Scotch Wichmann answers some questions below on Two Performance Artists, writing, hacking, and more. Got a question of your own? We'd love to hear it!
Q: What genre is Two Performance Artists?It's a cross-genre book—a caper comedy and a buddy tale for sure, but also madcap, absurd, and dark, with action, surrealism, paranoia, suspense.... One early reader called it "9 to 5 meets Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas meets Jackass." I'm not sure if that helps, but I like it.
Q: What's the book about?Hank and Larry are best friends desperate for fame in San Francisco's seedy underground performance art scene. But when poverty forces them to take computer jobs working for a heartless billionaire, the daily grind drives them over the edge. Hungry for revenge, they cook up the ultimate performance: to kidnap their billionaire boss, throw him into a chain-link cage, and brainwash him into becoming the zaniest performance artist the city's ever seen.
Q: Why is the book's title so dang long?
1. It's ridiculous (and therefore, I hope, memorable).
2. It references Hank and Larry, who believe that every performance art piece should be given a title that simply says what the piece is about. Example: "Slap My Face With A 2-Pound Trout." See? Lovely.
3. My first boss (who is now a billionaire) gave me this marketing advice: "The best name for a thing just tells people what it does." Maybe he was on to something.
Q: Where and when was the book written?It was born in San Francisco during 6 months of story plotting, 6 years of writing from 2000 to 2006, 1 year of initial editing, 1 house renovation, 1 divorce, 1 wedding, the co-founding of one rogue coffee company, 3 jobs, 5 deaths, 5 relocations, 1 motorcycle accident, 3 years of desk-drawer darkness, followed by another six months of editing.
Q: What are your book's major themes?Fame, narcissism, commercialism, spectatorship, criticism...subjects we encounter every day in our 'look at me!' social media culture. You'll also find plenty on art process, outsider art, gallery culture, the avant-garde, capitalism, sensationalism, and gentrification, among others.
Q: How's it different from other novels about performance art?There have been some gorgeous and wildly successful novels featuring characters who do performance art, but in them, I found performance played a lesser role to more magnified
Q: When and where does the story unfold?The book takes place in San Francisco in the mid-to-late 1980s. That era's cultural intersection of performance art popularity, social unrest, and homebrew enthusiasm for computers was a good fit for Larry, Hank, and Bill. San Francisco was a hotbed of performance spaces in the '80s—you had La Mamelle/Art Com, Galerìa de la Raza, Museum of Conceptual Art, the SF Art Institute, and the SF Museum of Modern Art. Also, crime was up, with aggravated assault, robbery, and vehicle thefts hitting a new watermark statewide for the decade. Built in 1958, the gloomy, double-decker Embarcadero Freeway allowed pockets of crime to flourish by providing cover for drug dealing, robbery, and prostitution. The Tenderloin and Polk Gulch neighborhoods, which were home to many of the city's health and human services, suffered a shuttering of legit businesses, leaving drug addicts, sex workers, methamphetamine dealers, and other hustlers to run the streets. SF was rife with people suffering mental problems, thanks to cuts in public funding that resulted in drastic reductions of available hospital beds and the unintended release of dangerously mentally ill patients... ...all of which made for a lively backdrop for a little kidnapping and performance art.
Q: Some of the characters in the book seem a little, well, crazy. Did they come from your life as a performance artist?Performance artists are often of the avant-garde, so you're bound to encounter a range of wildly creative personalities when you hang out with them. And, as science as shown, creative types can sometimes seem a little nuts. Most über-creative people I've met arrived there by first getting broken along the way; creativity followed as the psychical byproduct of putting themselves back together again. People like that know something primordial and empirical about creation, destruction, healing, and expression, which are all things ordinary language can't always embody. To solve this, performance artists often create their own signs and
Q: Some of your characters really like to YELL.They're an excitable, passionate bunch. Also, don't forget that the story takes place in the mid-80s, BACK WHEN YELLING WAS STILL ALL IN UPPERCASE.
Q: What is the programming language used by Hank and Larry?The pictorial programming language used by Hank & Larry at their Software International (SI) job was based on early visual programming languages being developed in the mid-80s like Pict (1985), PROGRAPH (c. 1983), and Blox (1986). These systems allowed If-Then, Else, and other commands represented by 2-D block shapes to be linked or snapped together to create programs that looked like flowcharts. Also, the "spreadsheet programmer" who vexes Hank and Larry at work with his "spreadsheet programming" was likely a user of Lotus 1-2-3 for DOS, which featured named cells and macro capabilities as early as 1984.
Q: So you're a computer nerd?Oh yeah. I first learned programming on an Apple //e starting in the 7th grade—Logo, BASIC, a little Pascal, and some 6502 Assembly. My pals and I would stay up until dawn programming, cracking software, reading Hardcore Computist, war dialing, hacking BBSs, phone phreaking, and other activities I probably shouldn't mention...eventually several friends got busted by the FBI. I still write software today, and once a hacker, always a
Q: What was the first performance art you ever saw?I remember watching the Kipper Kids perform on Bette Midler's "Mondo Beyondo" TV show in the early 80s. I sensed that it was art, though I doubt I knew the term performance art; I just knew I enjoyed watching funny-talking men make an unholy mess in a bathroom. A few years later, I saw Darryl Hannah do a performance called "Put Out The Fire" for Robert Redford in the 1986 movie, Legal Eagles. YouTube has a clip of it. The piece was created for the film by performance artist Lin Hixson. I don't know how it's held up with time, but to my 14-year-old brain, Darryl was positively gripping—she haunted me for months.
Q: What is your own performance art like?Summarizing performance art can be hard because it's so often nonlinear without a conventional plot. Because it resists easy categorization, you're forced to translate it, find some way of conveying it, which extends and expands the performance, allowing it to continue into the present moment. Sometimes the best you can do is just describe what you saw, e.g.: "A woman sat on stage and let the audience cut her clothing off with a pair of scissors." Thematically, I lean toward the internal—psychology, the unconscious, dreamtime, perceptions of reality, altered states, magic, madness, signs & synchronicities, memory, transformation, sin,
Q: Which writers or artists have influenced you most?Writers might include:
...And artistic influences might be:
...plus all of the artists with whom I've performed or collaborated: Nate Dryden, Clay Young, Gary San-Angel, Michael Mufson, Beth Stinson, Lee and Christy, Jude and Lindy, "Electric Shoes" Tim, Todd Ivers, "Honey Wall" Valerie, "Stilt Heels" Beth, Erin Feder, Jacki Apple, The L.A. Live Art Forum, Randy Hostetler, Deborah Oliver, and too many more to mention....
Q: What inspired the book's "Formal-D-Hyde" frog performance?Check out "Experiments in Galvanism," a genius work by artist/researcher Garnet Hertz. It involved miniature web servers embedded in the bodies of dead frogs floating in liquid. People could connect to the servers and bioelectrically twitch the frogs' limbs. I'm also a fan of Damien Hirst, who's worked with animals in formaldehyde for decades.
Q: Tell us about the book's video trailer.I make short films, but this was my first attempt at directing an adaptation. I was terrified of making it too literal—of filling readers' heads with preconceived ideas about what the novel's scenes or characters might look like—so our script was minimal. "Shot of Stark walking down alley with gun"—no more detail than that. We didn't even let the actors read the novel beforehand, to avoid leaking too much detail. We'd set up each scene, put the actor in it, describe in as few words as possible what the actor's character was like, and what she or he might be doing there, and then set the actor and crew free to improvise within that little universe of possibilities. Each action was inspired by the actor's imagination, which was inspired by a generalized description of the scene, which was inspired by my fallible recollection of the book. Shooting took three months, weekends mostly, in San Francisco and Los Angeles. We shot on a Nikon D7000, plus a wind-up Bell & Howell 35mm Eyemo motion picture camera that chugged along like a sewing machine at 24 frames per second. Used by newsreel reporters in World War II, as well as by Stanley Kubrick in his 1955 noir film, Killer's Kiss, the Eyemo gave us 20 seconds of shooting per wind-up on 100-foot rolls of Kodak 250D film. Complete trailer credits can be found here.
Q: Who designed the book's cover?The idea for the cover originated in the book, where billionaire boss Bill is forced to perform with props in a chain-link cage while wearing a cellophane skirt he made. After putting together some concepts in a ridiculous collage, I wanted to get Bill's body position just right, so I stripped naked, wrapped my ass in plastic wrap, and shot a bunch of selfies I pray will never see the light of day. Using those pictures as a reference, the Bill illustration was then drawn by Alex Madrigal, a genius concept artist & beer connoisseur in Seattle. You should hire him! You can see more of his work at www.alexmadrigal.com
Q: If you were to cast your book as a movie, which actors would you choose?That's a hard one. It would depend a lot on the directing style. Directors my pals have suggested include Ron Howard, Jason Bateman, Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Ben Stiller, David O. Russell, the Farrelly brothers, Terry Gilliam, Harmony Korine, Vincent Gallo, Wes Anderson, the Coen brothers, Bobcat Goldthwait, Michel Gondry, David Fincher, and Quentin Tarantino. And for actors, I've heard: Larry: Steve Buscemi, James Franco, Matthew McConaughey Hank: Steve Buscemi (again), Woody Harrelson, Jeff Daniels, Ben Stiller, Scoot McNairy, Mark Wahlberg, John C. Reilly, Zach Galifianakis Bill: Lee Tergesen, Paul Giamatti Mouse: Lili Taylor, Juliette Lewis, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Christina Ricci, Ronda Rousey, Emma Stone, Olivia Wilde, Parker Posey Stark: Joe Don Baker, Val Kilmer, John Goodman, William Shatner, Wayne Knight