He's costumed and cartoonish, standing inside a bulky white cube— his head turtling from a hole in the fully-operational, mobile gallery. Tonight, Monday the 12th, Reinsch's white walls house a one-off exhibit of illustrations by Ralph Pugay (to be followed by the sculptural works of Katie Dunbar on Wednesday, September 14).
“Electric muscular openings and closings between females and males,” says Reinsch with a Ginsberg-esque emotive grandeur and musicality. “Wit! Wit can have a value, only in the male, however the moral exhibition, however the accelerating trend...”
He's reciting a flarf poem composed of phrases that were borrowed from artist statements and gallery missions. The found language, remixed to form a work of substantial range, incorporates convoluted declarations about art, purer admissions of motivation and human spirit (or dispirit), and territories between. In becoming the gallery and speaking absurdly within it, the idea is that this poem will call into question the role of institutional art speak.
Two or three drags off my cigarette and Reinsch delivers the closing lines of the poem. His gallery attendant, a woman in black pantsuit, puts a "Be back in 5 minutes" sign on Reinsch. They walk away from the half-dozen audience members, made up of a handful of local artists, a photographer and his assistant, and myself.
No words are exchanged between performer and audience. Nobody knows what to do next. Follow Reinsch? Give him space? Is it part of the performance? Is he moving on to his next location?
We decide to follow for fear of missing the action, keeping a fifty-foot distance from Reinsch, who slowly paces up 13th towards SE Stark. I feel like a private detective doing the poorest tail job ever.
Finally, Reinsch restarts the poem in his pinched, nonchalant way, and we follow closer as he walks down Stark towards the river. He directs his words at two lanes of traffic, stopped for a red light. Some drivers maintain unscathed coolness, pretending not to notice. Others gawk. A man pauses on his bike at the intersection, trying his hardest to seem totally unfazed by the ridiculous sight. He won't look directly at Reinsch.
"Welcome to America!" someone yells from a car window as we continue past the intersection.
Right about now, it dawns on me: This could get hairy. Just the night before, less than two blocks from our current location, I saw a pretty nasty fight break out between two shirtless, meth-charged van-dwellers (there's a well-established homeless population in this stretch of inner Southeast). Not only are we treading in uncharted waters, but our small parade looks more than a little silly, and onlookers seem to be assuming that the language of these artist statements is a sincere attempt at direct communication. At this point, I wouldn't be surprised if someone took a stray phrase the wrong way. We're kinda asking for it.
A few blocks down the road, Reinsch passes in front of the Slammer— "Do you feel me?" he recites from the script— and his newest audience member, a hammered and sunburned patron, coolly hisses, "I don't feel you," more of a threat than a statement. His body language writes "I want to ruin your face" on the space above the picnic table, where he perches with his cigarette.
Despite the obvious threat, Reinsch hovers in front of the bar and recites his poem for several sequences of traffic light, green through red, before we move on.
Junkies, drunks, and vagabonds, giggling and bewildered, get a show in front of My Father's Place. Skaters strike up a conversation nearby Beaker and Flask, where several employees watch from the front door. A man stands in the middle of traffic, yelling something unintelligible at Reinsch— his right hand wrapped in gauze, blood-stained at the knuckle. Amidst the various public exchanges, Reinsch strains with his awkward performance space, working through injuries incurred earlier in the evening when he fell while attempting a flight of stairs.
The sun sets behind us and the full moon straddles the hill up ahead.
Back at Washington High School, we're in the tame gaze of art audiences and I begin to wonder who Gallery Walk is for.
I don't mean that as a jab. In fact, the opposite. I enjoy Reinsch's work and the particular performance that I caught was, without a doubt, the most fight-or-flight experience I've had as a TBA spectator. A true measure of the differences between “art audiences” and “people who don't fucking care about your stupid fucking art, period.”
I only start to question Reinsch's audience as I watch TBAgoers regard the work with the emotional equivalence of a pity fuck and shuffle on past the artist moments later. Let's just say the majority of festival attendees weren't leaving phone numbers.
So, I wonder, what differentiates “art audiences” and “people who don't fucking care about your stupid fucking art”? The defining difference I keep coming to: Non-TBAers are more willing to engage, to ask questions, to react with blunt, qualitative assessments, to scream from car windows and laugh without hesitation.
The polite TBAgoer responses were, frankly, kind of disheartening: Clearly people weren't taking the time to figure out the work, nor were they willing to risk tarnishing a cultured veneer and— gasp— ask about what was going on. Palpable was the divide between onlookers with advanced knowledge of Gallery Walk, incidental audiences, and artsy folk who weren't willing to do what's necessary to figure it out.
Ultimately, I think Gallery Walk is for the public, but not necessarily the art-minded public. Maybe the street folks weren't always kind, but they were honest, and, in my mind at least, honesty equates respect.
Being polite in the fashion of the TBAer isn't honest or respectful, it's self-serving and dismissive. Maybe it was just an off night. Maybe festival attendees will pay more attention next time around.
That said, I found Gallery Walk to be successful, but if I were Reinsch, I'd be questioning my audience right about now— weighing the safety of art crowds against the colorful honesty of the public, even if that color is bloody-knuckle red.
(Michael Reinsch performs Gallery Walk tonight from 6-9 pm at Washington High School, and again on September 29, from 6-9 pm at the same location. Click here for the official schedule.)
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