The Performance Works of Mark Bloch

by Isabel Ochone

Though he does not like the term, Mark Bloch is, among other things, a "performance artist" living in New York City. He has been doing multi-media, time-based artworks for 27 years.

Inspired and influenced by Dada, Surrealism, Happenings and Fluxus; the pop-culturization of performance artists like Laurie Anderson and the do-it-yourself mentality espoused by Brian Eno, the Talking Heads and Patti Smith in New York, and hometown heroes Devo, Tin Huey and Pere Ubu, legitimized and somewhat nurtured by visiting artists Joan Jonas (performance and video) and Taka Iimura (filmmaking and video) and electrified by the frustration inherent in the study of art in a mediocre Midwest state college, Kent State University, Ohio artist Mark Bloch began his forays into the "performance art" milieu in 1977.

Despite the formal concerns being espoused by his teacher Jonas, Bloch"s first performance was captured on a Sony black and white reel to reel videotape machine in the form of a Johnny Carson-inspired "art talk show" called The Cryptic Pyramid Show that featured Jonas, herself, a hired magician and various show biz influenced stunts by Bloch that included, among other things, a vow to quit smoking and a subsequent "last smoke" that was "brought to you by the League of Women Smokers."

Around the same time, Bloch constructed a giant multi-sectional pyramid that played a part in subsequent art projects including the aforementioned video. Bloch changed the layout of the pyramid sections daily, introducing the first performative aspects into the previously strictly sculptural work. Visitors to the Kent State University Art Building never knew how the work would be displayed that day.

Finally the work made its final appearance in an elaborate spectacle created by Bloch, fellow artist Rick Vertolli and others called Flaunt Jaunt in which a giant (6000 square feet)"canvas" as well as Bloch"s pyramid was painted by hundreds of participants. Unfortunately the planned flight of a paint-dropping hot air balloon was scrapped at the last minute when strong winds prevailed. The event was filmed however, by an airplane that flew overhead, however that footage remains unseen and its whereabouts unknown.

Next Bloch took the multi-media idea to the breaking point with his first official performance piece, Mass Mediocrity, a spectacle featuring experimental dancers writhing through the audience, jazz guitarists who played a duet while hooked up interactively to wiggling laser beam projections, a koto ensemble, action painting and gymnasts on stage and other creative endeavors, all weaved together precariously by the wisecracking master of ceremonies Bloch who, in a three piece suit and a cowboy hat, introduced the various components in a reprisal of his avant garde talk show host persona.

Later in 1978 Bloch changed direction when he joined forced with another local multi-media artist William Hermann to create Breakfast Around Town, a traveling art event that took place in several sites around the college town of Kent, Ohio, including a construction site, a local bar at 8am, a laundromat as well as a dilapidated Robert Smithson earth sculpture called "Partially Buried Wood Shed." Bloch and Hermann sat drinking coffee and eating toast in the public locales and invited passers by to join them. When they did, they were confronted with a number of questions as well as photographed, tape recorded and filmed by the pair. Like Mass Mediocrity, Bloch"s goal was to confine audience participation and art documentation within pre-established rules to create unpredictable art experiences and spontaneous collaboration that bordered on real life. Bloch was leaving the performance space.

This traveling outside the theatre/gallery/museum aspect of Bloch"s work was continued quite literally in 1978 and 79 after Bloch"s graduation from college. In Bloch is Here, the artist presented unknowing participants his "resume as art" outside of several major (and less major) art institutions in Los Angeles, New York, Washington DC and Ohio. Dressed in red makeup and clothing from head to toe and donning a pile of self-aggrandizing flyers, Bloch confronted visitors to museums exiting at closing time with song, dance, jokes as well as his brief CV. "When the flyer changed hands, the art occurred," Bloch once explained. He had "isolated the public relations as art." Documentation in High Performance magazine extended the prescient "PR as art" gesture.

Bloch"s subsequent move to Los Angeles resulted in a more personal and somewhat isolated performance milieu, which nonetheless continued. On January 23, 1979, his 23rd birthday, he instructed a photographer friend named Maury Cohen to ambush him at an unannounced time and shoot 23 photos of him. The collaborative and arcane effort, 123, was indicative of the direction Bloch was about to move.

In 1978 Bloch founded PAN- the Postal Art Network and began to interact with the international network of mail artists originally established by Ray Johnson in the 1950s and later named the New York Correspondence School. Bloch sent collages and objects as P.A.N. (and occasionally as Lao Tsu Jones or the God Jones Surf Club in homage to Johnson.) Objects received and/or sent during the ensuing years included a mouse wrapped with dog feces and 2 eggs over easy with home fries and toast. Bloch also established a magazine at that time: Panmag, to describe his activities and to continue the flyer-as-art trend he began with Bloch is Here.

Bloch"s use of the postal system fueled his performance work in many ways. He began to describe in letters his daily activities as performances he called AE or Actual Events. He would later learn that these were extensions of work done 2 decades earlier by George Brecht, Yoko Ono and On Kawara.

Bloch also began largely undocumented but important series of "mailings as action" in which he speedily and frenetically would prepare mass mailings and then travel to the post office to disperse them, collaborating with the US Postal Service as the distributor of his work. The preparation of the works as well as the interactions with postal employees and even the subsequent "out of control" reception of the works by the addressees were part of the work. Eventually this philosophy led to an oft-copied rubber stamp that Bloch sent around the world "The Address is the Art" meaning that the long distance interaction with the unseen recipient and all that led to it was the essence of the work. It was like the mano a mano transference of a flyer in Bloch Is Here but disembodied, and assisted by the various institutions that comprise the international postal system.

Yet another manifestation of Bloch"s mail art work in performance, was in the form of partially or fully staged theatrical pieces that had some overlap with correspondence or corresponDANCE as Ray Johnson called the process. Cat and Mouse was a partially realized cat and mouse game in the streets of Los Angeles between Bloch and a correspondent called the LA Obscurist Club that involved maps, large props, found objects and mailed clues.

In addition through the 1980"s and into the 90s, Bloch did a number of performances as Pan, the goat god or the Panman, a hybrid of a deity and an animal that pre-dated Matthew Barney"s work with satyrs as a symbol by over a decade. These will be described later.

In 1980 Bloch initiated East Meats West in Laguna Beach, California. This work began as a collaboration by mail with a pair of Orange County artists Jim Reva and Maia (Coolbaugh) Norman. Using "meat" as a theme to "meet," the threesome converged with their respective entourages on a crowded public beach in macabre costumes for an unscripted adventure of ritual and carnivorous carnage. It culminated when Bloch presented the pair with a key in a golden egg hanging from a golden hand, which they were then instructed to use to open a fake plaster cow head, revealing a real cow head inside. The mood changed from festive when the crowd recoiled in horror and the performers ran off from the idyllic beach in the nick of time. It was the beginning of a friendship and collaboration between Bloch, Reva and Norman that continues to the present (Reva died in 1996 from AIDS. Norman is now, coincidentally, the partner of fellow"meat artist" Damien Hirst. )

In addition to postal activities and their performance spin offs, Bloch also continued his more theatrical show business standup pursuits in the form of two major multi-media works performed for the first time, in galleries as part of group shows. In conjunction with an "art and technology" show at the Collector"s Choice Gallery in Laguna Beach, Bloch performance Heart and Technology, a history of collaboration and Intermedia with technology from cave men to the present. It utilized multiple slide projectors, an elaborate music soundtrack, video, guest actors reciting performances of Kurt Schwitters sound poetry and Shakespeare and a live demonstration of a theramin with audience participation. Bloch lectured and danced his way through a technically-challenged yet appropriately and very complex illustrated verbal history.

Next, to bolster his immersion in The Theatre and its Double by Antonin Artaud, Bloch studied with performance artist Rachel Rosenthal. He took workshops at her DBD (Doing By Doing) Center, interacting with other regulars. The resulting performance work was an opus presented at the Orange Country Center of Contemporary Art in conjunction with a feminist art show. The work, entitled La Femme Est l"Avenir de L"homme, (from a poem by the French Surrealist Louis Aragon meaning "Woman is the Future of Man") was a three- hour-plus testimonial to the power of women in his life. Bloch showed slides and told stories about every woman he had ever known, from his grandmothers to his present girlfriend. Angry feminists walked out halfway through the work but Bloch continued to the very end, dancing with symbolic muses showing films of himself in drag, and even stripping naked at one point to immerse himself in the contradictions of the feminine experience as seen by a heterosexual male.

Following that work, but after a meeting with Allen Kaprow, Bloch left California to set his sights on more personal endeavors. He created Theatre of Coincidence; an open-ended conceptual framework for what happened after a set of instructions or scores changed hands (similar to the moment of transfer in Bloch Is Here) and then acted upon. It took many forms, from the Zen- and Tao-influenced experimental rituals with his friend Deena Manis (whom he dubbed "DNA Wo-Man Ray") to a series of music-oriented works in New York. the Theatre of Coincidence became Bloch"s modus operandi for the next several years. The music works were first performed publicly in Brooklyn at a series of soirées called the Park Slope Salon in 1982. Props, musicians, questions and answers to the audience and other elements were combined via instructions distributed on stage.

This was also the period during which Bloch"s work as a musician was re-ignited. Musical experiments art M"bwebwe- a performance space and communal living experiment on lower 2nd Avenue in Manhattan eventually led to Bloch"s experiments with music that lasted throughout the nineteen eighties. His college friends Jim Quinlan and Tom Little were co-collaborators on both melodic and more abstract audiotape constructions. Bloch had originally studied drums as a boy in Cleveland, Ohio with jazz drummer Jerry Borden and later Moog synthesizer at Kent State University"s Electronic Music Studio with instructor and composer David Stewart.

Bloch worked with the M"bwebwe musicians to create a series of audiotapes. Bloch used some of those recordings as the starting point for a solo project he called Ten Zen Men. That project appeared as an audiotape in 1989. He also collaborated with other transplanted Ohio musicians, Mike Boals, Bill Solomine and Alex Lippisch in New York in a project they called Potato Lake. Potato Lake recorded hundreds of hours of improvisational music but released only one eponymous recording in 1986. Others were being compiled when they disbanded two years later. On another solo Bloch tape called Gregorian Chance he was joined by Boals, Lippisch, Quinlan, fellow M"bwebwe Peter Brill and others, as well as mail artists Zona, Andre Dudek-Durer and David Zack.

The musical performances of the 1980s also overlapped with other of Bloch"s performative endeavors. Occasionally gigs were dubbed Theatre of Coincidence; others featuring only Bloch and Boals were called Potato Lake. These musical endeavors took on new levels of identity-blurring when fictitious band names were used depending on the collaboration, Some of the names Bloch used during this time were "Dick, Dad and Dondi," "The Former Beatles," and the "Magic Poopin" Squirrels." Bloch also complicated the issue by presenting a solo performance art work at a Houston Street Bar called "Potato Lake and other Vacation Spots," which was an allegorical look at his collaboration with Boals and others. Bloch"s Ten Zen Men had also always been conceived as a performance gesamtkunstverk with video accompaniment but it has not been realized to date. Bloch also has performed occasionally with other well-known downtown avant-garde denizens such as a one-night, two-venue, two-gig-only piece dubbed the "Prester Johns Touring Company" for Chinese drum and cymbal (played by Bloch), synthesizer (Lippisch), bagpipe and female voice. One of the gigs took place at the legendary "Sculpture Garden" by the "Rivington School."

In 1982 Bloch also began a new important series of mail art-related performances. Cavellini: Pasato, Presente, Futura was part of a tribute to the Italian art collector and master of self-historification Guglielmo Achille Cavellini. (Bloch later recorded a Doo Wop song tribute for a European Cavellini festival.) Bloch also began collaboration with painter and mail artist Carlo Pittore who offered Bloch his East Village window gallery "La Galleria Della Occhio" to exhibit his Last Mail Art Show, Bloch"s 15 year plus mail art show albatross. He changed the exhibit weekly and did small events, adorned in a business suit one week and the next as Pan the goat god.

These previously mentioned Pan-Performances occupied Bloch for the next ten years. He fist donned the satyr suit for the historic Artists Talk on Art mail art debates at the Wooster Street gallery in Soho in which Dr. Ronnie Cohen was taken to task for his missteps in a Franklin Furnace mail art show. A careful reading of the talks" transcripts reveal in retrospect that it was the costumed and irreverent Bloch that pushed Dr. Cohen (and the previous week, critic Robert Morgan) over the edge. Cohen abruptly took her leave from the "mail art melee," (as it was described in the Village Voice) which exploded into chaos. Bloch still sees Cohen as guilty of violating the "unwritten rules of mail art" she promised to follow but now questions those rules himself and regrets the divisive direction his actions took. He believes they hurt the mail art network at a critical (pun intended) juncture. "I"m sick of the mail-art-shoot-yourself-in-the-foot-school," he once told Ray Johnson in reference to another incident. "You didn"t learn that in my School," Johnson appropriately replied. Today, Bloch continues to participate in "mail art" activities but in a limited fashion.

Bloch also performed as Pan throughput the late 1980s, at the Great Mail Art Supply store in Greenport, Long Island (a venue that was also the location of a non-Pan performance in homage to Ray Johnson in 1986 with the help of veteran correspondence artist and collagist John Evans) and in two trips to Europe, in 1986 and 1989. Bloch has called his Mondo Materiale, Mondo Spirtituale at the Villa Fanna in Treviso, Italy his greatest experience as a performance artist. Visually "cut in half," a conflicted Pan tried to chase two opposing worlds simultaneously, personified by Swiss mail artists Gunter and Colette Ruch. In 1989 he returned to Europe (including a return to Treviso) and did a triad of works: Pan and Syrinx at the Transmission Gallery in Glasgow, Scotland (with flautist Wendy Lanxner); Pan and Technology at the Strane Corrispondenze festival at Villa Fanna (with Vittore Baroni, Siglinde Kallinbach, Ruggero Maggi, and Giovanni Strada); and Pan: Ciclio Reciclio at the Brandale Spazioaperto in Savonna, Italy. Later in 1989, Bloch concluded his European tour (which also included musical performances in Italy, Belgium and elsewhere) when he danced through an ancient ruin as Pan in a private performance in Athens, Greece.

Before and after his return to the USA, Bloch continued in the performance art milieu, gracing experimental venues in New York with occasional pieces for clubs including Giorgio Gomelsky"s, Darinka, Skep and CBGBs, where he shared a bill with Chris Butler of the Ohio band the Waitresses, Warhol crony Taylor Meade and legendary member of the Fugs (and an early influence on Bloch) Tuli Kupferberg in a benefit memorial show for the four students killed in 1970 at Kent State University. He also performed in various guises with projections and costume changes reminiscent of earlier work as part of the 1987 Duchamp centennial in Philadelphia, performing Marcel Duchamp and Contradiction, sponsored by the Painted Bride performance space and others.

Bloch"s performance work and other art activities imploded into a decade-long period of self-reflection from 1990 to 2001. Called the Word Strike, Bloch ceased producing artwork publicly as a reaction to what he saw as "art world insanity." He took credit for the collapse of prices in the art markets, citing his Word Strike as the cause. He called the strike off when the learned members of the art community came together in an altruistic gathering of humanistic support for the ailing art dealer Pat Hearn. He felt that signaled a sea change for the cold art market. (Hearn died of liver cancer on Aug. 18, 2000, at the age of 45.)

During his art strike, Bloch secretly completed hundreds, if not thousands, of projects. These were unleashed when he came out of his spiritually necessitated isolation in 2002. During the previous decade Bloch married and had a son, lost several friends including his mentor Ray Johnson as well as his own father in May 2001. By that time Bloch had dispensed with his need to be an artist and hoped to pursue a career as a monologist. His earliest performance work as an artistically inclined "talk show host" came in handy as he parlayed his gifts into a new endeavor.

He recently embarked in that direction with a series of performances at Dixon Place. Using the image of Joan Crawford as a negative role model, Bloch explained why it was necessary to stop his neurotic ways and "retire from art in favor of higher forms of show biz" before he hurt himself or someone he loved. The work consisted of three consecutive performances, ten minutes each, in which "The Performance Artist" (Bloch as a balding, middle-aged guy) answered sheepishly to a ominous, punishing voice (also his own) that demandingly asked him questions about his performance art career.

Trying to come to an understanding of his own motivation for wanting to work out his personal issues in front of an audience, Bloch was moving from his past in art making, autobiography and myth toward role playing and a new way of working. Though the piece was merely a workshop for a future work (that he explained in the introduction that would utilize Crawford film clips and slides), the comedic Q and A was a roaring success with the Dixon Place audience and seemed to suggest the direction Bloch might move in next.