Have you ever seen that Naomi Watts film Ellie Parker? In it she plays an Australian actress in Los Angeles, not so different from the real Watts. Much of the film takes place in her car as she shuttles between auditions, intermittently giving herself pep talks, falling apart, and trying to conduct the business of living, despite an obsessive need to make sure she never misses a not-quite-opportunity. It’s a kind of black comedy about the hell of being trapped by one’s own ambition and a system that has what seems to be an infinitely replenishable talent pool but only a tiny number of good roles that often go to the same people. That film is one of the first things that came to mind when the performance artist John Fleck and I made contact by phone for this interview.
Fleck was in his car, in LA, shuttling between meetings. About a third of the way into the conversation he pulled up in front of his building and continued the conversation with me from inside his parked car. At some point about two-thirds of the way through the conversation, one of his neighbors walked by and wondered why he was sitting in his car in front of his building talking on the phone. They spoke briefly about the blooming jacoranda trees, then he came back to the conversation.
There are many things that artists do to make money to support them so that they can make their art. Few artists decide to make money in industries that are more punishing than the one in which they make their creative work. John Fleck is one of those few — he supports his performance artist career through film and television work in LA.
But once you meet him, it sort of all makes sense. About a week after our phone call, I went to hear Fleck speak and see screenings of two of his early pieces at the New Museum. Fleck is one of the four artists known as the NEA Four — a group of performance artists who had their National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) funding taken away after the US Congress hastily passed a “decency clause” that allowed the agency to deny funding based on the content of an artwork.
A 1988 performance of the work of Fleck’s that later got him defunded, “Blessed are all the Little Fishes,” was screened at the New Museum the day I stopped by. “Little Fishes” had already been performed a number of times before funding was taken away in 1990. And despite salacious associations with the work and exaggerated descriptions of its contents, it features nothing so much as Fleck questioning the ideas of faith and religious authority. According to the NEA it was the toilet that appears on stage and is used prominently as a prop throughout that was the reason for the defunding. Given the events happening in US politics and the public hysteria around the AIDS epidemic at the time of the defunding, it’s clear that it likely had more to do with Fleck peeing and spitting onstage while being gay, and also his ribald riffs on Catholicism.
David Schweizer, a prominent theater director in the US, was also there at the screening. Schweizer directed a few productions of Little Fishes out in LA in the late 1980s and went on to direct other works by Fleck in subsequent years. Schweizer spoke eloquently about what is so interesting about Fleck as a performer — referring to the inarticulate “yearning” present in his work that compels audiences to stick with his frenetic and associative performances. More than once Schweizer referred to “clowning” as the tradition that best explains the kind of highly physical performance style that Fleck employs. Seeing those early works made it clear that Fleck’s work is something you experience by watching it and allowing yourself to be drawn in by his emotionality, rather than focusing overmuch on the specificities of what he’s saying, though they certainly play a part in what’s happening.
It’s also that highly theatrical and chaotic overflow of energy and ideas present in those early pieces that seems to make the idea of him supporting himself through the Hollywood hustle totally sensical.
Below is an edited transcript of my bi-coastal conversation with Fleck about his career, his experiences with the NEA defunding, and his recent reworking for the New Museum’s NEA Four residency of two of his early pieces — “Blessed are all the Little Fishes” and “A Snowball’s Chance in Hell” (1992).
* * *
Alexis Clements: What made you decide to revisit your earlier works for the New Museum residency in conjunction with the 1993 exhibition?
John Fleck: “A Snowball’s Chance in Hell” was some of my response to what happened with the NEA defunding. And since it had never been done in New York, [Travis Chamberlain, of the New Museum] said, why don’t we revisit it and see if we can contemporize it; see if it has legs for 2013. And it seems to have legs, I think. Well, we’ll see if it has legs.
AC: What kind of work have you done on the piece to reflect on how things have changed or not changed since 1992?
JF: I’ll tell you, it was a challenge. I’m kind of from the old-school, these shows that I do are like happenings. I do them, I squirt ‘em out, and I never revisit them — they’re old news. So, for me to go back and look at this play, this 21-year old piece, was difficult for me — to get back into it. We’re also looking at Blessed are the Little Fishes, and there are a lot of similarities between the two pieces, in terms of what was influencing me at the time. “Snowball’s Chance in Hell” is all about a kind of information overload; it’s about this poor schmuck who has no identity, but just believes everything he reads and everything he hears. I was responding to the press coverage during the NEA [defunding].
You know, I was talking to Holly Hughes — we couldn’t make any art because we were always trying to defend who were; trying to define who we were instead of who they said we were. I was the one that peed on Jesus Christ, or I was the one that masturbated on stage, or shit on his audience, and that wasn’t true, but once it’s printed in the press or in the popular media, it kind of becomes the Bible, so to speak. Speaking of the Bible, because it was so much about their word versus my word, and I wasn’t trying to be who they said I was, I thought I would bring some Biblical references.
Back in ’92, when I did “Snowball,” it was all about newspapers, so that’s where I got all my information. But it’s still relevant today, with the internet. It’s all about the word, the printed word, and so the Bible kind of came in there and, boy, that’s the big word defining who we are, what we’re supposed to be.
AC: One of the things I wanted to talk to you about is the fact that Snowball grapples with mediated realities versus lived experience. You mention that you and Holly Hughes were trying to wrestle back your humanity in the face of public notoriety that mischaracterized you and your work. This came up a bit in my interview with Karen Finley: today, there are people who actively seek notoriety, specifically through reality television or the release of sex tapes, as a way of establishing not only celebrity but also some kind of a career. The notoriety alone becomes the foundation of their career — nothing else. It feels like it must be weird for someone in your position, who was working within the LA performance art scene of the 1980s, and who had notoriety thrust upon you, to now watch this phenomenon happening in Hollywood.
JF: Well, you know, some might argue that we leveraged, or, I’ll speak for myself, that I leveraged part of my career on the notoriety of the NEA. I remember when it happened, a couple of friends said, oh, now you’ve got it made; now you’re a footnote in the art history books, you can go to all the colleges. And, you know, I’m like, if I murdered somebody that would be some notoriety too. It’s a funny thing. I hate being labeled — that’s another thing that drove me crazy. All of a sudden I was a gay performance artist. Even though I’m gay, I never labeled myself as a “gay performance artist.” I just saw how the media puts you in a niche and there you are, you’re on that little shelf. And I just hate that. But, on the other hand, here I am coming to the New Museum because of that shelf I was put on. So, I don’t know. I don’t have a reality show in the making, even though I have a friend who is doing a documentary about me. I said to him, who is going to see this? I have to have another scandal; I have to murder somebody to get notoriety once again for them to want to view me in mass numbers. I don’t know.
AC: From the outside, that point seems like it gets at the most frustrating part of the whole episode — that you weren’t actively chasing notoriety in 1990, you were continuing to make work similar to the work that you had already been making, and this episode was plucked out by people disconnected to you so that the four of you could be made examples of.
JF: We all wanted audience for our work. I wasn’t expecting that Jesse Helms would be getting in on that, but he did help expand the interest in what I was doing. Of course, you know, it also polarized the work a lot too — people were either for it or against it. It became political — I never thought of my work as political.
AC: Did that episode with the NEA change the way you made art in any significant way over the larger arc of your career?
JF: Well, one of the most obvious things is that I stopped applying for funding — it just left a bad taste in my mouth. And also, coincidentally, or maybe not so coincidentally, after the NEA Four thing happened, I started doing more film and TV work here in Los Angeles, so that I could afford to pay for my work myself. My shows became simpler to produce, maybe because I wasn’t applying for funding. I didn’t have a lot of multiple character [works] or large sets — they became much more streamlined — it was just me and a couple of other props.
AC: Is there a difference for you when you’re working across media? Have you developed an artistic relationship with your television and film work, or is it primarily a way to earn a living?
JF: Well, you know, whenever I list my occupation I either list “performance artist/actor” or “actor/performance artist,” depending on what I’m doing at the moment. I did train to be an actor, and I do theater, and I still take acting classes once a week. With TV, true, you don’t get to act as much as you do in theater, but it’s always been a challenge for me — I love working in front of the camera because I tend to be so operatic and it’s a challenge for me to bring it down and to play for the camera. I just had five episodes on True Blood, an HBO show, and I got to play a sadistic scientist, which was a lot of fun. But I just figure, you know, they’re completely separate. I’m not inviting casting directors to see my performance art stuff. I sometimes teach and I kind of tell my students to diversify, to think of different ways you can make money. We’re all either teaching, or making art that we can sell, or, I’m doing TV, and I occasionally do my shows and make a little money that way.
AC: Do you feel like the film and TV work has allowed you to build a sustainable life as an artist? In other words, do you feel like the life you’ve created for yourself allows you to make the artistic work that you want to make?
JF: Well, when I do make my artwork, I feel it’s pure and it’s not geared toward getting casting people [in the room] or getting more TV work. For me though, living in Los Angeles for so long, and working in the industry, so to speak, it’s tough. When you’re booking your shows you have to book a year ahead, so I always think, what if I get some recurring role on a TV series, is there some kind of out? For me, I had to compromise a little bit, in terms of booking myself in places a year in advance. I mean, is that a bad thing? We make choices.
AC: What are the moments for you that are really artistically satisfying?
JF: Hmm. Well, when I’m performing on stage and I’m connected to the work and I feel it’s resonating with an audience, I’m not forcing it, I’m not hitting them over the head — that is very satisfying to me. I’m into catharsis and kind of ripping away facades and getting to a deeper sense. And I love when I’m doing shows, and you’re laughing at this thing, and all of a sudden you realize there’s something so horrific there, but it can be so beautiful too. I love exploring the duality of things. That’s what drove the censors crazy — duality. Especially in religion and politics — they can’t stand that. It’s got to be one way or another, and if it’s not their way then it’s bad.
AC: A lot of discussions are happening these days around performance being brought into contexts that it’s not typically included in, particularly bringing live performance into a museum setting. You started in cabaret spaces and clubs and then moved into theaters and galleries, and also museums. What do you think about those different contexts?
JF: I just did a little club thing about a month ago. You know, I love performing in these really raw clubs where you don’t get any rehearsal and everything falls apart. There’s something so immediate about that. But, let’s face it, I didn’t really get paid any money for it — unless you consider twenty bucks payment. So, getting back to that fundability, I’m thankful whenever a museum with a little bit of money can pay us to do our artwork.
AC: Do you feel like the audience brings different expectations to your work in a museum?
JF: I mean, the thing about museums — I like to get down and dirty and I sweat and I spit and I break the fourth wall. So it’s not just about sitting back and watching a pretty picture hanging on the wall. And I think that’s fun because I like to defile sacred places, in a loving way, of course. So, I’m looking forward to it, I think it will be fun. If they expect something I hope I can upset their expectations.
AC: It seems like the power dynamics are also a bit different in a museum — in terms of who is bringing the work in and how it’s being presented; what can be presented.
JF: All I know is there have been a couple of museums I performed at where I threatened what they considered to be their aesthetic. And I won’t ever be asked to perform there again.
AC: What happened?
JF: It’s funny, so much of my work is, in a way, a spiritual quest to find a higher power. I like to explore searching for god, or whatever you want to call it, in different ways. In the show that I did, Dirt, I found god — I’m kind of embarrassed to say it, but, I found god in my butthole. And I’m talking about this experience [in the piece] and it really — that was the line, with the two museum plays I did. They just drew a line — the audience was offended and they would not ever ask me back again. So, in a way I do have to censor my work depending on where I perform.
AC: That seems kind of ironic, that a museum would invite you to do a performance, knowing full well who you are and at least some of the history of your work, and also knowing about the way in which the NEA attempted to censor your work, and then they end up trying to censor your work again. How did they handle censoring you? Did they cold-shoulder you or did they come out and say specifically, you can’t do this, this, or that?
JF: Well, one place tried to pull the lights, to shut them down. Some guy in the audience was like, “What the fuck?” And other people in the audience were getting all offended, and they were like, “What the fuck is this?” And they started to walk out. And the people at the museum were like, “Cut the lights, cut the lights!” But it was too late to cut the lights, so they let me finish the show. And then at the other show, they let me finish the show but they fired the two people who hired me. I felt bad about it. But you know, I did the same show at the Getty Museum and the Getty loved it. So, go figure. Different strokes for different folks.
AC: It’s just so surprising that they would bring you in and then react that way. That’s one of the things that so interesting about the idea of museums engaging with performance — performance work tends to have elements of confrontation, and there’s a physical body present. Even if the work isn’t confrontational in nature, the audience has to grapple with this unpredictable body in the space. And so it’s funny to me that they would engage in that and not expect there to be moments of tension and conflict.
JF: Yeah. Unless they just didn’t know what they were getting into. I don’t think the museum had done their research on my past, perhaps, whereas the Getty knew what they were getting. I mean, let’s face it, back in the 1980s and 90s, performance work, for me, was all about the body, or issues manifesting themselves within the physical body. And that’s a line that a lot of people draw — they can’t deal with that. I’m fascinated by it. Like you say, they want you to come in to explore that, but I think they’re hoping that you don’t go too far.
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.