"A performance artist is a performer who can't fill an arena," Richard Johnson, the editor of the New York Post's in-your-face gossip column, Page Six, once told me. A bit brutal, yes, but a performance artist certainly tends to be somebody who also has to be artful when it comes to paying their production costs or, indeed, the rent. Some sell limited edition photos or videos of performances, or even some of the objects involved, and many have segued into the production of actual artworks. Michael Portnoy, a terrific New York-based performer, is working on most of these options.
Portnoy, 32, burst into popular consciousness in 1998. He had been hired to be on stage as Bob Dylan sang "Love Sick" at the Grammy Awards. "I was to stand behind Dylan with 50 or so Banana Republic-type model lookalikes 'to give him a good vibe'," Portnoy says. "The first thing that popped into my mind was that I needed to assert myself - on national TV.
"I knew I wanted to dance and I knew how I wanted to dance. I perfected a kind of tense, grotesque, jabby kind of dance. Then I wanted to add another element, so I wrote a text on my chest, 'Soy Bomb'. It's actually a joint poem written by myself and a friend. I had tofu running in my mind at the time."
He ripped his shirt off and jumped centre-stage. How many people saw him?
"I forget exactly - 20m or something like that."
What was his frame of mind? "I was actually very frightened. I had these paranoid fantasies that there'd be a sniper in the control booth. I had about 8ft to jump before I got into the centre of the stage where I wanted to be."
What response did he get from Dylan?
"He looked over. Briefly. Blankly. And then turned back. It really had nothing to do with him. The relation to Dylan was purely accidental."
He was on for 40 seconds before security moved in.
Portnoy's timing was a bit off. Aggressively prankish TV lay a few years in the future and his action was seen less as a performance art coup than as streaking. Afterwards he got offered a few movie parts and Richard Branson hired him to liven up a music industry event in San Francisco, but that was that, in art-career terms.
Since then, Portnoy has built a solid career, working with artists, choreographers and musicians. He has appeared at the PS1/MoMA exhibition in New York, and galleries, museums and foundations in cities including Warsaw, Brussels and Glasgow, where he was a featured player in the National Review of Live Art.
Portnoy's current piece, "The K Sound", is among his most ambitious. It lasts 70 minutes and uses 17 performers in a sequence of sketches, each based on an absurdist joke or stand-up comedy routine.
Portnoy plans to bring a downsized version of "The K Sound" to Europe in the spring. One of the ways he is raising the money is by turning visual elements into artworks.
"I decided to isolate a series of moves from the piece, film them and sell them as images," Portnoy says. "So we made a series of DVDs. Each one takes about a minute. One move, for instance, is where one of the performers is holding a briefcase and then drops it on the ground. The briefcase sits there. The jaw motions downwards . . .
"And when you buy the move you get a DVD and a licence - a certificate that enables you to perform the move in perpetuity."
Can a move be copyrighted? "My father is an intellectual property lawyer," says Portnoy.
Another skit, an opaque joke under the rubric "Complications of The Everyday", was centred around a long piece of white paper upon which a series of performers drew a jagged line. This piece has now morphed into 10ft aluminium sheets, painted with glossy white enamel, with the lines in black. They will be shown in Manhattan in September. "We're trying to make them so they are actually saleable objects. We've observed that anything with enamel paint on it tends to sell," Portnoy says.
And, rumour has it that Portnoy's "Soy Bomb" eruption will be on the bonus DVD included with Bob Dylan's new album Modern Times, out at the end of this month.
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