HOW DO YOU TURN YOUR LIFE INTO A PERFORMANCE?
Interview by Margaret Murphy
Margaret Murphy, Head of Community, spoke with David Henry Nobody Jr to discuss performance art and NFTs, the “Fantastic Nobody,” and his ability to predict the future.
Margaret Murphy: How did you get started doing performance art?
David Henry Nobody Jr: I was something of a performance artist as a kid. I was definitely talented at drawing and was creative, having taught myself to draw in perspective by age ten. But I was also a comedian and class clown who interrupted often and questioned authority frequently. It was after I moved to New York City as a young artist that I saw my first performance art pieces. When I worked an art handling day job with a well-known performance artist, Kim Jones aka The Mudman, I tried my own first performance in October of 1993 at an underground art club called The Mustard Factory, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. My knack for responding creatively to my immediate surroundings and my high energy level were a good fit for performance art. I saw through performance that reality is a living painting and there was no need to stretch a canvas because I was the canvas. I studied texts from Guy De Bord’s “Society of The Spectacle” and got more familiar with art movements like FLUXUS, the idea that art is a framework for life to flow into the work.
MM: How has your creative practice changed over time? What have been the biggest influences of these changes?
DHNJ: My art is not my practice; it’s my life. My work has evolved immensely over the last 30 years and has shape-shifted into many different forms, like life itself. I am against doing the same thing over and over and having a distinct or apparent superficial aesthetic style. For example, in 1995 I did a live performance based on the book “Gulliver’s Travels.” I was a naked Gulliver tied down and embedded in a miniature landscape with 100 white mice representing the Lilliputians crawling all over me for four hours. That same year I invented a Human Weeble Wobble sculpture that people could actually ride on. These earlier pieces map out my diverse creative inclinations and my grasp of using different social and aesthetic systems to make art with my surroundings.
The biggest catalysts were also my collaborations that came about through friendships with the wildest and most genius people I met over the years in Brooklyn. We influenced each other greatly and radically conspired to change what art can be, a spirit I still carry. In the 1990s my collaborations with British artist Dominic McGill manifested in street performances like “Red Carpet Rollers” (1997-98) in which we would stand in front of buildings like the Trump Tower dressed in tuxedos with white gloves and a roll of red carpet. No one was coming but a big crowd would gather and unconsciously become the voice of the performance in the video recording of the scene. In this work, I began to take a greater interest in the “wanna-be” in a consumerist society. Inspired by the dehumanizing underbelly of fame in America as seen with the Red Carpet, I concocted a new wave of self-implicating solo performances—most notoriously my year-long undercover performance “Alex von Furstenberg” where I crashed celebrity and VIP parties in New York City dressed in a $20 vintage suit. I would hand a point-and-shoot 35mm camera to strangers to document my celebrity encounters as “Alex.” Sixty photos documenting my performance were outed to the press and exhibited in my first solo show in the fall of 2000 in New York City. The story created quite a scandal in the media.
MM: From 1998 to 1999, you worked on a performance piece involving Donald Trump. What was that like, and how do you feel that work has transformed since his presidential term?
DHNJ: My performance predicted the future. It’s wild and unfortunate and quite surreal for me. I stalked Trump as a performance in 1998 and 1999 during which I met him five times while I posed as a “run of the mill” white guy supporter. I met him a sixth time at the Taj Mahal Casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and had him autograph all five prints with a gold paint marker. After he continuously hinted at running for President, I made a “Trump for President 2000” sign and took it out on the streets of NYC to see if people would vote for him. I also was shot holding my Trump sign and appeared in a notorious clip in a Rage Against the Machine music video directed by Michael Moore.
Since Trump’s presidency, the work has taken on much greater meaning. When I made the work, I saw him as a cheesy representation of the dark side of white men: the patriarchy. By stalking him I was deconstructing my own relationship with an identity loaded with inherent hypocrisy and a dark past. There are not many artists who can claim to have predicted the future, this body of work is what sets my life's work apart from many artists and into its own category-defying genre. The lens of the “Fantastic Nobody” is probing and prescient.
MM: Have these experiences influenced the creation of the term “Fantastic Nobody”? Can you tell us about the concept?
DHNJ: My work with Dominic McGill, combined with some of the humorous lingo of that time in my life, and just generally going out to art openings and parties, had an influence on me. One term, which eventually became my central art philosophy is “Fantastic Nobody”. This was a person who went out to all the cool parties and looked totally fantastic as if they were famous. But when you got to actually finally see their studio, they didn’t do anything—just being fantastic was their art. A "Fantastic Nobody" is a person who is such a wanna-be they fashion themselves into a sociological illusion. Alex Von Furstenberg was my first "Fantastic Nobody" performance. Since then, most of my body of work involved creating a performance character that creates the art in my work.
The term took on a bigger meaning in the formation of another DIY art movement and the collaboration of five exceptionally talented and weird friends. The Fantastic Nobodies Collective (2003-2013) was hugely influential in the extreme mixing of art and life and the performance’s relationship with the camera. In one series of live situational exhibitions, we built a giant golden picture frame on a wall with a large stage in the frame. Whatever was in the frame looked like a living painting. The objective was to keep changing the picture of props and performances in the frame with no final product. The shapeshifting of the creative process was the art itself.
This work with the collective was hugely influential on my own work and I would go on to join Instagram and become the character David Nobody. David Nobody is a reference to my philosophy of art and a nod to the Nobodies, kind of like how the Ramones maintained their last names well after the group disbanded
MM: Do you feel that IRL performances are different from performing for the camera in your studio?
DHNJ: I call what I do Resemblagè, a term I first started using in 2015, the combination of the words resemble and collage. It involves physically collaging myself and playing to the camera with this sculptural facade in a manner that often mimics CGI in the recording. In the studio, the performance is in a highly controlled environment, whereas in an IRL performance it is embedded in “reality” and subject to much more chance. Although Resemblagè is possible outside the studio, I often think of the work as inherently more interventionist or transforming myself into an illusion when outside the studio. I started out purely doing performance art to be in the moment in the 1990s, but as the camera has supplanted reality my work has integrated the migration. The recording of something is more important than the real thing. In turn, the recording becomes a digital object which is now collectible because of NFTs. There may come a time in the future when reality and the Internet are inseparable and difficult to discern what is what. I am interested in the space where real and unreal merge.
MM: Where do you see the overlap of performance art, sculptures, and your digital works?
DHNJ: Sometimes I see the body as pixels and people look like iPhones to me. Sometimes when I'm talking to someone I swear we look like an image and a caption to each other. The other day I began to wonder if my girlfriend was doom-scrolling my entire personality. I am very sure we are taking how we interact and see online on our phones and superimposing those lenses onto our lives and into IRL, no doubt – it’s extremely fucking weird and disturbing. That being said, I am interested in blurring the properties of performance, digital art and sculpture. Resemblagè may very well represent the future of this ongoing odd hybridization in society and in my art.
MM: In most of your artworks, you are the model of your pieces. What is the significance of self-portraiture to you?
DHNJ: The self is an expressive canvas. Humans are multidimensional beings. The Internet is a pictorial space where the inside of ourselves and the outside can be intermixed and even unified into one plane. I prefer to use myself as a self-portrait but also as an unconscious projection screen in which the viewer can transpose themselves into my work. In the Resemblagè work of recent years especially, the viewer does not see me but rather sees themselves in the work. It is a mix of comfort and discomfort. I am a Nobody, a disembodied avatar for you to navigate my work with.
MM: Your project Resemblagè features photographic portraits of the human bust transformed by food, makeup, costume, and other objects. Where does the inspiration for this work come from?
DHNJ: The inspiration for Resemblagè is the effects of social media combined with my long-term interest in consumerist detritus and my 30-year deep look and self-implication into the dark side of capitalism. Resemblagè is the natural progression from the fantastic nobody as an IRL “wanna-be” to the futuristic nobody who is a shapeshifting performance avatar. Resemblagè is humorously wearing the dilemmas and problems of our time physically on the body as sculpture. The recording of the moment is shared online and becomes a symbol the viewer projects onto, cycling the interrupted image back into the system it came from.
I become a human target by wearing the imagery intended to stoke dispute and discussion. By wearing the art, it becomes politically charged. I am interested in art that jumps off the canvas or screen and into life itself.
MM: What prompted you to start making NFTs?
DHNJ: In February and March of 2021 I started getting frantic DMs on Instagram, where I have a large following, about NFTs. My followers were beseeching me to start minting. By late March I dropped my first two 1 of 1s on Foundation, “Peanut Butter Painter” and “Sunny Dee Fountain.” both were collected by major artist James Jean. It was quite something. I had basically already been making NFTs – which were my viral videos – for the last six years on Instagram. So, over time I minted and sold many of my classics, in addition to new performance videos, eventually garnering a price range of between 2 and 4 Eth. This year I minted Nobody Pegz: 75 of my greatest Resemblagè photography self-portraits from 2015 to 2020 and sold a lot of this collection as well. I can see that my work predicted NFTs in the form of my videos as digital canvases and also that it foresaw PFPs in the form of my Nobody Pegz collection.
MM: “Strings Attached” is a looping video featuring a subject, staring directly into the camera, in colorful makeup and a wig. Clear strings taped to the face repeatedly and forcefully tug the skin at different points. The looping creates a feeling of endurance for an imagined sensory response for the viewer. The title suggests that although the strings are not explicitly visible, an individual can never escape the attachments of life, and perhaps oftentimes suffers from it.
The description of “Strings Attached” mentions “This is a Youtube cosmetics tutorial from another dimension.” Can you speak more about this?
DHNJ: I believe that sentence was inspired by a comment written on Instagram in response to “Strings Attached”. I often do not premeditate the meaning of my work but rather allow the viewers to collectively create/fight/laugh/debate each other and myself, in character as David Nobody, over the meaning of the work. I have always used a creative call-and-response with the audience to hone my work. I want to put them in the middle of the content to create discontent.
I think the comment also refers to, jokingly, the notion that social media creates low self-esteem by comparing yourself to an endless stream of doctored-up representations of people and thus creating unrealistic standards of self-worth, commodified and mass-produced, existing simultaneously. These are the strings attached. The use of strings to me also alludes to one of my favorite Duchamp pieces, “Three Standard Stoppages”, which critiques the dehumanizing effects of an industrialized and simulated reality by pointing out a cracked self-measurement system.
MM: How do you see “Strings Attached” operating as an NFT over a performance video piece in a gallery?
DHNJ: As a video in a gallery, it may not look much different at first. However, once you know the video is an NFT the perception of the piece completely changes. In this day and age, how something is labeled and structured changes the feel of the work. Suddenly a different conceptual and emotional category can unfold, the work is part of something larger. The strings attached are actually the blockchain the art is attached to.
MM: You are based in New York City – can you talk about how the creative hub has changed? How do you feel it is reflected (if at all) in the NFT art community?
DHNJ: I have been based in and around Williamsburg, Brooklyn since 1991. There is no doubt that the neighborhood communities in the 1990s and 2000s were close-knit and immensely inspiring for my work. Over the years many of my comrades have given up making art and gentrification has destroyed the physical community. Artists are priced out of New York City. Fortunately, things have taken off on the Internet. On Instagram, I gained tens of thousands of followers and unlocked my work to the public. I was once very gate-kept out of exhibition opportunities in the art world, like literally “landlocked.” Not only did I go around the gates in the last six years, but I also met a new group of inspiring artists and fans of weird art. The Internet has changed my life; it continues to open doors to new communities.
I think the creative hub is increasingly decentralized with the pandemic causing a huge structural social upheaval. This is even more apparent in the NFT scene which has been a revolutionary explosion in the last two years.
MM: How do NFTs accomplish your creative vision and goal over a traditional show?
DHNJ: My recent physical show was in June in New York City. It addressed precisely these issues. I have long felt that my solo shows should be conceptually profound yet also serve as something of a playground. For my show “Upside Down World” I worked with prominent New York City set designer and friend Jessy Kauffman to create a large set of upside-down rooms in the gallery. My idea was to create a series of upside-down performance art NFTs which were to be displayed in the inverted room. I built a massive wheel out of wood and steel in my studio so that performers, sets and liquids, etc could be turned upside down and video recorded. I hired a crew to help me create the project. The piece was a response to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and how the world was turned upside down, thus crashing the markets in the West. Like all of my work I wear or integrate myself into the social dilemma in order to examine the subject, I do not separate myself from the work/subject/meaning/emotions but instead see a declaration of interdependence.
MM: With over 30 years working as an artist, what do you feel most excited about looking to the future of art?
DHNJ: I am most excited to hopefully see screens becoming technically passé in the future. I imagine a medium we can’t even grasp yet that will bring digital art into living, breathing 3D in a room with no screen involved. I hope that my NFT collectors will employ these technologies to show my NFTs someday.
I am looking forward to my future in art. No one has offered me a retrospective yet – I’m not sure what they are waiting for. Imagine all the different conceptual periods in one exhibition space. It would certainly not be boring and challenge the whole basis of what art can be, who we are as a species, and what the fuck reality even is.
David Henry Nobody Jr is a performance artist and sculptor who works in diverse mediums, often placing his physical body into the work. Frequently riffing off of the dark side of American popular culture, he has been showing his work since the early 1990s both in the New York art world and as a renegade underground figure and as a collaborator.