy, wandering out, said to his friends, "Well, we'll never get that out of our heads," and another visitor asked, "Does this happen every Saturday?"
It doesn't, and thank goodness. Performance art doesn't necessarily thrive on this sort of smorgasbord approach, but, once a year, it can be a lot of fun.