Byron Neal paced the floor of the Nasher Sculpture Center Monday night like a man possessed, dripping sweat and spitting rap lyrics into a microphone. Neal, known as Lord Byron, slithered and darted through the crowd and accidentally wrapped the microphone cord around people’s feet, but he didn't seem to care.
Neal's "shadow," a man dressed in a head-to-toe black bodysuit with his face obscured, followed him around the space, mimicking his movements and sometimes standing back and watching him reproachfully. At one point, Neal put his shadow in a chokehold and wrestled him to the ground.
He rapped “Niggas get nervous / Niggas ain’t heard this / Niggas ain’t worth it” in response to questions from Randy Guthmiller, who moderated a debate between Neal and Hesh Qualino, such as “Terrorism is a threat now more than ever; what are your thoughts on dealing with domestic sleeper cells as well as the growing threat of ISIS?”
But despite the rapping, the spectacle was less a music show and more a performance art piece programmed by arts writer and organizer Lee Escobedo, as part of the Nasher’s newly revived Artist Circle. Escobedo envisioned the event, which began with a comedy act featuring eight separate performers, as a meditation on humor and politics in response to the exhibit currently on display, Kathryn Andrews: Run for President.
Neal’s opponent, Qualino — who goes by the stage name Teen Slut — matched him in tone and energy, raging into his mic as he moshed through a small group of people standing in front and into the seated audience, climbing on people sitting in chairs, and rolling off them and back to his podium as he screeched indiscernible lyrics to the backdrop of his blissfully seizure-inducing electronic music.
If this sounds unusual for the Nasher, that’s because it is.
Escobedo made a concerted effort to include artists in the DIY community who wouldn’t otherwise have an opportunity to perform in an established museum space.
“There’s a calculated attempt by the fire marshal to shut down DIY venues, where typically artists with not a lot of financial means, or artists of color or queer artists perform and celebrate their work, and now [they] don’t have those opportunities,” says Escobedo. “I think it’s up to the institutions to step up and fill that void until we can reclaim those spaces again.”
“The Nasher might not have that specifically in mind, but when I got the opportunity to do this programming, my first thought was, 'Who are the people who don’t have a space right now to perform, who don’t have the money or connections to perform at Three Links or Dada?'” says Escobedo.
Escobedo has always been community-minded and willing to take risks. In the event invitation, he wrote, “I want to personally invite those that have never been to the Nasher, a museum, gallery, or feel like the Dallas arts community is closed off, exclusionary, or inaccessible to attend, experience and engage.”
Nasher communications manager Lucia Simek recently revived the Artist Circle program, and she chose Escobedo and his co-programmer for the next year, Karen Weiner, because of their previous work with the Nasher and specifically for the diverse audiences and programming that they would bring to this initiative. Weiner organized a book swap at a previous event, Peiro Golia’s Chalet, and Escobedo writes for the Nasher's magazine.
“They have such different perspectives and different groups of people that they associate with and can pull together. Really it’s a way of getting disparate communities to come together through the Artist Circle. Lee’s able to pull in the younger set, and Karen is able to pull in the older, intellectual set, but they have commonalities between them,” says Simek. “The goal is every year to find two programming chairs who can do that same thing.”
The Artist Circle was created two years ago as a discounted membership group for artists to gain admittance into the museum, but it grew to be a platform for artists to mingle and network including specially programmed events exclusive to the circle. It was designed so “they have access to the museum in ways that other people wouldn’t, but also so that the museum would have access to them … think of it as a brain trust,” adds Simek.
But the program gradually fell to the wayside. Simek says it was unclear who was in charge of it internally, but she revived it this past summer and added framework so it wouldn’t fall through the cracks again.
Future events promise to be more reserved than Monday's. Karen Weiner, owner of the Exposition Park project and gallery space the Reading Room, is programming the next event to be held on Jan. 9. The details aren’t hammered out yet, but her event will be a reaction to the sculptor Michael Dean’s exhibit, which is opening in October. She says it will be largely performative and local artists responding to his work.
Escobedo will program one more event on March 12, and Weiner will have one more event after her January program, on June 5.
The comedy portion of the evening involved a series of un-self-conscious, hilarious and in some cases heartfelt vignettes by artists, musicians and poets whose performances didn’t always reference politics but had social, economic and political themes. Many of the performers had never done stand-up comedy before.
Escobedo says he started with a list of 60 artists he wanted to include and ultimately narrowed the list down to eight: Hannah Weir, Thoele Sarradet, Ricardo Paniagua, Edyka Chilomé, Thor Johnson, Emily Peacock, Shelby David Meier and Ryder Richards.
Meier played the national anthem on an electric guitar with his back to the audience, yet when he turned to face the crowd, he revealed that he hadn't actually been playing; it was his cellphone providing the music through the guitar amp. He then put it on autopilot while he sat and read from the book Infinite Jest.
Thor Johnson enacted a Bible-camp-inspired puppet show, and Hannah Weir performed a sort of vagina monologue. Weir used the opportunity to educate the room about the female anatomy and orgasm, complete with a crocheted prop. Artist Ricardo Paniagua trolled the Nasher by pretending to be a country bumpkin visiting the museum for the first time.
Escobedo chose Byron Neal to perform in the second act because of his background in painting and performance art, and his long-held desire to perform in an established museum space.
The event was a risk for the Nasher's administration, which was understandably nervous about what would ensue Monday evening.
“It’s a chance for us as an institution to think about how far will we go and how open are we? Questions I think are super important for institutions to ask themselves,” says Simek. “It’s a chance for us to reimagine and refocus what’s possible. It’s an effort in community building. It’s a been a good test, a way to say to each other and the artists involved, we all trust each other…. I think if there’s mutual respect, it can’t really fail.”
And the experiment seemingly proved to be successful. There are high hopes for what future events could bring and how the partnership between the arts community and the Nasher, and this less buttoned-up programming, will affect the whole arts scene in Dallas.
"I'm really excited to see what this brings to Dallas, what this unleashes, and the capabilities that all of us artists, regardless of genre, have to be able to play in these beautiful established places that we haven't gotten a chance to explore," says Qualino. "It's a whole new page in the book for Dallas."