On Nov. 2, Steve Rocco won a place on the Orange Unified School District board of trustees without mounting a campaign—or even showing his face.
Orange school officials—and campaign consultants everywhere—scratched their heads at the notion that a phantom candidate could win thousands of votes merely by calling himself an “educator/writer.” News of Rocco's victory ran in the New York Post and Canada's Ottawa Citizen as well as on National Public Radio and NBC's Todayshow. A steady stream of journalists and television producers descended on his rustic Santa Ana home in an unsuccessful effort to get him to answer his front door. Neighbors and acquaintances talked of Rocco's habit of showing up at the Santa Ana swap meet to sell records stamped property of a local public library—and how he'd yell, “No bargains!” or, “Don't touch!” and, “I'm watching you!” to anybody who tried to purchase them.
And when it seemed Rocco would never leave his house to claim his seat on the Orange school board, a man identifying himself as Rocco called Pasadena-based public radio station KPCC-FM and promised—dramatically—to show up for the Orange Unified School District's Dec. 9 trustee swearing-in ceremony.
The bizarre no-show led to speculation Rocco doesn't exist. But informed sources say Rocco is not only real, but also arguably the most talented performance artist in the history of Orange County politics—perhaps the most talented artist in the history of performance art: Andy Kaufman.
Rocco hints at his real identity in his website, andykaufmanlives.com. There, he claims Andy Kaufman “faked his own death” in what was obviously the most masterful stunt in a masterful career and went on to live in relative obscurity.
“Welcome to AndyKaufmanlives.com; my name is Steve Rocco,” the website declares. “As the URL suggests, this site is for the express purpose of sharing my opinion that Andy Kaufman faked his death in 1984. Although the name of the site implies that I believe Andy Kaufman is alive, that is not necessarily true. For all I know, Andy Kaufman got hit by a bus in 1985 and is no longer among us, but I do not believe Andy Kaufman died as reported in the papers.”
After warning off people who may “be upset or angered by discussion of Andy Kaufman faking his death,” Rocco explains that he “decided to set up this page [because] I do not see anyone discussing the concept that Andy Kaufman really faked his death.”
A quick Google search of the words “Andy Kaufman faked death” returns 18,000 hits.
“On many occasions, someone will bring up the possibility that he faked his death, but always with a wink, wink, nudge, nudge attitude,” he writes, displaying a sophisticated knowledge of Monty Python trivia. “The occasional message board comment will start out 'Do you think he could be alive?' Then after a few replies, someone throws out the death certificate or some other 'fact' and the discussion ends. I am taking this opportunity to say that I have always firmly believed and will always firmly believe that Andy Kaufman faked his death.”
Immediately below that declaration of faith, Rocco provides readers with a fascinating Q&A—with himself. It's a technique Rocco employed in Hey, Man, the self-produced, self-distributed pamphlet of self-interviews in which Rocco grills himself about his resolution of the Kodak/Albertsons/SmokeCraft Sausage conspiracy that led to his 1980 conviction for shoplifting several rolls of film and a sausage from a Santa Ana grocery store.
Questions from Rocco to Rocco about Kaufman include: “How did he pull it off?” (“Beats me. I have theories, none of which are important.”); “How could he hide for so long?” (“Who says he's hiding?”); and “What about the death certificate? Isn't that proof positive he didn't fake his death?” (“Don't you think 'faking your own death' would involve a death certificate?”).
Following this lengthy interview, Rocco/Kaufman answers questions about Steve Rocco:
Q: Steve Rocco, do you have anything to do with the Andy-returns sites or press releases?
A: Absolutely not. I stand on the corner and stare at the sky. They walk up behind you and yell boo.
Q: So, Steve Rocco, if you believe that a fake death is as absolute as a real death and the artist formerly known as Andy Kaufman will not be returning, what's the point of the andykaufmanlives.com effort?
A: The gold buried beneath your feet has no value until someone hands you a map.
Q: Are people suckers for believing that Andy faked his death, or are they suckers for believing he died?
Q: Are you, Mr. Steve Rocco, Andy Kaufman?
A: No. I am someone who knows deep in my bones that the man known as Andy Kaufman, “star of Taxi,” did not die as reported on May 16, 1984. I am also someone who knows that the character Andy Kaufman exists only in legend.
Despite Rocco's website, most people continue to believe that after years of entertaining people with his wacky antics—singing the Mighty Mouse theme song, reading endless passages from F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby and wrestling fat chicks—Kaufman died of cancer in 1984.
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.
That's not quite Rocco because Rocco has not “returned.” He has been generated anew out of simple frustration or (perhaps) hope, called into physicality by thousands of NO votes.
His sudden appearance out of nothingness isn't the publicity stunt or self-aggrandizement the media would make it; indeed, my colleagues have (correctly) observed that Rocco is performance artist Andy Kaufman. But “who” was never the question; the question was “when,” and the answer is “now” in this triumph of the popular will, this almost supernatural invocation of true democratic principles that signals a sea change for the better in the city of Orange.
With his installation on the board this Tuesday, the residents of one of the county's most troubled school districts will receive the balm they have long been crying for: with Rocco on the board, progress toward the (trans)formation of long-stymied collective desire is finally possible. The alternative would have been the total collapse of human dignity within the Orange Unified School District. But with Rocco's ascension, the people have better than their say: they have their will. To paraphrase something pertinent, if Steve Rocco did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him. They did. (Steve Laughner)