In 2000 I was in a Chelsea gallery recording people singing, when an otherwise rather quiet man opened his throat and gave a gorgeous impression of Klaus Nomi doing madrigal. Michael Portnoy was then a trained dancer curating his first art show at White Box. That same quiet man had in 1998 jumped onstage to flail shirtless alongside Bob Dylan, the words “SOY BOMB” mysteriously scrawled on his chest. Appearing more recently as a tassel-fringed croupier or a “director of behavior” who addresses his audience with conversational instructions, Portnoy has become one of the most interesting performance artists anywhere. I met him in Berlin, where he’s been holidaying and developing ideas for “temporary fascist nightclubs.”
MOMUS: So what’s exciting you right now, Michael? (LEFT: PHOTO OF PORTNOY BY MOMUS)
MICHAEL PORTNOY: There are things that come in and out, but I have no genuine enthusiasm for anything at the moment. Oh, I got very enthusiastic recently about—
[TO WAITRESS] Can I have a big cup of coffee, no milk?
I was doing research into the history of action painting, and the use of that term, and I found this French action painter called Georges Mathieu. I guess he was too theatrical for most people. He would set up a canvas and leap all about. But there was a hilarious trailer for a movie about him called Georges Mathieu: The Blindness of Fury, or something like that.
MOMUS: It sounds like Tony Hancock’s film The Rebel, which makes fun of modern art circa 1960.
PORTNOY: One thing I’m interested in is something I’m calling “High Action Drama Painting,” which is about the drama that precedes the inscription on the surface. It’s about choreographing the obstacles that the paint encounters on its way to its pre-â??destined surface. I also sing the course of the circuitous route of the paint towards the painting.
MOMUS: Are there artists of the recent past who you think exert a planetary pull that young artists find it hard to bust out of?
PORTNOY: Yes, I think yes. I don’t want to name names.
MOMUS: Matthew Barney?
PORTNOY: Joseph Beuys. The titans get grafted together to create new titans. I’ve begun working on a taxonomy of art ideas starting from the 20th Century. It would be an encyclopedia that grafters could use to produce new hybrids. Imagine you’re grafting Relational Aesthetics with Romantic Conceptualism; that combination alone could generate some interesting pathways. I want to categorize and chart art ideas by their salient features, say “Signing Things”: Manzoni signed people, Klein signed the sky, and Vautier signed the deaths of Klein and Manzoni.
MOMUS: Do you ever think the art world is boring?
PORTNOY: Mostly on Thursdays.
MOMUS: So you’re basically on holiday here in Berlin?
PORTNOY: I’m working on a few projects. I’m collaborating with a Swiss architect, Christian Wassmann, to make a three-â??person nightclub. Only three people can fit at a time. It takes place in this geometric solid known as an oloid, which sort of looks like a mussel. There’s a hidden Director of Behavior who offers conversational cues and constraints. It’s part of a body of works that I group under this term “Relational Stalinism.”
MOMUS: [LAUGHS] Michael, can you tell me a joke?
PORTNOY: OK, this is a good one. Two jokes were sucking each other’s thumbs in a ghetto outside Gdansk in the early-â??to-â??late 30s. They were huddled in a doorway, and it was raining very hard, and they were sucking each other’s thumbs to warm just one part of their body, the most useful part to warm, because in their thumbs they had a kind of entry system, an early fingerprint system to allow you entry into different ghettos. One of the jokes gets a very disappointing erection, so the other says: “I can offer an erection that would be more helpful in the political climate.” He offers a variety of erections, the most shocking of which is an erection that has at its core a set of heuristics invented by a Russian who studied patents in the 50s for various aeronautic devices. Twenty years pass. The limitations of this rule of thumb had decayed to such an extent that the joke about the two jokes was covered in concrete and shipped off to some barren field in the upstate regions.
MOMUS: Wow! Not very funny, but one of the more extraordinary jokes I’ve ever heard.