The end of the world as we know it may come quickly. According to performance artist Rob Andrews, the apocalypse might even begin this Sunday. The artist's previous pieces have involved everything from washing people's feet for twelve hours in a marketplace in Macedonia to carrying a door from Coney Island to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and Andrews says it's all been leading up to this. End of Empire, his newest piece, will involve walking with a sculpture he calls the Void Seed from Denver International Airport to Counterpath on the edge of downtown, where the Brooklyn-based artist will bury the Void Seed as part of a ritual aimed to tip civilization toward its end. Members of the community are invited to join Andrews at Xanadu Street and Colfax Avenue between 4 and 5 p.m. on Sunday, September 1, and at Humboldt Street and Colfax between 7 and 8 p.m. that same night, with the burying of the Void Seed and a reception to follow at Counterpath. In advance of End of Empire, we spoke with the possible harbinger of the apocalypse.
Westword: What is End of Empire, and where did the idea come from?
Rob Andrews: I have performance practice that's at this point almost fifteen years old. I studied with this guy William Pope.L up in Maine in the late '90s and he's part of that world of performance art that does things like, he crawls for five miles in a Superman suit. He's about heroic actions or mythology and taking tropes from contemporary culture and human culture and reinventing them and using them for different purposes. The idea for End of Empire really came from taking a breath in my work and saying, what the hell have I been doing all these years? What's the common through-line within my work?
I have a bunch of different bodies of work. I've done work where I have a minotaur persona, where I will chain myself to a telephone pole or I've built myself an environment in a gallery and sort of just exist there, and I'm interested in these ideas of taking these old mythological ideas and sort of planting them in this new, fertile context to see what might grow. End of Empire is this belief I have that as a culture, as a civilization, we're reaching a transitional moment. It doesn't necessarily mean doom and gloom and apocalypse and everyone's gonna die. But I don't know. I'm energized by the idea of the Occupy Movement and that our culture seems really unstable. Art in a white walled space seems too didactic for me, so my approach is to take this work and build a frame inside of a city or a sacred space and then crash it apart and see what happens.
What exactly will you do to tip civilization toward its end on Sunday?
I'm bringing a sculpture to Denver I'm calling the Void Seed. I have a drawing practice and a photography practice and I haven't always been an object maker, but this is an object that's really special to me. A friend of mine cut his hand off while in the wood shop. And I'm sure you have lots of artist friends, but I'm the person that I guess you give your bloody pants to. So I cut the pants into ribbon and created a sack and I put inside the sack a coyote pelt that I used in a piece at the Museum of Modern Art -- I sang to the coyote pelt until I passed out -- and I put my copy of Infinite Jest, one of my favorite books that I fell in love with my wife while reading, a horrible Ronald Reagan mask, and a couple of other things. Certainly pieces of my autobiography but also things that I think have had culturally warm influence. Counterpath reached out to me and said, sort of, we're into this crazy shit that you're doing. Denver, to me, while it's not the geographical center of our country, is close enough.
I decided to take this sculpture which three weeks ago for the Brooklyn International Performance Festival I gathered a group of people who are all incredible performers themselves and we performed a ritual to charge up the Void Seed. What we did is we created a drone choir and we had these crazy drones and we sang to it to impart it with the energy that we think would tip civilization toward its end. I'm gonna arrive in Denver, I'm gonna run a workshop with some artists and we're gonna do sort of a similar ritual as a gallery. But on Sunday the 1st I'm gonna take this sculpture and I'm gonna walk it from Denver International Airport to Counterpath, which is about thirty miles.
Without being too spooky or new age or whatever, I define myself as a storyteller. Most of the stories that I tell involve some sort of journey. Obviously, there's sort of the heavy-handed metaphor that life's a journey, blah blah blah. But I think that you need to work physically and work metaphysically in order to achieve some sort of transformative understanding. I really believe that it's my responsibility as an artist and as a person to sort of remind ourselves as a culture that the void exists. So I'm gonna take the sculpture, I'm gonna take the Void Seed, and I'm gonna walk it, and in Counterpath's back yard I'm gonna bury it. And we'll have a ritual, we'll have a drone choir, and hopefully that seed takes root and something starts changing over time. This is the craziest thing I do, so take it with a grain of salt, because I think that my job as a storyteller is to create these frameworks and this architecture so people can start considering their own lives.
I was really excited when I got the call from Tim [Roberts of Counterpath] because, of course, Denver would be ground zero for the apocalypse! Duh. Especially given all the conspiracy theory shit surrounding Denver International Airport. I'm really compelled by that; I think it's really fascinating. And again, the Illuminati and the Free Masons, that's our mythology. We need that. For some reason culturally we require there to be a shadow government. And maybe it's just that we can't believe that we have fucked this up so much. I don't wanna be blamed for how shitty life is and how badly we treat the poor people in our country, and how badly we treat people that are not like us, so it's definitely someone else's fault. But really, truly, it's the mechanisms of our society and our government that destroy lives and our families. My best skill is writing and my best skill is making art, so I'm gonna use these skills and I'm gonna use this platform in order to try to change the flow. We'll see if it works. Keep reading for more on End of Empire. What other performances have you done in the past?
I have this thread in my work where I am the minotaur. And for a performance called Blood Draw, I was wheeled out as the minotaur, which is basically just a purple cow's head and underpants, but you'd be surprised at how serious people take it, and I was chained to a cot. I had hired a nurse to come in and she took about two pints of my blood in the gallery. And I wanna say there were about 250 people there. It was packed, just really packed. Then I got a guy who I know really well whose personality is like a used car salesman and he tried to sell the blood. There's a little bit of a theatrical thing about it -- "It's minotaur blood, it'll keep you hard! It'll do this! It'll do that!" And someone actually bought some. But for me, as the artist and the storyteller, no art had happened yet up until that point. I would never call that shit art. I think that's theatrical artifice. But when the huckster, the used car salesman, left, my explicit instructions to the gallery and to everyone assisting me was to leave my body in that space for at least forty minutes and nothing happens. It's just the table, filled with test tubes and vials of blood, and the restrained minotaur. So what happened was five minutes went by and everyone was deadly silent. And then people started talking. And then people started saying, "What the hell? Is this over?" And then they would clap and then stop clapping. And then people started approaching me and poking me and then hitting me, and then people stole all of the blood. They stole the syringe that she used to take my blood. And then I sort of activated and woke up and started thrashing around and then people were screaming and running around and then they went silent again and quiet again.
So I tell you the story of that piece to talk about my approach and my thinking. I think my job as a storyteller is to make a frame and then destroy it, and everything that happens afterwards is art. The real art is in human behavior and the real art is in how we react to what we're afraid of, so hopefully I can do that in Denver.
What else do you want people to know about End of Empire?
End of Empire I've literally been working on for two years also as a video game. One of my goals is to take this idea of the apocalypse or what happens after civilization ends and create a digital environment that people can actually navigate as the minotaur. It's not even fair to call it a game. It's more of an experience. We're constructing this digital universe based on all of the photographs that people post publicly on Flickr and Facebook in a geotagged photograph. We're modeling the universe based on the actual volume of images. So to give you a more concrete example, you can picture the Empire State Building and people have taken, let's just say, 1.2 million photographs at the top of the Empire State Building, and people have taken maybe 200,000 photographs in the middle of the building where you have to switch elevators, and there's been 1.2 million photographs taken at the bottom, so if you used that data as structural data, the Empire State Building in the game is gonna be this bulbous, strange knob coming out of the world. I'm interested in this idea of taking the history that we're creating every day by putting our stupid photos on Facebook and that that history sort of translates. I'm interested in what's gonna be left after the Empire falls. I'm interested in the idea that maybe if there are more than a million photos taken in one location, maybe you can walk into this environment where you can actually see the pictures. You can see the happy, smiling babies and see the people drinking Bud Lite Lime and all that shit. And then in the background you can see desolation, like really what we have done afterwards. In a sense, the piece that I'm doing in Denver is the beginning of the video game. I'm trying to bend reality a little bit and saying that the things that we do in this life have implications in the fourth dimension and in the virtual dimension. I really hope you sit down with your friends and have a beer and you laugh at me, man. [Laughs.]
What do you hope people can get out of the performance?
My belief as a husband, as a father, as a teacher and as an artist is that we've lost something. We've lost a sort of trust and intimacy that maybe existed before. My work is about trying to create opportunities to feel that intimacy and feel that risk in the age of Facebook, when you can find someone in thirty seconds.
This piece, along with so much other work that I've done in the past, is about sharing experience. I can't say what I want people to get out of it. I'm more interested in getting people to let go of the social and emotional conventions that prohibit them from doing work like this. One out of ten people sees something weird and kind of scary and jumps in. My job as an artist and as a person is to get the other nine, to compel them to challenge their own boundaries and jump into that stream that is foreign. My work comes out of a long history of participatory work and fluxus. One of the ideas that I think about a lot is bearing witness. Once you strip someone of their politics, once you strip someone of their favorites and their fucking music and everything that they've said about themselves online, we're just bodies. That's all we are. I'm interested in this idea of taking your body and putting it in the same place as another person's body and doing something that seems simple but is actually really hard and seeing how it changes you. I just feel like we've retreated into ourselves, and I am particularly talking about American culture. When I do work outside of this country it's not the same at all. When I did work in Macedonia, they took me right to a TV talk show that was hosted by a guy who looked sort of like an Eastern European Elvis, and they brought in the translator and the first question that got translated for me was, "Rob, what is your philosophy of life and art?" In a third-world culture the actions that we present mean something more because people listen and pay attention. There's an approachability that doesn't exist in the United States. Everyone's too fucking cool or afraid.
I feel like people are afraid of performance art. They're afraid that there's just gonna be some naked, screaming meemie. And I say that and I've definitely done nude works. [Laughs.] On some level you always have to embody and embrace the cliche.
Performance art is just sort of the term that I'm forced to live with and a lot of other people in our culture are sort of scrambling to define it. But if I could say anything to the people in Denver that are curious, it's that they should join their story to this story, because it's the best thing that we do. It's the greatest risk that we can ever take. This is special. It's unique. It's about suffering, it's about redemption, and it's about faith. I think my work is certainly, on the most basic level, about me trying to find something inside of myself, but again and again and again I'm reminded that I'm the least important part of it. In a sense, we as a culture, we crave this. We crave to bear witness to each other and we crave to let go in front of each other.
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