Let’s take a journey to the 40th Annual Grammy Awards. The year was 1998, and the legendary Bob Dylan was performing his single “Love Sick,” when a man with the words “Soy Bomb” painted on his chest ran out from the back, wildly gesticulating next to the confused musician. Eventually the man was ushered offstage by security, and the rest was Grammy history. But with the Grammys around the corner, on Sunday, Jan. 28, one has to wonder: Whatever happened to that guy?
It turns out that the man who seemed like a spontaneous protester, a spotlight-stealer, or simply a crazy person is a legitimate and respected artist performance artist named Michael Portnoy. (He calls his unique brand of performance art “extreme participation.”) The 1998 Grammys stunt was a performance art piece meant to bring good vibes to the viewers at home — “Soy Bomb” being a two-word poem. Portnoy described the poem as: “Soy represents dense nutritional life. Bomb is, obviously, an explosive destructive force. So, ‘Soy Bomb’ is what I think art should be: dense, transformational, explosive life!”
Portnoy was originally hired as a background “head nodder” for Dylan’s performance, and he took a chance during the live show. The Grammys did not press charges against him, but Portnoy wasn’t paid for the background gig, either.
While those of us outside the often strange and obscure art world may not understand any of Portnoy’s work, there are plenty of notable galleries, art publications, and organizations that do. He has participated in the performance art biennial Performa, the Deitch Gallery art parade (founder Jeffrey Deitch later became the director of L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art), and even in futuristic fashion label threeASFOUR‘s runway shows. Portnoy’s work has been lauded and reviewed in Artforum and the New York Times (on non-Soy-Bomb-related topics), and he has performed all over the world.
But for the average Joe, he will forever be known as that weirdo who crashed the ’98 Grammys.
Luckily for us, comedy, along with music and choreography, intentionally plays a big part in Portnoy’s performances — so don’t feel bad about laughing. Portnoy was part of an “alternative” comedy troupe in the ’90s, where crashing other comedian’s sets was — of course — a big part of it. He was even called “the new Andy Kaufman” because of his over-the-top comedic performances. Later he hooked up with actress Grace Zabriskie, of Big Love and Twin Peaks fame, training with her in experimental standup comedy.
Some of Portnoy’s work is admittedly difficult to understand. For his Wandbiss piece, onlookers were encouraged to crawl into a tiny space and try to eat morsels of food that randomly popped out of holes in the walls. In The Dudion Levers, a very large instrument was fabricated with a microphone at the top, and Portnoy sang into the microphone about three objects he had placed inside. But there’s one Portnoy performance almost anyone can appreciate: His six-episode Dr. Portnoy interview show could be considered a precedent to comedian Zach Galifianakis’s hilariously awkward Between Two Ferns.
A few years ago, we asked the ever-elusive Portnoy a few questions via email about his work, his relationship to comedy and music, and if he would ever crash a nationally televised show again. You’ll find his answers, like his work, a bit abstract.
Yahoo Entertainment: I read in an interview that comedy plays strongly in your work. Was that part of the intention with your “Soy Bomb” piece? Is it a continuing theme throughout your collective work?
Michael Portnoy: Comedy is for people who have a sense of rhythm but can’t play an instrument. Rhythm is for people who like to hit animals but instead stretch them over clay bowls. The art world is for people who want to be comedians and musicians, but don’t like driving in vans with other males, or practicing. “Soy Bomb” was intended to be a simple poem, but my arms stole all the attention.
You incorporate music into your performances. What is your relationship with music personally, and how do you use, perform, or create music in your work?
Music is for people who don’t know how to think. I’m not thinking as I write this so it sounds pretty good. Music usually finds its way into most of what I do — like in a huge microphone which grows out of my shoes. I sing into it and a machine imprints objects in mother-of-pearl graphic notation. Or the time I invaded Iceland with the “uuuuu” sound.
Tell us a little about your bands, the Liquid Tapedeck and XAR. Are they part of your artwork, or straightforward music projects?
The Tapedeck was a theatrical power duo from over 10 years ago. XAR was the “majestro” [majestic electro] solo project which followed, and where I could flex all my prog-rock muscle.
What would you say was your most successful piece you’ve done thus far, whether to the press, the art community, or for yourself?
Recently, one of the projects I enjoyed most was the Taipei Women’s Experimental Comedy Club in 2010, which I built as a venue for only the most bewildering assaults upon standup.
How would you describe your current/upcoming work? What inspires you now and where do you plan to go with your art?
There’s a bunch of things coming up: Difficult Forms of Amusement [later retitled Relational Stalinism: The Musical] — a book I’m working on with the brilliant illustrator/inventor Steven M. Johnson, full of designs for panic dens, two-person Stalinist funhouses, and etc. — [as well as] a film with Grace Zabriskie, and a series of very tall and thin oil paintings of Talmudic scholars peeking through doors.
Would you ever crash national television again for an art piece?
If the delivery of all the nation’s programming were confined to just one Jumbotron in the heart of the country, I might consider occupying a few square feet in the lower right corner of the screen as a kind of living punctuation.
Um, is that a yes?