Touching Our Private Parts 

Frank Moore's performances feature nude grope-a-thons with no plot or apparent point. Is it possible that they're art?

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Bay Area rock promoter Dirk Dirksen still remembers the day he met Moore. Frank and his partner Linda rolled up and asked him if they could stage a production at the San Francisco club for which he served as producer, the Mabuhay Gardens. The Fab Mab, as it was known, was best known as a pioneering venue for punk rock acts such as the Dead Kennedys. But Dirksen considered his club a creative breeding ground for all kinds of artistic misfits, and he agreed to give Frank a chance.

One of Frank's ideas was to stage a spoof beauty contest using his troupe of misfits. What was supposed to be a one-night performance turned into a three-year run. It was called the Outrageous Beauty Revue, a freaky variety show that attracted lots of press attention and, well, a few perverts. "Frank has a fond spot in his heart for scantily clad maidens," Dirksen recalls. "There would be a lot of old leches sitting there wearing raincoats."

Nudity wasn't the only part of the show that created a buzz. It was, as the title promised, outrageous. A dominatrix preyed on a wheelchair-bound paraplegic man. Frank and Linda did a duet of Sonny and Cher's "I Got You, Babe," with Frank bellowing his parts.

One particularly gruesome skit made a deep impression on a young musician by the name of Flea, who would go on to fame and fortune as the bassist for the Red Hot Chili Peppers. As Dirksen tells the story, Flea came early one night to the Fab Mab to play a gig with the punk band Fear, and wound up with a front-row seat for the opening act, Moore's Outrageous Beauty Revue, while tripping on acid. Flea happened to catch the notorious "meat act," which began with Frank singing "Sympathy for the Devil." Also onstage were two vamps wearing scary face paint. The vamps pulled a pregnant woman from the audience -- actually an actress Moore had planted -- brought her onstage and appeared to cut her open, pulling out intestines and a bloody baby doll. The "meat act" usually grossed out all the tourists, Dirksen recalls, but the musician loved its over-the-top showbiz flair. "Flea just thought it was the greatest," he says.

Moore insists his intent wasn't -- and isn't -- to shock people. "If I did it to shock and offend, that would not be good art," he says. To Moore, the Beauty Revue was an extension of his private performances. They were playing, having fun. All too often, he says, artists think they have to suffer. Artists should have more fun, he says. After the Outrageous Beauty Revue finished its run, Moore moved away from the cabaret format, in spite of his success with it. He wanted to do something more intimate, and the variety show wasn't that kind of medium. He returned to the ideas he developed in his private "nonfilms," but now he called his naked public group encounters "erotic play" -- "eroplay" for short. Moore stresses that there is no sex in his shows, just consenting adults playfully exploring each other's bodies. Performers might get turned on, but they don't per se have sex, Moore says.

Porn-star-cum-performance-artist Annie Sprinkle -- who credits Moore as "one of my early guides into art" -- remembers participating in one such show in New York City in the mid-'80s. In that piece, one of his "rocking and wrapping" performances, Sprinkle recalls that Moore wrapped himself, the audience, and a woman rocking on his lap in toilet paper. "He's certainly showing people can be in wheelchairs and still be interested in sex, nudity, and eroticism," Sprinkle says.

Yes, but is it art?

Outside of perhaps mime, performance art alienates, irritates, and bores people more dependably than any other creative medium. Performance art doesn't so much entertain, as it confuses and provokes. You mean to say that rolling around naked in honey is art? As radio commentator and author David Sedaris put it in a story poking fun at artistic pretension, "It occurred to me that a performance piece was something like a play -- a play without a story, dialogue or any discernible characters. That kind of a play."

The performance artists who have pierced the consciousness of the mainstream public -- such as Karen Finley, Spalding Gray, and Eric Bogosian -- tend to do glorified monologues or stand-up routines. Finley, of course, will always be remembered for doing her shtick in the nude and smearing chocolate all over her body. But she also has a gift for making audiences laugh during one of her extended rants, as she did during her critically panned show earlier this month at the Berkeley Repertory Theater.

Since he can't talk, monologues aren't really an option for Moore, although if dared he might do one just to prove that he could. Still, it's a moot issue, since he dismisses monologues as boring and safe. But even within this already inaccessible medium, Moore's work can be harder to swallow than liver doused in radiator coolant. At his shows, sometimes there are more people in the cast than in the audience. That doesn't seem to bother him. If only one person came to a show, Moore would be happy to have a chance to expand that person's frame.

To the untrained eye, Moore's eroplay and ritual performances don't resemble art so much as they resemble an orgy after a Grateful Dead show. In 1990, when Jesse Helms launched his attack on the National Endowment for the Arts for funding "obscene" work, Moore's work came under scrutiny. Moore had received a performance grant from the NEA in 1985. Following an order from Helms, the General Accounting Office asked the director of New York's Franklin Furnace for information on artists such as Moore and Finley who had performed there in the '80s. In a report titled "The National Endowment for the Arts: Misusing Taxpayer Money," the conservative Heritage Foundation indignantly described a Moore performance at the Franklin Furnace: "In his show Intimate Cave, audience members are invited to shed their clothes and pair up to touch one another's bodies under his guidance."


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