Many a straphanger on the L train line, and other public New York street venues, has been treated to (and perhaps confounded by) the traveling anarchist performance art project LxS Hu3rfaN0s/pUTOS/CRi0s (“huerfanos putos crios”, or “orphan infant prostitutes”). This self-described "queer-dada performance-terrorism ensemble" comprised of
Over pizza, we chatted with them about the virtues of being young in 2012, how museums are like malls, the survival of bohemian and community life in New York, and Kalan's controversial moment of fame as New York Magazine’s cover child for its October 24, 2011 “coming of age in post-hope America” issue.
How did you guys get into this? Performing in public spaces? Was it something you got into academically or more organically? Kalan: I was always performing, from the beginning, from when I was a very young person. I was always, like, deeply alienated by our social constructs. The veneer and facade of contemporary America was really superficial and I really wanted to break with it.
So you grew up in Seattle, Kalan? Kalan: Yeah, and my cousin and I as little kids would do street performance. We would have little groups all over the place.
What's your story with performance art, Este? Este: I guess all kids are sort of performance artists. That's kind of what your childhood is. It's living based on a reality that you're not fully able to fully consume yet, so you regurgitate information. I took a class in performance art in college. I guess I was real interested in it before the class. But it wasn't until junior or sophomore year of college.I think they only had it for like, a year. She was just a visiting lecturer. There wasn't any institutional support, basically.
I guess colleges are more willing to put energy into things that will get kids a "steady paycheck." Este: Performance, at a state university, is not a main priority. If anything it was something they were tickled by. That has historically been the thing with performance art. People don't consider it as a legitimate medium as other art forms. Painting is very revered, like everyone has to do painting in college if you're going to be an art major.
I think even if you're an artist that is expressing themselves, you're still doing it in this sort of repressed way. If I'm a painter I don't have to show myself. I can hide behind these art forms. I think making people uncomfortable is not the first thing people want to sign up for because there's a huge fear you have to get over.
Kalan, is that legend true about you getting suspended from Oberlin for throwing up beets on people? Kalan: I didn't get suspended.
You got in trouble. Kalan: It's funny because there was this sea change. I would do weird shit, but when I became a Student Government leader then I stopped. When I had a direct access to that chain of command, the president down to the students, shit was more quantified.
You had a different medium for expressing yourself. Kalan: I would drag tons of garbage around naked or whatever, but I guess I would still get in trouble, but it wasn't the same.
But it was different because you got formal acceptance? Kalan: I didn't get acceptance. They just didn't threaten to pursue charges anymore. They would just call me into the office and give me a slap on the wrist.
I guess private colleges, ultimately, just want your money. Este: University of Vermont is like that too. It's just to please parents more than anything else, being like, "Don't worry, they're in good hands."
How much do you feel you have to make sense to the people you're performing to? What responsibility do you feel you have? Kalan: I feel like me, doing my puppet shows, I stratify things. On the one hand I think like, it's okay if all the meaning that you get out out of our performances is that there's no meaning. That's meaningful in another way, right? But it's also, I think there are also tons of latent floating possible meanings. For me I think meaning is loose, fundamentally. So one of the reasons I like street performance per sé and have a puppet show is because it's so permeable in its interpretation. And it's not like a centered thing that people can talk about. Everyone is there seeing what they think is going on.
Do you think you provoke a lot of discussions? Este: I think that's just like true with all art—unless you're really not saying anything at all, making it really easy—people based on whatever their experience or whatever their paradigms will interpret things differently. "Oh this is about this, this is about that," and I think my own preconceived notions of what it is I'm doing. I think it should be more of a dialogue.
Do you think that you're reactive to your audience sometimes, then? You certainly have a captive audience on the subway late at night, when it might take 20 minutes for a train to come.
Kalan: I definitely try to be. Do people wanna get involved? Depending on how they approach it, they definitely can, and often I ask them about what they're reading, to tailor it to their current intellectual interest.
Is working with really drunk and high people really fun or really annoying?
Kalan: It's all over the place, right? Sometimes drunk people are generous in many ways, but also sometimes drunk people are really painfully flirtatious or immature.
Like when I saw you on the L, you were hitting a Barbie and a My Little Pony like they were having sex, but were the other people on the platform really thinking about it? They were just going "ha-ha-ha-ha…" really drunkenly. Kalan: Which is fine, also.
Because it's sometimes fun to come out with a meaning that's really obvious? Este: I guess when we think of performances that we wanna do, it doesn't necessarily have one meaning, it has multiple tiers, becomes like a tower of Babel. They're not necessarily so synched with each other. It can be confusing to people because there isn't necessarily a direct lineage between the things we're doing at the same time.
Kalan: We also have diagrammatic flowcharts that we show to people. [See below.]
Este: I think that, therefore, there's a lot of translation from intention to what it is.
Kalan: I think I also try to engage with a lot of various semiotically charged objects, whether they are physical or intellectual objects, and bring them into collaboration in a way that can be maximally evocative. You know that terrible photography exhibit at the Guggenheim? It was just like, I think you can, if you're clever and rhetorical, you can make anything good. It's just like, you can evoke the minimum, or you can move toward more interpretive possibilities and open as many doors as possible.
Este: Or it's against minimalism. it's against simplifying, and I think that's wha our interest is, in complicating. That's why the Rineke Dijkstra Guggenheim exhibit bothered us so much, it was like there was no complication, it was, if anything… I think it's that just like, it felt so simplified, like "this is all you need to take home."
The descriptions, or...?
Kalan: Yeah like "this is an IDF soldier!". That's pretty heavy.
Este: "The photographer explores, like, the idea of the subject and object or something like that. And the viewer and being viewed."
Kalan: We are actually working through a series of performances in New York museums.
So you're visiting the museum in preparation for the interventions? It's upsetting, the people who go. I think of museums as a 101 class or whatever, and gallery or shows or whatever are curated more or less...people who go to museums are disinterested in art, like they don't care.
Este: It's just like museums are so commercial. It's like you're going to the mall but you're shopping aesthetics. It's like you're shopping around. Quickly you're like, yes, no, yes, yes, no. We're interested in performances that critique that, people that are just people are just taking pictures of pictures with their iPhone.
I prefer museums that contextualize things, instead of just being a palatial dumping group for some aristocratic guy's junk. But it's interesting that you guys are against that while still accumulating more stuff.
Este: You're telling me. We're thinking of getting a box truck to keep all our stuff. And converting it to a studio/workshop. That's the short-term dream.
Kalan: There are a couple of questions for me. Like, I'd really love to live in some big foam thing covered in tentacles and stuff, like Burning Man, but you also have to maintain camouflage, right? So we'd have hidden things like a skylight, and there'd be a stage on the roof.
Este: It would probably be some sort of advertisement, but you'd just see through it to weirdo us on the inside…
That seems to be a trend lately. Reusing corporate imagery in a subversive way. Fun with stock imagery.
Este: Because I think it's something about the perversion of longing.
What difficulties have you encountered in trying to make a living just off your art? New York is probably one of the most expensive cities in America. Is it gratifying? A struggle?
Este: Kalan makes more money off of his art than I do. I don't make any living off of my art. I guess our rent is very cheap.
So you have a "real job."
Este: I like, babysit.
Kalan: Like honestly, standard of living discourses to me are often implicit discussions of alienation and psuedo-castration most days.
Do you think people our age expect too high a standard of living?
Kalan: It's like, what is that anyway? Like, so often it just means a bigger flatscreen today. I don't want that. I just want to be able to download some interesting articles off the internet and eat some gross pasta.
Este: I think that even now we're experiencing a movement toward a higher standard… now with renting a room, which I've done more than Kalan, but even when your standard of living is low you just want your standard of living quality-wise to increase over the years.
Kalan: Standard of living is implicitly connected to suburban capitalism. I think what we share is a radical humanitarianism in terms of the situation where you have a place in the city, a place in the country, and you're doing rural and urban agriculture and you have a print shop and a bike shop and a few vehicles you can go back and forth in, vegetable-oil powered vehicles that you can go back in forth in.
Este: It takes a certain investment, social and monetary capital. I don't think it's about big bucks but about future living situations.
Kalan: The story about when I was on the front of New York Magazine? How I had the tape on my suitcase that said "our economy is a cancer" and they changed it to "sucks to be us"? That whole photo shoot they did? But often, they're like, people are like "you're an anti-capitalist anarchist and you're asking for tips?"
I guess that's part of the mentality that New York Magazine has. They don't want to contradict the assumptions that they run on.
Kalan: But I think the crux of the thing is like, people say that a lot, and it's important to realize that if you're interested in social change, it's not the right thing to do to embody your ideal in just your own body. If you do that, you become totally alienated, you can't connect. If you're interested in social change, you have to reach out and talk to people.
Did they talk to you or just take your picture? They found us in Zuccotti Park. We were like the poster children. It was stupid, they were like, "Put this tape on your body," and I said "at least it's my words, they can't fuck with that." But like, and the first place the article they wrote was that they got the interns to talk to their friends… they talked to their interns' friends who were upset about not being CEO's.
And if they're friends of the interns, they're probably not at the age where they'd be CEOs anyway.
Kalan: I think it's ridiculous, the whole idea that there are CEO's, anyway.
Este: The point is, I don't think it "sucks to be us" right now. I think it's exciting to be us in a time that capitalism is clearly breaking down and destroying and eating itself up. It's really exciting to be young and college-educated and being like "I know of alternatives!" because I have this skill set, and thank god I don't even have to be thinking of getting a job yet, because those jobs don't even exist! I can just focus my energy on creating the alternative life that's better for me and probably better for the world.
Do you think if you were this age in 2002, you would be going about this differently?
Este: I think the George Bush era changed a lot in the US in terms of radicalizing people more.
If you were in an environment where it was possible to get a job, would you feel more pressured to get one?
Kalan: I guess the reason I say our economy is a cancer is that I feel our whole economic model is a pretty comprehensive social and ecological rape. It's consuming itself. It's not gonna work. Our economy is built on constant growth, and it's like, we have to plateau, because if we don't plateau…And it's not what's gonna happen. Global population charts have the population growth leveling off in 2100. Which is great, I don't think population is the problem. I think it's capitalism.
Este: I think population is the problem.
All the videos I've seen of you have been fragments of something larger - my friend encountered you once on the L, and he took a video that ended up being about 20 seconds long, and then it was over because he had to get on the train. Are you frustrated or empowered by the fragmentation of your viewers experience? Kalan: I think it's the best. Anything that's honest. Honesty is so hard. I think fragments and broken things are… I think in the same way that like, half-inch things are more inspirational than full-inch things.
Do you ever get verbal with your performances? We do a lot of recordings, like music, and we talk into our recorders and play them as we perform… it's verbal but it's not live.
Kalan: We also encourage the audience to come up, off the street, and ask questions like at the Tank show we printed out HTML of the Wikipedia article describing the internet and had people type in their own information. Usually our text is gibberish. Our text is transcendence. And I think that's in between textuality and aesthetics almost.
Este: And we do velcro - the subject is, the object is. I think we're interested in signage.
Do you think there's something about Dada that speaks to our generation in particular?
Este: It also came out in wartime, there was so much shit in the world and nothing made sense. I think that's what Dada expresses. That nothing make sense. We can try to give it this narrative, try to give it this order that gives it a facade of sensible living and behavior and norms. And no, if you look it it, this is war, this is cruelty, this is total insanity. It's just diverse in itself.
I guess dream logic also gives more possibility for answers than normal logic.
Este: Fluxus, too. I think our generation is revisiting a lot of fluxus-type ideas.
Kalan: We all summer have actually been trying to coordinate this class that we'd be teaching with the Public School called Fluxus 2012. Maybe we'll teach it when we come back [to New York] at this point.