“Performance art is the purest form of art,” claimed Erik Hokanson, who runs the Grace Exhibition Space, a medium-sized loft in Bushwick that exhibits only performance art, with his girlfriend Jill McDermid. “You’re emotionally enabling, getting people involved. It’s different than theater or dance because when you do that, you’re pretending.”
Despite my knee-jerk cynicism, Hoke, as all the kids call him, wasn’t spouting bullshit. Performance art works because people standing around a room eventually get bored, even with beer.
Hanging around the Grace Space were young and diverse artsy types sipping Budweiser and red wine, surprisingly nonplussed by the torrent of rain that flooded Brooklyn. The space—filled with odd junk, bits of old stages, benches, a serviced bar and walls painted off-white—had funny nooks where reasonably attractive twentysomethings wearing skintight pants or thickly developed beards grouped together to chat. In the center of the room, a youthful accordionist pumped away, giving the room an atmosphere of a French metro platform.
A smiling girl with a fresh nose piercing handed out postcards for future art shows, while Jeffrey Byrd, a bald, mid-thirties artist in a blue pinstripe suit and yellow tie, walked around smiling at people, occasionally taking out his earplugs and responding “yes” to whatever was said to him.
The five artists who performed various futile activities continuously throughout the evening provoked outwardly verbal responses from their audiences, ranging from disgust to laughter.
“Hoke told me there’d be some money, free beer and nerdy girls,” said Phil, the 26-year-old accordionist who wore steel-framed glasses. His instrument of choice is upright bass, but his shifty-eyed demeanor was creepy enough that I kept checking my left-hand pocket to make sure my wallet was still there. “Half the money I make comes from just playing the Twin Peaks theme a lot,” he said.
A visiting Chinese artist who wouldn’t give me his name lay on the ground shirtless under a light fixture, spitting rocks at the bulb. Idiotic clapping ensued whenever he succeeded in hitting the light with a gentle ping.
Chen Jin, a middle-aged, Beijing-based performance artist, thoughtfully cracked 20 eggs onto a tabletop made of mirrors, slightly inclined by two piles of records. Silently, the crowd watched the intact egg yolks migrate across the table and splash onto the floor. And across the room, 37-year-old artist Coral Short sat and allowed her partner to feed her about 120 nails (the kind you hammer into the wall), which she eventually gagged upon, spitting them onto the floor along with some suspiciously yellow saliva. She was then fed a box of feathers. “It’s more about using hard and soft materials,” she said, once her palate was clear. “It’s pretty autobiographical.”
The final straw was artist Steve Vanoni, who, around 1 a.m., orchestrated the most energetic part of the evening, an indoor bike race supplemented by confetti, silly string and the deafening sound of 30 onlookers honking on plastic duck calls. The winner was Ryan Piotrowicz, a film director whose mockumentary The Project won the 2008 Sundance Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature.
“I thought Steve Vanoni was bringing his ‘pulse jet,’” said Piotrowicz, referring to the Grace’s advertisement that promised “a highly explosive device” that “blasts paint onto naked human forms!” According to Vanoni, his compressed-air machine can be heard from a mile away.
“No it doesn’t hurt!” Vanoni claimed. “We’ll be doing it on a barge in the Hudson this summer, you should come!”