Rad Like Who?

On Edge, Village Voice, New York

March 24, 1998

Michael Portnoy, the self-anointed “Soy Bomb” who jumped onstage during Bob Dylan’s performance at the Grammy Awards, was himself performing at P.S.122’s “New Stuff Festival” on March 7 when he twice jumped into the audience. Climbed the chairs. Touched the spectators. The fourth wall just isn’t safe around this guy.

During his show at P.S.122 a week earlier, three Dylan devotees (according to a Daily News gossip column) heckled Portnoy, prompting him to pull a knife and chase one of them through the theater. It was a plastic knife, he told the News, and they were just a bunch of jerks.

Meanwhile, Portnoy had called me with the helpful suggestion that I connect his Grammy attack to the history of subversive performances. I’m more tempted to connect it with the history of publicity stunts, since Portnoy isn’t quite ready to enter the pantheon that runs from Alfred Jarry to Chris Burden and beyond, and those artists—unlike Portnoy—won’t be appearing in Entertainment Weekly anytime soon. The Soy Bomb is having his “15 minutes” because that’s what happens when you do something weird in the vicinity of an icon. It doesn’t even have to mean anything.

But the soy shenanigans bring up a valid question: What exactly is a radical gesture in the ’90s? Modernism always fed on shock; the historical avant-garde gave us a century of iconoclasm and nose thumbing. But now, rebellion is just raw material, easily commodified. Today’s “subversive act” becomes tomorrow’s Saturday Night Live sketch.

In ye olden days of the Living Theater, for example, assaulting the audience was always part of a larger, righteous, hopeless cause: to end the war, legalize marijuana, or otherwise change the world. But these days, an assault is usually just an assault.

I have a litmus test for male aggression passing itself off as vanguard performance: Is there anything here we haven’t been watching since caveman days? At one point during his 15-minute show at P.S.122, Portnoy climbed a couple rows into the audience and either kissed a woman or, according to a spectator with a better view, tried to give her a hickey; then he climbed into the seats again during a total blackout, so I can’t say what happened, though I did hear some nervous laughter.

The show was meant to be comic, of course, given the title: “Sontag, or The Shattering of All Undertakings that Presuppose Man To Be Something (the tragedy of a beautiful moron).” I found it impossible to hear most of Portnoy’s patter, but others were laughing. He wore low-riding red tights, no shirt, a scraggly feather boa. I did catch some comment about “respect for my elders” followed by what seemed to be a parody of Eric Bogosian; he did a number of silly walks, groaned out part of a song, and concluded by trying to stick his tongue into a light socket. Portnoy has some comic talent, real stage presence, and incredible chutzpah, but nothing to say beyond “see me, feel me.” Could this be why he “crossed over” so quickly?

The making of a fishwife

Meanwhile, back in the realm of not-ready-for-prime-time, Martha Wilson and Vince Bruns made every effort to be traditional by having a wedding last January 18, but they found their motives and even their authenticity questioned once the newspaper of record got involved in covering the event.

Admittedly, few such ceremonies begin with the bride marching into a Quaker meetinghouse in medieval princess garb clutching a goldfish Beanie Baby, followed by 30 children in party hats and tulle capes blowing bubbles. It was unusual enough to attract The New York Times, which sent a photographer and reporter to write it up for the Sunday “Vows” column. But, according to the bride, the Times then decided that the whole thing was a hoax. As Trip Gabriel, editor of the Sunday Style section, put it to me, “Are they really a couple?”

Who knew a wedding could be so confusing? Wilson and Bruns accomplished it by declining the marriage that usually follows the ceremony—along with a few of the more traditional parts of the tradition. As the invitation explained:

This performance spectacular is a wedding, not a marriage, a temporal artwork celebrating our existing relationship. We did not get a license, don’t plan to live together, and won’t be filing joint income tax; we neither pledge nor eschew a lifelong commitment. We like the idea of the public celebration that accompanies marriage, but are too old and set in our bachelor/bachelorette ways to undergo the changes a real marriage would entail. And what if people started calling us ‘husband’ and ‘wife’?

The ceremony had been tailored to Wilson’s calling as champion of the avant-garde (she is the director of Franklin Furnace), but was given its central theme by Bruns’s occupation—fishmonger. (He owns Westfield Seafood in Westfield, New Jersey.) Playbills distributed at the door featured Wilson and Bruns in the classic American Gothic pose beneath the title “The Making of a Fish Wife—Fish or Foul?” Deborah Edmeades’s costumes for Wilson and the children included fish scales and lures. And when the couple commissioned “something extreme to provide closure” from Pat Oleszko, the artist obliged at the end of the ceremony by inflating two giant fish balloons, one of them eight or nine feet tall.

The couple did exchange rather lengthy individual “vows” that mostly described what they appreciated in each other. I pointed out to Wilson later that not only was this a wedding without a marriage, it was built on vows that didn’t promise anything.

Yes, said Wilson, they’re more like a limited warranty.

In fact, both had described their connection as tenuous (though they have been a couple for four years). When guests then stood to speak Quaker-style—that is, as the spirit moved them—one said he appreciated the fact that they’d come together to “celebrate ambivalence.”

This wedding and unmarriage was a highlight of the winter performance season, and the happy couple had been looking forward to their inclusion in the “Vows” column. But according to Wilson, An unnamed copy editor at the Style section saw the story in the computer and said, ‘Martha Wilson is a known lesbian in the art world. This is a hoax.’ I then got two calls asking me very strange questions: ‘Do I live with a woman?’ or ‘Am I a lesbian?’ I was so floored, I just said, ‘Well, I might become a lesbian. I’m not going to rule it out.’ The word I got was that all-evidence-to-the-contrary made no impression on the Style folks.

Gabriel insisted he had never heard the lesbian rumor. The column didn’t run because we learned that they were never legally married, which is a violation of the editorial standards for that column.

Bruns said this was also the Times’s excuse for not covering gay weddings: We have to presume that’s what’s behind this. What it comes down to is that Bruns and Wilson had a sort of gay wedding for straight people—a celebration with no papers and no stamp of approval outside their community.

Of course, the avant-garde tradition has always threatened to undermine the simplistic codes that govern journalism and publicity. That may be why the wedding got so little ink and the Soy Bomber exploded. He could even explain his act to the New York Post with a well-chosen soundbite: It’s my path to superstardom.