My Problem with the Arts in Philadelphia

Open Call for Guerilla Art

Laura Bernstein_small

Beth Heinly is a leader in the alternative arts community in Philadelphia. She’s talented, opinionated and original. As a member of Little Berlin and Vox Populi, she has curated and shown work by herself and others. Her interest in science led to a wonderful art and science exhibit at Little Berlin; as a collector of art, she curated a memorable collections show at Vox Populi; as a zine maker and collector, she organized a zine library at Little Berlin that now is archived at Temple University Libraries. No matter what she’s working on—comics, a performance art piece, an exhibition or her experimental performance art festival—Beth works from her life and her passions.

-Roberta Fallon, curator

In an after-art school moment in 2007 I decided to stop painting, start making comics, and experiment with performance art.

For my first official performance I hired an actor (asked my friend to perform). They dressed as a comic character my high school BFF Maureen Cummings and I invented, Pumpkinhead. Pumpkinhead is a stick figure with a pumpkin for a head who pees gasoline and lights people on fire. IRL he wears a black sweatsuit, has a pumpkin over his head, and pees yellow paint from a water bottle concealed under his sweatpants. This has no relation to the famed KXVO Pumpkinhead even though it’s the exact same costume. I can only consider the coincidence proof of the collective unconscious. It was first friday in 2007 at the 319 building. Pumpkinhead was in a corner lobby area peeing on comic books Maureen and I had self-published. It did not go over well. Not only did everyone pretty much frown and walk by the spectacle, they seemed offended and just all around confused.

I stand by Pumpkinhead. It was performance art. I was not wrong. Peeing is so common in the performance art trade, tired even, from Viennese Actionism to Lady Gaga (Fergie did it first really). The audience was wrong.

I made this video of the performance illegally using the Gary Jules theme song from Donnie Darko, “Mad World.” The video aptly documents people’s aversion to the performance, from Old City to Chinatown. (I’m kind of embarrassed to show you this. So emo.)

What’s exhilarating about performing for an audience is creating the visceral experience. In 2007 when I disgusted and/or offended First Friday gallery goers it was not pleasant in that I want people to like my art, but it was real. It was an honest reaction from an audience. When you see performance art in a gallery the performer will challenge that space, but the audience already knows that, so what is the challenge? What are we learning about the present, the experience, the surreal happening? Was “The Artist is Present” real? Really? Reading about the Fluxus Art Movement, where the idea of the happening emerged, was a catalyst for me in wanting to perform in my art practice. I wasn’t feeling it with the art audience. I’ve discovered recently with my practice that performing in an art gallery setting is generally more safe and thus not so visceral. How do you perform with the educated postmodern audience where the singularity is defined by artists who came before? Imagine watching a standup comedian perform a routine you’ve already seen performed. Is your laugh genuine? And in terms of the performance that is attempting to enact the deep-rooted experience—is an art gallery really the place? The jury is not out considering that I perform from an educated perspective, but these questions led me to try another space.

Beth Heinly walking 12 dogs and smoking
Beth Heinly Reenactment: Daniel Radcliffe Walking 12 Dogs Smoking a Cigarette

In 2014 I wanted to move out of the gallery and into the public space. An unsafe space. A space that is real where my performance is inspired. As a performer you are choosing to react to that space, change its dimensions, interact with an audience across a wide spectrum that comes with a multitude of reactions, all within the unspoken trust between performer and public audience. The Fluxus artists performed outside. In the 60’s, they were already bored with the gallery, the institution, and the art scene as viable spaces for creative expression. The Situationists of the 60’s were another movement in art where the idea of guerilla performance emerged.

Screenshot, 2015

I preferred to create a spectacle rather than perform alone while also shaping the performances in reaction to the public space. With those two aspiring attributes I created the Open Call Guerilla Outdoor Performance Festival, otherwise known as OCGOPF, as an open call for performers to join me. There are other performance events that engage larger audiences and happen in the public sphere in Philadelphia, for instance the Fringe Festival and SoLow Fest, but with OCGOPF the public is largely not expecting the performance and you are assigned by my curated selection where the festival will take place. We are also not asking permission to perform, which at times can mean a performance is stopped by the police or city officials.

I decided that part of not asking for permission is acting like you have permission. I send out press releases a week prior to the events and have maps up online beforehand giving OCGOPF a sense of legitimacy. The maps also create an archive, and guide people who may want to seek out the performances. That said, performances do not happen on schedule and the maps generally tell you where something is happening, but mostly you will feel like you are on a scavenger hunt. People who show up specifically for OCGOPF seem to enjoy themselves, but they are not the target audience.

Maps placed around the Wissahickon, OCGPF, Beth Heinly
Maps placed around Wissahickon Park for OCGOPF

As OCGOPF is an open call, my roles as curator are selecting the public space, organizing the data, printing maps, and bringing together artists in discourse. If you participate in OCGOPF there is a mandatory meeting prior to the event to discuss your piece with the other participating artists. When I send out the open call I urge that the performances should be in relation to the public space. What happens in the end is a performance festival that is actually about the landscape and the people who occupy that landscape. The most important part is engaging the general public with the alternative art scene in Philadelphia where no money is expected to be exchanged that occurs within an unexpected time table. All of this to inevitably make the performances themselves happenings.

Tara White feeding the ducks
Tara White Feeding the ducks

The first OCGOPF happened in Wissahickon Park in November 2014. Eleven artists participated over one weekend including myself, Tara White, Diedra Krieger, Annette Monnier & Yvonne Lung, Elizabeth Weinstein & Anna Kroll, Jerry Kaba, Jessica Gamble, Peter Morgan, Tyler Kline, and Valerie Perczek. There were a total of fourteen performances happening from 8AM – 9PM. The performances ranged from work that related specifically to the landscape and the park’s history to work that reacted to the public who frequent the park like joggers, dog walkers and duck feeders.

 Jerry Kaba & Dan Ostrov
Believe It or Not Baptism

The second, most recent, OCGOPF happened in the Center City Underground Concourse in March 2015 for two consecutive weekends. I was interested in the variety of passersby: the everyday commuter, the pubcrawler, the homeless. The landscape was much more dismal, yet full of creepy wonder and potential for the performer. The performances as a result were more politically charged. It was exciting to see artists socially engage this bleak public space. Anna Kroll responded to the Jehovah’s Witnesses who populate nearly every corner throughout the concourse handing out pamphlets about their religion. Anna handed out her own pamphlets which instructed the correct way to roast brussel sprouts. In a disheartening public space the Jehovah’s Witness approach in offering salvation is no doubt a good one, but it was Anna’s lighthearted gesture that made people smile throughout the day.

Anna Kroll Handing out pamphlets w/ instructions which show the true way to roast your brussels sprouts. 2015
Anna Kroll
Handing out pamphlets w/ instructions which show the true way to roast your brussels sprouts.

Artist Matt Kalasky gave a drinking tour of Dunkin Donuts, of which there are a plethora within feet of each other at Suburban Station. The performance was entitled “The Subterranean Suburban Station Drunkin Dunkin’ Donuts History/Capitalism Crawl.” His script was partly derived from an original Dunkin Donuts commercial mixed with historical context and propagandistic overtones: “This song written by the group They Might be Giants, a group long known for subversively hiding nihilistic messages within folk pop overtones.” At the end of his speech Matt held up a jelly donut comparing it to the capitalistic heart of us all and stated, “For our final pairing I offer the ripe blood red and raw interior of our jelly donut hearts injected with the combustible gasoline fire of Everclear.” Matt then crushed the jelly donut. Could you imagine working that shift?

Dunkin Donuts

There were the surreal performances which added imagination to the eerie tunnel landscape. Laura Bernstein, known for composing outdoor performances in ornate costumes, made a suit of eight pairs of feet in an effort to take up space. The performance brings to mind our own physical space in relation to how we share space with one another. Artists Danielle Toronyi, Amber Johnston, Amy Ritter, and Cory Kram performed a spring ritual on top of an old water fountain base that is now underground at the crossroads of the Green Trolley Lines, the BSL and MFL. Their beautiful, ethereal performance contrasted the raw architecture and fluorescent lights.

Laura Bernstein, photo by Joseph Hu
Laura Bernstein
Photo by Joseph Hu
Danielle Toronyi, Amber Johnston, Amy Ritter & Cory Kram Diamond Meadows 2015 Photo by Joseph Hu
Danielle Toronyi, Amber Johnston, Amy Ritter & Cory Kram
Diamond Meadows
Photo by Joseph Hu

The guerrilla aspect of the performance festival aligns it with street art and this was more so apparent with the performances happening within the desolate urban landscape versus the picturesque landscape of the Wissahickon. Performances from Jerry Kaba for OCGOPF clearly link the aesthetics while calling specifically to the landscape and history of the underground concourse. Shown specifically in “Safety Chess”, which stems from an well known urban myth that the tunnels were partly created as a fallout shelter.

Jerry Kaba The Struggle is Real, 2015, Photo by Joseph Hu
Jerry Kaba
The Struggle is Real
Photo by Joseph Hu
Jerry Kaba Safety Chess 2015
Jerry Kaba
Safety Chess

In total the second OCGOPF had 22 performances from 15 artists: Tara White, Yvonne Lung, Dave Kyu, Jerry Kaba, Laura Bernstein, Faith Griffiths, Danielle Toronyi, Amber Johnston, Amy Ritter, Cory Kram, Matt Kalasky, Sean Thomas Boyt, and Anna Kroll. I could go on forever (haven’t I?) describing all the wonderful performances that contributed to the whole festival. I’m mentioning performances here which call to mind ideas that have been ruminating in relation to what OCGOPF does. Please visit to view more of the work.

The third OCGOPF is happening this June, and I am currently accepting proposals! Deadline May 1st. It will be during the week at lunch time (noon – 2pm), June 20th-24th in two center city parks blocks from each other, Rittenhouse Square and John F. Collins Park. I am interested in seeing the dynamic of performances between the two spaces. John F. Collins is small and guarded, urging the performance to be more subversive, while in Rittenhouse Park the performance artists will be side-by-side with the plethora of street performers already working there. You can read more information about the demographic of the audience and facts about submitting on the facebook event page. Please RSVP, share, and invite friends. Do not delay. I am not sure how many more OCGOPF’s will happen. It will probably end when the public audience is as expecting in Philadelphia as they are on a New York subway.

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