I find myself driving through LA wondering about the dead. It may be because I’m dissatisfied with my life and when that happens you think back to a time of possibilities. Someone else’s life now.
In hindsight, the without walls performances seemed worthwhile at least. The earlier piece was just photographic stills and repetitive music. Over time the show developed a beginning, middle and end but became less experimental in the process. When we did without walls it became less structured again, unmade. I think about it often, especially when I’m sitting through experimental theatre, having seen what performance artists did in our time. Not that what we did was never done before, but what we did was different at the time, if that makes sense.
I know where the painter lives now. She can be found in a suburban house once belonging to her mother. Nothing out of the ordinary – sprinklers on the lawn, an old Volvo (of all cars) in the driveway. The painter isn’t home when I drop by, which is just as well. The kid who opens the door doesn’t ask who I am, which is also just as well. I go by a second time, and still only the kid is at home. He lets me in because his mother’s due back soon. The living room has no paintings on the wall, just a large map of the world behind the settee. I’m beginning to wonder if I have the right place when I ask the kid if there are any paintings in the house.
‘Just these weird old paintings in the garage.’
We peek through the door to the garage and see them, some hung up and others stacked against the walls. The kid follows me into the garage, looking at them, as if for the first time.
‘Do you like them?’ I ask.
‘Not thought about it,’ he shrugs. ‘Do you know who painted them?’
I’m surprised. ‘Don’t you?’
‘Someone from the past is all Mom says. Did you paint them?’
‘No,’ I say, ‘though I’m someone from the past, too.’
The painter arrives and tells me the photographer died making a film piece of a train coming head on. She lost touch with the poet. The musician, we both know, is already dead. Neither of us speak about the other one. We have nothing much else to say to each other, but then we hardly ever did.
I go to visit the photographer’s daughter. I’ve only met her the once before when she was in my tent. In a darkened sitting room, she shows me the surviving film. First it shows a train track with long yellow grass bending in the breeze. There’s no soundtrack. A dark dot appears in the distance and gets bigger and bigger until, just as you make out it’s a train… When the impact occurs, I can’t help but say, ‘Oh Jeez, what an idiot.’
We were performance artists, but the musician always called us a band. A band plus. At least that was how we started. We didn’t have a name or anything; we just came on stage one evening at a place known for experimental music and performance art. People hung out there every night and when there wasn’t a performance a DJ played records. Our first piece was pretty conventional. While the photographer projected his images of the Mojave Desert, the musician played the guitar, and I played the bass. The painter joined us the second night and painted in real time on the back wall, which began as pure white, where the slides of the photographs flicked on, until it was hard to see the stills as the acrylics mixed in with them. Someone from the audience said the images of the desert and the painting were juxtaposed, meaning art was dead. We didn’t argue.
The manager liked it, though, and asked us to play every Thursday evening for the next few weeks. He asked what name to put on the board outside. The photographer said ‘Myxomatosis’ and it stuck. Thinking it was his piece just because he came up with the name, he became more egocentric and wanted a rectangular space left blank in the middle for his photographs, so the painter worked around it. Her best friend the poet came and added spoken word pieces to our performances. One evening a woman we didn’t know gave us a mannequin to display her bizarre fashion designs on stage. People tried to work out the meaning of that one, but there wasn’t. We just liked it. In time we incorporated the mannequin more, interacting with her.
Then we did without walls, uncapitalised. We decided to perform exactly what we did at home in our studio in real time. The painter found old paintings in junkyards and garage sales and painted over them. The musician played this hypnotic guitar riff over and over, putting himself into a trance. I did my own thing on the bass but got bored with it and began to call out unfamiliar words from Webster’s Dictionary, asking the poet to define them using poetic licence of course. Another time we asked those in the audience to write down definitions, like the game. We’d then vote on them, and the poet would try to work them into her poetry. The photographer took photos of the audience, developed them into slides and the next week projected them onto the wall interspersed with the desert images. People enjoyed it when they saw themselves.
We also made cups of coffee, smoked cigarettes, ate crackers and left the stage to go to the bathroom. Eventually we invited a couple of friends on stage to hang out, play the guitar, tattoo fingers with a needle dipped in Indian ink, whatever they wanted to do. We had one rule: no drugs. The musicians, me included, worked on little melodies together while the poet and painter created a mixed-media mural. The last performance was like a party. A woman from the audience started it. She saw that people were really drinking coffee and fancied a cup. Others came on, too, including a man who added bourbon to everyone’s coffee. We even cooked some soup on a camping stove and let people in the audience try some. We got them to do things, like stir the soup and run to the store to get a tin of beans. There were no further performances.
I was voted most likely to commit suicide by my Junior High School classmates in northern California. In High School I read a lot and hung out with the arty crowd. The musician was in the same art class and one day asked if anyone could play bass. I didn’t know him, and had never played bass before, but said I would do it. The only other person in the band was a drummer. When we performed in school one day without any preparation a boy came on stage with his saxophone and a girl helped-out with percussion. It was a terrible incoherent noise, but it was in the spirit of performance art which was a thing then.
When after graduation the musician said he was moving down to LA, he asked if I’d like to go, too. He knew this photographer guy in his thirties who lived on the top floor of an office block. The photographer rented it as a studio and darkroom, but no one was meant to live there. The rest of the floor was empty. When the painter moved in, she hung the partitions made with cloth, creating four bedrooms. At first, she used the space as a painting studio and slept somewhere else, but gradually she stayed over more until she was a permanent resident. We called her Cat, from Catherine. Her friend the poet brought in a two-ring propane camping stove from home and set up a kitchen on the roof, which was flat with a low wall. Cat built a lean-to against the stair access wall to store the stove, pots, and cooking utensils.
Once while I was in a record store down the road, straightening out the records and putting them back in alphabetical order, as I usually did, a woman asked if I knew who performed ‘The Bird Song’. I said Lena Lovich. The manager overheard and said I could work there, so I did. The poet worked as a courier using the time in the car to think and write poetry at stoplights. She became known as Spacey, because when people talked to her, she was away listening to her own thoughts instead. The musician got work in a restaurant as a trainee chef. He became known as Sniffler because he always seemed to have a cold. Really, though, he was snorting too much. The photographer was just Bob until he became Shirley.
One day, not long after the without walls piece, Cat and Bob were walking down a busy road lined with boutiques and were accosted by a Hare Krishna. Bob thought it would be fun to take him home, luring him to the studio under the pretence of recording his chant. What Bob really wanted to do was to photograph him. The Krishna was lean and pretty and had an accent from Quebec. He’d come to LA four months before and had tried to get work, but failed, and ended up getting beat-up a few times. He was rescued by the ISKCON people who ran a restaurant, and after washing dishes for a few weeks he joined them. Bob feigned an interest in ISKCON and wanted the Krishna to come by again to talk about religion. It wasn’t long before we got him to wear normal clothes, shave off the tuft at the back of his head and move in. The musician offered to get him a job in the same restaurant where he worked but the Krishna refused to touch meat. Eventually he found work in a new vegetarian co-operative café.
‘Are you a boy or girl?’ the poet asks Krishna when they first meet.
‘You have a dick, so you’re a boy,’ Cat says bluntly.
‘I have no gender.’ After a pause, Krishna adds, ‘I am neti neti.’
‘What?’ Cat screws her eyebrows together.
‘Not this, not that.’
As it was a studio of performance artists, Bob asked Krishna what talents he might have in that department. He said he had violin lessons as a child. The musician said his uncle had a violin he could probably have. (So begins the violin story. The short version is me and the musician go up north to discover that the violin is down in Tijuana. We find it in bad condition beyond repair, which is perfect. Bob though is worried the screech would put people off.)
Whenever anyone argued with Bob he would say ‘surely, not’ or ‘surely, you don’t mean that.’ One day, after Bob said ‘surely’ several times, Krishna asked ‘who’s Shirley?’ He meant it as a joke, but I said, ‘he is,’ pointing at Bob, so Bob became Shirley. For the sake of this story, I will continue to call him Bob.
One Sunday we’re all quietly working, me reading the dictionary, Cat painting, and Bob arranging prints of different street scenes into a collage, making it look like one street. The others are out doing their paid work.
Cat steps back from her painting. ‘Perfect Symmetry,’ she announces.
Bob takes a closer look. ‘Actually, it’s not perfect symmetry. It’s close, but not perfect.’
‘Well, it’s not asymmetry, so what is it?’
‘For it to be asymmetry it would have to be something like this…’ He jots down on the sketch pad: XOOXOXXO. ‘Perfect symmetry would be something like this…’ He jots down OXOXXOXO.
‘Isn’t that what I did?’
‘No, what you did was…’ Bob jots down OXOXOXO. ‘There would need to be two Xs in the middle because symmetry is meant to be mirror-opposite. When you put a line through the middle of yours, the X gets split in half, so there needs to be two of them. What you’ve done is symmetrical but not perfect symmetry.’
‘Since when does symmetry mean mirror-opposite?’ Cat argues.
I check Webster’s Dictionary, which is often by my side, and read the definition of symmetry silently to myself. ‘Shirley is right.’
Cat stares hard at her painting, refusing to resign. She says, ‘Okay, then, I will call it Perfect Asymmetry.’
‘But it’s not,’ Bob insists. ‘It’s too symmetrical.’
Our lives and our art blurred into one another where you might say it was all a performance, a cosy co-existence with a shared creative purpose.
But it didn’t last. The musician started to speak about the King of Swords, insisting there was no real free will, no real creativity. The poet argued with him saying she was an anarchist and would challenge the King of Swords.
I think that was how it started, as if it were possible to put a beginning on something.
Bored one evening we play a game of Yahtzee.
Krishna rolls the dice. ‘Two ones.’
‘You can’t chase ones,’ says the musician. ‘Roll again.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘They try to trick you. You won’t roll another one.’
Krishna rolls the whole lot again. ‘Nothing.’
‘OK.’ The musician peers down at the dice. ‘It’s a loss. Keep the one and roll the rest.’
He does so. ‘Two ones.’
A few days later, the musician is cowering behind the couch saying, ‘snake eyes, snake eyes.’ Krishna asks him if he sees a cobra as that’s auspicious. There’s no answer.
Years later I learned of his accidental overdose, the musician’s that is. His sister told me when I bumped into her on a visit up north.
The photographer’s van was often vandalised or found somewhere across the city the next day. On this occasion it was an ‘Ants Invasion’. For my birthday the day before they’d given me an Adam and the Ants tape with that song on it. We played it in the van when we went to get groceries for the roof party. The next day we were invited to the home of a famous performance artist and had to walk because the van was crawling with ants. Bob was furious. ‘Who left the sandwich in there?’
Leaving the van behind, we trooped down the streets, an odd assortment in oversized mis-matched second-hand clothes, apart from Bob, who usually dressed well. We always thought he had a secret life as a lawyer.
When we arrived, somewhat late, I couldn’t take my eyes away from our host – the lipstick, dangly earrings, bald head, and a pet rat on her shoulder. A young man pranced around her treating her like royalty. She was after all performance art royalty.
After that visit we wondered what we were. Bob said we were nothing compared to her so we should now be called Nothing. We all agreed because it was better than Myxomatosis, which no one could spell.
‘How do you draw an image of nothing,’ asks Cat one morning. Most of us are still trying to wake ourselves up but she’s agitated. ‘As soon as you draw something it’s not nothing.’ She holds up a blank sheet of paper. ‘Even this is something. What can I do, draw an empty circle?’
‘But then it’s a circle,’ I say.
‘Just draw nothing,’ says the poet.
Cat’s eyes light up. ‘That’s it. I’ll draw nothing.’
‘And I’ll play nothing,’ says the musician.
‘And I am nothing. Neti neti.’ I don’t have to tell you who says that.
It was around that time we discovered Bob had a daughter. She was fifteen and turned up with a weedy boyfriend who didn’t last the day. Her attention-seeking irritated me, so I stayed on the roof alone but went down once to get a drink and heard Bob’s daughter telling everyone which animal each of them looked like. The poet was an egret, the musician a raccoon (he did have dark shadows under his eyes) and Cat was, predicably, a cat. Groaning, I returned to the roof.
By then I was sleeping in a tent on the roof. Bob’s daughter asked if she could join me there, like a cat who’d go to the one person who didn't like them and try to be their friend. She talked through the night about her life, and I grew to like her. I couldn’t help but ask what animal I looked like. She said I’m the only one she couldn’t do it with. We could speculate on that.
About a month later we were up on the roof drinking, or some of us were, and Krishna and the musician were sitting on the low wall with their feet dangling over the edge, the street a long way below. I got nervous watching them there, especially with the way the musician had been acting all strange and seeing things only he could see. They were laughing, and the musician was being over-friendly with his arm over Krishna’s shoulders, and to this day my memory cannot bring all I observed into focus. Krishna clocked me and smiled, a reassuring smile that said, ‘I know what I’m doing.’
I couldn’t watch them anymore sitting close to the edge like that, so I went downstairs into the studio where everyone else was getting ready for bed. I wish I’d stayed on the roof, said something, did something. I fell asleep on the couch. When I awoke, all was quiet. I was aching all over and stretched and noticed the musician spawled on his mattress with his leg over the edge. I sighed in relief. Then I felt sick.
After numerous enquiries, I find the poet, grey-haired and wearing purple-rimmed glasses. She is still a poet, the only one of us continuing her art. That’s how I find her. An acquaintance remembers her name in a poetry magazine. The editor puts us in contact and now we meet for a walk in Elysian Park with its nice views.
It’s awkward. Maybe because of that, I ask how she thinks Krishna died.
‘He fell off the roof.’
It was what we told the police. The poet and I were the first to see him. When we heard a siren coming our way, we peered over the edge of the roof and saw him lying at an impossible angle on the sidewalk.
I just nod.
When I didn’t see Krishna that morning, I woke the musician and asked where he was.
‘I left him alone on the roof.’ He swore it but didn’t look me in the eye.
The autopsy showed he was clean. Krishna was always clean.
At the time I also said he fell, and we didn’t let anyone else say otherwise. I had my suspicions though. It was in his smile.
I don’t tell the poet what I think. The musician is dead now, so we’ll never know for sure. I wish I got it out of him, whatever it was in his shifting gaze. Maybe I’m reading more into these things because that’s all there is, and it hurts to remember. It’s like cleaning a wound.
We stop to sit on a bench, watching a squirrel watching us.
‘And you?’ asks the poet, pushing up her glasses. ‘What became of you?’
Suzanne Owen lectures in the study of religion at Leeds Trinity University, where she also completed an MA in Creative Writing, gaining the programme prize. She has published academic articles and chapters on on indigenous religions and British Druidry and one monograph, The Appropriation of Native American Spirituality (Bloomsbury 2011). In fiction, she writes short stories and is working on a full-length novel. In the past, she’d worked at a radio station in California and wrote and performed in amateur theatre groups in Glasgow. Suzanne recommends World Animal Protection.