Ex-Comedian Michael Portnoy on How Performance Art Can Exorcise Your Alt-Right Demons

The irreverent artist discusses his trailblazing brand of "extreme participation" and the political power of satire.

Michael Portnoy. Photo Bogdan Kwiatkowski.

Performance art is having a moment. From the beguiling undocumented situations of Tino Sehgal to the wildly popular five-hour-long set pieces of Anne Imhof, the medium is stirring the interest of many practitioners who have heretofore not dabbled in the live arts.

This is not the case for the New York-based artist Michael Portnoy, whose engagement with dance and performance stretches back to the 1990s. Portnoy, who is probably best known for his “Soy Bomb” intervention, where the artist danced behind Bob Dylan during the musician’s performance at the 1998 Grammy Awards, started his career in the world of stand-up comedy. Slowly but surely he was lured into the claws of the art world, but Portnoy never left his sense of humor behind. His highly physical pieces, in which he and/or an ensemble of talented collaborators perform, can have you laughing out loud and scratching your head simultaneously. Tackling everything from the ridiculousness of the art world to the rise of fake news, Portnoy’s work is irresistibly strange and imaginative.

His latest work, Progressive Touch—Total Body Language Reprogramming (2017), was performed in Berlin for 20 viewers, one spectator at a time. The performance required that each subject be a white male. The subject would then be escorted to an undisclosed location. Once there, the subject would strip down naked. Portnoy and collaborator Lily McMenamy would then sing directly into the participant’s pubic bone for 45 minutes in order to reprogram “the corrupted source code of the white male.” More importantly, there is little to no documentation of the performances and participants had to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA), leaving the piece shrouded in mystery.

Recently, we spoke to the artist about his elusive new work, the agency of performance, and why satire matters.

So let’s start by talking about your latest piece, Progressive Touch—Total Body Language Reprogramming. Working in collaboration with Berlin’s KW Institute of Contemporary Art this past May, the performance was staged for one spectator at a time. Where did the idea come from? 

One naked spectator at a time, with a minimum of three centimeters of pubic hair… (laughterProgressive Touch—TBLR is a method I’d been developing over the past few years to reprogram thought and behavior by manipulating the body while singing and speaking into the pubic bone of an individual. For the show at KW, the idea was to use the method to reboot the corrupted source code of the white male. Research in neurolinguistics has shown that every mental construct has a unique rhythmic profile.

Directing sound into the pubic bone, which is the loudest resonator in the human body, causes the top of the cervical spine to pulse into the base of the skull at a frequency, which interferes with the rhythm of electrical pulses between neurons. Progressive Touch—TBLR overloads the particular circuits responsible for certain ingrained behaviors and attitudes—in this case prejudice, privilege, racism, and sexism—by flooding the system with overly complex and unpredictable vocal rhythms, similar to those of progressive rock.

The vocals are coupled with a vocabulary of gestures and moves, and the choreography was further perfected and tested on subjects with performer Lily McMenamy. So yeah, Lily and I basically shouted at a bunch of white German genitals for eight hours a day. You can call it “krautcock” if you like… [An image detailing the performance can be found here.]

Michael Portnoy, Progressive Touch - Total Body Language Reprogramming, 2017, Rehearsal still. Photo: Suzie & Léo. Courtesy: KW Berlin.

Michael Portnoy, Progressive Touch – Total Body Language Reprogramming, 2017. Rehearsal still. Photo: Suzie & Léo. Courtesy: KW Berlin.

So how many people dared to experience the piece?

Twenty in total. Each subject was picked up at his house and driven to a location outside Berlin for a private 45-minute session.

Who signed up for it? Because not only did you make spectators sign a NDA, but the piece seems to be targeted toward white male racists, so agreeing to participate would entail identifying/aligning with those values, no?

I was worried that because it was through KW it would just be a bunch of liberal, artsy types, but the subjects were quite diverse—the usual artists, dancers, graphic designers, but also some businessmen, one politician, a local German celebrity, some collectors and curators, a few creeps, and even one of those older guys you see around Berlin who always wears a fishing vest. I’ve always wondered what they keep in all those pockets.

Are there historical examples of past performances with only one spectator? I think you mentioned the artist Ian Wilson in one of our conversations.

There’s quite a tradition of one-on-one performance in the UK within immersive theater — artists like Adrian Howells, Angela Bartram, and Jiva Parthipan, for instance. There are whole festivals devoted to it, in fact. Progressive Touch—TBLR was programmed as part of Ian Wilson’s solo exhibition at KW.  So the work pushes the intimacy and exclusivity of his discursive events to the extreme.

There is a certain sense that this piece is supposed to have an outcome, create a transformation or change of sorts in the viewer. What feedback/responses did you get from the participants? And more generally, what sort of agency do you think performance has as a genre? 

Subjects came out of the sessions looking a bit shell shocked. The experience is quite overwhelming, kind of like being brainwashed. Their naked bodies are contorted over nine different sculptural wooden furniture units, while Lily and I confuse the hell out of them and pummel their pubis with proto-language in constantly morphing and overlapping time signatures. It evokes very strong emotional responses. It’s too soon to tell what the effects were on the Berlin subjects, but during the development of the piece, people reported later feeling more open-minded, empathetic, and rejuvenated.

Performance has a great potential to transform viewers. You see this with certain live works, which bring issues and uncomfortable truths into the light, or even in more abstract works which carve out an affective space for the poetic or sublime in the viewer—something increasingly crucial in these times.

Michael Portnoy, 27 Gnosis (2012). Performance view. Photo Henrik Strömberg, courtesy dOCUMENTA (13), Kassel.

Michael Portnoy, 27 Gnosis (2012). Performance view. Photo Henrik Strömberg, courtesy dOCUMENTA (13), Kassel.

Tell me briefly about your career. Have you always worked in performance? When did you start working and showing in galleries and museums?

I’ve been making performances, in one context or another, since I moved to New York City in the early ’90s after studying literature, creative writing, and theater. I started out in the downtown performance scene, performing my own work in clubs and theaters, and for others as an actor. I then had a moment in the so-called “alternative comedy” scene of the mid-’90s, performing blindingly experimental routines in the same nights as people like Louis C.K., Sarah Silverman, and Marc Maron.

After that I worked for a while as a dancer for several choreographers and started choreographing my own pieces. Throughout most of this time I was also making music and singing in a few different bands. Around 2005, I made my first sculptures and drifted into the visual arts world simply as a result of getting more invitations, although I performed occasionally in museums and galleries before that.

Why did you choose this medium?

The dental insurance for performance artists is amazing in the U.S., don’t know if you’ve heard? (laughter) No, but performance, at this moment, is just the place where I can best combine my approaches to language, dance, music, and the modification of behavior and communication.

So, with your own practice going way back, what do you make of the current rise of performance art? I’m talking about, for example, the success of Anne Imhof and Tino Sehgal, the increase of young artists taking up the medium, the presence of curators specializing in performance like Catherine Wood…

It makes me very hopeful to see that audiences have such an appetite for (a) Balenciaga and caged animals; and (b) boilerplate philosophical questions and bad beatboxing. It’s great that as a cultural consumer we can choose between humorless people moaning and leaning against the wall that we can’t photograph, and slightly more sexy people moaning and leaning against the wall whose only purpose is to be photographed, a sort of “When Attitudes Become Instagram.”

I detect a certain irony in your answer. (laughter) But, in earnest, is there nothing positive for you about this “performative turn”?

Yes, well, dancers’ backs and bottoms clean museum floors for less money than most professional janitors, so there’s that. Okay, on the level of museums, like the Tate and MoMA collecting performance—sure, that’s good. New performance festivals popping up internationally—good. Curators with extensive knowledge of the history of the medium within the visual arts and who make a real effort to keep abreast of current developments in theater, dance, and other performing arts—also good.

To meet the interest, however, I wish that more art schools, especially in the U.S., would incorporate comprehensive training in performance methods in addition to its conceptual foundations—full courses instructing young artists in somatic and theatrical techniques, not just workshops. There’s a real difference in the kind of work that’s generated from people “interested” in performance, and by those who also have a basic knowledge of their diaphragm and where their sit bones are.

Michael Portnoy, Character Assassination (2017). Performance view, Volksbühne am Rudolfplatz, Cologne. Photo Roel Weenink, courtesy Akademie der Künste der Welte.

Michael Portnoy, Character Assassination (2017). Performance view, Volksbühne am Rudolfplatz, Cologne. Photo Roel Weenink, courtesy Akademie der Künste der Welt.

Tell me about another recent work, Character Assassination, which strikes me as a play about fake news in our post-truth world.

I was commissioned by Akademie der Künste der Welt in Cologne to make a performance reflecting on the extreme right and the rise of authoritarian systems worldwide. The invitation came at a time when one bullying, false tweet from Trump could cause a union boss in Indiana—who’d rightly called out the then president-elect—to be flooded with death threats. So the show focuses on the tactics of character assassination, and the power of language in the era of alternative facts. It takes the form of a late-night, satirical news show, me in a suit at a desk in front of a post-apocalyptic backdrop, and keyboard wizard Pete Drungle playing an ominous analog synth soundtrack. It was co-written with the brilliant [Frieze co-editor] Dan Fox. So, it very much combines British and American comedic sensibilities.

To attend the show, everyone in the audience had to become Facebook friends with us, several weeks before the performance in order to have access to their photos and posts. We then constructed a ridiculous conspiracy linking seven or so of them, mangling all their online data and images. There’s also some fake news reenactments in the form of dance, and slanderous video testimonials from strange men in a bunker in Missouri.

Michael Portnoy, An(al) Lee(k) (part of Relational Stalinism - The Musical), 2016. Performance view, Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art. Photo Sofie Knijff.

Michael Portnoy, An(al) Lee(k) (part of Relational Stalinism—The Musical), 2016. Performance view, Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art. Photo Sofie Knijff.

I guess it’s safe to say that satire is your preferred strategy. But why? Indeed, satire seems like the perfect technique to tease and criticize current affairs, but of course it has a huge historical tradition. Who inspires you in that regard?

Satire is necessary for any healthy society to progress. In TV, I find Chris Morris and Charlie Brooker very inspiring. Key and Peele is also a good example, especially Jordan Peele’s Get Out. Late-night TV I think Colbert, John Oliver, and Trevor Noah are doing God’s work of eviscerating Trump & Co. with vicious glee. I dip heavily into the comedian’s toolbox, and so satire is certainly one of my strategies, but along these lines I prefer calling it “improvement.” Where satire criticizes through exaggeration, improvement is more about taking something infuriating and retooling it like an inventor or genetic engineer until it becomes an unexpected new breed that satisfies you.

So, with my piece An(al) Lee(k) in Relational Stalinism—The Musical (2016), I took Tino Sehgal’s Ann Lee (2015). And I improved it on the level of choreography, language, and humor, until it was a whole new beast, barely resembling the initial irritant. There should be much more no-holds-barred satire in the art and performance world—the forms would evolve much quicker.

Michael Portnoy, Mental Footnotes (part of Relational Stalinism - The Musical), 2016. Performance view, Liverpool Biennial. Photo Rob Bettersby.

Michael Portnoy, Mental Footnotes (part of Relational Stalinism—The Musical), 2016. Performance view, Liverpool Biennial. Photo Rob Bettersby.

These two works, in Cologne and Berlin, strike me as much more related to the political climate, current affairs. Meanwhile, Relational Stalinism–The Musical, which was my first IRL encounter with your work, was much more introverted. It was looking at the art world, almost like an insider’s joke. What made you go from one to the other?

The Berlin and Cologne pieces were the most overtly political works I’ve done since I needed a way to process all of the madness of the past year. Out of the nine different pieces, which comprise the version of Relational Stalinism—The Musical you saw at the Liverpool Biennial, only the one I just mentioned [An(al) Lee(k)] and Mental Footnotes, where the dancer does a complicated foot routine while reading books, are direct satires of visual arts performance. But other art writers also pointed to that aspect of the show. Though yes, the show is a manifesto against minimalist performance, and therefore showcases a diversity of approaches to the way language and movement can be combined to disorient us. It’s almost like a retrospective of all the modes of performance I’ve drawn on throughout my career: extreme participation, aka “particiturbation,” micro-choreography, theater, song, comedy, etc.

In a nutshell, what is “Relational Stalinism”? A concept which is also featured in your piece for documenta 13, 27 Gnosis (2012).

Relational Stalinism is a term I started using around 2005 to describe my breed of absurdist, dictatorial participation. It also serves as an antidote to the looser, more democratic structures, aka “free soupiness,” of many of the works associated with relational aesthetics, which often just replicate existing modes of behavior and communication but place it within an art space. Relational Stalinism tries to reengineer the logic, language and movements of human exchange, to give us new rules on how to be and act together.

Michael Portnoy, The Agglutinators (part of Relational Stalinism - The Musical), 2016. Performance view, Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art. Photo Aad Hoogendoorn.

Michael Portnoy, The Agglutinators (part of Relational Stalinism—The Musical), 2016. Performance view, Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art. Photo Aad Hoogendoorn.

In a previous conversation, we talked about the transition of Relational Stalinism from being performed in a museum (i.e. Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art) to a theater stage. Meanwhile, Character Assassination was performed in a theater. What are the differences between these two settings, and where do you feel more comfortable or think your work fits best?

I came from the world of the stage and now operate more in museums. But I’m equally comfortable within both contexts, and designing work to best fit in either setting. There’s nothing quite like a 2000-watt Super Trouper spotlight hitting your bare sternum at 8:05 p.m. in a Belgian regional theater. But there’s also nothing quite like shooting some high-level nonsense through the horrid acoustics of a museum’s atrium. The sound ricochets through the floors until it lands wheezing in front of a Vorticist cityscape. People are restless in museums. In theaters, people develop bedsores from all that sustained attention.

What’s your relationship with the commercial side of the art world? I know you’ve had some solo shows at galleries, but is it possible to live outside that system, to work strictly in the nonprofit realm? Or, on the flipside, is it even feasible for you as a performer to exist in the commercial system at all?

I’m honored to have just made it into Artsy’s “Top Five Flippable Performance Artists of Flatbush, Brooklyn!” The air is really thin up here I’ve been flipped so much. A gesture and word combo I made a few weeks ago at the bodega is now up to 30 Bitcoin, flipping from vault to vault at the Singapore FreePort! (laughter)

Well, I also make sculpture, video, and things on the wall which I show at galleries and fairs, and are part of public and private collections. I live off of institutional commissions, sales of artwork, and teaching. With performance, it’s certainly possible to work just within institutions, including theatres and festivals, as some of my peers do.

Michael Portnoy, (Song about) A bar for 20 lonely ones etc. (2008). Courtesy Martos Gallery.

Michael Portnoy, (Song about) A bar for 20 lonely ones etc. (2008). Courtesy Martos Gallery.

What do you find exciting in terms of culture right now? I think you like the TV show Billions. What else?

Yes, I posted on Instagram one of Asia Kate Dillon’s monologues from Billions. I like that show mostly for its jargon and Dillon’s acting. Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann was one the films I most enjoyed recently. Some of the uncanniest moments in that film I think come from the director’s close alignment with German contemporary performance.

I’m devouring Kim Stanley Robinson’s new sci-fi novel New York 2140, which depicts what happens to Manhattan after the sea has risen 50 feet. Must-read enviroporn for all of us city rats and for everyone in the GOP! I’m also very excited by the amount of abstraction that’s seeping into mass entertainment: Hollywood stars in films by Yorgos Lanthimos, the whole new breed of so-called “surreal TV” (descendants of Twin Peaks), where reality and fantasy are inseparable. When confusion and misinformation are the norm, maybe only higher forms of irrationality are the path to progress.

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