Amber is a pretty strawberry blonde, on this Saturday night sitting on a planter at the corner of Broadway and Pine in Long Beach. A spray bottle, comb and small scissors (with the dangerous points ground down to rounded tips) were tied to her belt with twine. A sandwich board to her left read, "Free haircuts. It's free! For reals!"
But the passersby weren't going to receive the free haircuts; they were going to give them.
To Amber. For free. For reals!
"We were looking for a way people could do something creative with my body," Amber said, while her boyfriend Jamie strummed his guitar next to her.
In a program designed to be a bit obscure, Amber's performance art was one of the most successful guerrilla-art projects taking place every day in Long Beach throughout September. There's no month-in-advance schedule; each day's event is announced that day on oneadayproject @yahoo.com.
Which means that most of the art won't attract a crowd. Amber's might prove exceptional because of her venue: Saturday night in Long Beach's downtown provides ample gawkers floating down the street, stopping to loiter when they see a crowd.
Other performances have been in more out-of-the-way places. Signal Hill's Hilltop Park at sunset offered the guerrilla artists an audience of just themselves. High Teas for the Homeless in several parks had only a handful of watchers: a couple of homeless people who didn't want to partake of the lovely finger sandwiches because that would require being filmed for posterity. If there's one thing you can generally count on among homeless people, it's paranoia.
But the success of Amber's free haircuts also had more to do with how the artist recruited strangers to do her performance art for her: gently.
Performance art is often arrogant, designed to mock the viewer and implicitly display the boundary-less superiority of the artist. Consider North America's unacknowledged master of performance art, TV comic Tom Green. And recall that Green's project is about making his subjects uncomfortable and then documenting their dismay. There may be a sly sociological subtext to Green's art-Americans are still so awed by microphones that they'll speak into one smeared with dog feces (just ask Green). But his audience is interchangeable with The Man Show's; those aren't artists or even sociologists laughing. They're yobs entertained by the discomfort of others.
Rather than alienating folks with random strangeness, Amber let her viewers become the stars and the catalysts. Museums have known this for a long time: let patrons rake the sand in a mandala for themselves, and it's standing-room only. Look, Ma! I'm a fucking artist!
In fact, the entire Long Beach series of guerrilla performances has had a very Artist's Way feel to it. The guidebook for tapping into one's creativity would be delighted with the ideas floated by the group's Che Guevara stand-in-Fifi LaRue-and her intrepid assistants: Synchronized Hula-Hooping at sunset, standing atop jutting pillars like Athenas at the Acropolis? Very, very Artist's Way. The repetitive action can Zen you into a place that's positively Dionysian-except without the mushrooms and the naked women tearing live animals apart with their teeth, so I guess that's not really very Dionysian at all. But it can mellow you out, especially when you can see the glass of downtown Los Angeles far in the distance reflecting the red sunset.
Only one project has so far fallen through-a piece planned for the busy Farmer's Market at 10 a.m. on a Friday was aborted when the artist didn't show-and frankly, I'm surprised it was the only time that happened. You can rely on the fact that you can't rely on performance artists.
One of Long Beach's usual suspects-one who is decidedly dependable-conducted a performance at the Farmer's Market two weeks ago that involved nothing more complicated than trying to fold towels into a giant, non-toppling stack. The rent-a-cops were on her in a minute, telling her to move on with patented rent-a-cop glares. Where would the security guards rather she folded her towels? "Try the laundromat!" one barked. Who knew they could be so funny? But in order to be rid of her, the cop ended up folding her towels and handing them over one by one, while a shopper kept the artist's tower from falling.
And what about Amber? It took 36 minutes to bald her almost completely. At the end, she looked like a newborn pullet. Her soft hair stuck to her shoulders in itchy wisps, and she looked like she might cry while she smiled. The crowd interaction itself was a fascinating thing. Women refused to cut Amber's hair; the responsibility was apparently too much to bear, and one could actually see them shudder at the thought. Men dove excitedly into an experience they never thought to have. A Latina yelled at her boyfriend constantly while he snipped precisely: "YOU BETTER DO A GOOD JOB!" A young black gangsta grabbed the front of Amber's hair with both hands and started hacking, the only person to do so. I don't know whether he was taking it out on Amber because she was a woman, because she was white, or just to show that he was bad. His friends pulled him off her, with a "Come on, man! What are you doing?" Amber smiled, but she really seemed kind of freaked.
After that, people rallied to her aid: a young blond guy who seemed like he was from Philly or somewhere equivalently East Coast macho came forward and delicately cleaned up the front as best he could, and an old black homeless guy who'd been watching for a while also attempted damage control. He was extraordinarily careful with the shears, but he handed them back again after a few moments. There was nothing more he could do.
Much of the world is performance-art-free, although there are exceptions. In Valencia, so many CalArts students are assigned public performance pieces that there are signs in the mall warning, "No performance art." Jade Gordon's fucking brilliant one-woman show Art Star sent up the bizarre egotism of performance artists (and was very badly adapted into Allison Anders' Sugar Town, with the performance artist changed to a wannabe rock star). And there's always our homegrown Squelch, who was so drunk he peed down his own leg when arts-personage-about-town Randy Pesqueira went to adjust his Squelch's penis, which was dangling out of his leopard G-string.
Long Beach has a kinder, more whimsical performance art, one designed to remind the good folks of Long Beach that there's an art scene trying to birth itself in the unsexy, un-redeveloped East Village. No one is pretending to shoot up, for once.
And the bemused folks of Long Beach are enjoying it, especially when they get the scissors in their hands.