TABLE OF CONTENTS

I REMEMBER RALSTON: THE ART OF RALSTON FARINA

Ralston Farina in front of the shopwindow display for his performance Look Puzzle Phase 3, 1973, 126 Prince Street, New York, March 23, 1973. Photo: Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images. Dennis Hermanson/ Ralston Farina Archives.

He called his work “Zeitkunst” (Time Art), directing it not to the audience’s
perception but to their memory of what was perceived.
David Polonoff, “The Nether World’s a Stage,” East Village Eye

All I remember was he performed in the dark with a suitcase on his lap.
Opened it, shut it, and the next thing I knew the lights were back on.
Michael Smith, e-mail to the author

I REMEMBER RALSTON FARINA. Or rather, I remember being aware of the name Ralston Farina back in the mid-1970s, in the context of work that was not yet called performance but was something newer and funkier than Happenings.

Maybe I saw the wise-guy Pop-art moniker Ralston Farina—half dog food, half breakfast cereal—on a poster in a Lower Manhattan bookstore or on a postcard from some alternative art space. Or more likely I’d seen the two-page spread in the downtown giveaway Art-Rite that appeared under a facsimile of the artist’s signature and began with the ringing declaration “Ralston Farina is an angry man who came too early and stayed too late,” intriguingly called him “a vagabond without home or tangible art,” and included a few blurry, underlit, barely legible photographs of someone (perhaps this metahippie trickster himself?) sitting in a chair, holding a valise (an enigma clutching a mystery).

Ralston Farina now reemerges as one of the roughly two dozen artists embraced by the Whitney Museum of American Art’s upcoming show “Rituals of Rented Island: Object Theater, Loft Performance, and the New Psychodrama—Manhattan, 1970–1980” (on which I consulted and to which I contributed a catalogue essay). In many ways, though the exhibition includes such elusive figures as Jack Smith and Jill Kroesen, Farina is the most fugitive member of this disparate group as well as the most difficult to represent. (Also appearing on the show’s roster are Vito Acconci, Laurie Anderson, Jared Bark, Ericka Beckman, Richard Foreman/Ontological-Hysteric Theater, Julia Heyward, Ken Jacobs/Apparition Theater of New York, Mike Kelley, Kipper Kids, Sylvia Palacios Whitman, Yvonne Rainer and Babette Mangolte, Stuart Sherman, Theodora Skipitares, Michael Smith, Squat Theatre, Robert Wilson/Byrd Hoffman School of Byrds, and John Zorn/Theatre of Musical Optics.) To my knowledge there are no videotapes of Ralston Farina in performance and surprisingly few photographs—largely because he was an artist who not only eschewed the art object but objected to any documentation of his activities; his works were meant to survive only insofar as they imprinted themselves on the spectator’s mind.

You could say that Steven Robert Snyder (1946–1985), aka Ralston Farina, is simultaneously the Zelig and the Invisible Man of old SoHo. He began his anti-career around 1969 at the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church, performing under the name Steve Raven, a pseudonym he had taken as a twelve-year-old in Philadelphia, where he played the Elks Club circuit in a mentalist act with his father. Stage magic predated poetry and performance. Raven’s longtime friend artist and graphic designer Dennis Hermanson remembers a 1969 performance the artist gave in the window of a magic shop on Broadway and Twelfth Street. “He held objects. . . . He would change objects in the window. . . . It was more of a narrative.”

Raven continued this form of object theater—what he called “hovering”—when, rebranded as Ralston Farina, he branched out into the alt-space art world in the early ’70s, appearing in downtown lofts as well as in the occasional store window. There’s a photograph taken in January 1974 of Farina in the window of Gallery Stops, a storefront in an apartment building directly across from the blue-chip galleries at 420 West Broadway. The artist is seen holding a bottle, concentrating, crouched over an outsize timepiece and two plates of food, performing something called Eat the Clock, 1973. (If you look closely at the crowd reflected in the window glass, you can see someone who looks awfully like John Cage, smiling approval.)

Cultivating a mysterious persona, Farina was “a guy who came and went,” in Hermanson’s words. He crashed on people’s couches, carrying his props in a suitcase. Like fellow performance pioneers Acconci and Anderson, he was a self-produced character in the theater of downtown art. Short and wiry, with a mass of dark curly hair and a trimmed Zapata mustache, he had a look and an attitude as well as a name. His performances (or visitations) were advertised with cryptic collage posters. His persona was easily recognized but his pieces were not easily described; a press release put out by the alternative space 112 Greene Street to announce a series that included Farina’s April 1, 1978, performance Random Eye-Rolling Exercises for Aesthetic Immortality lapsed into uncharacteristic obviousness with a reference to the artist’s “unique Chaplinesque antics.”

Poster for a performance by Ralston Farina at St. Mark’s Church, New York, May 15, 1975. Dennis Hermanson/ Ralston Farina Archives.

Ralston got around. In early 1974, soon after he shared an all-star New Year’s Day bill at St. Mark’s with William Burroughs, John Cage, Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, Byrd Hoffman [Robert Wilson], Taylor Mead, Ed Sanders, Patti Smith, Anne Waldman, and Lewis Warsh, and several months before Art-Rite editors Edit deAk and Walter Robinson began their epochal evening (not yet “performance”) series “PersonA” at Artists Space, Onnasch Galerie at 139 Spring Street (the first German art space to open in SoHo) booked—I know no better word—the two least commercial not-yet-performance artists in town, Jack Smith and Farina, for evening appearances. To do who knows what? Does anyone remember?

“Yes, I do remember Ralston Farina,” the playwright and critic Daryl Chin replied when queried by e-mail. “And I did see him several times in performance.”

I remember that he was one of those people who was manipulating objects, but he also had a stand-up shtick to his act. (The early performances of Eric Bogosian, when he would do stand-up in the art world context, were influenced by Ralston Farina.)

His art was called “Time Time,” and he’d often do something like set a timer somewhere, then use the objects he had around . . . but often not as expected. (Like if there was a record player, he’d put a pillowcase on the turntable and let it spin around.) And he’d tell some sort of story . . . which I never remember as particularly memorable. And then the timer would ring (after say 15 minutes) and he’d say something about giving you the time. And that would be it.

Throughout the ’70s, Farina played 112 Greene, 3 Mercer Street, Artists Space, Idea Warehouse, and the Kitchen as well as several of the original SoHo galleries (OK Harris, Paula Cooper, Holly Solomon). He showed up unannounced at “Soup and Tart,” the group show organized by French Fluxus artist Jean Dupuy at the Kitchen in November 1974, performed a magic trick, told the audience he’d be back in “a minute,” and split the scene, leaving them to experience the minute in his absence. In 1980, SoHo Weekly News performance critic John Howell cited “Soup and Tart” for its art-historical significance, and named Farina, Carolee Schneemann, and Jack Smith as the three prophets of performance art—“their influences known more by reputation than example.”

And yet performance historian RoseLee Goldberg makes no mention of Farina (or Raven) in her books, the downtown-theater chronicler Stefan Brecht evidently kept no file on Farina’s work, and neither the Drama Review nor Artforum ever covered his act. Howell’s comments aside, Farina seems never to have been reviewed in the SoHo Weekly News—although the paper did feature a fabulously unreadable photograph taken at a 1976 Museum of Modern Art performance, of which the museum has no record. The Village Voice ran a photograph in the Scenes column of the “vignette artist and skit impresario” staging a race between two bottles of Heinz ketchup (to see which would empty out first) at a benefit for the White Panther publication Sun/Dance in December 1971. A few years later, in March 1973, Voice staff photographer Fred McDarrah posed him standing in front of the 126 Prince Street storefront, the window emblazoned with the words FATHER TIME TIME and signed RALSTON FARINA.

Farina did make a memorable appearance in Annette Kuhn’s 1976 Voice article “Why Is Performance Art Different from All Other Art?,” complaining that his ideas were being “ripped off right and left” (in Kuhn’s paraphrase) and telling her that his major precursor was TV host Ernie Kovacs,whose morning shows he had seen in Philadelphia as a child. Among other things, the “pushy and prolific” Mr. Farina was among the first artists to acknowledge Kovacs’s vulgar modernism or even the impact of television on his consciousness.1

RALSTON FARINA’S EARLY PIECES were notably brief. John Cage, who corresponded with the artist, wrote him a recommendation: “In a very elemental way time for him is of the essence. Where Robert Wilson’s theater can be thought of as prose (or epic poetry) since his performances last so long, Ralston Farina’s theater is like poems one can read in one sitting.” The poet Larry Fagin recalls an open reading at St. Mark’s Church in which Steve (“Nobody I knew called him Ralston,” Fagin notes) placed a boom box on a table and, as Judy Garland sang “Over the Rainbow,” sat down under the table and ate a bowl of cereal.

But window installations such as Time Art (part of a fall 1973 group show at 112 Greene) involved drawing with food coloring and glass wax in a process of continual change that went on for weeks, and some performances were quite elaborate. The filmmaker and media consultant Richard C. Skidmore, who assisted Farina with The March of Time-Time, performed at St. Mark’s on the evening of March 29, 1972, described the piece for me in detail.

Photographs and ephemera from the childhood magic shows of Steve Raven (Ralston Farina), 1962–63. Dennis Hermanson/Ralston Farina Archives.

The artist had created a huge cross in the main sanctuary by taking the extension ladder used to change bulbs in the nave’s ceiling lights and strapping a bicycle across it, two-thirds of the way to the top. “A fellow on the right side of the ladder was fixing a flat tire for the entirety of the piece,” Skidmore recalls.

In front of the ladder were two trestle tables covered with white tablecloths, and seated there were a dozen beautifully dressed women who all had in front of them a bowl, a quart of milk, a box of cereal, and a spoon. In front of that, closer to the audience, Ralston sat at a card table. He had a bowl, spoon, milk, and cereal, and he also had a toaster.

As things commenced, I played an audiotape that I had recorded and edited off the TV, of sounds and descriptions of the Vietnam War. (There were other elements to the soundscape, including the old pop song “It Had to Be You.”) At a certain signal, the ladies started pouring cereal into their bowls, pouring milk into the cereal, and, at first starting slowly, picked up to a pretty good pace, first spooning and then shoveling the stuff into their mouths.

Skidmore estimates that it took ten or fifteen minutes for the women to empty their cereal boxes, although not all of them did, and that in the process they splattered their dresses while leaving “a general mess around the bowls.” The artist had until then sat unnoticed, but now “caught the attention of all as he slowly reached over and poured his box of Raisin Bran. Instead of flakes, out came roaches”—live, dead, and made out of plastic. According to Skidmore, the performance lasted less than half an hour and ended with an ice-cream vendor noisily wheeling his cart into the church: “At this novelty, people got up and left or got up and bought an ice-cream sandwich!” Asked if he knew of any photographs of the performance, Skidmore emphasized that Ralston “didn’t want his work documented.”

In an artist’s statement published in the 1981 catalogue raisonné 112 Workshop, 112 Greene Street (and also found in an undated French catalogue), Farina declares that his medium was time: “The materials I work with, the objects, images, and styles are merely moments of punctuation, phrasing, and articulation.” According to Skidmore, Ralston was “most interested in programming his audience’s memory,” that it was all a matter of timing. The March of Time-Time had no script. Rather, the artist mapped the performance by laying out index cards that helped him to determine the duration of a particular section, and the piece was thus composed according to a “rhythm he was consciously creating to aid in the programming of his audience.”

While Skidmore’s memory is impressive, other pieces defied description even as they were happening. Published in the Poetry Project Newsletter 26, Mary Stewart’s account of “Steve Raven’s Time/ Art show,” performed three years later, in 1975, at St. Mark’s, is itself a poem:

Ralston raving, the F. is for fingers, red, yellow, and white. They fall off in the suitcase light. The audience is dark and above a bald head shines, out of which protrude two legs, thus forming a dialogue. But it’s Steve Raven’s monologue, with borrowed hands.

The tapping gets louder and moves inside, the table shakes harder, peaches float in their own sweet time, twice as fast out of the can, faster than the speed of catch-up, able to leap tall tables, more powerful than powder. You see him, you think you see him, you think you see him as someone else, maybe you do. He’s behind a cloud of smoke, constant, nothing, and everything you just forgot, like And Most of All I Remember, turn it over and it reads LS/MFT. Put it in your pocket and walk out. For days you wait for the show to end.

LS/MFT, for what it is worth, are the initials for “Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco,” still found on every Lucky Strike package. Does anyone remember if Luckies were the artist’s brand?

Billed by Farina as “a portrait of a half hour,” presented as would be a thirty-minute TV show with “strategically embedded moments,” Time//Time Nº 994 or No 995, performed at 3 Mercer Street in 1977, was given a fairly detailed and objective account by John Howell in that year’s winter issue of the Performing Arts Journal. The audience sat in darkness listening to the sound of a ticking clock. After a while, a slide-projector beam flicked on to illuminate the artist’s outstretched palm, on which he performed the trick of making a matchbook stand up and sit down. Then there was more darkness, although this time, the sound of the clock was overpowered by that of Caruso singing. The final “commercial interruption” again featured the projector beam, this time used to exhibit cheap reproductions illustrating the life of Jesus, thus concluding Farina’s half-hour meditation on the nature of showbiz, miracles, and time passing.

Ralston Farina performing at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1976. Clipping from the SoHo Weekly News, March 18, 1976. Dennis Hermanson/ Ralston Farina Archives.

The use of “time time,” Hermanson told me, was meant to distinguish between the experience of the performance and the spectator’s recollection of the experience. Ralston was “doing ‘magic’ with images in time—a matter of appearances, disappearances, sleight of hand, and audience expectation.” (In his longest interview, published in the first issue of Performance Art [1979], Farina refers, without elaboration, to his “trade secrets.”) Hermanson assisted Farina in what might have been the artist’s last solo SoHo performance, An Illustrated Non-Lecture on the Phenomenology of My Avant Garde Aesthetics—also advertised as Aleatoire je ne sais quoi (A Certain Random Quality)at the Kitchen on May 8, 1980. The presentation involved the use of transparent cels and overhead projectors to create a series of additive drawings that made time material. Hermanson’s function was, apparently, to distract the audience by standing before the projections, dropping pages torn from gay and straight porn magazines. It was, he says, the only sequence he remembers from what was likely a half-hour show—and, although not precisely random, this memory fragment, which Hermanson still carries with him thirty-three years later, constitutes, in accordance with Farina’s notion of “time time,” the work of art.

FOOD FIGURED PROMINENTLY in Farina’s presentations—perhaps to suggest that his pieces were in some way recipes, perhaps because the artist’s father was a short-order cook, perhaps because eating is so integral to our internal clocks, or perhaps because he saw himself as providing food for thought.2

If Stuart Sherman’s performances were often described (by myself, among others) as deliberately failed magic tricks or television sales pitches, Farina’s performances seem to have been more like philosophical versions of TV comedian Ernie Kovacs’s perceptual pranks. In 1978, the rock critic David G. Walley, author of The Ernie Kovacs Phile (1975), wrote a letter to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, characterizing Ralston as “Kovacs’s foremost pupil,” but Farina was also a reader of philosophy, notably Edmund Husserl, Alfred Korzybski (the inventor of general semantics, who entered Farina cosmology as “Mr. Zip”), and the theorist of “lateral thinking,” Edward de Bono.

Despite his clownish pseudonym, Ralston Farina was an art-world intellectual, albeit one who never published nor ever seems to have spoken publicly about his theories. To support his “time time” aesthetic, he apparently drew on Husserl’s phenomenology and Korzybski’s notion that humans are defined as a species by their capacity to pass on knowledge over time. And more than likely he took de Bono’s notion of po (a form of provocative, open-ended, “lateral” thinking) as a validation for his performances. At least that’s what Hermanson and Skidmore remember.

There were other concepts that the artist enjoyed for their own sake. Farina was evidently fascinated by Null-A (to use science-fiction writer A. E. van Vogt’s term for Korzybski’s non-Aristotelian logic), AI, fuzzy logic, and computer science and could knowledgeably employ the three-parallel-line symbol (“iff”) for biconditional logical connectives (see the March of Time-Time poster) as well as the mathematical formula known as the Hadamard matrix. At the close of the ’70s, Farina taught a course on “the aesthetics of time” and “serial pattern design” at the American Center for Students and Artists in Paris, researched “time multiplexing and multiprocessing” for a software firm in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and vainly tried to interest the New York public television station WNET in an espionage serial called En Rapport, to be composed of ten three-minute episodes, set in the art world, with some characters playing themselves. A Super 8 version was shown once, on November 17, 1979, at Artists Space (on a bill with Willy Lenski’s Relatively Tortured and Charlie Ahearn’s Deadly Art of Survival, both 1979); does anyone remember that?

Having come early, Ralston Farina stayed late, but not late enough. He maintained some connection with the early-’80s performance scene, appearing at A’s, Arleen Schloss’s storied loft space at 330 Broome Street, and at Danceteria, as part of Haoui Montaug’s performance cabaret No Entiendes. In early 1985, he participated in “The Artist in the First Person,” a seminar/performance program organized by Plexus International at New York University. That spring, Farina moved to Berkeley, California, and there, at age thirty-eight, he quite suddenly died.

Plexus organized a commemorative event, featuring 350(!) artists, on July 17, 1985, at C.U.A.N.D.O., and that same month the East Village Eye ran an obituary by his friend the writer David Polonoff. Noting that Ralston Farina was better known for his persona than for his art, Polonoff added that “perhaps, like those performances through which he sought to affect the ‘future of memory,’ his importance will emerge in retrospect.”

Ralston Farina, Eat the Clock, 1973. Performance view, Gallery Stops, 425 West Broadway, New York, January 12, 1974. Dennis Hermanson/ Ralston Farina Archives.

Rejecting documentation, the artist formerly known as Steven Robert Snyder would seem to have taken to heart Korzybski’s famous dictum “The map is not the territory”—but what is the territory in the case of Ralston Farina, if not a map pieced together from dispersed, shredded, half-forgotten memories?

“Rituals of Rented Island: Object Theater, Loft Performance, and the New Psychodrama—Manhattan, 1970–1980” opens at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York on October 31. The presentation of Ralston Farina’s work in the show will involve the crowdsourcing of memory. Those with recollections of Farina (or of Steve Raven) in performance are encouraged to e-mail them to farina@whitney.org.

J. Hoberman’s most recent book, Film After Film: Or, What Became of 21st Century Cinema?, was published by Verso last year and is due out in paperback next month.

NOTES

1. For more on Kovacs’s work, see my “Avant la Letterman,” Artforum, May 2011, 85–86.

Although many underground cartoonists must have been deeply impressed by the vintage Fleischer brothers cartoons recycled on ’50s television, the first downtown artist to claim TV as a crucial influence was filmmaker George Landow (aka Owen Land), born two years before Farina. Landow’s epiphany was the Saturday morning kiddie show Winky Dink and You, which encouraged watchers to participate in the animated hero’s adventures by crayoning on a plastic sheet affixed to the TV screen. Traces of Winky Dink might be found in the additive drawings in Farina’s later performances.

2. There was the ketchup race, a pouring-out of two boxes of Domino sugar to literalize the notion of a “sugar tit,” and the various cereal ingestions. John Howell remembers a piece in which “a night on the town [was] illustrated by a date between a box of cereal and a box of dog food”—products that not coincidentally represent the two halves of the name Ralston Farina. (Ralston Purina was a major manufacturer of pet food and cereal; farina is the generic term for a form of cereal also known as Cream of Wheat, as well as the name of a featured character in the widely televised Our Gang comedies.) The 1976 piece I Had a Dream That Leo Asked Me to Do a Show, performed at 112 Greene Street, ended with the projection of a clip from Roger Corman’s 1967 St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and an explosion of popcorn bouncing off the screen just as the gangsters were seen being machine-gunned. Fun with Time Time, a 1977 performance at Artists Space, involved throwing Jell-O and painting with Campbell’s soup.

Special thanks to Dennis Hermanson, who provided most of the images and generously shared his knowledge of Ralston Farina’s work.