This is kind of long. The short version is this: I was on public access television last week. It was mortifying. The result is uploaded here. I recommend reading Keith Johnstone’s book Impro. And the chapter “Stupidity” in Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s Myth of Freedeom. Support Public Access Television check out future episodes of The Colors Project.
The fact that I have an act and that I spend a lot of energy trying to maintain it was never more painfully clear than it was last week when I had a meltdown on live television. With shallow breath I stood dressed in a wrinkled orange satin frock that belonged to a man in fur shorts, my face painted blue, looking into the bottomless black eye of the camera, trying to keep it together. It. My act. Not my onscreen performance but my act of being sane, a person labeled Noa who was pulled out of a woman named Cristina and has been wiggling around this planet for decades since.
On this night, I had been invited to join The Colors Project, a collective of artists, deejays, musicians and designers who moonlight as aliens. They have a regular public access television show on channel 57 Manhattan Neighborhood Network. They call it the “portal.” At 11 PM every Thursday the portal opens and anyone with basic cable can tune in to half an hour of unscripted chaos and color, noise, improv, psychedelic camera tricks, and self indulgent performance. It is nearly impossible to describe so you just have to watch a few minutes.
A few minutes is all some people can handle. But if I tell you a little more about what was happening, the chaos becomes rich with neurotic tension. And in turn it becomes an interesting display of human behavior, despite the core members’ assertion that they are aliens.
I was quietly and totally unhinged that night. The thing that was most unsettling about participating in the show is that there is no apparent motive. There are no rules. The gripping in my chest was caused by my need for direction and conventions. Like a dog who is more comfortable with a strong master, I wanted someone to tell me what to do. In The Myth of Freedom, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche says that the animal mentality is very serious. “It makes even humor into a serious occupation. Self-consciously trying to create a friendly environment, a person will crack jokes or try to be funny, intimate or clever. However animals do not really smile or laugh; they just behave.” I was behaving. My smile, caught on camera, stark white against the blue paint on my face, was a mere bearing of teeth. It was not playful.
But that was what was being demanded of me. To be playful. Natural, spontaneous. It’s an enormous task. “The ultimate sense of humor is a free way of relating with life situations in their full absurdity,” says Rinpoche.
The absurdity of The Colors Project is what drew me to it. Prep took place at an industrial creative studio on 37th street on the far west side. Sequins and glitter and body paint and brownies and bottles of rum juggled through the cramped cement space as about 25 bodies prepared for camera. My friend and connection to the whole thing Ann Marie Popko was transforming into Pink tonight. She’s from New Orleans and is accustomed to getting dolled up. It’s what she does for a living. When Popko visits me, I always end up finding glitter in my floorboards, spicy pecans in the cupboards, and needing a week to recover. She is my pixie. I’ve known her for 20 years. She is dedicated to a life of fun and parties. She met UV, the gorgeous ringleader of the Colors Project in the Big Easy.
The absurdity of The Colors Project is what freaked me right the fuck out of my head. Popko didn’t prepare me. Problem #1: needing to feel grounded when there is no ground. All she said was to get some body paint and bring a costume. I decided to recreate a highly successful Halloween costume from years ago, the Dreamweaver. Thus problem #2: clinging to a concept. I went through my apartment and collected small and special things – gum ball machine finds, miniature books, a trinket from my trip to Florence that looked like a movie camera and contained a slideshow of Italian sites. These I stuffed into pink balloons which I blew up and stuffed into a crown. The idea was that people could pick one of these “pods” and I would interpret their fortune based on the item which they could keep. It worked wonders when I first put it together in San Francisco years ago. I ended up watching the sun rise, swimming in the Pacific with a tall man, our different colored body paint running together.
So with that memory, I thought I was safe. But donning the costume all these years later, it felt dull and tired. I felt old. Recreating is not creating, It’s clinging. Suddenly I panicked. I had nothing to offer. I was about to go on live television. Someone offered me a huge smock to put on and I smeared blue paint on my face and suddenly I looked very scary. I couldn’t own my appearance. I shrank inside my skin. UV looked darling, Popko looked like a hot pink alien, Blue looked sharp in his tight white pants, Red was a casual devil with dreadlocks, Green was soft and smurf-like, Black Nasty was black and nasty, Orange had on his fur shorts.
I was lumpy and blue with a net on my head and consumed with neurosis. It wasn’t just the costume. It wasn’t that I looked horribly thrown together and large and out of proportion. I didn’t belong. Or anywhere. This terrible costume resembled so perfectly the terrible costume I put on every day. The act of being me.
But the show had to go on. We made a spectacle on 10th avenue cramming into taxis. People waved and honked. We were mistaken for trannies and whores. The soundstage at Manhattan Neighborhood Network was cold which was a good thing. We were greeted by a guard whose eyes pointed to opposite walls. He faced a television. I asked him if he was watching MNN and he changed the channel, looking through me through a point on his forehead, I was watching myself through a tunnel. Cameras and wires and set pieces found their places on the blue screen set.
I had asked people back at the 37th street to bring piece of paper which I would weave into pieces of art as part of their fortune. But everyone was so busy they couldn’t absorb what I was telling them. Only Blue sort of got it. He asked if he could bring a book and rip it up. Books are sacred and I would never destroy one but I didn’t want to be too demanding so I said that was fine. Now at MNN he found me quietly freaking out as the minutes ticked down to showtime and he smiled a big white grin made all the white by the blue paint on his face. He displayed the book. A book of Buddhist sayings. I was speechless. He was going to rip it up.
Body paint and glitter and the big black eyes of the cameras swirled. “Great!” I couldn’t look him in the eye. I was blue too. My teeth must have looked so white too. I had chosen blue because on the blue screen behind us I had a chance of disappearing and I wanted to disappear.
I found a corner and tried to compose myself. Compose! Manufacture. Not be. I pictured Vajrasattva over my head as if practice could confirm my existence which of course it cannot. Then I lit myself orange with Manjushri. I put my guru in my heart center. Maybe, I thought, I could carry them onto the screen. Maybe I could light up at the last minute.
Through the tunnel I saw myself sitting there and finally smiled a genuine smile. Grasping in the dharma to save me. It was so ridiculous. For a moment I had clarity. What Trungpa Rinpoche describes as “seeing things clearly, including self-deception, without blinders, without barriers, without excuses. It is being open and seeing with panoramic vision rather than trying to relieve tension. As long as humor is used as a way to relieve tension or self-consciousness or pressure, then it is the humor of the animal realm, which is extremely serious.”
At some point while I was having this realization the cameras went live. The realization lasted half a second and then I sank back into my neurotic whirlpool. The image I have is of me walking through quicksand on stilts and still going under.
The cameras were rolling. We were live. It is a blur now. If self consciousness were an acid, I was dipped in it and trailing pools around the stage. UV was right into character. Everyone was in character. Some were trying too hard. Nobody wanted my pods. Finally Green started planted them in her tree. They got kicked around the stage. UV ignored an offer. Nobody watned what I had to offer. I felt completely alone. Popko was jiggling around doing her thing. I couldn’t breathe so I when thought I was off camera I did some deep inhalations. Of course that’s when the camera was trained on me. At one point Green picked up a piece of paper from the floor and started reading it into the microphone. It was a page of Blue’s Buddhist book. She was reading a sutra. No one would know this because she was being talked over by Yellow. It’s my favorite part of the episode. And my favorite character was the naked Italian who was making her second appearance on the show, fully dressed. The last time she got the show pulled from the air for indecent exposure. This time she and Blue danced so freely and unself-consciously. In the hall before the show started she had spoken to me: Are you in a hurry? I said No. She said Me neither, I’m not in a hurry. And then I realized I was in such a hurry.
Half an hour later we wrapped. I ran to the bathroom, ripped off my crown and clown outfit and splashed water on my face. I don’t look good blue. I really don’t.
When I came out, Blue was standing there. “You took off your color.”
“It’s not easy being blue,” I said.
“Tell me about it,” he said and I was reminded that I was not the only one.
In his chapter on spontaneity, Keith Johnstone writes: “There are people who prefer to say ‘yes’ and there are people who prefer to say ‘no.’ Those who say ‘yes’ are rewarded by the adventures they have and those who say no are rewarded by the safety they attain. There are far more no sayers around than yes sayers.”
I said yes to coming on the show. I said a lot of nos, to myself, afterward, but I was leaning into something I had to lean into. there is something about this experience that touches on my ability to create, to loosen my grip, to unleash my imagination. “You have to be a very stubborn person t remain an artist in this culture,” writes Johnstone. “It’s easy to play the role of ‘artist’, but actually to create something means going against one’s education.” He also wrote: “sanity is a performance.” I am grateful to The Colors Project for creating a backdrop for this performance with all it’s absurdity to be displayed.