Ready for Prime Time

X-treme Performance Art Moves From the Margin to the Mainstream

Up close, the giant ice cube encasing David Blaine had the shiny transparency of Lucite, but it was most definitely dripping. This was no illusion. Indeed, Blaine had been careful to describe his 61 hours 40 minutes and 15 seconds inside the six-ton block as "an endurance stunt," not magic. Still, unable to resist that endearing hyperbole found in sideshows everywhere, Blaine also announced that his purpose in entering the frosty freeze on November 27—during Good Morning America—was to "challenge every human fear."

Going in, Blaine emphasized the hazards he faced. Possible muscle spasms, frostbite, blood clots, and exhaustion, though my own favorite remains "If I fall asleep and my face presses into the ice, they'll have to cut my face off." No doubt standing in one spot for three days can be hell, but the reported fee of $1 million would be powerful incentive.

Magician Penn Jillette derided the feat. No harder than standing in an igloo, he told a gossip columnist. But Blaine emerged speaking of the horror, the horror. Last Thursday, the morning after an ice sculptor cut him free during a prime-time ABC special, Blaine told Rosie O'Donnell that he'd suffered claustrophobia, hallucinations, swollen ankles, and drips on his head "like Chinese water torture."

The rest of us experienced hype-othermia.

Blaine is reviving an old vaudeville tradition: the death-defying act. His last piece, in which he lay six feet under in a Plexiglas coffin for a week, was supposedly a stunt Houdini wanted to do. Blaine's girlfriend told the Daily Newsthat next "he may try to take a bullet." Of course, performance artist Chris Burden did that in 1971, as the death-defying urge moved into the art world.

There's now a 30-year history of performances centered on endurance or ordeals. For example: Chris Burden spending five days and nights curled up in a two-by-two-by-three-foot locker (1971); Tehching Hsieh punching a time clock every hour on the hour, day and night, for a year (1980-81); Marina Abramovic and Ulay walking from opposite ends of the Great Wall of China until they met in the middle (1988).

All these feats were harder than Blaine's, done for no profit, and memorable because they had meaning, while Blaine's words about confronting "every human fear" seem rhetorical given his commercial deals. In 1998, ordeal artist Zhang Huan lay facedown, naked, on an "ice mattress" at P.S.1, intending to remain there until the ice melted. After about 10 minutes, however, his body turned as cold as the ice, so he stopped. "The fact that it wouldn't melt anymore had a kind of meaning in itself," the artist explained.


What used to be some of the more extreme or esoteric forms of performance are suddenly crossing over into the mainstream. In addition to Blaine's ordeals, there's BattleBots—a watered-down version of a Survival Research Laboratories show—on Comedy Central, and Blue Man Group, currently performing in Las Vegas and in Intel ads. But that's the endless originality of capitalism.

It brings up a familiar question: Is it possible to be adversarial anymore? Perhaps a better question would be: Is it necessary? Maybe rebellion is just one more familiar model. But if not that, what?

When I first saw Blue Man Group at the Performing Garage and in the Franklin Furnace basement, I would never have guessed at their potential to become the Fantasticks of performance art. But they have now been running on Astor Place for nine years and have productions up in Boston, Chicago, and Las Vegas. So, did they sell out? Not at all.

With their bald blue heads and hands, blue clothing, and total silence, the original members (Chris Wink, Matt Goldman, Phil Stanton) always looked humanoid and anonymous, as if each was one piece of a single Blue Man. By the time they played the Serious Fun series at Lincoln Center, they had crowds on their feet, screaming. Blue Man had figured out how to push all the right buttons in an audience, which had nothing to do with any performer's personality. In fact, it even made a certain aesthetic sense for them to hire a whole retinue of blue men and open more shows.

Of course, Boston and Chicago have the Off-Broadway niche Las Vegas never dreamed of. But Chris Wink insists, "We are changing Vegas. Vegas has not changed us."

To the mainstream, Blue Man still looks a little bizarre, even menacing. They might actually expand some consciousness out there, since audiences emerge saying, "I just saw something weird—and it was great!" The move to Vegas was about "catching a cultural wave," Wink maintains. He sees a new tourist trolling the casino these days, the ironic hipster who has to see the Liberace Museum, the type of person who might go to Burning Man—"or close to that." That's why the Penn & Teller show plays Vegas now, as does Cirque de Soleil. And De la Guarda just opened.

As for the Intel ad, Wink says they've been turning down offers for years. "It never felt right." But they liked the Intel situation when the agency told them that the three blue men would simply deal with three green stripes.


Meanwhile, over on Comedy Central, remote-controlled robots fight weekly in BattleBots, and Mark Pauline, who founded Survival Research Laboratories in 1978, says, "It's great because I get arbitrary amounts of publicity. I have like four or five TV spots I could do every month, literally." He just loves turning them down.

An aura of transgression and apocalypse has always surrounded SRL. Their "choreographed rituals of destruction" feature menacingly reimagined machines built from industrial detritus—a Square-Wheeled Car, a sprinkler from hell,plus missile launchers, flamethrowers, and mechanically reanimated animal carcasses.

While SRL has not performed on the East Coast since their 1988 show in the Shea Stadium parking lot, they are still going strong. Eighty or 90 "super-skilled" people are currently involved, says Pauline. The tech boom brought lots of expertise to the Bay Area, where he lives. "Tonight I'm working on the world's first jet-powered remote-controlled hovercraft," he announces on the phone. SRL has also pioneered a way to control their lethal machines over the Internet.

BattleBots,with robots like The Mauler and Vlad the Impaler, tries to cop an SRL attitude. But Pauline says, "Everyone looks at BattleBots,and they go, 'Oh, this is like popcorn machines.' I mean, we get 8000 hits a day on our Web site [www.srl.org]. And they just see, 'Oh, SRL is the king.' "

Pauline makes a living buying and selling hi-tech equipment. He says BattleBotscontacted him when they started, but, "I'd rather not be associated with them."

Couldn't he make more money working with them, though? Or with Robot Warson MTV? "Why would I ever want to do that?" Pauline asks. "My reputation would be ruined. And you can't ever buy your reputation back. I have an example to set of being ungovernable."

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