Performance artist Neal Medlyn uses immersion as an antidote for irony. He recently told David Valesco for ArtForum, “[Irony is] not really my approach at all. I try to maintain the integrity of the source material. Otherwise I don’t get to the place that I want to get to [...] If there are too many escape hatches, then I’m not satisfied.”
If irony is not his approach, then it must be his muse. In 2010, Insane Clown Posse’s music video “Miracles” went viral, inspiring a backlash against the band and their huge fan base of self-proclaimed Juggalos, presumably because of its trashy visuals and dopey lyrics. Even Saturday Night Life caricatured their work in the digital short “Magical Mysteries.” The snarky buzz around Insane Clown Posse was bolstered by the increased appearance of shock journalism ironically dramatizing the Juggalo subculture as a violent national gang. Last summer, Medlyn went to the 12th annual Gathering of the Juggalos hosted by ICP to research his latest performance work, Wicked Clown Love, which premiered at The Kitchen this past weekend.
Wicked Clown Love is described in the press release as,
Neal Medlyn’s dark specter version of the Insane Clown Posse (ICP) world, incorporating influences ranging from the writings of Mythopoetic Men’s Movement figure Robert Bly, especially his popular book Iron John: A Book About Men and his analysis of Grimm’s fairy tales, to visual design elements that reference dollar store displays, haunted houses, and the TV show COPS.
Above all, Medlyn seemed eager to share what he had learned at the festival–he and his friends wore the requisite face paint, sang ICP songs, doused themselves in Faygo soda, and shook hands through the fly of their pants. The show even includes a rendition of the song “Miracles,” but not before the audience is made to sympathize with the Juggalo lifestyle.
I arrived a few minutes late to Saturday’s show and was rewarded with a reserved seat in the front row. We followed a few performers into the space. One wearing a velour jumpsuit melded into the set, sitting on a beanbag chair, playing first-person-shooter video games and eating candy for the duration of the show. The others jumped around wildly, grabbing their nuts, making faces, and throwing glow sticks into the air. The set designed by Kathleen Hanna was mostly wide open and decorated with strictly boyish possessions–underwear, Faygo soda, and glow sticks.
The one woman on stage (Bridie Coughlan) wore a gruesome clown mask with a shirt that read “Man / Legend”– the words accompanied arrows to show that the former word referred to her face and the latter, below the belt. Her character was entirely ironic, which would complicate Medlyn’s thesis of an authentic portrayal except that irony seems like a completely relatable defense mechanism for a woman in this environment. In the twenty-minute documentary American Juggalo, the juggalette appears desperately powerless with her puppy-like excitement over male attention, drugs and alcohol. Medlyn is fascinated by her and has published blog entries written by the woman performers about their experiences with Wicked Clown Love. He has also emphasized, “don’t get me wrong: Lyrics I overheard at the Gathering made me cringe to the depths of my feminist soul. But I was surprised how comfortable I was with these guys — and ladies, who must have made up at least 40 percent of the crowd.” The artist’s acknowledgement of the difficulty being a woman in this environment makes his dedication to it more compelling. He doesn’t always endorse their behavior (at times condemns it), but like a good friend, he doesn’t shy away so easily, either.
At one point, the artist requested that the performers get into a semi-circle for sharing time. He declared, “In order to create a safe space for masculinity and honesty, I’m going to spray some Old Spice in the middle.” A portly, short man in a trench coat removed his clown mask to reveal soft, concerned eyes. He introduced himself and began rapping lyrics written on a folded piece of computer paper pulled from his pocket. Each of the performers introduced themselves in the same format (“My name is [real name] a.k.a. [scary/violent name] a.k.a. [party name?]“) before proceeding to stumble through hilariously stupid, violent raps written on computer paper. The mix of group therapy methodology, thuggish personas, and boyish inhibitions was endearing. In Wicked Clown Love, violence, anger and insanity are portrayed as defense mechanisms and creative distractions, not necessarily realities. It is the resourcefulness and mutual support of the Juggalos that resonate.
The show’s chaos quickly gave way to an apparent structure of 6 exhibits or thematic “joker’s cards.”At times, the exhibits felt disjointed, especially when Medlyn appeared to be grasping for something larger, more socially and historically situated. This inclination often broke the suspension of disbelief. It was a little over the top, for instance, to hear the DJ (Carmine Covelli) mix well-known male singer-songwriters like Billy Joel and Jim Croce into the playlist. Not familiar enough with ICP’s music, I found myself distracted and evaluating the faithfulness of those selections. I was also unsure what to think when a regular sized man in a 10-foot-tall joker costume held a microphone to his chest (where his head must have been) to read a literary passage about masturbation. While the artist’s strategy of vulnerable immersion in Juggalo culture appropriately mirrored the stakes of that all-or-nothing lifestyle, the critical dialog distracted from it.
More often than not, the exhibits explored the existential condition of the Juggalo from the perspective of ICP–insert complaints about family dysfunction and the system. As such, the exhibits served to deepen an acquaintance with the music and behavior of the Juggalos from a comical but also quasi-ethnographic vantage. It was believable when Medlyn would direct and explain the next act–these moments were not breaks in character but gestures of inclusiveness, one of ICP’s apparent stage values. The artist exhibits a sophistication and intelligence that is beyond the act he embodies, but he is unapologetic because only sincerity is required to be accepted as a Juggalo. Just the same, throughout the performance, he told war stories–anecdotes of times when he broke the law, got into fights, or witnessed his friends doing worse. The stories sounded true, but it was deliciously mysterious to whom they belonged. In these moments, I admired his dedication to authentic portrayal and felt eager to glean what he had discovered and what he would divulge along the way. If irony is a rhetorical device that allows people to define themselves by negating groups and tastes that they deem insignificant, then immersion is a strategy that allows people to indulge the group without discernment. Both approaches evade responsibility.
All in all, the show is very fun– it has color, humor, contradictions, and a few visually poignant moments of Faygo spraying, floor humping, and brotherly wrestling. Plus, it’s a relief to know that my immersion in Juggalo culture would only last the length of the show and that Medlyn had already done the dirty work for me. Neal Medlyn’s experience at the Gathering is perhaps best articulated in an essay about the event at Salon.com, and on his blog in a series of essays about the making of his show.