Paul Waddell, Business Man as Hero—a Behavioral Simulation Model for Metropolitan Policy Analysis, Human Resources, April 30, 2011

Last week, I did a brief write-up of Human Resources’ highly anticipated Grand Re-Opening event at their posh new space in Chinatown. I thought Paul Waddell’s fascinating performance deserved more commentary as well as more photo documentation.

Waddell was clearly out to disturb the peace and interact with people in very pointed ways. Wearing a demonic look on his face for much of the time, he would walk around and through the gathered crowd, either trying to make eye contact with potential victims, or in one case, actually shoving a guy around and making people think a fight might start. The victims he settled on included one guy who got a sleeping bag and a shoe-on-a-rope laid on top of him, and another who was ensnared in an intense staring contest lasting a few minutes. It’s fair to say that the room was electric, activated both by humoring curiosity and the strong desire to avoid contact.

Even when not directed at specific people, many of Waddell’s actions were potentially threatening. When he gargled mouthwash, we knew the green liquid would come spewing out of him eventually, and as he swung his shoe-on-a-rope in a huge arc over his head, people had to run to avoid getting smacked. It was a form of performance terrorism to be sure, but it was not without thoughtful academic/canonical reference. The work seemed to be anchored by periodic trips to a wall, where four blank sheets of drawing paper were pinned up. Waddell contemplated these sheets and created drawings on each one during the course of the performance, sometimes closing his eyes as he added to the marks. The drawings seemed to reflect on his actions in the crowd, however obliquely.

I couldn’t help thinking of Joseph Beuys as I watched Waddell perform. He had various props around him that consisted of simple household goods. The most important props, besides the shoe-on-a-rope and the drawings, seemed to be an old sleeping bag and a knit yarn blanket. At one point, he lay the sleeping bag on the ground with the shoe rope on top of it, and with that demonic look on his face, invited someone from the audience to join him on top of it. No one did. Towards the end of the performance, he sat on top of the sleeping bag with the blanket over his head, holding a torso skeleton and smoking a cigarette. (Over the course of the performance, he had stepped outside at least twice for cigarette breaks.) The visual references to Beuys, and a shared arcane symbolism, are clear, as is the logic of a post-apocalyptic social sculpture that seeks to fragment and terrorize rather than build and teach.

In doing some internet research on Waddell, I’m happy to say that I’ve vindicated myself in the face of my doubters who said the Beuys connection made no sense; a satiric performance he did in Boston last November was in fact titled, I Like Massachusetts and Massachusetts Massachusetts Massachusetts Me. Take that, art history nerds! In the Boston performance, Waddell set out to parody Beuys’ famous coyote action by living with a turkey during Thanksgiving. He had the following to say about it: “It’s actually a parody of a reenactment. Right now in the art scene a lot of what’s going on is reenactments of past pieces. It’s like the Mannerist art movement after the Renaissance where they were all copying the old paintings. It becomes a futile, go-nowhere kind of thing, like musicians doing tribute bands.”

Re-enactment is one thing, but re-performance is another. As I attempted to show in my one-night show at PØST last year, the most fruitful re-performances are the ones that take an older performance, break it apart, and re-connect it to contemporary times and practices in a meaningful way. Some might argue with me as to how meaningful Waddell’s performance was, but for me—especially in light of Obama’s sad petering out as the bringer of “change you can believe in” beneath the weight of his obvious status as a corporate pawn—it was a complex and entertaining conjuring of Beuys tropes for a catastrophic, post-hope time during which all bets are off. The very fact that it goes nowhere, takes you somewhere, and tells you something, even if that something is by nature meaningless.

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