An email conversation published in P-FORM Number 42.
Thu, 30 May 1996
From: Frank Moore
To: Frank Moore’s Esalon
Well, gang….I’m blown out, am cracking up…I have heard everything now. I recycle my writings…cut them up to use the ideas. Remember that I sent out THE COMBINE PLOT 96 a few months ago as a response to the telecom bill? It was really a part of a larger piece. I cut out the last half of the old piece…in that half I talked about how a certain asshole director of a performance festival was trying to force me to mutilate/censor my performance…yeah, right! I finally did the performance there uncensored…and THE COMBINE PLOT was published in a lot of art magazines. That was ’90.
Guess who called today. The asshole! Guess why he was calling. He is creating a website for the festival…and he wants to put THE COMBINE PLOT, along with “other scholarly papers”, on the site!
Here’s the second half. Can you tell me why he wants to put this on his site?
I am a slow typist. As I write this, events have overtaken me. The combine has struck again with its remote control of fear and with its drugs of bigness and money. The Cleveland Public Theater Performance Art Festival had invited me to do my Journey to Lila ritualistic piece with audience participation. Two weekends before I was to perform, the city’s vice squad sat in on the festival’s show of Annie Sprinkle and made it clear that if she did certain things which are regular parts of her art, she and the director of the festival would be arrested. For personal, practical reasons, Annie decided to change her act.
We should be outraged that the vice squad came. We should be outraged against the government undercover spying on art and theater, against the use of a bad law in a manner it was not intended, against what makes it impossible for us to see truly free art and theater in this festival. There was a lot of pressure on me from the festival director to not be unreasonable, to give up control of the art over to some political game.
(I need to make a distinction between the festival and the Cleveland Public Theatre. The festival is an event that takes place at the theatre for two months, once a year. The festival director, Tom Mulready is not a regular member of the theatre organization’s staff. Any references here to the festival and/or its director refer only to the festival and its director and do not reflect in any way on the Cleveland Public Theatre or its director and staff. I found the Cleveland Public Theatre Director and staff to be a great example of what a group of people can do when they are committed to art.)
The law was used in a very strange way. The law says performers and their audience cannot touch one another on certain so-called erogenous zones. In ritualistic audience participatory performances in general and in my work in particular, this prohibition destroys any hope of doing the work. As I write this, I do not have copies of all of Cleveland’s laws that are wrongly being applied to works of art. I do not know if there are laws in Cleveland against nudity in performance. But it is clear it is not possible for me to do the art without getting arrested or seriously compromising the integrity of the art. I am not willing to do this. I am willing to be arrested for the art.
I would understand if the director did not want to get arrested along with my company. After all, the curator in Cincinnati is facing a possible five-year sentence for having the Mapplethorpe exhibition. Most people do not have that kind of courage. If that was the fear, I would have created with the festival an artistic protest against the law that would have neither broken the law nor compromised.
But it was not fear of arrest, but the fear of losing funding, fear of how the festival would look, fear of inconvenience. The focus was how to protect the festival, its size, its importance, its financial health. What was right for the art was forgotten. In fact, both the art and the artist became nuisances to be dealt with, to be sacrificed. After all, it was stated by the director that he, Mulready is not Martin Luther King. King, Jefferson, Gandhi, and all of the artists and just plain folk who broke unjust laws in order to evolve things to a better place are turning over in their graves. This is one of the main functions of art. It was stated by Mulready that it is impossible to present in Cleveland what is presented in big cities such as New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco…but we have also done the same performances in small cities such as Denver, Buffalo, and Rochester.
He said it as if this situation is acceptable, if regrettable, in the Midwest. This attitude places the festival in the role of being the agent of the established order, rather than on the side of change. I was told by Mulready that this kind of art would be shown privately in Cleveland. But the festival could not be remotely linked to it unless the art is mutilated to fit the status quo. I kept being told to think of what the festival gives me and the other artists in terms of money and exposure. I should not blow it. What is forgotten in all of this is if the art is not intact, if the content of art is not firmly in the hands of the artists, then artists, art festivals, art galleries and theaters, and even art itself will become just window-dressing for the established order. I am thinking of the artists. If I gave up control of the art directly or indirectly either to the vice squad or this festival, I would be putting a frame of untruth around the artists and the audiences of the Festival. I will not do that.
After two days of pressuring me to change my performance, Mulready suddenly reversed his position. He did not do it from a flash of integrity, but because he was getting pressure from both inside the Cleveland Public Theatre and the national art community. I did the performance as it was originally created without incident.
The combine plot has Mulready hooked on the drug of bigness, on the funding habit. In our talks on the crisis over my performance, things were talked about in terms of how big the festival was, how the funding could not be risked now that the Festival has reached this level of size and importance. Hidden within this is the pacemaker of fear that the combine can use by remote control. This drug of bigness is why, to get N.E.A. money, artists are signing what amounts to a loyalty oath to the established order, agreeing to not do patently offensive work.
It is easy to get hooked on the drug of bigness, as I found out when I received an N.E.A. fellowship for $5,000 in the early ’80s. I had been doing art, performance and theater for about ten years with little or no money. So the N.E.A. money was just extra money. I soon noticed the work shifted from human-intensive to a more money-intensive focus. This shift was slight because I work on a small grassroots scale. But the scale began to expand. In a way, this expanding scale was fun, exciting, glamorous. But the change did not organically come from the art. Moreover, as my N.E.A. year drew to a close, I became more and more anxious about where I would get more money, thinking about applying for more grants, worrying about what I could not do if I did not get more grants. All of this took away from the art. It made me much more vulnerable to compromise, much more likely to become a part of the combine. The old richness of possibilities and alternatives began to dry up, being funneled into a possibility of grants. One day I began to wonder how I could have done art for all those years, and now I was full of fear. I decided to not play the grant game.
If this addiction can happen to an artist like me, who operates on the small scale, I can only imagine what a temptation of addiction someone like the festival director, Mulready, has to cope with. But when the drug of bigness and fear of losing funds compromise art, it is time to protest … it is time to bring it all back down to the basic core of the artistic experience which is the art coming directly through the artist to the society without any censoring influences, so that art can cause evolution in the society. It is extremely dangerous when artists sign loyalty oaths to the established order to become paid agents, when art festivals and galleries find it acceptable for vice squads to spy on art and theater, to use blue laws to forbid art.
To fight back this full-scale attack on creative expression, the attack that may surpass that of the McCarthy era, we artists must be willing to make sacrifices to become independent of the combine. Many galleries and performance companies have died when their grants were cut. This is because bigness and money-intensive art which grants promote drain possibilities from us, blind us to the possibilities that are outside the combine. It has become increasingly important for us artists to start devolving art back to the human personal scale and away from high-tech mass bigness. This devolution will create alternatives that our society needs, and which is the function of art.
I usually perform at grassroots spaces which have created independent alternatives to the combine. For example, Karen Briede ran a multi-level visual and performance gallery in Denver. She brought in nationally known but controversial artists by using the money she made in her hair salon. She was always selling art to her hair clients. She now is having nationally important exhibitions in her apartment in Chicago. In Seattle, A.F.L.N. (A FLIMSY LACE NIGHTIE) is doing the same thing by being a coffee house during the day and a gallery by night.
In these and other similar small places, cutting-edge art finds homes because people like Karen personally take risks for the art. But as Martha Wilson of FRANKLIN FURNACE has shown, it is possible for established galleries to show controversial art. It is extremely important that both artists and art administrators be willing to lose everything, including funding, in order to save freedom. This is the only way we will win back our full freedom from the combine, take back our full range of possibilities.
I want to close this by quoting from a letter from Kyle Griffith, an author. The Combine “is counting on the majority of creative people to stay on the sidelines until the anti-art movement gains real support among the general public, saying ‘Well, my work isn’t that controversial, so why should I take the trouble to support a bunch of really hardcore people who are deliberately asking for trouble from the blue noses, anyway?’” The combine plot “encourages consumer art while discouraging all art forms that turn the consumers of art into artists themselves. What people like you are REALLY being attacked for is drawing the audience, the art consumer, into the creative process.”
Date: Fri, 31 May 1996
From: Barbara Golden
To: Frank Moore
WIGband found out years ago, that there was no use applying to play in major art venues, and have to defend our work, it was much easier to rent a space and have total freedom, then we got asked a bunch of times to do openings and so forth, but the act of having to write a proposal to do our performances was anathema to us.
Date: Tue, 4 Jun 1996
From: Keith Hennessy
To: Frank Moore
I’ve been enjoying your e writings and have been sending them along to other freedom spirited artists and activists. I’m disappointed that you’re calling Thomas Mulready an asshole. He is no big art dealer. He’s produced all of the controversial artists he can afford including many of our visionary kinky taboo breaking friends. Including me and you. He is making different choices than you or I about how to survive during this anti-art wartime. And he may play some games that you think are more destructive than healthy. In my opinion he’s more ally than asshole. Not just an ally of mine but of performance artists in general and controversial sexual liberationists most of all. When I was in Cleveland, most of the African-American theater’s staff (Karamu house) wanted to close me down before we opened because in my show about racism and homophobia I pulled a text — inside a condom — from a naked man’s butt. A white queer writer from the alternative press called me a racist colonialist because I was going to collaborate with a black gay man from Cleveland. I felt severely unwelcome. Thomas backed me all the way. I changed my piece because I went to Cleveland to be in a conversation with a community of people. I ignored the petty attack by the writer and focused on meeting with the mostly Christian black staff at Karamu. Several of them came to my show because I took out the nudity. I am a community-based artist who makes site specific work. In Cleveland the site included the community I was performing in. I adapted my work to the environment. I told the audience during the show about the changes I made and why I made them. I challenged the edges and my work changed people. It was a major personal success for me. Thomas sat with me in intense meetings. He never asked me to back down. He tried to protect his ass and he respected every move I made.
That is my experience and I respect Thomas for all that. And I just wanted you to add this story to your accumulated information about him. Thanks for reading.
Date: Tue, 04 Jun 1996
From: Frank Moore
To: Keith Hennessy
i just call ’em as I see ’em.
Date: Fri, 07 Jun 1996
From: Frank Moore
To: Keith Hennessy
Keith, more thoughts:
Maybe the bottom line reason why I don’t let outside forces/pressures dictate the form or the content of the art is because I do not see myself as the creator of the art, but the servant to the art. One of my functions as a servant is being the bodyguard to the art. I am just following the evolution of the art. I don’t really know what an element, image, aspect magically does. I trust that each is there for a host of reasons. So I sit back and watch the interplay and the organic change in the art. I don’t feel it is my place to tamper with the art out of reasons of convenience or politics. This is just my personal philosophy of art.
But on the practical level:
It is one thing to create a performance especially for a certain site, event, or audience; or change the performance within [and based on] the dance of you, the art, the audience, the space, and whatever else.
It is a totally different thing to change a piece because of pressure from a censor, an offended person, or a timid producer. The changing of a piece under pressure sets up all kinds of bad and very dangerous precedents, and sends all kinds of bad, dangerous, misleading messages. It says a piece of art is not a united whole, but just a collection of bits of business not really important; so there is no big deal in taking some of the bits out. This is like saying a poem is a collection of words so you can take out the certain offending words and read the poem. It is no longer the poem [probably not even a poem]. People, the community, have been denied the real poem, the real experience. And they are being denied the knowledge of poetry/art.
Moreover, if we change art because of outside pressure, we are saying people have the right to not be offended, to not be made uncomfortable; that it’s bad and harmful when art and life offends them. This so-called reasonableness and being careful and staying within the lines becomes the standard order: “be reasonable, change the art!” And then we wonder why someone like Jesse Helms gets started! It seems to me that one of our functions as artists is to make it clear that people can live without censoring limits.
Finally, I have never found that the offended people and censors represent the community. They really look down on the community. In Cleveland, after I spent a week in an intense fight to get the actual performance to the community, the community was hungry for it! It was my largest audience for that kind of long ritual performance: over a hundred people who very actively participated, causing the performance to last over six hours. The censors always sell the people short, looking down on the people. I think artists should keep the control over the content and the form of the art within the art; not surrender the control over to the government, the galleries, the backers, or any pressure group. We as artists owe that to the art, to the people, and to other artists.
Date: Sat, 8 Jun 1996
From: Keith Hennessy
To: Frank Moore
Thanks for excellent articulation.
I am inspired by your commitment to the art, the image, the magic. I too see myself as servant to the image and to the audiences/communities/peoples.
Censors and producers and leaders in general are more conservative and afraid than the people they (claim to) speak for. Nonetheless there are many people who identify with the censors. I think that artists can make choices about who they are including within the sphere of influence of a given work. Collaborating with the fears and projections of a community is like a risky dance on shaky ruins. The potential for beauty is everywhere and inviting.
Like most body-based artists I work the edges, not the centers. I seek the “resilient edge of resistance”* the place where stretching or reshaping the boundary is possible. This is, of course, located differently for different folks.
All power to the sensualist neo-shaman anti-fascist magicians all power to you and me and performance artists everywhere.
* a quote from Chester Mainard
From the book, “Frankly Speaking: A Collection of Essays, Writings & Rants” by Frank Moore, published by Inter-Relations in 2014.