“Detroit Rock City.” It’s safe to say that’s a pretty inseparable pop-culture pairing. But never will you hear hipsters — even Kabuki-faced, fire-breathing arena rockers — pronouncing the phrase “Detroit Performance Art City.”
Sure, the bars and clubs of our fair burg are packed to the gills every weekend with would-be rock rebels. But you’d be hard-pressed to find even one person re-enacting the story of mankind by embodying a quick-change cast of characters in front of projections of a homemade feast of images, all the while gluing the whole narrative together with karaoke renditions of his own over-the-top, rock-theater, showstopping tunes.
Yet for the last 15 years, that’s exactly what Detroit artist and educator Russ Taylor has been doing under the moniker Satori Circus. Taylor picked up the satori tag thanks to the Bauhaus tune “Kick in the Eye” and Jack Kerouac’s novel Satori in Paris, in which the main character searches for enlightenment on the streets of that city. (Satori, to Buddhists, is a flash of pure enlightenment, a brief window in which the machinations of the universe become crystal clear — something like a kick in the eye.)
“But the circus part,” says Taylor, “is really just a description of how I see everyday life. Look around you and it’s a circus. Especially in Detroit, man. From the dude standing in the middle of the street preaching, to the kids huddled up on the street corner, to the old lady who’s out watering her garden with her ass pointed toward the street and her hose all balled up below her knees. It’s everywhere.”
In person, Taylor is thoughtful and articulate, but there’s always more than a hint of his hyper sense of humor, anarchy and yen for self-expression lurking nearby. In short, it’s easy to spot the source of Satori Circus’ wide-ranging influences — from David Bowie to mime, sideshow to Dada, punk to politics. Performing in the more adventurous rock clubs, theaters, art galleries and even the occasional science center, Taylor is a class of ’77 punk with a serious penchant for DIY playful, mind-expanding theatrics. In fact, his performing roots are in rock.
“It was the summer of ’80 and I saw an ad for a singer in a heavy-metal band. And I had long hair down to here,” says Taylor, pointing to the middle of his shoulder blades, the stubble of his shorn dome providing ample counterpoint.
“So I figured why not. And we did all the rock spots. And once you get something under your skin that’s kinda rewarding, when you’re doing this expression thing, you get that high, it’s hard to stop. You start jonesing if you give yourself too much time away from it.”
And in one sense, Taylor has simply never stopped rocking. From that humble beginning grew the group Fugitive Poetry. By 1985, after a couple years performing in a trio, Taylor and bandmate Rick Martin wanted to change course from the standard rock path. So they split.
“We wanted to take Fugitive Poetry in more of a performative direction. We were on the same wavelength. He was more experimental and I was more poppy, but together we had this weird kind of alchemy. It was like [composer] John Cage and [choreographer] Merce Cunningham, but without a physical relationship.”
Then Martin was diagnosed with bone cancer that soon proved fatal.
“He was getting very sick and I started doing things on my own, but I’d always use him as a sounding board.”
It was in this intense period that Satori Circus was born as an experimental performance entity. And though his material has never left rock behind, Taylor has mostly amplified its inherently transformative powers while exploring the power of multimedia.
Satori Circus’ early shows were unpredictable affairs that Taylor says used the most archaic means of production possible. For example, he created his own Super 8 films to project as backdrops to his actions. In another piece, Taylor would move on stage in reaction to lines being drawn by an assistant on an overhead projector.
“There’s something about using archaic technology that reminds the audience of the humanity involved, the hand of man, and that’s really important,” says Taylor.
But it was his 1994 piece, “Adam,” that not only proved to be a turning point in Taylor’s work as a performance artist, but also provided a springboard for him to a second act as an art educator.
“1994 was a big year for me,” he recalls. “I did ‘Adam’ at 1515 Broadway, and it turns out a guy from the University of Michigan was there. And that led to me being invited to pursue my MFA in Ann Arbor.”
Taylor had earned his bachelor’s at Wayne State in visual art years before, but now he was being courted to undertake a course of study that encouraged interdisciplinary thinking. It seems his own cross-pollinating approach to making art was just what U of M was looking for.
“It gave me the chance to do something I had never really been able to do and that’s explore what performance art was, how it got its title and history.”
During his time at U of M, he scored an internship at the renowned PS 122 in New York City and was able to work with such well-known artists as Spalding Gray and Meredith Monk, among others.
“They called me the ‘road manager,’ but basically I got to drive a truck full of Meredith Monk’s props to Pittsburgh, unload it all and then hang out with the performers backstage. It was great,” says Taylor.
Not long after, Taylor began teaching visual art to kids in parochial schools in Southwest Detroit. It turns out that teaching soon became more than a way to earn dough. It became a vocational passion. But diving headfirst into turning kids on to creativity in otherwise art-deprived schools didn’t leave a lot of leftover energy for Taylor to create new pieces.
“Man, I would come home after being at school from 7 in the morning to 5 in the afternoon, giving it all the energy I had, and I was just wiped out!” he recalls.
As his teaching career blossomed, his performance schedule got whittled down to only a couple shows a year, tops. And the re-examination of his processes and life events has found Taylor producing works very different from the sometimes-riotous Satori Circus shows of the past.
Most recently, Satori Circus was part of the “HA HA” exhibit at Revolution Gallery in Ferndale.
“It was the first time I really reacted to the space,” says Taylor. “I did this thing — and I nearly killed myself doing it — where I’d paint my face up, put a piece of paper on a gallery cube [with a sponge cushion underneath] and then smash my head into the paper,” recalls Taylor. “I created these great, Asian-feeling monoprints. And I had an assistant stamp Satori Circus on them and by the end of the piece, people were going crazy for them.”
Lately, Taylor has been workshopping a solo piece loosely based on the theme of agoraphobia (fear of large, public spaces). In it, he portrays multiple characters who inhabit their own private spaces — their own rooms. What they don’t know is that there’s an audience watching them as though they were specimens. The piece includes new songs that Taylor describes as electronic-driven rock, but he also says it’s a quieter side of Satori Circus than people might expect (and if you’ve never seen Satori Circus, you should come with no expectations and let Taylor take you on a ride through his bustling mind).
Unfortunately for us (but fortunately for the kids who’ll benefit from his experience and hard-won wisdom), this weekend’s events at the College for Creative Studies are “going-away” performances. Since performance art isn’t the most lucrative career choice, Taylor is striking out to Indiana to work in schools that need an extra leg-up with their art education. There he’ll develop educational products that seem sprung from his performance mind and a series of interactive online classes for underserved schools.
Though our loss is the kids’ gain, how much more rock ’n’ roll can you get than passing on the tools of the trade to a new generation? Or, as Taylor puts it more succinctly, “Man, I never had anybody like me for a teacher!”
Satori Circus presents “Universe,” a last local performance (for now) on Friday, Jan. 24, and Saturday, Jan. 25, 8 p.m., at the Center Galleries (301 Frederick Douglass, Detroit). Tickets: $8. Students with ID: free. Call 313-664-7800 for more information.Chris Handyside is a freelance writer for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]