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On a weeknight in March at The Virgil in Silver Lake, Gnarlie Hose, a character played by filmmaker Joey Soloway, took the stage for the very first time. They were dressed in a brown corduroy suit, gut hanging out of their unzipped pants, their face disfigured with a black eye. Peering out with suspicion at a full house and gripping the mic with their oversized hands, Hose boasted about his mansion in Sag Harbor, accentuating the words “Saaag Haaarbor,” and breathing heavily into the mic. Back in Long Island, as Hose told it, he was housing a fraternity of male celebrities who had been disenfranchised by the #MeToo movement, or as he renamed it, “Us Also.” According to Hose, this consortium of male perpetrators included the infamous television host Billy Bush. Upon mention of his name, a performer playing Bush strode across the stage with the bravado of an over-tanned, muscly, middle-aged millionaire. As Hose explained, Bush had been rehired as a co-host on Gnarlie Hose Show after losing his job for laughing on tape to Trump’s incredulous statement, “grab ’em by the pussy.”
The brainchild of Soloway and artist/actor Marval A Rex (who plays Billy Bush), Gnarlie Hose Show is a performance art project that is both a parody of the Charlie Rose show and an authentic attempt to platform roundtable discussions with actual activists and artists. Despite the exaggerated antics of both characters on stage, Soloway and Rex use their show, which they plan to host regularly at The Virgil, to facilitate provocative dialogue about toxic masculinity and the possibility for radical change. In effect, the presence of tricksters Hose and Bush acts as a lubricant for candid dialogue amongst their legitimate guests. During the show, they invite a majority trans and queer cast of guests to say “whatever the fuck [they] want,” as Rex explained to me in a phone interview,1 and they bar all recordings of the live performances so that guests may speak openly and without fear of retribution on social media. The show’s premiere featured activist Janaya Khan, who co-founded Black Lives Matter Canada; artist and filmmaker Zackary Drucker; and artist and activist Favianna Rodriguez. Sitting at a roundtable under a neon sign that read “Gnarlie Hoes,” Rex—in character the whole time—facilitated a conversation that spanned the war in Ukraine, prison abolition, the climate crisis, intimate partner abuse, trans rights, and more.
While actual performance artists like Soloway and Rex are utilizing grassroots activism and local political platforms to address real issues impacting their communities, far from the comedic stages of queer Los Angeles, national politicians are throwing shade at one another for behaving like “performance artists.” The term is being leveled like a slur at far-right politicians in an effort to deem them inauthentic and over the top. Rejecting this type of empty rhetorical strategy, many performance artists working today are combating the lies and absurdity of American extremism by taking genuine action for transformative change. Whether it’s in the form of hosting roundtable discussions with Black, trans, and queer activists, educating the public about the parliamentary procedures at the neighborhood council, or mobilizing local mutual aid networks, many performance artists are clearly doing more than drawing attention to themselves for attention’s sake alone, as certain politicians would like to believe. In fact, the weaponization of performance art on the national media stage dangerously obscures the actual impact of extremist politicians who promote the racist, homophobic, Islamophobic, and antisemitic conspiracies that are being seriously accepted as fact by millions of Americans. So it is, that in a strange turn of events, the members of the same Republican party that stripped performance artists like Karen Finley of federal funding three decades ago due to “standards of decency”2 are now accusing one another of acting like them.
The quibble began last December when Congressman Dan Crenshaw (R–Tex.) used the term to discredit lawmakers like Marjorie Taylor Greene (R–Ga.) and Lauren Boebert (R–Co.) as narcissistic and ineffective. On social media, Greene regularly draws attention to herself with ludicrous statements, like suggesting that Jewish “space lasers” ignited the 2018 wildfires in California.3 Similarly, Boebert seizes the limelight with hateful rhetoric and superfluous behavior; in her first week in office, she refused to open her handbag for security guards at the Capitol, while boasting online that she carries a loaded, semiautomatic pistol in Washington.4 For these reasons, the less-extremist Crenshaw called out his colleagues at a campaign event, saying that “There are two types of members of Congress: there is performance artists and there is legislators. Performance artists are the ones who get all of the attention, the ones you think are more conservative because they know how to say slogans real well.”5 Following Crenshaw’s logic, the defining trait of performance artists is their ability to aggrandize and falsify their actions in order to gain public notoriety.
While the distinctions between performers and politicians have been indefinitely blurred with the likes of Ronald Reagan, Donald Trump, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Volodymyr Zelenskyy taking office after successful careers in television and film, the ramifications of their power are distinctly vast, as are the contextual frameworks. Imagining Greene or Boebert as performance artists may evoke a few laughs in an art context, but compared to the absurdity of the conspiracy theories these representatives propagate, such a hypothetical seems benign. When the behavior of far-right politicians is indiscriminately associated with performance artists, it is one more strategy of the far-right to deflect responsibility. Hardly the fault of actual performance artists, the discombobulation of political discourse in this country is a concerted effort of right-wing extremists to undo the thin threads of democracy. Take, for example, far-right radio host Alex Jones, who, in a Texas courtroom in 2017, claimed that his propagation of conspiracy theories—like “Pizzagate” and the Sandy Hook massacre as a “hoax”—was merely part of his persona as a “performance artist” and therefore should not be taken seriously.6 More than just blithe disregard for artists and their practices, the misappropriation of the term is a tactic of the far-right to deny accountability and downplay their precarious influence.
In contrast, actual performance artists, like L.A.-based Kristina Wong, have ventured into public office, precipitated by Trump’s rise to the presidency and the consequential perversion of American politics. In the dramatized version that Wong tells in her one-woman show Kristina Wong for Public Office, in 2019, after being trolled online by the aforementioned Jones and other far-right conspiracy bloggers for her educational YouTube series Radical Cram School, Wong filled out candidacy paperwork during a hazy, weed-filled evening. Three years later, she is a two-term Sub-District 5 Representative of Koreatown Wilshire Neighborhood Council. In Kristina Wong for Public Office, which premiered at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles in February 2020, Wong entertainingly narrated her experience as a representative. Reminiscent of Elvis in a white power suit and bejeweled cape, and surrounded by handmade American flags, she opens her show as if at a campaign event, rallying the crowd with questions like, “Are you ready to throw blind fanatical support around a candidate who will make promises and maybe deliver on a fraction of them?” In the energetic 65-minute performance, the artist parodied the connections she perceives between being a performance artist and a politician, while genuinely educating her audience about the democratic process, voting rights, and the history of campaign rallies.
Despite her sardonic tone throughout the show, Wong’s self-aggrandizing performance as a politician is for more than just laughs. Rather, she uses the absurdity of the current moment to confront the brokenness of the American political system while openly reckoning with her personal failures and insecurities as both an artist and an elected representative. “People hated me as a performance artist, and people will continue to hate me as a politician,” Wong concludes after expressing worry about her likability as a candidate. At the show’s end, Wong shares the story of her proudest achievement yet, in which the Neighborhood Council unanimously passed a public statement in favor of abolishing ICE. However symbolic, the declaration acknowledged the thousands of undocumented immigrants living in Koreatown, who face inhumane treatment and deportation at the hands of federal agents, and satisfied Wong’s innate need to feel like she was making a difference.
When New York-based performance artist Amy Khoshbin launched her campaign for City Council in District 38 of Brooklyn in 2018, she did so while standing at a podium in front of a projection of a hand-drawn campaign ad at The Whitney Museum of American Art. What began as a traditional campaign speech, in which the candidate introduces herself to her constituents, transformed into an enthusiastic rap about nonviolent dissent and the power of grassroots activism. Tearing off her long, red blazer and throwing the cardboard podium into the audience as if it were crowd-surfing at a concert, Khoshbin called for everyone to stand up and dance as she led the audience to the rap’s hook, “No more violence, break our silence, shine our brilliance, we make a difference.” You Never Know (2018) was a performance artwork and political launch in one, as Khoshbin explained that evening: “I see using media and creativity as our tools for social change.”
Khoshbin decided to run for office following the success of her public art project Word on the Street (2017–present), which launched during the Women’s March in 2017 and included a participatory banner-making workshop and quirky signage posted across New York City with messages like, “Embrace the absurd.” As an Iranian-American, Khoshbin’s decision was partly a response to Trump’s vicious attack on immigrants, and partly a way to demystify the political process and empower regular citizens like herself to get involved.7 In the process of deepening her activism in her local district, however, Khoshbin’s perception of her candidacy as a performance dramatically shifted. Humbled by the political dynamics of her neighborhood, the artist stepped down from her candidacy after a well-respected community member, who had lived and raised her family in the district, was endorsed by the local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. (Khoshbin also sat on the organizing committee of the chapter.) Instead, she decentered herself and focused her energy on mobilizing mutual aid networks and rallying support for prison abolition and racial justice in her neighborhood.
While performance artists like Khoshbin are meaningfully engaging their communities—often doing so by using performance in authentic, inventive ways—the term has been co-opted and used to signal inauthenticity. In any case, it’s hard to imagine elected officials like Boebert using the strategies of real performance art to achieve anything in the political realm. Meanwhile, the same conspiracists who use the term “crisis actors” to falsely claim that the parents of the Sandy Hook shooting victims were hired actors are the ones who are claiming to be performance artists to deflect accountability and intentionally undermine our democratic system. When politicians with influence and power deem performance art as inauthentic or unserious, this deflection not only demeans the real work that artists are doing, it also creates a political theater that seeds dangerously influential misinformation. When actual performance artists are stepping into the realm of politics, broadcasting their views on stage, or supporting grassroots activism locally, they are more than just performing; these artists are taking an active role in the participation and formation of a functioning democracy. These artists are transposing the troubling viscerality of American political unrest into a joyous expression that communicates the possibility for change, and in doing so, reaffirming the transformative power of creativity.
This essay was originally published in Carla issue 28.