Each year I remember less and less, but when May comes around, I am reminded once more that these memories will always be lurking in the shadows, waiting for their moment to reappear with full clarity.
I graduated fifteen years ago from a well-known art school in New York City. Growing up just north of the city in Tarrytown, I was close enough to visit, but too far away to have it be an impromptu swing-by. Even with the reliable Metro North, the city was a far off land where adults went to work and kids ventured to on field trips.
For a junior year trip to explore the city and see a Broadway show, a couple of us took acid on the train ride down and acted like idiots in front of an in-denial chaperone. Franny Driscol’s dad. How could he have not known? He probably had other things to care about, like the rumor about Franny and the football team.
On the trip, we lit candles in cathedrals and watched the wax melt away into faces and voices. Central Park looked on fire and the sky was Aurora Borealis green. I knew it was the drugs, but something triggered in me. I wanted to capture the beauty I was experiencing and share it. I tried to explain this new discovery of wanting to be an artist to my friend. He looked on, eyes full of terror, sweat dripping down his newly formed mustache. “I know,” I said, “I’m scared too.” He shook his head, pointed behind me, and said, “The colors are winning.” Last time I heard, he’s a chiropractor with two kids and a Chinese wife.
I couldn’t write this trip on my college admissions essay, so I fudged the experience but left the ending the same: I wanted to be an artist, and New York City was the place to do it.
I immersed myself in all art forms. Film, photography, sculpting, painting, video art. Very quickly in, I discovered my deep lack of potential in using my hands to create, but found a growing interest in the relatively new art form of transmedia and video art.
As young students new to the “real art world,” performance art was an exciting place where we could express ourselves however we wanted. We studied Carolee Schneemann’s “Interior Scroll,” and Vito Acconci’s “Seedbed.” We studied Pipilotti Rist, Marina Abramovic, Tracey Emin. I couldn’t believe the passion, the fever, that these artists felt to create, and with their creations, say something.
It wasn’t all wonders. I’ll never forget having to watch an “endurance art” video piece where we were left to stare at the eyeball of an owl for over 20 silent minutes. There was always someone in the class to call any and all of the work genius, and there was always someone who absolutely loved to chime in as the “devil’s advocate,” even though they routinely failed at that concept.
In our first year, many kids left the arts to study something more concrete, like finance or advertising or teaching or math. Anything but art. I’m sure they called their parents and told them what we were studying and flipped. Every once in a while, there was the student that was in it to make money. They wanted to learn cameras so they could enter the professional world of ad photography, or they wanted to be the next Spielberg and would routinely say they have no problem being a Hollywood sell out “Yes Man.” I always wonder if I should have followed their path, or if it would've still taken me down mine.
Being an undergrad in art school made it difficult connect with people. I had my other weirdo peers, but that was about it. The outside world students looked at me like they knew something I didn’t (success), and I got used to being the punch line at many jokes around Thanksgiving each year when a sauced uncle asked if I was still in “that phase” in front of the entire table.
Even the grad students looked at the undergrads with disdain. We were stupid puppies they didn’t have time to train. “Undergrad is where you figure yourself out, Grad is where you make art.” I remember responding with “isn’t our entire existence built around trying to figure ourselves out?” I got an eye roll and a pat on the back.
For four years, the running question guiding my education was: What Is Art? It was asked at the beginning of each semester, and was constantly brought into conversation. Was a urinal in a museum art? Was rolling around in meat art? We learned about an artist who video taped herself having sex with the curator and that became the art. "What is art?" It tickled at the back of our minds, creating conversation that was sometimes ironic, sometimes divisive, but always searching. The grad students loved teaching us what they considered art and what that meant.
There was one teacher who changed everything. He was a "rock star of the art world," or so we thought. The grad students hung around him like groupies attended all his classes. He taught one class per grade per semester. Administration constantly reminded us what an honor and privilege it was to have him around.
For privacy to all involved, we’ll call him John.
John was tall and slender, late 40s, constantly smoked, and had silver-ish hair that seeped into his stubble. Raw sex appeal. Rumors flew about the parties that occurred at the studio he had in Coney Island somewhere, but no one knew the exact location. When asked why Coney Island, he said it was “the perfect example of natural decay and the promise of tomorrow without forgetting the past.” He had two ex wives and zero children. One time, he was too high to teach class and had a student step in while he sat off to the side, loudly critiquing them and the syllabus. He had an accent that no one could place, and he wouldn’t divulge the origin. His art showed in galleries around the world, and his attitude showed this.
One thing John did that caught all the students off guard at first was constantly video tape us. There were cameras set around the rooms, a red light always proving “record,” and he rarely traveled anywhere without a camcorder in one hand and a cigarette in the other. Deep down, we all hoped we were some sort of long running project. Others wondered if it was a persona he created to keep us on our toes. He preached the "word of art," and that one should always be making it, even when you’re not.
He spoke in riddles, with the undergrads trying to make sense of it and the grad students nodding in approval. They were in on the knowledge that our feeble minds had yet to discover. We wanted to discover the truth to art. We wanted it so badly we could taste it. It was like everyone was in on the joke and we still hadn’t even heard the punch line. We knew half the grad students were full of shit, but they were still higher on the pole.
In John’s classes, the students made art. Anything we could, every single week, as long as we could stand behind our work and explain to the class why we thought whatever we made should be considered art. There were some students who started off on fire, and by the end, fizzled away. Other kids did homage to the artists we were studying, rolling around naked in ice cream, trying to say something about fetishes. I learned what the word juxtaposition meant. I knew a kid who later went on to help make the Bumfight videos that took over the seedier part of the internet for a while, pre-Jackass.
My videos never quite got the critiques as everyone else’s. They didn’t get ripped apart like some students, but instead, I was simply mediocre. A sitting-in grad student once said that my art itself was a comment on mediocrity. There was a grad student who was mute in real life but spoke in his art. It was his was of commenting on how people can communicate through art, with his art being his only literal way of communication. I felt it was a little too on the nose.
John loved some, hated others, and every once in a while, would show us one of his old pieces. Some of them I did not understand, but I so badly wanted to, because all the other kids were practically reaching orgasm just at the chance to make a remark on the "utter genius behind the piece." John saw this, and he also saw how I felt about the other students.
John was skeptical of me and of my work. During one critique, he questioned my “willingness to throw everything on the table for the sake of art.” I became worried that my place in the art world was more of an observer and a discusser than a participant.
Junior year, John asked me to see him after class. Stepping into his cluttered office stacked to the ceiling with tapes, the camera immediately turned on me, recording. John explained that he was working on a new piece, a combination of both photography and video, and was hoping I would be in it. My stomach lurched. Every student was dying to be asked to help make one of his pieces, let alone be in one. I jumped at the opportunity, finally feeling accepted into his community. The grad students would shit themselves, and I couldn’t wait to keep it a secret from all of them until the piece was shown.
I was given specific instructions to meet on a Saturday evening in Coney Island. On the train ride out, my nerves kept growing, my fear of the unknown turning to excitement in my veins. I was going to be made immortal by one of John’s pieces. I was to be in something that would be studied, envied, loved, hated, revered.
Off the train, I met John next to the circus tent. With him was a grad student I barely recognized, Emelia. She seemed as nervous as I was, and John introduced us as “co-stars.” We started walking through the area, weaving around the games, large toys and drug dealers. John pulled out a flask that we shared. As we walked, John switched back and forth between taping and photographing us. This is something we were used to by now. We followed his lead further off the beaten path until we came across a rundown warehouse. John pulled back a broken slotted door and revealed a work station loaded with people working under spotlights.
It was surreal, a group of gypsy-looking people working on tech, painting, sculpting, building, sawing and soldering. It felt like we entered the nucleus of art. A woman, who I still think was Yoko Ono, rubbed her feet in rubber cement and then walked over glass. Everything was being documented, but no one paid attention to us. John quickly ushered us further through the warehouse of activity. A play land for artists, and we weren’t invited to it. Not yet, I thought.
We kept drinking the flask, which had a flavor I could not describe, but figured it was something native to whatever country had John acquired his accent. Emelia and I looked at each other, nervous, excited, and increasingly intoxicated. John led us further, out the back of the warehouse into the night. When the warehouse was shut out, the night air was stunningly quiet. The sounds of the carnival echoed in the background.
With his flashlight attached to the top of his camera, he showed us a large shed ahead. Emelia and I hesitated for a moment, but John soothed us with his cigarette breath and nonchalant attitude. He was excited for us to see what was inside.
Together, we opened the shed and found a light switch on the wall. It was bigger than we had thought. Inside was a run down, 8 hole mini golf course. It was in pieces, the windmill in chunks leaning on the corner, piles of turf rolled onto one another, fake rocks everywhere. In a way, it was beautiful. I couldn't tell if the setting occured naturally, or if it was designed and built.
We continued drinking as John set up some cameras and lights. He opened a suitcase in the corner that was full of different clothes for Emelia and I to wear. John turned on a sound system and we got more comfortable to the Talking Heads.
John began taking photos of everything, the set, us, himself. We danced to “This Must be the Place” and did our best David Byrne impression. Changing clothes happened more frequently, and John seemed happy with everything he were capturing. He even let Emelia and I play with the cameras, taking turns capturing the experience the three of us were sharing.
As we continued to drink and videotape and dance and sing and photograph, our clothes began being less of the equation. He stopped having me wear a shirt, and Emelia began wearing only booty shorts or boxers. When John asked her to get topless, she hesitated. Without flinching, John was consoling her, making sure we both knew that this shoot would only go as far as we are comfortable. Still hesitant, but not wanting to “kill the vibe,” Emelia went topless.
Eventually, we forgot about the cameras and relaxed. I flexed without prompting and John’s clothes came off to match us. Emelia took a photo of John and I flexing together.
I couldn’t believe it. I was partying with John, this celebrity of the art world. I was getting a sense of what it meant to be a rock star. People always talked about the parties Andy Warhol used to have, and I felt like we were a modern day version. Surrounded by filth, exuding love, creating art.
When John asked Emelia and I to kiss, we both looked at each other and giggled. “Really?” we both asked, our words slurring into a single voice. “It’s for the piece,” he said, “It’s always for the art.” I thought more about his lessons and how he drilled into our heads that “everything you do should be art.”
So we kissed. And then kissed some more. Before we knew it, we were rolling around on the soiled turf, our bodies pulsing for “art.” John was our coach, calling out positions for us to continue, even though we weren’t having sex, they were sexual positions. All our clothes came off and John made positive comments on my size and her lack of hair. I’ll never forget, through the fog, I heard John say, “You’re almost there, just put it in why don’t you?” I don’t remember who made the move, but it happened. Terrified, I could feel Emelia tensing up as well. Neither of us were ready for this, prepared for this, but John kept encouraging.
With me on my back and Emelia on top, John walked over, cigarette and camera in hand, and joined in, putting himself into her mouth. He cheered wildly as Emelia and I grinded like employees trying to get through the end of the work week.
The night continued this way for a while, John and I sharing Emelia, who would sometimes stop us and ask for a break. John always consoled her in the corner, then brought her back to me. Many times, I lost my erection because of how frightened I was. John gave me a pill, and once I was hard again, he would routinely pull me out of Emelia to slap it.
Everything was recorded.
I woke up on a cot in the warehouse, gathered my things, and walked to the exit. John and Emelia were nowhere in sight, but the same group of workers from the night before continued on, still ignoring my existence.
I felt sick by the experience, but didn’t know what to do or how to react. I was too ashamed to tell any of my peers. In class, John showed no sign of recognition toward the night, and when I saw Emelia in the halls, she ignored me.
Eventually, time went on and the school year came to an end. No sign of the footage, no threats, no trouble, nothing. What was going on? I battled daily with the idea of turning myself in to the school, but didn’t know how to explain what had happened. I lost sleep for months, waiting to get a phone call that the footage was out and everyone knew. I imagined John looking over the footage at night. I wondered how many other students he did this to. How many women he had coerced.
I spent Senior year focusing on my thesis, which never amounted to anything. At the end of the year, the students presented their pieces to the public and to the administration. After the showcase, John always threw a party at his apartment in the city. Reluctantly, I went.
After a catered cocktail hour and all the congratulations had been passed around, John made an announcement. His newest piece was ready, and he wanted to screen it for us. My stomach dropped. As he raised his champagne flute in a toast, he looked right at me.
“It took four years, but you finally learned what art is all about.”
The whole crowd looked at me, and then the video started playing.
The video was not just from that night. It was the weeks leading up to it, my frustrations in class, my struggling with the work. It showed a meeting John had with Emelia separately, explaining to her the role she’d be playing in his piece. She was in on it the whole time, and was faking her fear and apprehension throughout the night. She understood giving up her body for the greater good of art, and they lauded her a hero. I was the subject piece. To push someone to their limits and see if they say no.
The piece was a comment on saying no and saying yes, on celebrity in the art world, on influence and affluence. The piece was about pushing people out of their comfort zones and making them behave in a way they normally wouldn't, exploring the "hows" and the "whys." It was like the Stanley Milgram tests. How far would I have gone if John had asked me? Was I doing it because I wanted to, because I felt obligated to, or because I wanted to impress him? All these issues were brought up in the piece, which was called “The Pawn’s Sacrifice.”
The piece didn’t end with that night in the golf course. The video studied me afterwards too, how differently I behaved in class, how uncomfortable I seemed. And yet, as the piece brought up, I did nothing. Was I succumbing to art, or was I just weak? Why didn't I tell anyone what happened?
I left before the piece was over. Emelia tried stopping me at the door, but I was too confused to say anything. I ran and I ran, eventually moving out of the city.
A few years ago, Emelia contacted me through Facebook and we met for coffee. After the premiere of his video, she and John traveled the world, showcasing the piece in gallery after gallery. Eventually, she grew tired of it all and left John alone in their loft with a needle in his arm.
She’s since married, has children and is happy. I have not, do not, and am not.
I can’t blame it all on the arts, because I’m still figuring out what that means.