Five Masters of Interactive Performance Art
It seems fair to say that there is a difference between being a passive spectator of a performance and being an active participant of it. Passively watching a performance means nothing particularly happens inwardly, it is laid on you, and it leaves room for a lot of pretense: Either in self satisfaction you are entertained and approve or you can self righteously disapprove. The difference would lie in the time given to form an opinion and image; some things give little time to respond, there is still a response though.
It also seems fair to say that one of the things done in comedy is to push past limits, touch on or even thoroughly explore what is off limits; to break down barrier and pretense. It is a way of going beyond comfort zones, smug confidence, and conventions.
I offer, here, something of a few examples of performers who have had a refined technique of breaking down the social barrier and pretense, and who actively involved the audience (even involuntarily: Which other way could it be?). I've decided to term this artistic technique "Interactive Performance Art": Interactive in that the audience is involved, performance in the sense that it is an act even as obscured and blurred is the line between act and reality, and art in the sense of putting things in their right places to convey some kind of meaning. In this endeavor, I have chosen a list of artists who seem to have exemplified this technique in their performances. In discussing this, I feel a little like the person who lets you in on the magician's tricks. Hopefully I can be forgiven for that or the magicians will find new tricks.
He's an actor. That's what he is known for. Certainly hasn't become famous for pranks or gritty comedy. However, on Dave Letterman's late night talk show, he had a lot of people convinced he was quite "washed up", confused, maybe broken down. No doubt, a brilliant performance. What would be the point in letting us in on the fact that it's a hoax?
Somebody looking like Jim Morrison, hairy and crude, most likely stoned, came crawling around the MTV Movie Awards back in 1999. Reportedly, the most stuck up and pretentious snubbed him or were otherwise horrified. And they had no idea who he was. When he took the stage, those who were hip roared with laughter; and it is certain those with the thickest walls of pretense might have gotten a few cracks in those walls.
I imagine Crispin Glover has never made any attempt to seem "normal". He's famous as the dad in the "Back to the Future" movies and even in that successful role seemed rather quirky. Of course, it was a perfect casting decision to have him in that role. But the man actually is a great artist, doesn't take the easy road, he takes risky leaps into the abyss. Here he is on Letterman.
This one is sure to cause controversy, because, for one thing, the jury is still out on his racist outburst at a comedy club performance in which he seemed to have a meltdown, screaming the N word, and making other racist references, hurled at a group of hecklers in the audience. He was either at the end of his rope and troubled or a genius performance artist exposing America's hidden undercurrents of hate and violence. We might expect a much worse outcome if it had been all for real. But I will just say this much: Richards was on the old 80s sketch comedy show, with Seinfeld creator Larry David, called "Fridays"; Master Prankster Andy Kaufman had some mischievous activity on that show. You decide.
What do we know about Mr. Kaufman? We know he was a middle-class Jewish kid from the East Coast who grew up familiar with bizarre performance art, experimented with drugs, and engaged in Transcendental Meditation. How did all this influence his performances? Not sure. Certainly he challenged our conception of reality, maybe he challenged us to transcend it. He had a knack for the strange and an ability to push it as far as it could go. Famously, he'd enrage his audience with purposely bad performances which only a genius could authentically perform. At times, we literally didn't know who he was; if he was a fat, crass lounge singer or if he was deep in a funk of depression and misery; or if he was simply a rude cad. Why should we want to know? The point is the inward response, the illumination of our simplistic assumptions and attitudes. Andy revealed (at least to ourselves) what we so cleverly hide.