New York artist Ryan McNamara creates performances and videos imbued with humorous, macabre pop culture references, trenchant inquiries into identity, and a healthy dose of American spotlight-seeking. McNamara's performance tonight, "The Star Parade," puts the artist in the role of variety show host. He will present an array of acts, most still undisclosed, though there's little doubt that the show as a whole will be heavily endowed with the artist's canny, double-twisted wit. Here, we speak to McNamara about tonight's performance:
WALLESTON: What can we expect from this evening's performance?
MCNAMARA: "The Star Parade" is a durational performance about variety involving blue velvet, a spotlight, and gay men ranging in age from 24 to 74. When I say it's durational, I mean it's not narrative per se-which also means people should feel free to arrive and leave at their leisure, anytime between 7pm and 9pm. There's a meta-narrative, maybe, but the beginning and ending are confounded. The characters are ciphers.
The Latest in Blood and Guts, 2009. Courtesy the artist.
WALLESTON You also have a video, "The Latest in Blood and Guts," up right now in Salon 94 Freemans' group show, "Stars!" Can you describe the piece?
MCNAMARA: It's a short, black-and-white video, featuring me in a suit on a stage with a curtain backdrop. Depending on how you look at it, I'm either dancing or pulling my intestines out.
In one sense, it's a memorial for the late newscaster Christine Chubbuck; it's also a rehearsal of my childhood dream to be a variety show host. It's called "The Latest in Blood and Guts," which is a line taken from Chubbuck's last words. Here's something I wrote about that incident:
Thirty five years ago in July, a newsreel jammed and could not be played during the Sarasota, Florida morning news program Suncoast Digest. Chubbuck, the host, brushed the glitch aside and said, "In keeping with Channel 40's policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts, and in living color, you are going to see another first-attempted suicide." She then pulled out a .38 revolver from a bag of puppets she kept underneath her desk and shot herself behind the ear.
Sometimes people want to be things they're not cut out for, and they're erased by the friction between who they are and who they want to be. I totally understand. I've always wanted to be a variety-show host.
Christine Chubbuck was, one might say, depressed. Recent behaviorist explorations of trauma have posited that somatic experiencing, a reenactment of physical trauma, provides therapeutic resolution. I wonder if a choreography of miming self-mutilation (and jazz dancing) might prove apotropaic.
WALLESTON: How does "The Star Parade" equate to this piece? (LEFT: STILL FROM THE STAR PARADE, 2009. COURTESY THE ARTIST)
MCNAMARA: Both "The Star Parade" and "The Latest in Blood and Guts" take up the trope of the variety show-it's a bit camp, a bit nostalgic; the host becomes this creepy midwife for talent. (Isn't it funny how often variety looks the same?) Other than that, the pieces are quite different. I sometimes think my character in the video is the same character as in the performance-they both wear the same suit, anyway-but in different states of mind. Perhaps his role in the performance led him to his performance in the video, or vice versa. Neither is particularly upbeat.
WALLESTON: In what way does "The Star Parade" align with other performances you've done?
MCNAMARA: One of the performers in "The Star Parade," Bernie the Magic Lady, was actually my collaborator and the star of my show—"Bernie, The Magic Lady"—at APF Lab last April. But in a way it's something of a departure. I've been sweating this idea for a while, but I kept sublimating my impulses-the idea of using a variety show as subject matter sounded a little too "Bad '80s East Village Performance" to me. I finally gave in. It's fun to do something that scares you. Anyway, now I really like the performance. It's allowed me to live out a childhood dream. If only for two hours.
WALLESTON: Do you have any future projects in the works?
MCNAMARA: I am working with Klaus von Nichtssagend Gallery on a musical premiering in late August. It's called "Klaus von Nichtssagend: The Musical."
Ryan McNamara performs tonight, 7–9 PM. Salon94 Freemans is located at 1 Freeman Alley, New York. McNamara is featured in the current group show, "Stars," at the gallery.