By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
These people are wrong.
Andy Kaufman isn't dead. He's Steve Rocco, and—especially if you live in Orange, Villa Park or northern Santa Ana and have school-age kids—the joke's on you. (Nick Schou)
'Crazy like God'
Local artists compare Rocco to Christo, Salinger, Dickens and the AlmightySubtlety is not the most usual aspect of performance art, nor is mystery. Performance artists usually pelt themselves with fruit (homegrown Tim Miller) or shoot themselves with guns (homegrown Chris Burden). But Petruccelli "Steve" Rocco has intrigued an envious art world since the mid-'80s.
"You just usually don't get mystery like that," local filmmaker Bob Pece said recently. "The usual avenue performance artists travel is to make their works more and more bold and explicit, more and more in-your-face. You can't let people figure it out for themselves because they won't. Subtlety is too . . . subtle."
Laguna Beach gallerist Peter Blake has been watching Rocco's work since Blake's eponymous gallery opened in 1992.
"It's as if his home, behind the walls of which he hides himself like a ghost, played the same shrouding role as one of Christo's tarpaulins," he told the Weekly. "What's inside those walls? What are their secrets? And will they fall over in a gust of wind—God, nature, fury—and kill a parent or fellow board member?"
There have always been artists who cloaked themselves in night. We remember sign painter Richard Ankrom, who with Guerrilla Public Service documented himself making and hanging a sign pointing to a merging lane for the Pasadena Freeway because CalTrans had neglected to do so—as well as any graffiti artist whose face goes unknown while his tag speaks for him.
But Rocco, who turns days into nights with each refusal to leave his sanctuary like Dickens' Miss Havisham, who disdains to let us see his face unless disguised in a John Holmesian mustache and dark cop glasses like J.D. Salinger, who pops out periodically with a mystery rant or a homespun interview with a witch, well, "That's just Steve," says Mike McGee, gallery director at Cal State Fullerton. "He's unknowable and ineffable and a crazy motherfucker. Like God."
The religious connotations of Rocco's art weren't lost on other observers. "In every sect's more mystic fringes, there's always the tradition of the hermit, the yogi, alone on his mountaintop, coming forth after decades of silence to speak truths," says Brian Langston, who has studied philosophy and world religions and worked for many years at the area's museums. "Plus, he's better than the ongoing morality plays from those fundamentalists on the board." (Rebecca Schoenkopf)
Is Steve Rocco a fairy?
Of course not, but he is our tulpa.Shortly after he showed up in the town square of Nuremberg in the late 1820s—unable to speak, unspeakably filthy, bearing only a note ("I want to be a gallant rider as my father was before me")—Kaspar Hauser became a celebrity. A man without a past, without an identity, without personality or even personhood beyond that ascribed to (or upon) him by a panicked public, he was soon set adrift into an unforgiving meaninglessness. Unlike performance artist Steve Rocco, however, he was never elected to public office. But Hauser's story prefigures Rocco's in many ways, particularly as an example of how the unknown—or the unknowable—translates itself into the most potent sort of celebrity.
More important for our consideration of Steve Rocco is the question of origin itself: Hauser came from "the other," from a blackness so deep—literally, held captive in a farmhouse dungeon from infancy, young Hauser reportedly fainted the first time he saw the sun at age 16—it consumed any human attempt at interpretation.
Rocco comes instead from the darkness within ourselves.
History is the history of the unknown (the darkness) asserting itself into the known (the light): cyberpunk authors such as Gibson and Sterling get credit for first advancing the idea of autonomic systemic consciousness—that given enough density and sophistication, a self-realized entity could coalesce out of an information network, that sparks and spaces between telephone lines and fiber-optic cables could bear a strange sort of life. But the idea of the ghost-in-the-machine—the spiritus ex machina—in the Western world goes back to John Keel, who tracked firsthand entities with names like Indrid Cold, entities who rang his phone—no matter where he was—in the middle of the night to impart dire, uncannily accurate predictions for the future, then disappeared back into the dial tone. And they go back farther, to Jung's connection between the collective unconsciousness and literal quasi-physical manifestations thereof, then back through Keel and Vallee's re-connection of such post-atomic soul searching to ancient stories of ghosts and elves and pixies, all fractured refractions of the same phenomenon: unexpressed mass desire made not flesh, but smoke, wind, light in the sky.
Is this to suggest Steve Rocco is a fairy? Of course not—but he is our tulpa.
Researcher Alexandra David-Neel found tulpas first: a Tibetan reflection of Jung's (and Keel and Vallee, et al.) theories granted matter-of-fact gravitas by centuries of accepted reality. Simply put, a tulpa is like a ghost, borne not out of death, but out of sheer suppressed intention, a ghost not of an actual person, but of ideas or longings too long denied. Rocco is Orange's tulpa, in a sense—the actualized physical manifestation of decades of dissatisfaction with the local political quicksand, a being called into existence to give form to the diffuse alienation of thousands of district residents. A surface reading might recall the numerous resurrection myths—which see Joseph Campbell—that posit a returned, renewed hero to solve the defining crises of a people.