THREE YEARS AGO I had the privilege of participating in the Experimental Comedy Training Camp, a two-month residency program, at the Banff Centre in Alberta, Canada. Artists Michael Portnoy and Ieva Misevičiūt·e, plus guests including comedian Reggie Watts, led over a dozen individuals through intensive physical workshops, performance nights and discussions focused on injecting contemporary art with a jolt of critically engaged comedy. I studied and collaborated with Toronto artist collectives Fake Injury Party and Life of a Craphead, Finnish filmmaker Maarit Suomi-Väänänen, Bay Area writer and artist Bean Gilsdorf, British sculptor and public provocateur Briony Clarke, and multiple other interdisciplinary misfits who are all very serious about being silly.
Together, we explored the comedic boundaries of performance, writing and object-making. While we made each other laugh saying the things we generally dare not say, we grew to understand that the comedy we were collectively creating existed not in verbal quips or novel observations, but in long-form, calculated engagements with dissociative logic and total absurdity.
In workshops, Misevičiūt·e demanded that we run around a room screaming stream-of-consciousness rants for periods of time so long that we ceased being individual idiots and instead became a chaotic and frighteningly honest collective body exhibiting equal parts mirth and pathos. It was crucial to engage in this as a group; the panic of facing one’s subconscious political paradoxes—the ways in which we simultaneously oppose and are complicit in cultural ills—can be overcome amid the very public airing of everyone else’s.
Portnoy, a self-described “Relational Stalinist,” acted as both emcee and drill sergeant during twice-weekly performance nights, forcing us to execute sets over and over again extemporaneously until we ran out of language and became vulgar, physical brutes with microphones. Performances happened that (socially) never should have, real and uncomfortable actions or maniacal diatribes likely to get one lynched at a liberal arts college. The value of this experimentation was not in the development of shocking content. On the contrary, the value was in the process of learning the humility to deal with the implications and consequences of that content as we witnessed it pouring from each other and ourselves.
THROUGHOUT THIS RESIDENCY, artist and writer David Robbins’s book Concrete Comedy: An Alternative History of Twentieth-Century Comedy (Pork Salad Press, 2011) served as our core text. Expansive in scope, it’s still a bible of sorts for me, worth revisiting regularly. Robbins discusses the integration of humor into visual art, architecture, music, entertainment at large and fashion, from Duchamp to Vivienne Westwood to Frank Zappa. Despite the disciplinary diversity, the text’s main premise is quite simple. Concrete comedy is different from mainstream comedy in five distinct ways.
Summed up and paraphrased, they are:
It’s about doing rather than saying. Concrete comedy is all about the action, gesture or object. It’s not the setup or the punch line; it’s the delivery system.
It extends what Robbins calls the “short synapse.” Concrete comedy isn’t based on the one-to-one ratio of joke to laugh. It’s about the slow burn, the long con.
It doesn’t need an audience. A mainstream comedic performance depends on the exchange with the audience, and in that joke economy, laughter is currency. Concrete actions and objects enjoy an autonomy not afforded to the mainstream. In short, concrete comedy doesn’t get lonely.
It’s more permanent. A funny thing done remains funny. Hearing a joke five different times diminishes the funniness. But the concept of a discrete and intentional gesture has greater longevity.
It doesn’t rely on illusionism. It’s real and wonky, corporeal. It doesn’t ease tension through illusion, its very nonfiction contributes to tension.
“Doing rather than saying” is the easiest part to remember. Simplicity is core to the efficacy of Robbins’s book. He avoids art-speak and through transparent and accessible language articulates a framework for and a new vocabulary to explain comic sensibilities that transcend mainstream senses of humor.
Right after I returned from Banff, I read Simon Critchley’s On Humour (2002), a philosophical treatise of sorts. In particular, the fifth chapter struck a chord: “Foreigners are Funny—the Ethicity and Ethnicity of Humour.” After reading it, I realized that a sense of humor may be universal, but senses of humor are absolutely local.
Critchley argues, “Most studies of humour, jokes and the comic begin by claiming that humour is universal. . . . However, to say that humour is universal is, of course, to say almost nothing, or very little.” He goes on, “So what? The fact that all cultures laugh might be a formal universal truth, of the same order as admitting that all human beings eat, sleep, breathe, and defecate, but it tells us nothing at the level of a concrete context. . . . Humour is local and a sense of humour is usually highly context-specific.”1
I saw a pleasant friction between Robbins’s concrete comedy and Critchley’s philosophical take on humor. If senses of humor are indeed local, then comedians, good comedians at least, must have an in-depth understanding of a particular audience, or at least a specific situation. Still, I agreed with Robbins’s third point: the concrete comedian doesn’t need an audience. Surely, there’s an overlap between the critical understanding of the locality of humor and the mentality that the comedic action doesn’t require the laughter of viewers. Yes, humor is local but, I wondered, can it be funny even if the locals aren’t around to see it?
I’ve since noticed a lot of artists creating comedy designed for a particular context: site-specific comedy. In his book, Robbins relays the story of an encounter between comedians Jack Benny and Fred Allen. Benny greets Allen at the airport in Los Angeles with a sign that reads:
The first line is huge, the second line slightly smaller, and the third so small as to be barely legible. The language would never have worked in a radio banter bit between the two. The comedy had to happen at the moment Allen arrived at the airport, in person. Granted, documentation treated a larger audience to a joke, but the humor had already occurred. Here, we see a comedy that’s entirely site-specific.
And aren’t a lot of artists, consciously or not, exploiting the murky border between a locale and its locals for their work? I feel like I am. A friend once told me that her counselors at “bad kids” camp grew exhausted trying to communicate deeply with her because she was always, metaphorically, gesturing for them to come closer with one hand while flipping them the bird with the other. I’ve always loved that image. In a way, it illustrates the merry prankster ethos of the site-specific comedian. We borrow elements from a context to develop highly specific jokes, all the while content with the fact that the site’s audience isn’t necessarily integral to the comedy.
Basically, there are two aspects to site-specific comedy, and they’re directly related to the Robbins/Critchley dynamic:
1. I don’t need your attention. Like the concrete comedian, a site-specific comedian isn’t reliant on laughter to know that his or her action or object was, in fact, comedy.
2. But I do need your context. Site-specific comedy is dependent on understanding the particularities of the place where it is staged. “Place” could be a city, a gallery with a storied history, a public park in an expensive part of town, or a social-media platform. It is first and foremost funny there.
Somewhat suddenly, comedy is a darling of the art world. Here, I’m using “art world” to mean the cultural institution-recognized, Chelsea gallery-approved art world—the one everyone loves to hate. Yes, it’s no secret that artists have long had dark senses of humor and many have made very, very funny work. Still, think about the number of curators and institutions in the last decade that have tranparently embraced practices perceived as stemming from stand-up for exhibitions, performance nights or museum events. After all, I’m writing this for Art in America.
Back in 2005, curators Dominic Molon and Michael Rooks toured their exhibition “Situation Comedy: Humor and Recent Art” across North America. It was a who’s who of funny artists: Erwin Wurm, Kay Rosen, Olav Westphalen, Richard Prince, Dana Schutz, even Robbins himself. More recently, artist Jonathan Berger’s exhibition “On Creating Reality, by Andy Kaufman,” an exhaustive, thoughtful curatorial project at New York’s Maccarone gallery in 2013, brought together photos, scripts, costumes and other artifacts from the comedian’s estate; Kaufman’s friends and colleagues were invited to the gallery to speak to visitors. The aforementioned Banff Centre, a highly respected Canadian cultural institution, endorsed Portnoy—the goon who interrupted Bob Dylan’s 1998 Grammy performance with the now infamous “Soy Bomb” stunt—as a pedagogue for myself and other impressionable artists.
No lie: it’s exciting to see hybrid artist-comedians getting attention. But many of us making the work are suspicious of curators and institutions purporting to bring us into the fold. Look at what happened to any number of bleeding-edge art practices: institutional critique, relational aesthetics, performance art. If art history can teach us anything, it’s that progressive forms of art that purport to challenge the authority of gallery and museum contexts are easily rendered caffeine-free caricatures of themselves once the sites of authority give them a platform.
WE DON'T NEED their attention, but we do need their context. But who are we? Who’s making this work? There’s not room here to give a diligent overview, but I can give you what I hope is a solid introduction.
Full disclosure: I work at the Bruce High Quality Foundation University. An aspect of what we’re doing is site-specific comedy. We’re a tuition-free, proudly unaccredited art school in New York’s East Village. It’s important that we exist here; the audacity of operating a physical space that doesn’t charge money in an extremely expensive neighborhood is, well, funny. But like all good comedy, it’s rooted in real criticality—BHQFU’s work is important to a serious and rigorous community. We don’t need the attention of formal art schools to act out this institutional performance, but we do require that they exist. A free art school isn’t absurd unless the “real” art schools cost $100,000 to attend.
BHQFU grew out of the “anonymous” art collective the Bruce High Quality Foundation, whose early works exemplify the attitude and contextual attentiveness of site-specific comedians. I learned about the Bruces around 10 years ago when I was in my 20s, and they had an intense influence on my always-developing sense of humor. Thus, I’m quite pleased to be working at their fake college.
Take the Bruces’ series “Public Sculpture Tackle,” ongoing-ish since 2007, which perverts the static permanence of public art with the slapstick physicality of Buster Keaton or Gilda Radner. In these performances, one or more people put on some kind of amateur costume and dive onto a public sculpture. Or, when the New Museum displayed Ugo Rondinone’s rainbow text piece “Hell, Yes!” on its facade in 2007, the Bruces hung a nearly identical work across the street proclaiming “Heaven Forbid!” In 2005, the nonprofit organization Minetta Brook and the Whitney Museum of American Art posthumously realized Robert Smithson’s Floating Island, a barge, towed by a tugboat around Manhattan, topped with what appeared to be a chunk of Central Park. For the occasion, the Bruces chased it in a comically small, floating version of one of Christo’s “Gates” from Central Park. In these examples, the comedy depends on New York City, or more specifically, the New York art world. The audience earned as a result of media coverage was just a bonus.
Based on both coasts, Casey Jane Ellison might object firmly to being classified as an artist despite having been curated into the New Museum’s 2015 Triennial. Ellison’s work includes stand-up comedy in both corporeal and digital realms, writing, video, animation and tongue-in-cheek lifestyle branding through her project “Casey is Your Cult.” But she’s likely best known as the host of the Ovation network’s uncomfortable Web series “Touching the Art.” The talk-show format is at first glance traditional; Ellison and a small group of guests (who are all women, but she “won’t mention that”) gather to discuss aspects of contemporary art ranging from Internet politics to queer theory to the market. The confusingly deadpan combination of pedantry and blatant ignorance in Ellison’s questions is awkward and hilarious. It’s true comedy of the site-specific variety: it’s funny because it’s made by a TV network. Most viewers may experience the work via YouTube, or as it was presented at the New Museum, but that essentially qualifies them as a secondary audience. This is an actual production by a network committed to “making the arts accessible to everyone.” Their tagline is “Art Everywhere.”
Ellison’s subversion of the advertised cultural altruism of the network is the comedy, unfolding episode-by-episode, as conversations grow more absurd and opaque and offer zero resolution. “Touching the Art” is absolutely not “accessible to everyone”; it’s rife with inside jokes and nods to conversations that only niche groups of people even remotely care about. “Episode 2: Postmodernism, Post-Net & the Art Market” features artist Mary Weatherford, gallerist Michelle Papillion and curator and writer Carol Cheh. During a superficial discussion of post-Internet art practices and self-branding via social media, Ellison flippantly asks, “If the Internet is over, how did I just tweet?”
UP THE WEST COAST, in Portland, Ore., a young artist who produces performances, situations and comedic objects under the pseudonym Taj Bourgeois has been churning out ridiculous amounts of peculiarly amusing work for the last couple of years. An art-school dropout, he gained notoriety through the now-retired, inarguably popular but equally vexing Tumblr collective Jogging. In the second half of 2013, Bourgeois dominated the blog with documentation of impromptu performances and astutely critical readymades, many of which were collaborations with another Portland-based artist, Matthew Leavitt.
Bourgeois’s favorite site, and what might accurately be described as his studio, is Safeway, a chain grocery store ubiquitous in the western United States. Nose-manualing his skateboard down the frozen-foods aisle, or stacking towers of identically colored items in the middle of the produce section, Bourgeois wryly interjects new vitality into conceptual and performance art tropes like the everyday, the ephemeral and obsession with taxonomies. Bourgeois documents everything, and other shoppers almost never appear in his works, creating the sense of a grown-up acting like a complete wack job strictly for his own enjoyment.
Safeway as site is absolutely integral to his comedy. Whole Foods wouldn’t be as funny; it’s too easy, an obvious jab at yuppies. If Bourgeois worked in a lesser-known bargain grocery chain, the joke would fall flat because either A) nobody would recognize the store, or B) he’d run the risk of being a socioeconomic-class tourist. Safeway works because it’s completely (almost intentionally?) middlebrow. They employ a sommelier, but sell bargain processed American cheese. The company’s specificity is that it’s aspecific. Of course, food, groceries in particular, involves complex issues of class and accessibility. Well aware of this, Bourgeois exploits Safeway’s middle-of-the-road-ness. He distributes his images for the most part via social media, and visitors to his personal Tumblr (tajbourgeois.tumblr.com) can get Safeway-level pricing on physical works: prints of every image he posts are available on a sliding scale of $5 to $60. Buying art at prices like that is great, because it allows one to feel just a tad bourgeois.
Many will recall Brooklyn-based Jayson Musson’s razor-sharp character Hennessy Youngman, who garnered millions of YouTube views through the series “ART THOUGHTZ” a few years back. Today, YouTube as a site seems obvious. But in 2011, that wasn’t the case. To an insanely hilarious end, he used the jargon of the art world on the platform of the vlogger. “ART THOUGHTZ” complicates the very concept of audience in that it proved equally entertaining to a teenager in St. Louis or a PhD candidate at CUNY. Both accessed the work through the same vehicle, the Internet. In that sense, Musson managed to point out that the “global village” was still a highly specific locale with an exploitable vernacular and aesthetic.
Musson’s first solo exhibition at New York’s Salon 94, which represents him, furthered his agenda of humor in context. Exiting the Internet for the white-walled cavern of Salon 94 Bowery, his 2012 exhibition, “Halcyon Days,” featured riffs on large-scale, white male Abstract Expressionist tropes. The “paintings,” reminiscent of Pollocks most obviously, didn’t use paint at all. Musson created them by deconstructing vintage Coogi sweaters, a cultural symbol of black affluence, and sewing them back together into massive, bizarrely colorful, stretched works. The comedy of colliding icons of black wealth with objects from the white luxury economy pushed forward a bold premise: the comedian who critically understands the site of capital exchange can access that site without playing by the audience’s rules. The works in “Halcyon Days” didn’t need Musson’s Internet fans or Jerry Saltz to show up to the opening to be funny, but the fact that they did made them even funnier.
Countless other examples of site-specific comedy exist. At Interstate Projects in Bushwick in 2012, Rachel de Joode invited several artists to do performance-related works for a night called “Important Things.” Two of them, Dora Budor and Maja Cule, took the descriptions of performances submitted by the other artists and contacted Skype-based dream interpreters, claiming that they’d dreamed them. They then projected the awkwardly funny analyses the interpreters provided for the other artists.
Nandi Loaf creates homemade Slipknot masks that she exhibits on eBay, alongside items being sold by nü-metal super fans and craft hobbyists. Baltimore’s Alan Resnick brilliantly converted the amateur how-to videos on YouTube into comedy with his absurd series “alantutorial,” in which he teaches viewers how to crush a can of Dr. Pepper with slats of wood or how to smoke, among other things. Resnick has also collaborated with Ben O’Brien on an incredibly produced, horrifically funny allergy-ad parody, “Unedited Footage of a Bear,” for the cable network Adult Swim.
What all these examples have in common is an excellent grasp of the specifics of the context in which their comedy is situated. So what if people don’t understand the comedy through documentation on a gallery’s website? They weren’t there. It wasn’t for them. Perhaps what I want to stress here is that those of us making site-specific comedy would do well not to forget the reason we make this work: because it’s fucking funny.
Site-specific comedians, I implore you: when curators want to include you in a group show, insist that the work they saw in your studio was not made for their exhibition. Learn about the other artists in the show. Research the space and the neighborhood where it’s located. Write a new joke. Make a new object or performance. Then, demand that that is what gets shown. It’s obviously not going to work out that way every single time, but let’s agree to quit parachuting our funny works into contexts that deflate their comedy. And never forget that the works require work; you might have to try several versions of the joke. And that’s fine, because you’re making comedy for the site, not just the people who might see it there. Get obsessively local, but stop worrying about the locals.