Apostle of Performance Violence Tells Why He Does What He Does

Welcome to the Cutting--or should we say the Slashing, Bashing and Slam-Banging--Edge. Have we got some performance art for you. It slices. It dices. It hacks things up a hundred different ways. And a crowd-pleasing display of S&M; it is.

Handsome, mild-mannered John Fleck, for instance, is one of the hot cats on the L.A. scene. And he's just the kind of guy you want to bring home to the folks--then pray that they don't ask what he does for a living.

Long the darling of underground haunts, this Cleveland-born "28-37"-year-old actor-performance artist has a way with the, uh, offbeat.

He's given himself a lobotomy, hanged himself, been raped by a television set, let loose with certain bodily functions and done other deeds onstage you can't write about in a family newspaper.

His controversial "Blessed Are All the Little Fishes," performed with the trendy trio "Fat . . . ," opens Friday at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE) for a two-weekend run.

"I love outrageousness," understates the artist who, during the course of his 50-minute ditty, does we-won't-tell-you-what to a goldfish, batters another innocent sea-creature and uses his body unlike anything at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts.

Fleck, however, isn't the only shockmeister in town.

Joe Coleman, the so-called Charles Manson of performance, was busted on two counts of cruelty for biting the heads off mice in the documentary "Mondo New York."

But Fleck and Coleman are just the tip of the sliceberg. The venues are alive, it seems, with the sounds of ugh and ick.

Karen Finley grossed everybody out by smashing yams into her anatomy. Stelarc, who goes by the solitary name, implants hooks in himself and hangs from wires. And Penn and Teller, those sadists of magic, are due at the Wiltern next month.

So why, you ask, do they do it? Just to get their audiences upset?

Not according to Fleck.

"People who don't like my shows think I do (these violent things) just to be sensational," Fleck acknowledges. "But it's drama. Conflict. Passion. Life and death. I don't do it for gratuitous shock."

Shaking people up, he argues, is one way to get them to listen. "We're all so protected and cool, especially in the art community," he says. "We're cool, we're hip, we've been around. But if I can get one of these cool people in black leather to go 'oh,' I just love that. You've got to be like an atomic bomb to keep these peoples' attention."

But there is a difference between shock and schlock. And performers for whom getting attention is the be-all and end-all can leave viewers feeling cheated by their self-indulgent and often puerile antics.

David Leslie, for example, calls himself the Evel Knievel of performance. At his last "Stunt: David Leslie's Swansong" at New York's PS 122 in November, he sashayed his way up an elaborate two-story scaffold/tower after a lot of costly but mindless hype-jinks.

Leslie almost broke his neck swooping down from those heights. On purpose.

The thrill, apparently, is supposed to be that we might get to see him miss . . . and die.

Fleck, on the other hand, uses violence to get attention, but he's out to grab the opportunity to say something more.

"It's uncomfortable to see a little fish getting hurt," Fleck concedes. "But what about on the bigger scale, the waste, killing and slaughter in the world? There's violence all around--murders in Silver Lake--and it seeps down into how I feel about myself."

These feelings, combined with the AIDS crisis and the influence of activist performers such as Tim Miller, have inspired Fleck with what he calls an increasingly "political" awareness. It prompts him to address the violence around us--ironically enough--with violence onstage, a kind of 'fight fire with fire' logic.

"We hear about (violent events) on the news and we read about (them) in the newspapers, but it's just not real," Fleck muses. "So I'm making it a little real for people. It's still safe, but it's a little closer and it makes you uncomfortable."

Putting violence onstage may diminish it elsewhere, Fleck believes, through a kind of transcendence. "I heard Stelarc once, and he doesn't seem to have a violent bone in his body," Fleck recalls. "He just puts those hooks in to show how he can surpass physical limitation."

"You have to live it to break through it, instead of avoiding it. So (seeing violence) is therapeutic and cathartic for me and perhaps also for the audience."

But even if the coach potatoes in the audience don't get the message, Fleck the pragmatist admits, performance still has to hold its audience's attention.

"An audience appreciates seeing someone willing to hurt themselves," he deadpans. "It's such a total commitment, uncommercial. This certainly isn't a workshop to get an agent. In fact, I try not to let my agent know."

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