Kayvon Edson is a bad performance artist, but should he go to prison?

First of all I don’t believe Kayvon Edson should go to prison, although he certainly will serve time. I think much will be made of his history of mental illness, although I don’t think that should prevent anyone from taking his action seriously. If Edson wants this action to be viewed as performance art, here comes a review of it as performance art. 

Kayvon Edson is not a good performance artist. The reason why his action seems more like a plea for attention than a well plotted work of art is because that is pretty much all it is. Obviously, he chose a provocative action at a provocative place at a provocative time. That’s all he did. His piece did not go out of its way to give cause for reflection on the roots, ideologies, and methods of terrorism, let alone the effect terrorism has on its victims or urban and national life at large. His piece did not make a cohesive statement about the spectacle of terrorism, the surveillance state, or media collusion in those phenomena. On the contrary, his action constitutes a plea to be a part of a spectacle. For what egotistical purpose is beyond me, but I can’t imagine a convincing reason for his action other than that desire. 

Edson's attempted meme. 

Edson’s attempted meme.

The personal context of his action came to light almost instantly. He is an art student who made sexualized memes about the Marathon bombers. He is a drag queen that felt some connection with these two also-ran Jihadists. Between the memes and the use of glitter in his backpack, it seems like he is trying to say something about a connection between kitsch and terrorism, something about the banality of violent spectacles perhaps? Unfortunately, he’s not a very articulate artist. In fact, he’s so inarticulate I wonder if he’s saying anything at all. 

I suppose the mess Edson has made says more about performance art becoming kitsch than anything else. Performance art is a decorative ornament for pundits, academics, galleries and museums. It feigns more exaggerated emotion than a SVU marathon. Performance art reigns over unpracticed and ignorant art students like Edson, promising easy tropes and cliche gestures toward significance. Could it be the most intimate of artforms is beginning to resemble its opposite: the agreeable, cheaply made items for mass consumption that define kitsch? Of course, the masses are indifferent to performance art when they’re not hating it. So, maybe it’s kitsch for a particular set of people considering grad school. 

To be fair to Edson, his action is not a terrible idea for a performance. When broken down into its formal components, it becomes clear why his execution of the piece is so unsatisfying and what a successful execution may look like. I see three major components to his piece: the revelation of the contents of the backpack, the costume, and the spoken statement.

The contents of the backpack really could have been anything. An ant farm, dumpster bagels, a mirror (like, held up to society, man). Anything. With the contents of the backpack he had the opportunity to present ambiguous imagery, make a political point, or a personal declaration. The contents could’ve been a symbolic object whose meaning would be dissected in the next coupe of weeks. The contents could’ve provided an explicit expression to let us know what exactly he’s attempting to communicate. The use of glitter is just lack of imagination. Glitter is used in protests often enough. A few years back some Oklaholma environmentalists got arrested for causing a panic with glitter because people thought it was anthrax. At least that terror hoax brought into focus larger concerns about a culture of fear, the use of the law to impede freedom of speech, etc. I think the use of glitter as the backpack’s contents here fails to make any such statement and, given the theatrically inclined as opposed to politically motivated context of the rest of the piece, the glitter fails to connect the action to protest culture at large. 

In 2013, Earth First members dropped a Hunger Games styled banner in the rotunda of Oklahoma City's Devon Tower. They put too much glitter on the sign, which fell off and was confused with anthrax. Two activists were charged with Terrorism Hoax, which carries a 10 year sentence.

In 2013, Earth First members dropped a Hunger Games styled banner in the rotunda of Oklahoma City’s Devon Tower. They put too much glitter on the sign, which fell off and was confused for anthrax. Two activists were charged with Terrorism Hoax, which carries a 10 year sentence.

The costume is startling. Grainy footage of it dashed across the news is even more startling. It’s gaudy, attention grabbing, and pretty creepy. However, these qualities befit a media stunt and are not really a clue to the significance of the action. He could’ve worn anything, as what he chose doesn’t add or detract from the piece.  Edson was screaming “Boston strong.” An ironic appropriation of a slogan used to create solidarity after the traumatic events last year. The simplest interpretation of his utterance conveys a very simple point: How united is a city if that unity is based on fear? Isn’t there a better way of communicating this shallow sentiment that doesn’t risk prison time? Maybe his use of “Boston strong” has complexities I’m missing. 

So, breaking down the piece, it seems Edson doesn’t have a lot to communicate. There are some well worn political cliches, but they aren’t very well communicated and almost seem like an afterthought to his true desire: for us to know his name. 

Of course, there is plenty of “terroristic” performance art worth getting arrested for, not all of it political, but none of it half-baked.

Caption: Chris Burden shooting an airplane.

Chris Burden shooting an airplane.

In 1974, Chris Burden shot a revolver from the ground at a passenger airplane leaving the LAX airport for his piece 747. This action earned him a visit from the FBI. There doesn’t seem to be any explicitly political intent in the action. As a meditation on the nature of danger, violent fantasy, and irrational, nightmarish fear it makes for a compelling piece. Formally, it plays on disjunctions of scale and consequence. In the documentation he appears larger than the plane, as all objects on the ground do when compared to an object in the sky. We all know the actual size of the plane and the people on it. We are aware of the impossibility of him hitting the plane and of his bullets having an effect on the plane if it were hit. Even if Burden’s threat is empty, a threat is being made on the airplane and its passengers. An act of violence wherein the perpetrator is removed by distance from the carnage he creates. 747 seems prescient of drone warfare, framing its core logic while refusing to make an explicit judgment. A lo-fi inauguration of invisible warfare. And that’s just one interpretation. It is a simple, minimal action that continues to raise questions and spur engagement. Edson should take notes.  

Performance artists interested in taking up crime and terror as subjects or methods should also take lessons from recent Russian superstars Pussy Riot and Voina. For them, performance is merely a tool to denigrate oppressive power and they’ve been successful in achieving this end. These groups have put international heat under a tyrannical regime, got talk of anti-capitalism in press from The Washington Post to Pitchfork, and continually reveal the dismal contradictions of Russia’s economy. They’re also good artists. Content, form, documentation, and media fallout are all anchored to serve a concrete, militant statement in their work. Their actions take the best strategies of provocative art from Dada and Otto Muehl to punk and protest movements and put them to novel, powerful use in a contemporary context.

Just because Kayvon Edson is not a good performance artist does not mean he should not be defended. How actions like his are prosecuted will set precedents for how future, better actions by other artists will be judicially received. Even if you do not pity Edson, understand the severity of the legal consequences in his case may set the stage for prosecution of greater artists in the future, artists whose quality of work and commitment to their vision may put them on par with Chris Burden, Pussy Riot, and Voina.  We need to defend performance art from both bad artists and the law so we can set the stage for powerful and substantive performance art to take place.

— Marzio Milesi