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Your Friendly Neighborhood Nihilist : Conceptual artist Elisha Shapiro’s work-in-progress fosters the thought that believing in nothing is OK

<i> Koehler is a frequent contributor to Calendar</i>

The press release landed on the desk like a bomb. Some guy named Elisha Shapiro was putting on a radio call-in show titled “I Don’t Believe in Anything; Why Do You?” This special broadcast on KPFK-FM’s (90.7) “Soundings” series (at 8:30 Tuesday night) is a follow-up to his previous “Soundings” show called “Is It Possible Not to Believe in Anything?” The release referred to it as a “work-in-progress.” Uh-oh. It referred to Shapiro as a “conceptual artist.” Double uh-oh.

It goes on to report that Shapiro was “the perpetrator of the 1984 Nihilist Olympics” and “the 1988 presidential candidate from (sic) the National Nihilist Party.” The old memory bank kicks in: There was a fellow who put on a wacky alternative Olympics, kind of a Doo-Dah Parade to the main event. It even got TV coverage. So this new show must be real.

For the record:
12:00 AM, Apr. 28, 1991 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday April 28, 1991 Valley Edition Calendar Page 93 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Radio show--A March 31 article about performer Elisha Shapiro incorrectly implied that he was the host of “Soundings,” a show broadcast Tuesdays on KPFK-FM radio. In fact, Shapiro was a guest on the show, whose producer and host is Jacki Apple.

Still, is this Shapiro guy really a nihilist? Aren’t nihilists people who skulk around with tattered copies of Nietzsche’s “The Will to Power” tucked under their arms, planning some terrorist act with their underground cell? Why would a nihilist even bother sending out a press release?

The release, it turns out, is the opening phase of Shapiro’s artwork, which he succinctly describes as “creating the illusion of a publicity event.”

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Indeed, very little about Shapiro is what it seems. He doesn’t live in some hovel out of Dostoevsky’s “The Possessed,” but in a nice, homey two-story abode on a street filled with grass lawns, scampering dogs and happy kids. He’s disarmingly affable, a pleasant, round-faced chap. He chuckles at almost everything he says, such as when he describes a 1988 campaign plank that called for universal mandatory abortion (“If no choice is reasonable, then how about my idea of no choice?”).

Curiously, for someone about to do a talk radio show, Shapiro says he seldom listens to talk radio.

And most unexpected of all, his brand of nihilism isn’t even common for a nihilist. The present-day form of nihilism--which denies the validity of any belief system and argues that any belief is merely a subjective value--is closely tied to a particular stream of postmodernism that rejects any distinctions between art, pop culture and the media. So one would expect Shapiro to be a postmodernist to the hilt.

“I can see that what I’m doing may be an outgrowth of postmodern work,” said Shapiro, 37, lounging on his living room sofa, “but I’m rebelling against it. What I don’t like about postmodern stuff is that it’s always about art and never about what’s out there.”

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Shapiro’s interest in what’s out there takes some pretty kooky forms. Such as a popular Nihilist Olympics event, the U-Turn Competition, in which drivers make an illegal U-turn at a busy intersection, with points scored on speed and smoothness. “You should have seen people making these turns at Melrose and Curson at rush hour! Heh-heh. There was this guy in a big truck. . . .”

Shapiro can’t get through his sentence without laughing. What cracks him up the most, though, is how well his press releases attract media coverage--the interview, of course, is the second phase of his art piece--and then how the resulting stories get things wrong or leave things out.

A Times story on his Olympics spoof, for instance, reported that the U-turn event required drivers not to jeopardize others’ lives. “I didn’t say that at all, heh-heh,” Shapiro noted. “The reporter, or an editor, added that.” A key event was the Johanna Went Projectile Vomiting Marathon (named for the scatological performance artist, a friend of Shapiro’s), but Shapiro says it wasn’t mentioned in a single article.

“But see, that’s all part of the event. I expect the media to distort what I do.” Which is part of Shapiro’s overall strategy: “I like to combine media--you know, traditional, everyday media like radio, newspapers, TV--in a way that doesn’t look like art. And the reason I want to use these media is because they shape and influence what most people believe today. They turn to the tube for what they want to believe in.”

For Shapiro, the key word in the last remark is want . As much as he chuckles about his various elaborate spoofs of American pop spectacles, they also are generated by concern. “I’m frustrated that people aren’t aware of what the world is. They tend to accept and not question value systems they’re familiar with, and that bugs me. The problem is that religion, for instance, puts a greater power over the individual, which only reinforces and expresses a believer’s unhappiness about being unimportant. This is also true for unwavering belief in authority, or country, or anything.”

Fine. But isn’t nihilism itself a belief or value system? Shapiro has heard the question before and answers as perhaps only a nihilist can: “I don’t know, but it’s beside the point. Heh-heh.”

OK, but if nihilism is about breaking the rules of Western logic and civilization, why even have rules for the Nihilist Olympics? Just when you think you’ve got him, Shapiro nihilistically wriggles away. “I always remind people who ask that I never have to be consistent. Heh-heh.”

In one way, though, he is. Whether it’s the upcoming radio program or a live event during the UCLA-sponsored L.A. Perspectives festival on campus April 26, Shapiro insists that he doesn’t want “to convince people of my point of view, but to suggest other options and make people look at what they believe and why.”

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The KPFK show will feature two call-in guests--historian and KCRW-FM radio personality Harvey Stromberg and performance artist Rachel Rosenthal--who were deliberately chosen by Shapiro because they are “articulate and have different world views than I do. Harvey, I’m not sure about. Rachel, definitely.” Her works express a passion for the Earth as a living being, a world away from nihilism’s non-spiritualism.

“What intrigued me about Elisha’s invitation,” Rosenthal said, “was the chance to put my beliefs out over the airwaves, which led me to ask myself what I believed in. It isn’t something you do that often. The funny thing about all this is that people think a nihilist is some wild-eyed crazy with hand grenades in his back pocket. Elisha isn’t like that at all.”

How such a pleasant fellow has made nihilism a constant theme in his art for 17 years is something Shapiro remains cagily enigmatic about. “It just came to me, and since nihilism was linked with scary things, I thought it might be fun.” The UC Berkeley graduate, who was born in Buffalo, N.Y., and moved to Riverside as a boy, seems to have taken comedian Pat Paulsen’s permanent run for the White House to the level of an all-out media blitz in which the package is the product.

“More than anything else, though, I just want to put out the idea that not believing in anything can be as pleasant as pie. I think a lot of beliefs are based on fear. It’s such a load off the mind when you just sweep all that away.

“Of course,” Shapiro added, “people don’t believe me when I say that.”

Elisha Shapiro’s “I Don’t Believe in Anything; Why Do You?” will air at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday on KPFK-FM (90.7).


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