At the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, filming a soft drink ad in front of a crowd of fans, a pyrotechnic malfunction ignites the singer’s hair, causing second degree burns on his scalp and face. The case is settled out of court and the settlement is donated to the Brotman Medical Center, which is rechristened in honor of their benefactor. The President invites the singer to the White House to give him an award for his support of charities that have helped people overcome alcohol and drug abuse (the First Lady’s pet cause). Inspired by this honor the singer continues to use his power as an icon to help those less fortunate.
I work in a used bookstore in North Beach, where I earn minimum wage. The owner is a gambler and a drunk who treats his staff poorly, but because of this there’s an unofficial policy that we can take any of the books we want home for free. My main co-worker quickly becomes my new best friend: a woman named Suzette Partido who is studying photography. Specifically, she wants to be a photographer who doesn’t use a camera. I am only just discovering through her other artists who do this: Barbara Kruger, Sherrie Levine, and Suzette’s friend and mentor, a Berkeley-based artist named Lutz Bacher. The found image feels loaded with feminist underpinnings: the primary question of the early eighties in the art world being, how does a change in authorship—especially one from male to female—shift the meaning of the work?
I’m eager to embark on my own experiments. If the image can be repurposed, why not other creative undertakings? What about a place, or a personal story? Can I be a set designer who doesn’t need a theater company? What would “found theater” look like? I decide to try out a piece where my set is the inside of strangers’ cars. These strangers write the script. I hitchhike through the southern United States, listening closely to each story told to me in each car, and retell that story as my own in the next. So it goes: retelling stories from the previous car, listening closely and memorizing the next. It links all these rides into a necklace that starts in San Francisco, dips down into the South, and eventually comes up again on the East Coast to finish in New York.
The work is fraught with technical failures. It’s poorly documented and frequently drifts from the initial premise. But where it succeeds is in forming the groundwork for my approach to all art in years to come. It casts the mold of my obsession with history/story-telling and the way these stories are shaped by the voices that tell them. This adventure underlines the importance of the audience, not as a mere interpreter, but as a necessary medium. In doing so, it also erases, for me, the notion of art being an individualistic expression. Everything is collaboration! Cracked windshields and the Mississippi River, backseats and guitars, curves on a six a.m. two-lane highway, black widow spiders amongst gingham curtains, lines of coke with truck drivers in roadside bars, and along a scorching-hot stretch of Arizona a field of grapefruit trees that save me from a near collapse from dehydration.