An Interview with Street Performer Kalan Sherrard
Kalan Sherrard is an artist living in New York City. He performs a nihilist puppet show on the platform of the Metropolitan G Station, and has appeared on America’s Got Talent, the Colbert Report, The Daily Show, and on the cover of NY Mag next to a headline “SUCKS TO BE US.”
A friend recently chatted me:
people are into kalan
people are into being into kalan
is what i mean
and that is more interesting
because i am surfacy
tell everyone how important kalan is
how rare he is
how soon nobody will do this
[my girlfriend] is obsessed with him now, after that video on gothamist
asked how i’d feel if she had sex with him
We all went to college together, in Ohio, where Kalan arrived as a skin-and-bones Seattle busker kid. He quickly became a campus meme, tall biking around the quad and pulling stunts like vomiting beet juice on the library on-ramp. My friend from LA called him gross. When I graduated, I didn’t think twice about never seeing him again. But we’ve bumped into each other a few times since: in New Orleans, during Krewe de Vue, he offered me some chicken wings he foraged from the pavement under a cop car. In Seattle, he took me to a sex shop, purchased a plastic dildo called Ram-bone, then left me for the night to go dive in what he called a “sex dumpster” outside Half Price Books. He brought me some discarded Kierkegaard paperbacks the next day.
In early April, we met near Washington Square Park. Though he was arrested for public disturbance a week prior, within a few minutes of our meeting Kalan took off his clothes outside a CVS and changed, on the street, into his batman-themed underwear toga costume—basically a skin-suit with giant styrofoam tumors and a motorcycle helmet proclaiming “Violence” on one side and “Euphoria” on the other. He then climbed atop the cab of a parked truck and read through a megaphone a page of poetry to a crowd of NYU passersby who’d quickly gathered with cameras drawn.
We sat down inside Think Coffee, where Kalan spoke about his puppet show performances and about busking in general. A few days after the interview he posted on Facebook: “help me learn Orcish. i will only speak to the police in Orkish.”
I. BOMBING LIFE BACK TO THE STONE AGE
KALAN SHERRARD: Should I do the balloon thing?
THE BELIEVER: Oh, sure.
[Kalan blows into a balloon, then fellates the mouthpiece as it deflates.]
KS: Sometimes it’s more subtle, and delicate.
BLVR: Well… it happened.
KS: I have this chalk board in my puppet show. It’s like this reservoir into which I can sink all these phrases like “it happened.” I’m constantly searching for slogans. I want to teach a class on slogans. You have such beautiful, differently colored eyes.
BLVR: Thank you.
KS: There are some things that are just hard to search for. Like I was trying to find that groan tube—you know that tube that go eeeeeeerrrrrraaaaaaayyyyyyyy—kinda sounds like my balloon actually. I couldn’t find it—"tube that goes lllllaaaaaaauuuuuu.“ Like, how do you google that? "Groan tube?!”
BLVR: I’ve been having this problem lately. A movie came out five years ago. I first watched the preview online. It involves two MRI machines and, like, four office workers. I want to watch that movie so bad and I can’t think of a single distinguishing detail. Which makes sense, in a way, because it was a post-mumblecore, pre-normcore movie; 2009, the heyday of description-less-ness.
KS: This is a thing to ask Dump.fm. Have you ever seen this movie Go Down Death? It’s only been screened like 20 times. I was cackling through it.
BLVR: What’s it about?
KS: They quote me in New York Magazine saying “I try to make what I’m doing hard to explain.” So it’s ironic for me when people ask me “what are you doing” or “what’s it about?”
BLVR: Okay, want to tell the story about your recent arrest?
KS: I was doing a puppet show underneath Times Square and I was arrested by Sergeant Lu, number 1828. Lu called in ten cops to arrest my puppet show. I said “Why are you arresting me?” He said “Because you are violating transit code.” I said “What code?! Article 1050.6 of the MTA rules of conduct states very clearly that artistic performances including the acceptance of donations are permitted in the MTA."
BLVR: Is that a real citation?
KS: Yea. I’ve got it in my backpack. Want me to show you? I’ll show the recording. You can look it up. Usually I can beat the police. I wasn’t expecting him to arrest me so quickly.
BLVR: How does it usually happen?
KS: Usually I quote this to them. I say "I’m not doing anything wrong, I’m not obstructing anyone’s access. When I have a crowd I make sure that the crowd makes room for people. I’m an artist who cares about the cultural fabric of New York City. I care about New York as a harbor for street culture—and I care about street culture as a base-level populist diffusion of ideas. And I believe in making those ideas accessible to everyone.” And often the police can really connect with that. The NYPD is an incredibly intellectual police force—I think they are the most intellectual police force I’ve ever encountered. I’ve had great conversations with the NYPD about animism and speculative philosophy and post-structuralism and why I write Fuck The Police with a smiley face on my suitcase chalk board—and about anarchist politics in general. I often write Fuck the Police with a smiley face while they are there, and then I’ll change it to You Are The Police. And they usually act jovial. Sometimes the cops walk by and are super tickled by this Fuck the Police possibility. I think it’s interesting because there is hyper subtle sexual ego going on—I mean I think that my puppet show has pheromones, right, in a certain sense. Even if I’m not being overt, it’s nice to understand "Fuck the Police” as an impetus towards sexual engagements with police personnel. I really care to push this recent arrest as a “Yes, Fuck the Police, it’s really terrible that they arrested me for nothing” thing. I’m interested in confronting police brutality and police abuse of cracking down on street performers and street artists, but also in valorizing street art as legitimate performance within the artistic sphere, where it’s so often conflated with pan-handling and begging and not “successful” art. I want to change laws around street performance. Not to mention that what I was doing was legal in New York. In most cities you are not allowed to street perform—maybe because it’s conflated with begging and pan-handling. Though then again there are some where it’s backwards—in Burlington, Vermont, for example, you are allowed to beg but you are not allowed to street perform. So I planned this thing where I wanted to do begging performances—
BLVR: Like a re-enactment of begging?
KS: Well, you should see this movie Noviembre, from 2005, by Achero Mañas. It’s set in the future, a future documentary about this street art group that had been doing street performances in what would-be the present day, and in the movie they have “back in time” interviews with all these people, from 2005-2006, cut with future footage in which they are old. It’s this futuristic documentary looking back on something now that maybe did or didn’t happen. One of their ultimate performances is they dress up as beggars and start begging, and then they get arrested for begging and they say “No, no, we were performing." The cops are like "What are you gonna tell us, that you gave all the money away to the poor?” and the performers are just like “Yes. Yes, we gave the money away.”
BLVR: So you would be re-enacting a movie in which actors perform a performance of begging.
KS: I work with this organization Busk New York, www.buskny.com, and that’s a thing to check out. They have a lot of good platforms. I’m interested in this advocacy and solidarity work that is pushing the envelope in terms of public perception of street performance but also legal change. I would like to see, for example, more performances on cars. It’s technically illegal to perform on cars. People love it. Though sometimes when I perform on cars I feel a little bit encroacheratory. I like street performance because it’s garbage time. The subway is garbage time: no one can say I’m wasting their time because they’ve already thrown that time into the subway. If they don’t want to see me they can go to the other end of the platform. But on the street I do feel this disgust towards the audience: why would you waste your time looking at me? Why are you being so respectful of me? You should attack me.
BLVR: Would you do that if you were in an audience watching someone?
KS: I’m extremely critical. I don’t consider myself a performance artist. I balk at the term performance art. Laurie Anderson articulates this well—that performance artists in general have cultivated themselves as this sort of elite, trans-genre thing. “I don’t like to be classified"—if you are a real performance artist you will eschew the word performance art—
BLVR: … for a different reason than the reason that you are eschewing it …
KS: I’m not denying that! Allan Kaprow had this idea of "ART AS LIFE.” I fucking hate that. I went to the futurist exhibit at the Guggenheim. It was nice! I do have this fascist affinity, you know, like fascism is sexy. My friend Owen says that in an anarchist utopia everyone has these drab hovels and all their clothes are patches and they just eat gruel all the time. Anyways, there’s this quote at the Guggenheim: “Marinetti was interested in destroying the wall between Art and Life." In the moment I read this on the Guggenheim’s wall I was like, That is not what I want. I want to re-enforce the walls between Art and Life and then bomb Life back to the stone age. Totally destroy Life.
BLVR: Life imitates Art.
KS: Yes, this mimetic thing. Like the Twilight thing. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest and my family goes every year to La Push, which is right outside Forks, Washington. That’s where Stephenie Meyer set Twilight—she googled the rainiest place in the US and set the narrative there. Hold on, I’m getting some texts.
BLVR: What do they say?
KS: It’s an invitation to go to Europe. And another person says "I miss you.”
BLVR: An invitation in text? Is that a sext?
KS: Let’s not talk about it. So all these Twilight tourists start coming to Forks and La Push, where my family has been going for forty, fifty years. Now people are coming and looking for the things and places that she mentions in the books, which of course don’t exist, because they’re fictional! But it’s actually a real place, so Forks decides to totally rebuild in the image of her descriptions. So they can bank on Twilight tourism. I want to create a documentary about this phenomena. Most street performers do covers of other peoples’ songs, there’s even these super short covers—like just the chorus of each song. And it’s interesting to me because, on the one hand I value peoples’ original work on the subway. There are so many covers and rip-offs on the subway—the cliché is easily relatable.
BLVR: Like contemporary country music, Tim McGraw and company.
KS: People are familiar with it. They have a context for it, some emotional relationship with, let’s say, Lady Gaga or Twilight. These things have some emotional context that my totally Other, meaninglessness Puppet Show doesn’t have.
BLVR: You don’t seem to encounter that problem.
KS: I am always stunned by people’s generosity. Intellectual and otherwise. I do get the gamut too, though. Total disdain: “You piece of shit trust fund hipster.” It’s funny to me that so many people write me off on “trustafarian” grounds because wealth is the one privilege I don’t really have. I’ve always supported myself, and scarcely ever ask my wonderful family of teachers for anything. Or they say, “You are a genius, these petty small sheep people will never understand you—you are the Nietzschean ideal.” I literally got that two days ago.
II. I WANT TO BE IN AS MANY BOXES AS POSSIBLE
BLVR: So what’s the difference between you and your own performance?
KS: The difference is that one is self-critical. I love seeing people smoking in the subway.
BLVR: A transgression…
KS: Like, I can do whatever the fuck I want. It’s subtle.
BLVR: Do you smoke?
KS: I’ve never smoked. I’ve ingested marijuana maybe a half-dozen times by eating. Recently in New Orleans someone made this float of a golden calf for a chaos-oriented parade. The Glitches, Ditzes, and Witches parade. There are eight teats on the calf float and I suckled one. It had White Russian in it—I had a lot of it. Unbeknownst to me it was laced with a very designer batch of LX3 or LXE, this powerful Ketamine. It was thrilling, I realized how my body resonates—I’ve never had a bad drug experience.
BLVR: Before we sat down to talk, when you were on the truck reading poetry, there were at least 25 people there all taking photos of you. What happens to all that footage?
KS: It’s hard to even know what to search for. I don’t have a hashtag.
BLVR: Do you search for hashtags of yourself?
KS: Every so often… yes. It’s actually kind of interesting. And I have cards, I give my cards to people.
BLVR: Do people follow up?
KS: Some of them. Did you see my Facebook post about how it feels to be a clownish character? It’s always complicated to imagine conveying yourself outside of your body. Inside myself I feel like this rich, complicated thing, and then I see representations of myself, especially in the media—and I think this is why it’s troubling for me, because I feel so caricatured and flattened. It’s not a feeling that “They misrepresented what I said,” more like “I am actually unable to communicate myself." I am paranoid that when I express myself it comes authentically as this caricature, this clownish cartoon version of Kalan. And I think both of those things are true.
BLVR: That’s sort of your brand.
KS: And that’s what’s pathetic about branding. And the neurotic response to that is "I don’t want to be categorized." Fuck that: not being categorized is like keeping your mouth shut. Categorization is linguistic, people trying to understand each other. Words are misty, language is a fog. I want to be in as many boxes as possible, describe myself as thickly as possible.
III. IT’S IMPORTANT TO CULTIVATE MASSIVE PIPE DREAMS
BLVR: What are your career ambitions?
KS: I have all these massive pipe dreams—it’s important to cultivate massive pipedreams. There this plant called Kudzu, in the south—there is this idea to bioengineer Kudzu. You know how there are hundreds of thousands of Anarcho-primitivist feminist farms all over Vermont? There’s also this secret nexus of radical ecological bioengineers who are making invasive species of weeds that will go in and destroy concrete and then die out after six generations. I want to have a giant aircraft carrier that I’ve built out of garbage. Onboard we have a school for all ages and a lot of think tanks and we sail around the world hosting praxis-oriented performances and Not-happenings. We are outside the status milieu. But, I also get totally paranoid about myself, like "I’m doing everything wrong, I don’t have any sense of how to deal with privilege…”
BLVR: …but is your anxiety really so personal?
KS: I can’t answer that question. I have the same question.
BLVR: Question resonance! Like the way you spoke about your body giggling while on Ketamine…
KS: I did not say giggling! OK, my body did giggle on ketamine. I love these accidental drug experiences. I wish people would drug me more. It’s like collaborating.
BLVR: Are we collaborating right now?
KS: Well, you said the word we. We is such a good word. We is an excellent way to phrase things. It’s too bad it’s such a long word in Spanish—nosotros—it takes so long, it’s exhausting. It’s like, be careful not to make your safe words five syllables long.
BLVR: We need some interview safe words.
KS: Let’s make them long.
Peter Nowogrodzki is an editor at Fence.