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Mr. Dropout (photo by Tod Seelie) (via NateHillIsNuts.com/dropout)

Nate Hill is at a crossroads. After a series of performances steeped in emotionally rich childhood imagery (stuffed animals, rock candy, odd-ball wackiness … ), he’s ready for something new. For an artist his age the amount of media attention his work has received is amazing. He’s already become the subject of posts on Gawker, Time Out NY and other mainstream blogs, an article filled with anger in the Daily News, articles in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times and never mind the general snarkiness of online citizens (he accused me of being one of those). Yet, Hill feels that Mr. Dropout, his new performance, is about turning a page. Starting a few weeks ago, Hill has been walking the length of Manhattan via Broadway [map] wearing all white, including a gauze veil tucked into a white balaclava.

“Part of the reason I wanted to do it was to create a space between the work that I used to do and the work in the future,” he says. “So I wanted to make this space in space and time so that people could forget what I did before. Usually when I’m walking around I’m thinking about how I’m accumulating time between identities. Physically, I’m thinking ‘breathe, breathe … is that a cop?’ I’m too busy running the piece.”

Mr. Dropout, he says, is about erasing identity and going into neighborhoods that don’t normally see performance art, among other things. His recent piece has integrated Twitter as an essential part of the work — @dropoutwalks — and during his walks he tweets. He says the online component is a result of his interest to discover and engage new audiences for his art. Some of his tweets sound like anxious messages thanking the NYPD for not stopping him, while others seem to remind us that he’s emotionally detached from the world. Since he began his piece, I had been following his progress quietly from  my computer screen, but when last week he tweeted:

This isn’t about politics. It’s about erasing an identity and beginning anew.

I couldn’t help but respond:

@DropoutWalks Erasing an identity is a political act. I don’t buy the apolitical stance.

The resulting back and forth on Twitter seemed to anger the performance artist, who was offended by the way one of our Hyperallergic LAB posts juxtaposed him with, among other people, Muslim women with head coverings. The online discussion ended up with the agreement that we needed to meet Monday night to talk about the nature of his work, we ended up choosing Hyperallergic HQ as our meeting place.

Personally, in his denial of the political nature of the piece [for instance, Dropoutwalks: @hragv plainly, this piece has nothing to do with 9/11.], I thought, he was only inviting more scrutiny. When we finally spoke a few nights ago it was obvious that his anger was short lived and came from his need to protect his work. The online discussion came at a time when he is very engaged in a process of trying to find a way “to talk about it in a way that isn’t personal.”

Last night, Nate Hill agreed to meet with me at Hyperallergic HQ to discuss Mr. Dropout.

“I’m starting to think of [the performance pieces] as magic … or magic based … it comes from a place where there is a secret involved. I feel a little uncomfortable when people start to dissect the work in a certain way. Like they are going to kill the magic,” he says. “When pieces are fully formed you just have to inhabit them.”

The allusions evoked by Mr. Dropout are many. I asked if he would mind if I rattled off associations I personally make when I see images of the piece. He was open to my game of word association. I mentioned that Mr. Dropout reminded me of the Black Israelites that preach and yell abuse at people on the streets of New York, a nurse or some medical personnel, Michael Jackson during his veil phase, and even a ghost.

He seemed amused by all the associations except for the Black Israelites, to which he responded, “I knew I’d be sorry I came here.”

He told me that someone yelled that he looked like a condom from across the street in Harlem, an association that never even occurred to the artist. Some people (including a close friend of his) think he looks Muslim, some have even suggested he looks like a fencer.  “The most vocal people don’t appreciate it,” he says. He explains that one of the associations he was aiming for was a burn victim that can’t be touched or live normally among us. “A reverse Darth Vader,” I add but he doesn’t respond to my connection.

He devised a look book for the piece — the first time he had done that — and planned the shape before filling in the details of the uniform. Yet, Hill doesn’t seem to mind (anymore) the varying interpretations of the work, since he admits that the image on the street isn’t the point.

“The important thing for this piece is not even the people on the street, it’s really for people who know what it is about who can see the dedication that was involved in performing it … that’s what the piece is supposed to be, I like to be literal with my work … I seriously want to, I’m thinking the more I can form the piece the more time will pass and the more likely that people will forget who I used to be and be focused and anticipate what is coming next. I feel like a wrestling promoter,” he says.

“After ‘Death Bear,’ his powers were so strong that I had to dissipate it,” he says. “Death Bear” was Hill’s performance before “Mr. Dropout,” and it became a viral hit. Everyone from MSNBC to the New York Times, WNYC and even some international media outlets like Canada’s National Post gobbled it up. This new performance is more enigmatic. It seems more informed by performance art tradition than his previous work. When he performs as Mr. Dropout, Hill walks through the streets of New York quickly in order to avoid the notice of police and the possibility that others could interfere in his piece. He tweets during his breaks and he often notes where he is with an almost childish glee (“Chinatown, I see you”), while other broadcasts are more austere (“I’m giving you nothing.”).

He knows that the project will need to continue for months in order for it to create the psychic space between the past and future. Only with that symbolic cleansing does he see the way forward.

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Hrag Vartanian

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic. You can follow him at @hragv.

9 replies on “Mr. Dropout Is Serious”

  1. This article has about 20 Retweets but no comments… yet. I’m curious to hear what other people think about this performance. Hill says that the image on the street isn’t the point – it doesn’t matter – and that the performance is for the people that know what it’s about. But let’s be honest: a lot of people that see Mr. Dropout speed-walk through the city don’t know that a) it’s a performance art piece and b) what it’s about… and how could they? On the other hand, people know what they’re getting into (for the most part) with Death Bear. DB is a more tightly controlled performance because Hill has the power to make it so. Watching the video of him entering the people’s apartment, he’s able to lay out the ground rules and establish exactly what DB is about and how you are supposed to respond to him. Not everyone responds the same way, but the framework is there.

    With Mr. Dropout he’s relinquishing that control. He’s not able to walk through the streets screaming “PEOPLE!! TAKE THIS LITERALLY, OK?” The amount of and different kinds of meaning Mr. Dropout has increases with the amount of people who see him, but this is the case for every other piece of artwork, music, book, etc. The only meaning that the artist wants to relate (as far as I can tell) is that this indicates a start-over, a blank slate, like pressing the reset button, to get ready for the next performance. There really there can’t be only one meaning, or only one “correct” meaning. But it does make me interested to see what’s coming up next.

  2. I feel strongly that although an artist is the author of an art work, the work has a life and identity of its own that often the artist struggles to understand just as much as the viewer. I encourage Nate to resist the pressure/temptation to explain everything about Mr. Dropout.

  3. Thank you Hrag for the post. We spoke for over an hour, so there is no way he could have included all my comments. I’ll touch on some stuff I said… @tmccool Death Bear looms over me like a disapproving father, who tells you that you’re never going to be good enough. I had to do a piece about this and try to erase him before he erases me. But I like it this way. As I told Hrag, I enjoy having a “villian” in my life who I work against. For chrissakes, I was trying to make Hrag my villain last week as he refrenced in the post. I wanted to keep the costume ambiguous because the character is supposed to an unformed person, so I don’t want to declare anything with the costume. Mr. Dropout is in transition so if anything, I image him to be akward and grotesque underneath the clothing. @kiangaellis thanks for your support.

  4. Brannan Denney did this exact thing back in 2007 (we were both in the New York Studio Program then). Except he knitted an entire body suit in one piece. He then walked allll around Manhattan while I followed and video taped. Now, I’m not trying to knock Mr. Hill’s ideas, far from it, i’m totally stunned at how eldritch it is that Mr. Dropout is so close to what Mr. Denney did back in 2007. How awesomely freaky!!
    http://brannandenneyart.blogspot.com/

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