PRINT March 1974

John White

I USED TO WORRY a lot about what the ‘sensitive person’ should look like, be interested in, etc., about fucking up my sensitivity. But when I came to work in the psychiatric hospital—and there are people committing suicide in front of you, etc.—all that stuff sort of peels away, and doesn’t seem to matter much anymore. When some guy’s acting out right in front of you, and you have to deal with it right there, right away, you don’t have time to ask, “Hey, are you for real or are you just faking it?” Over the last two years that issue—what the ‘artist’ should do—has gotten very far away.

Sometimes I see myself as in a forest, with a machete, and I just start hacking away at the little areas to see if there’s an opening somewhere. It’s like O.J. Simpson runs, bumping up and down the line laterally; when it looks hopeless—boom!—there’s a hole, and it’s 60 yards. Sometimes I say to myself, “I don’t care if this group works tonight or not,” and I try not to think ‘group.’ Invariably, somebody says, “You’re not paying much attention to the situation, are you?” I’ll answer, “No, I guess I’m not,” and he’ll answer, “Well, that kinda pisses me off.” Then all I have to do is say, “Well, what do you expect: do you think I should come in here every week and give you The Word?” Another, rather obvious technique is to say nothing at all for a long time. The other night, in one of the best sessions we’ve had in a long time, this woman started right off by saying, “Well, tonight I want some ACTION!” That’s a hard way to go, so I asked her what that meant and she answered, of course, “You’re the therapist, not me.” Right away, I knew she was sitting on something; that was apparent. But rather than saying, “Now I know you’re trying to tell me something,” etc.—because most of the people who’ve been with me a long time know all my little moves and I try to fight that off—I said, “O.K., if you really want some action, why don’t you be the therapist?” The place went into one of those pregnant silences, her eyes widened, and I offered myself as the subject. She didn’t want that, so I suggested she pick somebody she’d feel a little safer with; she did, and immediately we got off the playful, sarcastic stuff, right into something serious. And from that point, I’ve never seen a group work tighter, or give more mutual support, etc. You’ve got to realize that when, as a patient—which I am, in my own group—you feel you can walk in and take a chance, to belch at everybody, or say “fuck you,” you’re trusting everybody, which is the best sign.

One technique we use is to say, for instance, “Let’s speculate for about five minutes,” on anything; you can say, “I bet your old man was big and heavy,” or “I think you and I are going to be enemies,” anything. Sometimes you find that’s a direct pathway to what’s bothering the person, because it bypasses a lot of storytelling.

It’s up to the group leader to know when a patient becomes a professional group-goer whose responses are tactical specialties for intragroup functioning, i.e., the medium becoming the message. I do a lot of that; you’ve got to clear the air right away. I ask, “Can we still deal in a therapeutic sense if we’re going to become almost friends in the group?” When I see a clique developing—and they develop rather fast—I say, “Do you people realize the dangers of this, that you’re acting over-protectively, rather than functioning independently within the group?” You see, I’m there for 10 1/2 hours; I don’t just come in, do a two-hour shot, then split (which is a comfortable way of doing it, because you don’t become too friendly). I play volleyball, eat dinner with them, etc., so I’ve got five or six different roles to play in the course of a day. And it’s a danger: becoming too much of a friend so that you can’t do any more therapy.

I try not to sweeten it up; I’ll say right at the beginning, “Look, I’m feeling very anxious because I know you’ve tried to commit suicide; you’ve got the bandages on your wrists, and it’s making me very uncomfortable.” Any long-time member of the group will start getting pissed at you for trying to avoid what’s right there, and will try to subvert you in any number of ways, even by pretending to fall asleep in the middle of a group, etc. (P.: [yawns involuntarily]) See? (J.: Oh, that’s because Peter stays up late all the time.) You trying to protect him? Here we go!

I have two groups a night, one from eight to nine, or thereabouts, and the other from nine to ten. Well, they get their medication every night about nine, so the second group is different from the first: they come in with Valium, Thorazine, Dalmaine, all this kinda stuff. Some of them are anxious at the end of the day. And sometimes the medication takes effect more quickly than in an hour. Once, for instance, an older patient, about sixty-five, kept leaning back in his chair, a little farther each time. I assumed it was a gesture—nonchalance, disdain, whatever; I tried to ignore it and keep an eye on it at the same time. Then, all of a sudden, over he went.

(P.: What has all this got to do with art? I thought I’d throw in the biggie now. I’d thought you’d just get going and almost slide this in yourself; maybe I should have harumphed.) That wasn’t very low-key, Peter; it was almost as bad as saying, “Well, we’ve got ten minutes left in the session, so I’d like you all to tell me what you think of the group.”

I like to reveal the whole insane background that brought you to the work, what’s behind the piece that gave you that idea, etc. I get weird ideas from strange little things, like hearing somebody tinkling in the toilet, and I go around thinking about that for a while. In a performance, there’ll be something folksy, then something serious, something about the artist, then something about the audience, etc. Working in the hospital has given me most of my material lately, humor as well as the serious stuff. Some of the idiosyncratic things people will do to hide their feelings in a group,which are dead serious in therapy, become quite funny when removed from the context. (J.: [yawns]) God, it’s going on all over, the place! Anyway, when, for instance, the staff members and a couple of the nurses are sitting around at the coffee machine, talking about how the sessions went, it doesn’t take long for laughter to start. But we’re not laughing at the patient, but the infirmities of having to go through a lotta shit, the devices people use, as bits of readymade humor. And, when I’m sitting in a group, and there’s an area here which is very alive and another which is dead and placid, well, that’s a compositional layout.

I really do use the drawings as performance guides, although, as an artist, I was doing the drawings first. One influence, obviously, is Cage’s scores, but perhaps the single biggest influence were those newspaper photographs, from space, like bomb charts, with the numbers, etc., superimposed. I thought then, “Well here’s a solution to the flat canvas v. depth, etc.” (P.: You say that facetiously; it isn’t important to you, is it.) Well . . . no, not anymore. (P.: But the drawings do look good.) Oh, Jesus Christ, yes; I’m after the graphic, that traditional relational stuff, because that pleases my esthetic sense. But if it stops there, then it isn’t any good. I like to be able to use it for something else, and something else, and then something else, as in different levels of comprehension of the work.

I write while I’m driving all the time. (P.: Cab drivers know how to do that—job sheets and such.) Well, there’s a little more risk involved here, because you might get interested in what you’re writing and . . . [makes ‘pop’ sound]. I have this thing, when I’m driving and writing and a truck comes by; I think the truck driver’s thinking, “Jesus, how do I get clear of THIS guy?” and he’s got this huge truck. Now, when I’m on the freeway and come close to a truck, I close the book.

That’s what my information-retrieval system is: I just go somewhere and I enjoy reading over the old material—ideas for performances typed up on index cards. I bring it to a rehearsal situation; I get it down to about 50 pieces I might want to do, 50 little stories from ten seconds to five minutes, not more than that. Then I pare it down to about eight or ten over the next two days, and I use those in a performance. That’s my system, if it’s a system. I usually try to do one or two that are related to the place that I’m at. For instance, I did a piece in De Kalb, Illinois. The guy had called me and asked what kind of advertising I wanted and I said I preferred it low-key. So they did a nice poster which said “multi-media concept artist” coming in from L.A. Anyway, here’s this beautiful poster, and it’s spelled “Los Angelos.” So I took some black tape and on the gallery walls made a map of how to get to De Kalb from Chicago—I’d gotten lost, so there were loops and whatnot. On one and I put “Hi,” and on the other “De Cobb.” Nearly everybody picked up that I was trying to get even.

I did a couple of pieces a while back at Occidental College and they threw cherry bombs on the stage, and almost tore the place up. (P.: I had a friend, an art historian, who went there, and he used to say, “I went to a small Christian college and all my friends are small Christians.”) There were a lot of preconditions; for instance, Ginsberg had been there shortly before and he told everybody it was all right to do your own thing, etc. The rehearsals were just supreme and beautiful, and we used a lot of students at the school. Everybody loved it—and the performance got completely subverted, mostly by an audience of drama students who, when they saw the piece wasn’t based on a beginning, middle, and end, and stage timing, etc., became extremely hostile. We were coming down the aisles, in large clusters, very slowly—a nice, quiet thing to do—and people got out into the aisles and blocked them. But the performers sort of walked through them, very slowly, and they were looking very silly. We were almost through when one of the performers, an art teacher there, was bitten on the foot. Somebody else was bitten, and that broke up the performance. Unfortunately, right at that moment General Hershey Bar and his friend, Wastemoreland, came in and went right down the aisles, too, handing out leaflets, you know—‘Peace,’ etc. Then they threw the cherry bombs. And there was one kid, loaded on something, who kept running around, lapping the place, keeping everything going. I waited for him behind the stage so the audience couldn’t see it, and just clotheslined him and said, “Look, you asshole, get the fuck outta here.”

(P.: Is there a tendency, as you do a little gig here, go on the road, do another there, go back to the hospital, etc., for the total activity to blend together, without all these slightly Beaux-Arts stopping points which are the “Chicago piece,” “Vancouver piece”—in short, a tendency to function less and less like an ‘artist,’ even in the broad sense?) I’m very interested in bringing my experiences at the hospital and my art situation very close, very tight. I feel like I integrate the golf part of it, too. I use an 8mm film of me playing golf in some of the performances, as if to say, “O.K., this is an important part of my lifestyle, too.” (P.: Because you enjoy it, or because you can hustle at it?) Both. It’s a fast way for me to relax because it’s only five minutes away, right up the street, and I’m good at it, and because I can make a little money at it. So, for the performances, I started paying attention to all my little mannerisms on the golf course, and I’ve got them all on film. Like pulling on your balls when you get ready to putt. One of them has to do with picking my nose. You see, golf is a very clean, well-defined game, and it’s hard to pick your nose and hide the stuff while you’re playing. So the film is in three parts: one which shows me putting, the second, in which I slow it down so you can see my picking my nose before I putt, and the third, very slow, freeze-frame, which reveals the whole process—rolling it, drying it off, and hiding it before I putt.

When I first came to Lowell High School as a freshman, some guy told me, “Man, come to Lowell, and you can be a link in the chain right away.”

Peter Plagens