Bohemians in Bloomington, 1990s (from the journal)

Bloomington's courthouse square. Image lifted from
Bloomington’s courthouse square. Image lifted from

Jan. 17, 1994. Free Speech Night.

We attended Free Speech Night at the Rose Fire Bay, a group of presentations designed to test the First Amendment. Part Two was memorable. A so-called performance artist got up to engage in the sort of free speech which done thirty years ago would have been sufficient to either get him arrested or else thrown into a mental institution. He had one side of his face painted black, the other side normal, and wore army fatigues with a swastika on one arm. A male buddy at the back of the stage contributed ear-splitting arrhythmic noise and feedback from an electric guitar, while a female friend provided horrible blood-curdling screams. He lit incense, drank liquid from a glass bottle and appeared to be pretending to throw up into a bowl, ranted and yelled, turned his back to the audience and dropped his pants so his bare butt glowed in the spotlights, then turned around to reveal that he had a rubber chicken stuck on over his penis. He then ran through the audience, tearing pages out of a Bible and throwing them at the viewers, his chicken bobbing and swinging from side to side. He removed his chicken, put his pants back on, and ended the act. “Whoa!” yelled Bill Weaver from the back of the room, in the somewhat stunned silence that met the end of the performance. People then began applauding, politely but without enthusiasm. Bill took the stage to read from Henry Miller. His first words into the microphone were “That fellow on before me should’ve used a LIVE chicken.” (Laughter from the crowd.) “But then,” he pretended to reconsider, “this isn’t NEW YORK. This is only Bloomington.” He read the “Georgia Cunt” section from “Tropic of Capricorn,” another piece that would have pressed buttons four decades ago. He read it well and was warmly applauded.

The evening’s impresario, Steve Gardner, mentioned to us after the end of the show that the performance artist was renowned for drinking gasoline and throwing up on stage. I was thunderstruck. “You mean that stuff in the glass bottle was gasoline?!” Steve shrugged. “He didn’t really tell me beforehand what he would be doing,” he explained. Frank told me, “Didn’t you see him throwing up into that bowl?” “I did, but I thought he was faking it,” I said.

[I was deeply disturbed and followed the above journal entry with a three-page musing on the meaning of “art.”]

Aug. 13, 1996. A Memorable Art Show Opening.

Frank and I went downtown to the opening of the Big Little Art Show at the Daisybrain Gallery. Three of Frank’s pieces were on display in this show, hanging alongside big art-scene names like David Ebbinghouse. Paul Smedberg also had two pieces hanging, computer-altered color photos with some degree of talent. Outside, three kinetic sculptures were on exhibit. There was a crudely-articulated cow skeleton mounted on roller skates and driven by a battery so that it would slowly inch its way along the sidewalk, with a brass cowbell around its bony neck ringing, with intermittent “moos” coming from a boat-horn mounted inside its foresection. At intervals it would piss from a sack of water slung underneath its pelvis. Another sculpture was a mannequin with a torso and head and one mechanically-driven arm which regularly lifted and lowered a steam-iron onto a raw steak draped over the top of its head. The name of this piece was the Sade-a-tron. Another mannequin torso, headless this time, gyrated rhythmically from side to side flailing at itself with chains for arms which would strike tambourines mounted on front and back. It provided a steady percussive beat to the proceedings.

The art scene crowd was spilled out onto the street, for the Gallery next door was also having an opening. People were milling around talking, commenting on the kinetic sculptures, introducing themselves to artists; we stood on the sidelines enjoying the scene. A group of four or five undergrads rounded the corner and stopped in astonishment at the sight of bovine bones half-visible behind all the moving, mingling people. “What’s that?” one undergrad spoke aloud to no one in particular. “It’s a cow,” I said, “and it moos and skates along and pisses.” “Oh,” said the kid in relief, “that’s cool.” Another classic moment from the Bloomington streets!

[Did anyone else out there attend these two events? I’d like to hear your own memories.]

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