A LECTURE BY FRANK MOORE
GIVEN TO TONY LABAT’S PERFORMANCE CLASS
SAN FRANCISCO ART INSTITUTE
TUESDAY, APRIL 29, 1986
I am here, of course, to talk about myself and my art. Like most artists, I love to talk about myself. But I am also here to encourage at least some of you to focus your art careers on doing live avant-garde performance. I have selfish reasons for this.
I think performance is being ruined by trying to package it as entertainment, off-beat cabaret. Some performance is entertaining. Some performance is cabaret. That is great. But when you try to package performance into a neat cabaret format, as I think is the trend, to make performance acceptable and profitable, it becomes a hip form of nightclub watching or groovy T.V. watching. If you limit performance in time and space for acceptability, it stops being performance.
I like doing cabaret and video. They are great mediums in themselves. But when I am doing cabaret or video, I am always aware of the limitations built into the format. When someone watches a video, he knows that he will remain passively watching from the outside: the video will not literally pop out into his reality, or physically drag him into the T.V. When someone goes to a cabaret, he knows there are certain limits involved such as each act must end for another to begin. But in performance, anything is possible. A performance can last for a minute or it can last for days. Performance can start in one space but then move to another. Performance can be storytelling, it can be a guy threatening you with a baseball bat, it can be a guy hanging by his skin, or throwing food, or anything. In performance all things are possible. And that is what gives you an extra edge to create dreams. I have talked to artists like Paul McCarthy, Linda Burnham, Eleanor Anton, Sharon Grace, and Steve Parr about what seems like the decline of truly avant-garde live performance. Many of the old guard like Paul, Chris Burdon, Alan Kaprow, and Linda Burnham have stopped doing live performance. Moreover, many young artists, like you, who would have focused on hard-core live art, are being seduced away by video and cabaret packaging. I have a selfish motive for wanting more daring live performers … I have realized my own work has been limited by the general lack of an avant-garde live performance community that is focused on subversion, on magic, on altering reality … and that is not afraid of combining our individual arts together.
So I am focusing on trying to encourage this kind of performance. I am holding auditions for The Edge, my performance group that is aimed at going over the edge, pushing and breaking limits through live pieces … pieces that cannot be done in cabarets or on videos because cabarets and videos have built-in limits that the audience can hold onto. Starting in the summer at U.C.B., we are holding at U.C.B. a bi-monthly “Performance Lab” where artists can come and basically jam with one another. If you are interested in The Edge, see me afterwards.
Performance, like any avant-garde art, is the way society dreams; it is the way society expands its freedom explores the forbidden in safety, to loosen up. Society needs its dream art, just as an individual needs to dream or go insane. Our moral majority society bent on going backwards into the violent blank rigidity of a censored mind, needs taboo-breaking dreams to get back to freedom. Performance is perfectly suited for this dream role. I have always wanted to bring dreams into reality.
I always have been lucky. I have a body that is ideal for a performance artist. And I have always wanted to be a performer. When I was a kid, my younger brother used to get mad when people looked at me when he pushed me to the movies or to the teen club. He cried. But I liked people looking at me. That is what I mean by I am lucky. I am lucky I am an exhibitionist in this body. One time, I was working out on the jungle gym outside of our house … a kid came by and asked if I was a monster. I just roared like a monster. It was fun.
In the mid-60’s, I was a radical in high school and college. But until the second year of college, I was pretty much isolated. So I read everything I could get my hands on. I started reading French Surrealist novels and plays. I tried my hand at stream of bullshit bad poetry. Definitely not like Howl or Naked Lunch or Bob Dylan. I read about the hippies in S.F. … with Happenings with nude bodies in body paint and lightshows like they showed in Playboy. [Years later, the people who put on those Happenings interviewed me.] But all I had was my fantasies. What if somebody really could do what happened in The Magus or Steppenwolf … or live like Huxley’s Island! I wished I could be a hip artist living in S.F. in a commune.
I read L. Halprin’s book about his wife, Ann … how she scored dances and other Happenings. It sounded great. But I didn’t think I could get people to let me direct them. I hung out with an arty-poetry-political tiny group … I wrote. I sang on my bed to the radio and imagined I was the lead singer of the band, The Blue Unicorn. Except for some anti-war demos, my next performance was trying to get the OK at U.C. at San Bernardino to produce my all-nude play on campus. To my surprise, the college said yes. But I couldn’t get actors. I wasn’t really into sex itself in my art [I didn’t see it as art at the time], I just wanted to see nude bodies on stage … not sneak it in a love scene … and see them do things like paint their bodies with baby food … I learned it can be hard to get people for weird things.
I dropped out of college and went to Santa Fe to be a hippy … counseled in crisis centers … grooved out … read old books on the occult and wrote poetry and underground cultural columns as The Unicorn. I lived with an older woman, Louise, a hippy son-mother relationship, who encouraged me to see my paintings as art. But I saw them as playing around. I still do.
Louise also started making me see my body as a tool. She said I could get away with things that others couldn’t.
I may as well start talking about this now. I can stare at people, laugh at them, touch their asses on the street … because they don’t think I understand. I can park myself next to them and observe them close-up without them realizing or changing. That is being so visible that it creates invisibility. I used that one when I had my mom leave me for an hour or two on a sidewalk so I could watch people.
But Louise pointed out other advantages of my body. People project onto me certain mystical powers … like seeing through their fronts to their real selves … seeing the past and the future … and what they should do. They are reacting to some symbol of deformed medicine man. They use me as a medium for getting through to other dimensions. It had little to do with me at this time. Because of the slowness of my communication board, they were forced to slow down. They could project whatever they wanted, misread me when it fit them. I was an object as a symbol. And because they gave me power as a symbol, they were afraid of me … according to Louise. At this point, I didn’t fully believe this. But I always have known I didn’t want to be in a normal body.
Years later, when I was going to S.F.A.I., Doug Hall told me by body gave me a tool that other artists spend years to create.
In 1972, I just had finished taking a very intensive film making course in Santa Fe. I had no money to make real films. So I started looking for a way to work with people. I wanted to see people nude, and touch them, and to create an intensity between us.
Painting was the first attempt. I used to sell papers on a corner to find people to paint. But once the person was posed, the situation was still, not moving.
So I did what I called Nonfilms … for which I asked people I met when I was selling newspapers to act out intense erotic scenes with me. These were the closest in my pieces to sexual rather than erotic. Because of these scenes, the people started talking about their lives during these sessions and said it helped their other relationships. Not one person minded that there was no film.
But I was not satisfied with these Nonfilms because they were brief relationships that did not go anywhere. What I wanted to do was create intimacy – that is, a situation in which anything is permissible, where people feel that secure. I didn’t want to connect this intimacy with romance or sex because that would set limits. But that “anything is permissible” did mean a wide open erotic freedom.
So I started looking for some other way to work with people. I tried to cast a play, but I couldn’t find enough people. I started thinking of an intimate theatre where the line between audience and actors would be erased. I wrote a paper, The Conman’s Human Theatre, about how if that line was erased, it would place much more responsibility on the actors. They would have to dare to trick the audience into the intense magical state.
I divided my work … the word “work” is weird … it is like playing … into two parts. The first part is played in “real life” … for instance, I go up to a person on the street and ask him to be in some project which may contain some nudity and physical play. The nudity and physical play as an idea in this context is a great tool to get under the polite chatter surface to the more meaningful things, and often more intimate, more personal stuff … which is after all the aim of the piece. I can see this kind of piece lasting anywhere from a few seconds to several hours.
The second part is a piece in a controlled space such as my studio in which there is a form going on, giving the person a reason to be there with me.
This kind of theatre … I called it theatre because I hadn’t heard of performance art … this kind of theatre was different than normal theatre. In this kind, there is no real script. Even if you have a script, it really is a prop. The real course of action is shaped by the performer so the flow of the piece will go forward and deeper.
What is important is what happens between the performer … that’s me … and my audience, how I change them and how they change me, that magical state in which we interact with each other. I, as the performer, must create around the people, by playing for and to them, by letting the performance take me over and guide me … even when it looks like the other people are doing all of the action. The ultimate goal in my performance is to create a reality, not an illusion, of the performance which I and the audience are in … even if I have to use illusions to get to this reality.
This raised when I was writing the paper the question of manipulation. Almost anytime you perform to an audience, you manipulate the audience. Let’s get beyond the negative connotation of the word “manipulate.” People go to the theatre, movies, concerts, dance companies, etc. to have their emotions manipulated. They come into the performance area with a willingness to be manipulated by the artists within certain limits. But in my performances, the ones which are not divided from the rest of life by a theatre or a stage, there is no way to tell the person he is entering a performance. “What the hell are you talking about!?!?” and even when I have a formal structure, a theatre space, and a set time ending … what is really going on is not what is said to be happening. Also it is a reality that is hopefully being created … people will be affected, infected and effected by this reality.
My piece, Gestures, is a good example of this. The gestures are decoys for their minds. What really sucks them into a new reality of intimacy is the slowness and the gentleness of the rituals.
I knew this was radically different from normal theatre.
It was rooted in the primitive and mystical ceremonies of initiation which I had read about years before. The goal was to call the magic state from the people. The shamans knew how to do this … they drew their audience into a feeling of unity. I wanted to do that. Their audience knew they were participating in real events. I put this to a test in my 48-hours pieces in which I created an altered reality around the one-person audience.
I was tired of going to movies and plays which said being happy and having fun is impossible … or at least very hard. I wanted to do a Magus or a Steppenwolf, and to pull that off, I had to trust myself, my motives, and the rightness of my performances. This is idealistic performance … there is a strong case against this kind of performance ultimately working. But I have made my choice … like for me, if I admit idealistic performance is doomed, I would sit in my recliner and watch I Love Lucy!
Anyway, once the self-trust is in place, the next issue was vulnerability. Like the performer I have to be vulnerable … even in pieces where it appears I am totally in control and have complete power. Without this self-trust and vulnerability, what I am trying to do would fall flat.
This is the difference between theatre and performance art. In regular theatre, you can climb up onto the altar of the stage [even when the stage is a rug or other defined area], and you don’t have to interact with your audience, you are cut off from them. You don’t relate to them directly … which is the main goal of my performances. In theatre, what also blocks the magic that I am after is the system of rules of aesthetics.
The theatre paints pictures of “realities”, both inner and outer realities. The audience just watches from the outside, watching a moving picture created by actors. The audience suspends disbelief, sits, and watches with their minds. The actors act. Everybody is comfortable and safe. Everyone has defined roles … and when the audience left the theatre, they knew it had been just pretend. Actors just have to put on a good show.
As for the audience, I am rarely satisfied in theatre … including rock, cabaret, video, and dance … because of this.
As a performer, I have to be able within myself to do anything that I feel necessary to create the magic of the performance without stopping to check my motives. This is the self-trust. This self-trust creates vulnerability.
The performer has to take responsibility for his audience. This runs from their physical well-being while they are in the performance … to not taking them out on a limb and leaving them there. A moral grey area is left after the performance, and they go back to the normal world, and they freak out because of the conflict between the two realities. In my mind, the freak out is an opening of doors … which is the aim of the performance. But what the person does when the doors are opened is his responsibility.
In the performance, I have to involve myself with the audience, person-to-person. I have to follow whatever feeling I have in the moment, doing whatever it takes to draw the audience deeper. This is what I mean by vulnerability. It does have a certain ruthless quality to it.
In Santa Fe in 1972, I was reading Environmental Theatre. I took the exercises in that book, changed the focus to intimacy, and called it the workshop which was focused on developing intimacy, using eroticism and nudity. The workshop slowly developed from a drop-in group to a committed group of 30 in the late 70’s. We started our public performances by doing long ritualistic plays. Over the years, the group branched out to do many different kinds of live and video pieces, including The Outrageous Beauty Revue which was by far my most popular work … in terms of how many people saw it.
But in performance, unlike theatre, the success of a piece should not be judged by how many people see it, but by how far it went beyond the taboos, by its magic power for change. By this standard, my best work with the group was our performances within the workshop and a series of 48-hour dream performances in the late 70’s.
Since 1983, I have been doing a performance series at U.C. Berkeley which has given me a lab where I can develop pieces by doing them over and over during the three years, without the pressures of making money or entertaining. These pieces are what got me the N.E.A. Fellowship, and they are the ones I am doing on my southern California tour. The freedom that Tom Oden, the director of the studio, gave me from entertaining and money focus is why the pieces could develop. The sole purpose of the series was to go beyond limits and taboos … to blow people’s minds into a surreal state. Sometimes it works. Sometimes they entertained the people … and sometimes the pieces both worked and entertained … amazing as that seems.
Performance art, the art of performance, is rooted in the private games of babies where every move and gesture has its own meaning to the baby … it is rooted in the creative and the destructive games that a little kid does when he is all alone … games that adults still do, but will not admit doing, even to themselves.
It is rooted in the rituals of magic and religion where people came together to bring a different reality into their reality. It is rooted in the surreal, the private, the madness. It is rooted in direct involvement.
The main purpose for a performance is change, is to create a frame in this reality, a magical frame where something that usually does not happen, happens.
A good example of this is the performance I recently did at U.C. Irvine. I got more and more freaked out being on a campus which was consciously designed to discourage human contact and a sense of community … where students are identified by for which big company they will be working. I started to think no one would show up for the performance, not to mention participate, in this stronghold of the enemy. So in my mind, I started adapting “Random Gestures” so that if no one became involved, at least it would look like something was happening. To my surprise, there were students waiting outside the performance room when we arrived.
The windowless room became a dark cave with a light strobing. I lay on a table-altar surrounded by neatly dressed yuppies and young republicans. Gestures were randomly read out. Anyone could get on the table with me and do the gestures and return to their seats when they did not want to do the gesture. At first, nobody did anything at all. But after fifteen minutes, a few timidly started doing the gestures in their seats. Slowly, one by one, people got on the table … especially after Robin broke the ice. It was a trip seeing these ultra-yuppies touching one another in intimate ways. They drank it up. The guy whom I got to play music asked in the middle of the piece if he could stop playing music and join the table. Two male roommates found themselves doing things together like rubbing noses … and liking it. We had to push more tables together to make room for all the people. At one point, about 12 bodies piled onto me and slowly rocked … because they couldn’t quite let themselves rock on one another.
After the piece, Robin invited everyone to her house for chili. It gave me a good chance to hear in detail what people thought about the piece, but also to watch the effects of the piece on the people. When they first came out, they were still relating to one another, being high, being physical, being vulnerable. It took several hours for this noticeable change to wear off. It was like waking up from a dream … or coming down from a trip.
If the magic of performance can work in Irvine, it can work anywhere. People want to go beyond their outer limits.
In beyond outer limits, we will go back to the magical roots to get the strong vulnerability needed to make our performances powerful and human. No matter if your medium is dance, acting, singing, art, or simply loving, you can touch people more deeply if you are that magical, risk-taking kid. That is what is beyond outer limits.
I think this vulnerability is the root cause of why people [actors] are so uncomfortable with my work … not nudity or eroplay or sex. Nudity and eroticism are just scapegoats for this uncomfortableness with vulnerability. Vulnerability is the goal of my art. It is why I do my art.
In L.A., at Babels, the magic was among the performers in the cave. We were magical surrogates for the audience. We linked ourselves to the audience by emotion and by the various material. I was the strange shaman, the baseline who sets the tone and the depth. Linda, the rocker, was the primal human emotional urge-force. Shelly was the sensual psychic force, the occult hidden world. Uwe was the soft but practical, the tree trunk. Linda Mac was the bridge between the two worlds. The rich magic was a combination of these four aspects, called up by the physical chant of rocking, and focused by the cave space. For the audience, it was like a spiritual 3-D movie. They could sit safe and watch magic happening around them.
In S.F., the rocking was still a physical chant calling up magic realm, but it was less complex and cosmic, less primal, more playful. The first night, the audience sat themselves into a bunch with a space between themselves and us. That space never faded. So that night was like a surreal flat movie. The next night, body-painted Linda led each person into the room and positioned him. As a result, they became more intimately involved and risked more of themselves. They were a part of the ritual. They were straight, middle class. A lot of them in their 60s, not an art crowd. But they responded to the magic and the eroplay. They said it was an awake dream.
And it was fun to be beyond outer limits!
This is an invitation to you to come and play with me … beyond outer limits.