An ambulance rolls through downtown L.A. late Friday night, ready to respond to the first sign of commotion. On the outside, it looks pretty much like any other emergency vehicle. But on the inside, instead of medical professionals, it holds a team of seven artists dressed in doctors' and nurses' uniforms. And they're not seeking accident victims but, rather, partygoers to whom they will tend and preach the merits of safety.
Meet the Art of Bleeding, a troupe that presents "a traveling medicine show without any cure," according to its website. Since last month, the group has been staging impromptu performances for unsuspecting passersby at events around town. The show's theme (medical safety) and tone (bizarre) are the only constants in this unpredictable experiment, led by Los Angeles counterculture figure Al Ridenour. Call them "Scrubs" for the surrealist crowd.
On this night, the 1995 Ford Type III ambulance parks on a street off Santa Fe Avenue in downtown's warehouse district. An art-music event is taking place at Hangar 1018, a venue popular with twentysomethings with a penchant for coffeehouse art. "I felt like I was going to barf back there," says a petite, raven-haired "nurse" as she steps out of the vehicle. She precedes another with a Bettie Page-style haircut.
The pseudo-nurses position themselves down the street, where intoxicated partygoers leave the venue. In unison, the nurses chant, "Would you like a cast?" The onlookers look perplexed. The nurses pass out green fliers that clarify matters, somewhat: "Why should I get a cast on my arm when it's not broken? It's sexy."
Meanwhile, the rest of the Art of Bleeding crew opens the back of the ambulance and arranges its props and instruments, including a CPR mannequin with an audio device that spews safety tips.
One of the cast members, Adam Bregman, exits in an ape costume, wearing a hardhat. "I'm Abram, the Safety Ape. I'm here to promote safety," a Muppet-like voice booms out from under the synthetic fur. He waves to the crowd as if he's advertising a burger joint.
One man with a ponytail stops to look at the mascot but chuckles and walks away. Abram croons after him, "We can do something about that ponytail problem."
"We're not accredited medical professionals," says Ridenour, the Art of Bleeding's soft-spoken, bespectacled "chief of staff," admitting the obvious. (He does, however, own and play the board game Operation, if that counts.) "We're a combination first-aid vaudeville-variety show and educational foundation teaching the unconscious," he adds.
Ridenour began the Art of Bleeding as an offshoot of the Cacophony Society, a longstanding surrealist underground network of artist pranksters. Married to comedian Margaret Cho, he shares her passion for brazen comedy -- albeit with more eccentric twists.
At last month's Silver Lake Film Festival, the troupe presented a 45-minute song-and-dance medical cabaret, a sort of "Annie" meets "A Clockwork Orange," complete with retro medical instruction videos.
Next weekend, the Art of Bleeding will contribute an installation to the Museum of Mental Decay's annual Halloween event in the basement of the old Crocker Bank building in downtown Los Angeles.
"I want to do two types of shows," Ridenour says. "One scripted and choreographed, as well as small [impromptu] appearances by the ambulance."
Friday night's gathering falls into the latter category, as an unscripted, interactive, live art experience.
Back by the alleyway, the glamorous nurses seem to be having good luck recruiting "patients" -- especially men in their 20s. Two fresh-faced guinea pigs are ushered into the ambulance. Ridenour, assisted by nurse Gabby Mantini, fits them with bubble wrap so the casts can be easily removed, then bandages and wet plaster. "You've got to sit still or your bone won't set," Ridenour says in an authoritative tone.
On the way out of the vehicle one of the patients, Mark Dugally of Monrovia, says: "What is this? I think someone acquired an ambulance, and since they weren't hippies going on tour with Phish, they thought they'd drive around in it and give people fake casts."
By 1 a.m., the sidewalk behind Hangar 1018 is bustling. Bandages and casts cover arms, ankles, foreheads and even one middle finger. Strangers chat, bonded only by gauze. A blond guy with a nose cast, Asa Tait of Los Angeles, enthusiastically explains, "They diagnosed me and told me it would make me safer." He seems swept away in the world of the Art of Bleeding.
Apparently, it's contagious. Other partyers repeat the show's catchwords: "safety" and all its variants.
"Most of them will just wake up tomorrow and wonder how they got the cast," Ridenour jokes.
Art of Bleeding
What: The medically themed performance art troupe appears at the Museum of Mental Decay's Halloween event.
Where: Basement of the Spring Tower Bank Building (a.k.a. the old Crocker Bank building), 453 S. Spring St., downtown L.A.
When: 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. Oct. 29
Price: $12 per person, $10 per person for groups of four or more