Two Performance Artists
Kidnap Their Boss and Do Things With Him
Kidnap Their Boss and Do Things With Him
by Scotch Wichmann
Two Performance Artists is currently on tour with Worldwind Virtual Book Tours. The tour stops here today for my interview with the author. Please be sure to visit the other tour stops as well.
Hank and Larry are performance artists in San Francisco's underground performance art scene. But when the mind-numbing grind of their corporate jobs drives them over the edge, they plot the ultimate revenge: to kidnap their company’s billionaire CEO and brainwash him into becoming a manic performance artist.
Fueled by the author's performance art background, Two Performance Artists is a screwball dark comedy about best friends determined to tackle the American Dream with fish guts, duct tape, and a sticky AK-47.
Two Performance Artists is the first performance art novel by a working performance artist, tackling themes like fame, narcissism, and criticism, which are all timely in our "watch me!" age of reality TV, Instagram, and YouTube.
A first-round finalist in the 2013 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards, the book straddles several genres - it's a madcap adventure, a pulpy action novel, a caper comedy, and a "bromance" for sure. One early reviewer called it "Office Space meets Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas meets Jackass."
AN EVENING OF PERFORMANCE ART usually began with a pack of intrepid performers renting out an art gallery for a night in San Francisco’s seedy Tenderloin district. They’d whitewash the gallery walls to cover up the bits of dirt, paint, fat, or blood left behind by the last show, tape up posters around town advertising an evening of unrivaled avant-garde acts, and then, on opening night, stand proudly at the door to collect a dollar from each patron for admission—and shoo away the winos who showed up to guzzle the free booze that flowed when it was all over.
Audiences were fickle. After years of watching performance artists scream, hurl, shimmy, and screw, crowds could quickly discern cliché from innovative material; they could sniff out the frauds from the talent, and were unforgiving if a piece stank. It wasn’t uncommon for an audience to interrupt a show with a jaded barrage of catcalls, flying fruit, and sometimes, fists.
It was November. Rain pounded outside. I shifted in my chair beside a hundred other spectators in a bright white art gallery that reeked of fresh paint, our parkas and umbrellas dripping in the humid air.
The spotlights dimmed. I settled back into my seat.
A performer walks to the center of the floor. He’s tall and thin in a black turtleneck and beret. He looks like a poet.
I frown. Occasionally, some joker tries to pass off poetry as performance art. I sigh, but decide to give him a chance. Maybe he’ll remove his beret and spit in it—at least that wouldn’t be poetry. Come on, man, dazzle us!
The man pulls out a piece of paper and begins reading. His voice is monotone. It’s a Kerouac poem.
I shift in my seat. What the hell is this?
Minutes pass. The poem goes on and on. People in the audience shuffle. I start to sweat. How dare he stand in front of a performance art crowd and read beat poetry in a floppy beret!
After five minutes I jumped up and threw my chair at him. It broke the performer’s nose. Blood spattered on the whitewashed walls.
The audience applauded. Finally, there was something to look at.
Kerouac always left me nauseous. I headed for the men’s room.
I opened the restroom door. A man was sitting on the tile floor, sobbing. He was skinny with a raggedy mop of hair, bellbottoms, and red cowboy boots. Tears rolled down his face as he scribbled line after line of text on the white bathroom wall in tiny letters with a black permanent marker in each hand. The pens squeaked with every stroke, so with both hands moving, the noise was tremendous.
“You must be a terror alone in bed with those hands,” I said.
The man said nothing. The pens squeaked harder.
“What are you writing?” I asked.
“MY MANIFESTO,” he cried, “AND I HOPE THAT KEROUAC RIP-OFF SEES IT!”
I stepped closer and read from the top:
PERFORMANCE ART MANIFESTO
Performance Art should not be confused with the performing arts, namely drama, dance, comedy, circus, or music. Performance Art has its own distinct history that began in the 1950s when civil unrest and the remains of Surrealism and Dada merged with the desire of radical artists to turn the commodity art establishment on its moneygrubbing head. Artists began staging Happenings—today called Performance Art—which amounted to informal gatherings where spectators went to watch an artist do something, and each “performance” was considered art simply because the performer said so.
And so, given its unique history, it’s no surprise that Performance Art accumulated its own language, its own rules, and its own clichés that are different from those of other art forms. It is, for example, a Performance Art cliché to throw dishes against a wall. It is a cliché for a woman to sit on a stage and invite audience members to come up and rip off pieces of her dress while she sings opera and pulls turnips out of her buttocks. It is a cliché to slap oneself silly and wail about how Daddy spent his evenings in the living room snorting lines. It is a cliché to shoot one’s friend in the arm or leg, or nail oneself to the back of a Volkswagen. Didactic Performance Art manifestoes like this one are clichés also. All of these things have been done and redone by imitators; thus, imagination and invention are the rare marks of true Performance Art. Reading poetry at an evening of Performance Art is not a cliché—it’s just stupid.
“That’s beautiful, man,” I said. “What’s your name?”
“Hank,” the man sniffled.
“I’m Larry,” I said. “So what else do you do besides watch performance art and write manifestoes?”
“I program computers,” said Hank.
“No shit? So do I!” I said.
Hank sputtered a little laugh and wiped his nose. I studied his face, and then his head.
Phrenology—the study of head shapes—was codified in the late 1700s by Franz Joseph Gall, an Austrian physiologist who believed that a person’s race, psychological tendencies, latent intentions, and future fate could be known by examining the shape of his or her skull. Gall’s science was abused over the years as a profiling tool, first by Viennese quacks, then later by the Nazis, but Victorian showmen did well by it, adding it to their palmistry, fat lady, and snake oil acts that traveled in wagon caravans across England and North America in the nineteenth century.
Ringed by carnival tents, folk musicians, and sword swallowers, the phrenologist talked up the supernatural and medicinal benefits of his art with pomp and circumstance until the crowds that had flocked from nearby towns were begging to have their heads read. A student of psychology, astrology, telepathy, scatoscopy, necromancy, and numerous other mystery sciences, the phrenologist would take off his top hat, twirl his handlebar mustache, roll up his sleeves, and take their money fast, rubbing his hands over their skulls, feeling their warts, their bumps, their scalps, eye sockets, brows, noses. Despite the hoopla, phrenologists’ cranial divination was terrifyingly accurate; they had the power to see inside people’s heads.
Seeing inside a man’s head isn’t easy—it requires steady nerves and a detailed mental topography of the subject’s facial features, but I certainly had the genes for it. I’d inherited the skill from my father, who’d inherited it from his father, who’d inherited it from my great-greatgrandfather, who’d run a traveling show out of Kentucky called Professor John’s Medicine Show which featured jugglers, tattooed nymphs, and The Mystery Man from Virginia. So it was with some authority that I could say that anyone with a decent phrenological eye would have taken one look at Hank’s head and concluded that he fell somewhere between high-strung and sheer lunacy. First there was his skull’s overall shape: rectangular and long, suggesting intellect and extreme creativity, but with a proneness to unhinged manic flights. A tall forehead descended to a classic Cro-Magnon brow, symptomatic of sexual anemia and a tendency toward jealousy. Thin lips on an oversized muzzle signaled narcissism, cyclical depression, and various impulse-control disorders. A blocky-toothed overbite betrayed wanton co-dependency. Miniature feline ears warned of epileptic seizures. And then there were the eyes: colossal, forward-set orbital sockets under a permanently furrowed brow that hinted at protracted bouts of nihilism, depersonalization disorder, hysteria, pubic fungi, constipation, acne, hemorrhoids, acrophobia, and crying.
The man was obviously a genius.
“THIS is really what I should be doing,” he whispered, caressing his manifesto. “Performance art. I have a lot of ideas—”
“I’ve always wanted to do a performance with roller-skates,” I offered.
“Or meat,” said Hank.
“Or both,” I said.
Smiles slid across our faces.
And that was how we started.
I'm a big fan of caper comedy books ... and films. Two Performance Artists may be the funniest of all.
After meeting by chance in a men's restroom at a performance art gig, The main characters, Hank and Larry, team up and become somewhat of household names in San Francisco's performance art scene in the 80s. Larry is constantly managing Hanks paranoia, as they proudly unleash a slew of very funny (and, sometimes, hilariously bad) performances in galleries about town. Near-starvation forces them to get programming jobs working for a thinly veiled Bill Gates billionaire CEO. But the work, they discover, is soul-crushing. Exhausted, disillusioned, they come up with what might be the ultimate conceptual art piece: they will kidnap Bill, and turn him into a "performance art machine."
I don't want to reveal too much, and no book is perfect. But the story is tightly written with laughs that don't stop, unpredictable performance art, Hank and Larry's "black bag operation" against their boss, car chases, a brutal detective hired to find Bill, a racy kickboxer girlfriend who likes roughing up Larry, and a beautiful ending, all set in San Francisco's seedy Tenderloin district of drug fiends and pimps. What more could you want?
Disclaimer: I have not seen much performance art, but a visit to Mr. Wichmann's web site revealed he's been doing it for over 20 years. Also, while reading his blog, I was surprised to discover through news stories that he was one of the performance artists Shia LaBeouf (allegedly) plagiarized this year.
If that's not a worthy testament, I don't know what is.
Interview With the Author
Hi, Scotch, thanks for joining me today to discuss your new book, Two Performance Artists Kidnap Their Boss and Do Things With Him.
For what age group do you recommend your book?
Ages 18 and above.
What sparked the idea for this book?
I've been doing performance art for 23 years - experimental live pieces like snorting lines of shaved mouse fur, putting razor blades in my underwear, doing testicle puppet shows, and so on. And being a performance art enthusiast, of course I wanted to read everything about it - but, try as I might, I couldn't find a single novel that conveyed the gritty, intensely creative world that performance artists inhabit.
I wanted to read a book that would answer questions like: Who are performance artists? What makes them need to strap meat to themselves or put razor blades in their underwear? What it's like doing an art form that, in America at least, is often seen as a cultural joke? And how does somebody become a performance artist?
German has a meaty word, künstlerroman, that refers to a novel about the birth and maturation of an artist. That's what I wanted - a künstlerroman about performance art.
Finally, in mid-1999, I couldn't stand it anymore; the novel needed to be written. So, I sat down and started outlining.
Wow, quite a story! So which comes first? The character's story or the idea for the novel?
For me, it was the idea for the novel - the hook - even though I think my book emerged very much character-driven.
Once I'd decided that two performance artists would kidnap somebody, my questions began about who these two people were. I knew they would have to love each other in order to be deeply affected by their choices and conflicts. They wouldn't be lovers, exactly, but best buddies. I've always loved buddy films (Lethal Weapon, 48 Hrs, Ishtar, Silver Streak), and I had my own long-running buddy relationship as an adult that's remained inspiring for all the adventures we had - so I chose to write from that angle, knowing I could probably navigate the ups and downs of a story about dreaming and scheming with a buddy.
What was the hardest part to write in this book?
The art performances, hands down. Hank and Larry, the protagonists, do performance art pieces throughout the book, and I wanted the pieces to have the same level of thought, planning, audience interaction, and visual detail as actual performances. I'm a film freak, and the idea occurred to me to try writing the performance narratives cinematically; that is, with pans, zooms, and cuts - to treat the narration like a camera. Getting the framing, visual details, and pacing just right took months for each piece, so on top of just trying to tell the main story, it's no wonder the first draft took me 6 years to finish.
Again, wow! How do you hope this book affects its readers?
Hank and Larry, the novel's heroes, dream of doing each performance so powerfully and magically that it gets inside spectators' heads like a magical spell. I hope Two Performance Artists is that powerful - that the epic journey to performance art's surreal, beating heart will inspire readers to go see performance art, or even better, to make performances.
How long altogether did it take you to write this book?
It was born in San Francisco during 6 months of story plotting, 6 years of writing, 1 year of initial editing, 1 house renovation, 1 divorce, 1 wedding, the co-founding of one rogue coffee company, 3 jobs, 5 deaths, 5 relocations, 1 motorcycle accident, 3 years of desk-drawer darkness, followed by another six months of editing.
OK ... What is your writing routine?
I settled into a habit of writing four nights per week, for a minimum of two hours per sitting. Sometimes the muse would come right away; other times, not at all.
And although I like writing at night, I prefer outlining in the morning; I'll head to a cafe, knock back three coffees, crack open my sketchbook, and go at it.
How did you get your book published?
A small indie publisher and no agent. I tried finding an agent over the course of a year, but without success. My novel is a cross-genre work of fiction, and many agents seemed more interested in something that'd be easy to pigeonhole on the shelves. A dark comedy caper about two artists seemed, I guess, like it would take too much effort to sell.
Eventually, I started contacting publishers directly. And here's the irony: even while agents were saying no, every publisher I contacted loved the story. A senior editor at Harper Collins wrote me back to say the book was hilarious. Not bad! But he, like many others, wanted me to cut it down by 50% for budgetary reasons. And that just wasn't possible; I had paced the book to be a 400-page novel. So, I just kept looking until I found a publisher that'd take me.
What advice do you have for someone who would like to become a published writer?
Start writing. Keep writing. Write about what you love, because you'll need that passion to get you through the tough times. Study writing as a craft; master grammar, punctuation, and story structure. Write a lot, and don't be afraid to take breaks to cross-pollinate your imagination; if you're writing fiction, maybe take a break to write an article. Guard your baby until it's strong enough to withstand criticism, then seek out all the crit you can get. When it's done, put it away for awhile. Weeks. Months. Give yourself a break so you can see your work more objectively. Give no quarter to what can be cut, even if you adore it; be ruthless in your editing. If you're working on a book, start thinking about marketing early on. Publishers' marketing budgets are tiny (where they exist for a new writer at all), so be self-reliant; learn to build your own web site, jump into social media, and start making yourself known to your future readers as early as possible.
Great advice, Scotch! What do you like to do when you're not writing?
Performance art, doodling, drinking, making and watching films, reading, swinging kettlebells, drinking, practicing martial arts, coding software, drinking, and plotting adventures with my wife (and our dog).
What does your family think of your writing?
Reactions have been mixed. Some family members have been very interested and supportive, which is wonderful. But others are busy with their own lives, and, frankly, don't give a damn; it doesn't matter that I've been talking about the book like it was a fetus in my belly since 1999. So, remember: the only person in the world who needs to care, ultimately, and love your book, is you - and, with luck, your readers. And the rest? You've gotta learn to ignore their lack of interest and move on. If you're going to write, write for yourself first, and try to find contentment in the story well told; if you live and yearn for others' adoration, the disappointment can crush you.
Very honest answer. Please tell us a bit about your childhood.
I grew up in Fresno, California, a rural, dusty, 1970s bible belt town. I was a happy, hyperactive, and adventurous kid who stayed busy dumpster diving, jumping dirt hills on my banana seat bike, dodging perverts and LSD trippers, throwing dirt clods, yanking on my Stretch Armstrong doll, dressing up like KISS, learning magic tricks and karate, and playing with my little sister.
And we were lucky: my mom was a loving, patient, happy, optimistic, and incredibly creative woman, even after my dad left. She took the time to play with me and my sister - made up stories, costumes, and imaginary friends; she's the ink in every story I write.
Did you like reading when you were a child?
I loved it. I was a bibliophile almost from the get-go, thanks to my mother, who took me and my sister to the local public library weekly.
Fantastic. When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
The 6th grade. I wrote a story about a kid who stows away on a rocket - that's when I realized being a writer meant I could be anything, go anywhere, do anything, in my imagination.
Did your childhood experiences influence your writing?
The pain of my parents' divorce had a huge influence. If you want to learn the ropes of fear, anger, guilt, and separation anxiety, just be a kid in a broken family. If you manage to navigate that morass without lasting psychological damage, then congratulations, you've probably also acquired the ability to escape into your imagination - and, one hopes, a sense of humor.
Which you certainly did! Which writers have influenced you the most?
The list would include Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Hunter S. Thompson, Franz Kafka, Walt Whitman, William Faulkner, Samuel Beckett, Ernest Hemingway, Charles Bukowski, Philip Levine, Jacques Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard, Elaine May, and David Lynch.
That's quite a list! Do you hear from your readers much? What kinds of things do they say?
This is my first novel, so the feedback's just beginning, and so far, it's been very positive. The wait for feedback isn't something I'm used to, since in performance art, I get to see the reaction immediately to whatever I've written for a performance. But having to wait is a good lesson in patience.
What can we look forward to from you in the future?
I've got several pieces for TV and film in the works - and of course, I'm hoping to adapt Two Performance Artists for the big screen. Stay tuned!
Sounds great! I hope it happens for you. Thanks so much for stopping by today, Scotch. It's been a pleasure.
About the Author
Scotch Wichmann is a writer, performance artist, and comedian whose hyperactive style spurred the San Francisco Chronicle to describe him as "like eating and snorting drugs ... then freebasing ... then reaching for the turkey baster."
A two-time finalist in Northern California's largest comedy competition, he's been a regular feature and host at comedy clubs across the country, keeping audiences rolling before national headliners like Bill Burr, Barry Sobel, Laurie Kilmartin, Eddie Brill, and many more.
Scotch started as a performance artist in the early '90s in L.A. with a debut piece that involved cutting mouse fur into lines and snorting it, and he's been going strong ever since, creating live experimental works at galleries, museums, and fringe festivals from L. A. to Scotland. His troupe "Wet The Hippo" was nominated for Best Comedy and Best Stunt at the 2013 Hollywood Fringe Festival.
In a strange turn, Hollywood actor Shia LaBeouf was caught plagiarizing Scotch's performance art manifesto in January, 2014, as well as writings by performance artist Marina Abramovic. Scotch responded with a 6-hour protest and performance entitled #IAMPLAGIARIZED for a crowd of hundreds outside the Los Angeles gallery where LaBeouf staged his #IAMSORRY "mock apology" stunt in Feburary, 2014. You can see photos - including the #LABEEF patties duct taped to Scotch's shoes - and read all about it on Scotch's blog.
In 2007, Scotch launched Meth Coffee, an underground coffee company in San Francisco as both a branding experiment and an ongoing Dadaist performance. Calling himself "The Drinker", he acted as the company's cracked-out spokesman, giving TV interviews in a ridiculous wig and attracting a swarm of press from CNN, NBC, FOX, NPR, Maxim, The Washington Post, and The New York Times while selling super-caffeinated coffee beans in white druggy bags. The product was eventually banned in several regions, including the state of Illinois by its Attorney General, who found the whole concept objectionable.
Scotch's debut novel, Two Performance Artists Kidnap Their Boss and Do Things With Him, is a comedy caper about two down-and-out performance artists who plot to kidnap their billionaire boss and turn him into a performance artist.
James Gautier of Kill Radio L.A. said the book is "what you'd get if Fear and Loathing, Office Space, and Jackass made a baby." Not bad.