Got On the Bus

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With a painted bus full of ne'er-do-wells recalling the acid-trip ramblings of Ken Kesey's famous bus Further, and with the hodgepodge Zocalo performances tapping into the American tradition of the traveling circus, and with the artists involved maddeningly insistent on the prime virtue of suggestive ambiguity, one might be excused for wondering just what the hell actually happens at these "performances." It's a good question, but it's not one satisfyingly answered beforehand.

It is, Topchy attempts, glossing the probability that he's not sure himself, "important to not know exactly why you're doing everything you're doing. But you can find out after a while."

Okay. Since it's now been a while -- and the bus has made it as far as New York, where, after two performances at the Brooklyn Anchorage under the Brooklyn Bridge, it's up in the air having its brakes fixed -- I'll tell you what parts of America have seen on loan from Houston.

The performance fades in with Kevin Jackson's turntable feeding kitsch-laden music into loudspeakers atop the bus. Malcolm MacDonald introduces the company, tells a funny story about whatever outrageous misfortune happened to strike the group the day before and suggests, without actually begging, that the crowd might want to make a small financial contribution before the night is out.

"What you're about to see," he claims before one performance, "is so incoherent as to defy any sort of description." Jim Pirtle, performing under the hobo-ish pseudonym Stu Mulligan, is introduced and, to the backdrop of Jackson's music, begins to sing karaoke. Charlie Rich's "Behind Closed Doors" (remember that mask theme?) is the first tune. The bus itself, capped with a 30-foot aluminum tripod and draped with a long white projection canvas, defines the stage area, and while Pirtle growls out his song, Topchy -- dressed in pajamas and whiteface -- mimes and poses from a perch atop the guardrailed plywood performance platform that serves as the bus roof. Meanwhile Roger Schoenbaum, in a matching getup, walks a tightrope stretched from a light pole to the bus. Video collages are projected on a canvas behind Pirtle, who launches into "If You Go Away" as Topchy begins to climb a knotted rope dangling from the peak of the tripod. When he reaches the top, his mugging, contorted face is recorded by a video camera mounted above him, and that image is fed onto the screen behind Pirtle, who is by now writhing on the ground beneath Schoenbaum, who's strutting over him on stilts. People clap when this is over.

Pirtle follows with "You Don't Bring Me Flowers," during which he eats a bouquet of carnations, or roses, depending upon local availability. "The Way We Were" is next, and then "It Was a Very Good Year," during which Pirtle covers his face in mayonnaise. Somewhere in there Pirtle drinks a small bottle of picante sauce and Schoenbaum smashes a watermelon off a pedestal. Pirtle closes with "Close to You" while Topchy and Schoenbaum eat the fruit off the ground.

That's the meat of the show, and while it's difficult -- if not pointless -- to say whether it's art or merely act, it is an undeniably strange, alternate reality that is created for the brief span of 45 minutes. Afterward, Ponty Lutz plays some sensitive singer-songwriter musings on his acoustic guitar, and whatever members of the crowd haven't left climb on the bus to sit at candlelit booths and drink coffee as Jackson plays more acoustic guitar music and MacDonald recites poems. According to the Zocalo Mobile Village mission statement, the performance is supposed to incite "interactive collaboration with artists from the host community," but that lofty sounding goal is rarely represented by anything more than the hippie-dip from Baltimore who followed MacDonald's performance one night with the recitation of a bit of doggerel verse inspired by the news of the passing of Jerry Garcia.

But to summarize the Zocalo performance with a blow-by-blow account doesn't do justice to the not-so-simple fact of the bus itself -- a fact that ties the fractured performance together, sort of. "I see the bus as kind of monumental," Topchy says. "It's kind of like a sculpture on wheels. I tend not to separate industrial objects from art objects, so the bus has all these weird connotations like school, church, Partridge Family, utilitarianism, all these concepts. So no matter what you do with it, it's going to be a loaded plate. It's got a lot of intrinsic meaning."

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Brad Tyer