|The infamous Joe Coleman performance
Shock Art comes to BF/VF
Why BF/VF's screening room was closed for a year
By Bob Lamm
I forgot the name of the intern who booked the large screening room for a Halloween concert, but I remember the name of the shock artist she invited to perform: Joe Coleman. The intern sold a lot of tickets and the room was filled with people - I noticed them coming in while I was playing with the animation system in the graphics suite.
I could hear the performance through the wall: It started with a lot of strange noises - screams and loud grunts followed by the sounds of lots of equipment falling down. Tom Waltz (the guy who ran the audio studio across the hall) and I came out of our rooms and took peeks through the peephole in the door - all we could see was the audience riveted with attention. We went back to our rooms until we heard a loud explosion. When we came back out, smoke was coming out of the room and the fire alarms were starting to go off.
One of the performers - a lady draped in a druid costume - was waiting near the door. By now I could hear the smoke alarms on the next floor up going off - then the alarms on the floor above that. I commented to her that somebody should call the fire department to warn them that this was all a false alarm set off by the performance. She turned to speak but was so drugged that drool spilled out of her mouth onto my arm. I was so grossed out I went back into the graphics room. I could hear lots of commotion in the room - and people rushing out the hallway.
Finally Dan Hartnett, the projectionist for the performance, came out. He looked really shaken - he said the peformance had started out with porn films projected on a screen, Joe Coleman had made his entrance by swinging through the screen, and then took out a couple of pet mice and bit their heads off. Then Joe's wife (the lady in the druid costume?) had strapped what appeared to be firecrackers onto his chest and had lit the fuses. Dan said she had been trying to put as many on him as she could - he speculated that she wanted to kill him - and the explosion had been really powerful. The smoke was so thick that Dan couldn't see if Joe was hurt or even if they were continuing with the act. In the end, the smoke got so bad that people couldn't breathe and the entire audience fled out the door and down the fire escape.
We went back into the room - it had aired out by then - it was totally deserted. Performer and wife had fled with audience. In the performance area was a sheep carcass (the kind you buy in the North End.) There was a caramelized spot on the floor where the firecrackers must have landed. The intern was bummed that the performance had ended - Dan was relieved that there were no casualties. We cleaned up the mess and only then did the Fire Department make an appearance - They were just down the street - they could see our front entrance from their own front door. They had picks and other heavy gear and lumbered up the stairway like they were going to take BFVF out.
"What's going on heah?" one of them asked. We explained that it had been a performance piece that had gotten out of hand. They wandered around making sure nothing was aflame and discovered the carcass - what was that all about??? The firemen started to look at us like we were perverts and protested that there were laws about animal cruelty and stuff like that. The intern got a little impatient with all the lecturing and told them somewhat snottily that this was all part of a performance piece by a Very Famous Performance Artist From New York. They wanted to know who. She replied that she doubted they would have heard of him.
Then they found the firecracker remnants. You would have thought they had found a bomb - they got a lot more serious and actually called the bomb squad. The bomb squad came quick and looked through every single room, closet and cabinet. In the back room that had been used as a dressing room they found Druid Lady's methadone...
Now they were about to do personal searches, so I managed to slip away and call Paul Desaulniers, BF/VF's Membership manager. I told him what had happened, but he didn't really believe me. "Calm down, Bob, I'm sure it's not as bad as you say." Well, when Anne Marie Stein came in the next day, we were featured in the Globe. Turned out that a one of their critics had come to watch the performance and wrote a review titled : 'Audience Flees Explosive Performance'. In it, he complained (among other things) that mouse blood (from the bitten-off heads) had gotten on some of the audience.
The police ended up filing charges against both the intern and shock artist. Joe was charged with animal abuse and possesing an 'infernal machine'.
At BF/VF, the Fire Department made a fire inspection and found a lot of irregularities. Our fire extinguishers had lost their charge, some of our 'Exit' signs weren't working, the screen in the screening room partially obstructed one of the exits and the seats we were using in there weren't flame-proof. We had to fix all those things, buy new chairs, and it still took a year before we managed to get a permit to have screenings again.
I've heard since that Joe Coleman continued to give 'shock art' performances in New York and that his wife had left him. We made a funny animated video about the whole thing and showed it when we finally opened the screening room again...
Bob Lamm used to teach all the techie classes at BF/VF - he was also the owner of the graphics/animation system that had been installed there on a revenue-sharing basis.