What’s the difference between performance art and other art?
You can hate everything about it, and it’s still successful.
This was one of the many times during Taylor Mac’s 24-hour participatory performance piece, A 24 Decade History of Popular Music that I found myself grabbing my bag and digging for my notebook and pen. Remember that! I whispered to myself as he riffed in between songs.
After being sick for over a week, the last thing I wanted to do was spend two plus hours on public transportation traveling to the Prospect Park Bandshell to see an artist perform that I’d only ever heard of in passing. But I did. For two reasons. One, it was free. Two, I had a nagging feeling in my gut that said if I didn’t go, I’d definitely regret it. And I would have.
Taylor Mac, the New York City based performance artist has been described as a musical and theatrical chameleon and while that’s true, he’s so much more than that. He’s a social justice leader, an entertainer, comedian, disturber of the status quo and force to be reckoned with.
Decked out in stunning gowns, ornate headdresses and gold heels that made me wince each time he headed into the audience kept his audience captivated for two hours as he sang, danced, spoke and often reminded us when we were forced into mass audience participation, you have to make things ridiculous for anything to change.
Singing everything from an obscure Ted Nugent song, to an anti-war piece that Teddy Roosevelt hated, entitled I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier to the Red Hot Chili Pepper’s Higher Ground complete with accompaniment from the astonishing Brooklyn United Marching Band, his song selection ran the gamut and was an oddly perfect combination of music that captivated, moved, and involved his audience.
After a jaw-dropping second act number with more burlesque performers than you’d ever expect to see in one place, he continued his trend of mass audience participation. Introducing Nugent’s song, Snakeskin Cowboy (but prefacing that he and his musical director refused to listen the song, choosing instead to create their own music and musical take on the lyrics) he turned the Prospect Park Bandshell into a version of a high school senior prom. He requested “no-space-between” style dancing and encouraged, nee demanded his audience dance with each other. He waited, sometimes interminably long times for us to laugh our way towards some semblance of comfort. Some audiences, he said, can’t stop laughing-can’t get comfortable.
That’s okay, he said. That’s the art in the room.
Whoa. Never have I heard a performance artist so concisely, eloquently express the beauty and the beast of live performance. With living breathing humans in front of you, instead of behind the safety of television and film screens, there’s an inherent element of danger. You don’t know who you have in front of you, what they bring with them and where they’re at in their life. You don’t know, you can’t predict, you can only react and respect and he did just that.
Mac’s point in any given performance, he says, is not to teach or preach or change. At one particularly poignant point, he told us his intent is to remind us of things we’ve forgotten, dismissed, or buried. He might not have set out to teach his audience anything that night, but he did.
He even gave us a piece of homework.
Go home and listen to Nina Simone’s song, Mississipi Goddamn.
Usually I blanche and revolt when people tell me what to do. But as I rode the G train all the way back to Queens I thought about Taylor Mac. And the music. And his show. I thought about everything he said that punched me in the gut as an artist, as an audience member, and as a human being.
And when I got home, I listened to Mississippi Goddamn.