A man holds a press conference with his fly down the entire time. On election day, a woman appears at a polling station wearing a burqa and asked for a ballot under the name Huma Abedin. A man throws half-eaten cheeseburgers at pedestrians. The president hires actors to fill the stands at his campaign announcement. An artist hires actors from the same agency to clap for too long at his exhibition opening. A man circumcises himself on stage with a dull Swiss army knife. A woman reenacts Rand Paul’s 13-hour filibuster wearing a scary clown costume.
Some of these actions are covered in the Arts section of the Times and some of these are breaking news. Some are discussed over wine at a gallery opening and others fodder for jokes by the extremely online. Performance today spills from the confines of the playhouse or pop-up in Bryant Park, and fuels the viral economies of TikTok, YouTube, Snapchat. It bubbles inside the daily drama on Capitol Hill and is executed by politicians on national news. It has found new, often absurd and inflammatory life among right-wing conspiracy theorists and personalities. When their lawyers and media outlets started calling their stunts “performance art,” it raised the question: What does that designation even mean anymore? Who gets to be a performance artist, and why?
Jacob Wohl describes himself as a “consultant, political operative and speaker.” Most of the internet describes him as a “far-right conspiracy theorist, fraudster, and internet troll.” In October, Wohl alleged that Senator Warren had an affair with a 24-year-old Marine-turned-male-escort, whose form of proof was lifting up his shirt to reveal a “sex scar” (debunked by a quick Instagram fact check). His most recent agenda item: Ted Cruz is a swinger.
The Spectator declared Wohl, along with fellow right-wing internet personalities Laura Loomer and Ali Alexander “the true heirs to Andy Kaufman.”
This has all the makings of great satire. Wohl’s web of conspiracy taps all the trending buttons. Attempting a #MeToo moment for Robert Mueller at the height of the Russia investigation is some kind of popular culture Mad Libs that we can’t look away from. The problem is that Wohl delivers this all with a straight face, while the liberal audience would prefer to be captivated by a knowing charade. Writer Jordan Weissmann tweeted, “I am half convinced that Jacob Wohl is actually a performance art project by James Franco.” The Spectator declared him, along with fellow right-wing internet personalities Laura Loomer and Ali Alexander “the true heirs to Andy Kaufman.”
INDECLINE is an anonymous, activist art collective comprised of dozens of graffiti artists, filmmakers, welders and other artist types. Now international, INDECLINE was formed on the West coast in 2001 by skater punks distressed by the Bush administration’s response to 9/11. They were behind the naked Trump statues, sans testicles, that appeared in several cities overnight in August 2016. They recently released a video remaking War of the Worlds so that the invaders aren’t aliens but migrants. The El Paso shooting happened while the video was in post-production.
I talked to a spokesperson for the group, who declined to give their name due to the occasional illegal activity of the group. They had not previously heard of Jacob Wohl, but graciously watched videos for hours after I introduced them. “You’re looking at him, and reading the accounts of all the times he’s failed… It’s entertaining.” But it’s not art, they say. “Any time you have someone saying things that are really inflammatory, and you start toeing the line with controversy, [their supporters] have this whole ‘Oh, he’s a performance artist. This is what he does.’ Like, no. It’s a defense. It’s a dead end. Because where do you go from there?”
Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist and radio host who crafts and forcefully delivers stories about Hillary Clinton operating a pedophile ring out of a pizza place, is labeled a “performance artist” for just that reason: Legal defense. During a heated custody battle with Jones’s ex-wife, in which his character was quite literally called into question, Jones’s attorney insisted that “he’s playing a character” and is nothing like his online persona.
“I used to make up lies and put them out in the world, I guess now they call it trolling.”
“If you look at the radicalization of right-wing fanatics, a lot of it’s happening online,” INDECLINE said. “They have a way of speaking online that’s like deflection tactics. Memes, terms they use…a tongue in cheek way of making their statements that are very controversial seem benign.”
Nate Hill is in the “performance artists old folks home,” he told me when we spoke over the phone. He’s really not that old, just busy singing to fish for a new art piece with his five-year-old son — but his previous work is provocative. He made sculptures from dead animals and wore white women draped across his shoulders like scarves. Death Bear involved him traveling to individuals’ homes to relieve them of the sweatshirt that still smelled like their ex. In 2011, his website White Power Milk appeared, advertising a half ounce of milk gargled by “rich, beautiful white girls” for $125.
“I used to make up lies and put them out in the world,” Hill said. “I guess now they call it trolling.” On the internet, he explains, “it’s easy to package yourself, it’s easier to lie… You can really make a character.” Good art interrupts. A “we’re sorry, this milk is not gargled by a young heir to Conde Nast and is actually just meant to make you think” disclaimer dulls the action and the intent. It should exist naturally among the websites selling skin whitening products and the shamelessly whitewashed car commercials. “I think what got people about [my art] was that they didn’t know if it was real or not.”
Alex Jones depends on the portion of his viewers that believe him when he says 9/11 was an inside job — who believe that he believes. For some, it’s entertainment, and his in-your-face conviction is crucial to the punchline. On his channel, he denies that he is an artist, but how do we know he isn’t protecting his brand, safeguarding his fan base? Being Alex Jones is his job, after all.
“I want to not just disregard these conservative performance artists as being awful people,” Hill said. “All I was trying to do — all anybody’s trying to do — was get butts in seats. An artist’s job is to get people to see the work.” Performance art has always been about challenge and shock, borne from a dissatisfaction with normative art mediums.
David Levine is a Brooklyn-based artist who started out in the theater, interested in the idea of turning into someone else. He saw the entire system as a form of acting, with headshots, actor’s unions and contracts all part of an accepted social construct — and wanted to explore the performances that we accept as reality in a way that he couldn’t on stage, “where the fiction is announced.”
For his piece Private Moment, Levine used actors to restage and “reinsert” iconic Central Park scenes from Marathon Man, Cruel Intentions etc. in their original locations. Creative Time, the commissioner, wanted the eight happenings to be clearly marked. But that makes it an event, Levine explained. “That’s not what I want. I want these things to slide in unnoticed. What I wanted was a fully infiltrated reality.”
Is InfoWars a fully infiltrated reality, presenting something different to the way we thought things were? Sure. But creating a reality where Sandy Hook was staged is a lot bleaker than a reality where you can find Royal Tenenbaum strolling around the lake.
“To call it art implicitly means that you’re operating in a safe space,” Levine said. “When you pick this label, you have the obligation to be responsible and to make it safe.” And when your “art” inspires death and distress, “you did not see it through. It spilled in wildly unpredictable ways. And it was supposed to be unpredictable only in good ways.”
The art world is a safe space for some makers, and 8chan is a safe space for another. For the politically conservative street artist SABO, using the “art” label is dangerous. SABO gets death threats every time someone writes about his work, which he attributes to his right-leaning views. He distributes fake Bernie campaign materials advertising “free shit” and “Breadlines 2020.” He defaced a Marc Jacobs billboard in Los Angeles, where he lives, to depict Miley Cyrus licking a bloody baby fetus. He paints and prints and designs in service of a Republican message.
The guerrilla street artist is denounced sooner than someone like Wohl, maybe because he leaves a physical trace.
“I don’t think it’s right to say that he’s not an artist,” a spokesperson for INDECLINE said of SABO. “It doesn’t happen to align with our beliefs, probably doesn’t align with most artists in America right now. You don’t see a lot of right-wing artists. But you can’t strip him of the title. He’s literally making art.”
His work is literally stripped from lamp posts and bus stops as soon as they’re noticed by West Hollywood passerby. “If I’m lucky, my art stays up for three days. Shepard Fairey puts a piece up, it stays up for months if not years. Banksy puts something up, they put plaques over it and preserve it for history,” SABO told me over the phone.
The guerrilla street artist is denounced sooner than someone like Wohl, maybe because he leaves a physical trace. The algorithmic way that we experience internet browsing means that I only see InfoWars content if it’s being widely mocked. I didn’t see the Jacob Wohl press conference but I did see Senator Warren’s cheeky reply, her college’s cougar mascot and all.
“Performance art” is more of a filter than a label. For Jones’ lawyer, it was a protective covering; for us journalists, it’s an entrypoint to publicly ruminate on these people who fascinate but should probably be ignored. Laura Loomer and Jacob Wohl don’t call Importing Ilhan, a 25-minute video that reveals Senator Omar moved apartments, “performance art.” They call it “the most controversial film of 2019.” I stop laughing when I think about those who see it as proof of Omar’s illegitimacy.
“People get the art that they deserve,” Hill told me. “Blame the people boosting them up.” The liberal press could close its lips on these characters forever, and they would be art no more. But all we really remove is the tinted screen. The work isn’t coming off the walls because they were never in the museum to begin with.