BY: Louise Bak
Al Ridenour can be seen driving around L.A. in an ambulance, with a gorilla mascot and a legion of nurses in sexy latex uniforms. Described as a travelling first-aid show, The Art of Bleeding assembles comedic managed accidents with various performance, film, music and narrative elements. The group aims to reach unconscious minds, aligning withpsychologist Abram S. Lugner’s concept of putting people into states of fright that allow them to respond through sensory overload. They have an upcoming show called Merrie Maladies, a special evening of medical burlesque.¨
Q: How did you come to direct The Art of Bleeding?¨
A: I formerly organized the Los Angeles faction of a group of art-pranksters called The Cacophony Society and had been looking for another creative outlet. Around the same time I’d acquired an ambulance, which was at first just a colourful way to deal with practical concerns like transporting bulky materials for various projects. It didn’t take long for the vague idea of having a colourful set of wheels to transmogrify into a full-blown art project. So the ambulance itself suggested it. The ambulance told me to.
¨Q: Can you tell us about the core elements in this conceptual, paramedical funhouse?
¨A: On the side of the ambulance, we use the normal “Star of Life” you see on ordinary ambulances, but each point is assigned a different quality (“insight,” “empathy,” “mirth,” “wonder,” “disgust” and “terror”). The guiding idea was to dance between these disparate qualities in a way that’s compelling – laughing at things that are terrifying, finding beauty in things normally regarded as disgusting, showing empathy with people’s disgusting accidents, while, detaching with ironic distance, creating moments of terror – the complete funhouse ride.
¨Q: How is the group’s dynamics influenced by the ´60s psychologist Abram S. Lugner – also the Viennese Actionists?¨
A: The celebratory and orgiastic synthesis of horror and sensuality is something we have in common with the Actionists. Lugner, who is our primary inspiration, was on the periphery of that group and likewise interested in breaking down false valuations and barriers that diminish our wholeness. His idea of “phantasmagoric learning,” is related to the rush of insight and relived experience that’s often part of near-death experiences. This form of total recall embraces the range of experiences alluded to in our Star of Life emblem.
¨Q: How do you see your aim to bring True Safety Consciousness (TSC) and your various costumed performers, like Abram the Safety Ape and his staff of fetishized nurses?
¨A: True Safety Consciousness is our version of Lugner’s notion of phantasmagoric insight. Because this state of awareness exists beyond the polarities of the typically regimented adult mind, we use surreal characters who defy categorizations. Abram ostensibly represents pedantic bourgeois notions of safety while his appearance reminds us of the gorilla’s traditional associations with menace and dark and dangerous wilds. And clearly our nurses defy the traditional association of maternal caretaking. Unless you have a funny relationship with Mom.
¨Q: What do you think of the nurses´ suggestive processes around the medical-emergency narratives in your shows?¨
A: The presence of the nurses definitely sexualizes injury. The pairing of injury with sexual titillation is a way to get audiences to own their own bodies and reiterates the notion of boundless consciousness by fusing the poles of pleasure and pain.
¨Q: You’ve said you’ve frequently parked the ambulance at public sites and offered free plaster casts to passersby. What has this process been like?¨
A: It works because it gives people the chance to experience the inside of an ambulance without the blinding terror of an actual emergency. It’s also inviting to the public because there’s clearly a sensual side to having a pretty nurse apply plaster to your arm. It celebrates the unbroken arm’s ability to experience pleasure while at the same time impressing on the mind the fragile and often troublesome nature of our mortal flesh.
¨Q: And you’re involving processes of bandaging each other?
¨A: Yes. People like to watch nurses bandage each other, and most of the nurses are very comfortable enjoying those sorts of things together, but the more interactive stuff, bandaging passersby, is better suited to our outreach goals.
¨Q: It seems each of your presentations are unique, in terms of looking at a range of physical trauma. As your work continues, I’m curious, what erotic parallels are you bringing to specific emergency scenes?¨
A: Yes, the most obvious is the “kiss of life,” that every schoolboy titters about in first-aid class, but the bondage associations of bandaging, casts and splints are also obvious. Blood, as the life essence, is now a sort of accepted gothic shorthand for the semen of bukkake fantasies. We’ve played with all those associations and will continue to do so, but we’re also discussing new shows that explore electrocution and the spasms of lovemaking, the onset of disease compared with the onset of puberty, and others.
¨Q: What do you think of the AOB’s valentine video and its consideration of love? Did the group share love stories with each other?
¨A: I don’t recall us sharing particular stories at the time, but that’s certainly happened on long ambulance trips and late-night ¨brainstorming sessions. That project evolved out of our reactions to various bits of old footage in the archives, as well as the desire to project onto those stale old school-film images new life and energizing contradictions. The blissful floating scenes are from old water safety films and easily suggested post-coital ecstasies. The slow-motion bus crash somehow felt like an extended orgasm, at least when set to the right music.
¨Q: You like to use a lot of 1970s medical films. Is the group interested in certain medical image lore?¨
A: Using images in a ways not intended is related to the prankster aesthetics of The Cacophony Society. We like old school films from that era because – with the right age group – they bring audiences back to a time when their young minds were a bit more flexible and receptive. Everything old is new, and the unexpected can happen more easily.
Q: The Vaginitis and Degloving stories in your ambulance are interesting. Is the group interested in others and their narratives of sexual malady, danger, disaster?
¨A: Absolutely. We regularly go out in our ambulance to record stories like this and also accept recordings over the phone. There’s no particular effort made to solicit sexual stories, but that just seems to be what comes out of people. Perhaps it’s the proximity of alluring nurses. In any case, this sharing of accident stories, in which people expose and relive their most vulnerable moments does involve a certain sort of intimacy, albeit a bit less cartoonish than what’s suggested by the nurse costumes.
¨Q: Is the group interested in the physical patterns of cults, like in your comical approach to Mormon practices?¨
A: Yes, but it’s important to note that it was not the Mormon polygamists themselves we were satirizing in that remix of news interviews. Regardless of the specific actions or beliefs of that group, we felt certain sympathies with their desire to live out alternative beliefs in their style of living. This country only pays lip service to real diversity of belief, much less freedom of action.
¨The polygamists in “It’s Not a Compound” insist that their home is not a cult “compound,” and the video uses imagery of American flags, our former president and oppressive police action to suggest what is really going on is more of a scapegoating of the microcosm when in fact it is the mainstream macrocosm that exercises the most destructive influence and power. Because of The Art of Bleeding’s unusual teachings and forms of expression, we often have people jokingly or only half-jokingly refer to us as a “cult.”
¨Q: Are the AOB nurses´ fans influenced by other instances of nurse fetishism, the aesthetics of medical burlesque?¨
A: Certainly we attract people with that interest. But I’d hardly call anyone involved a “fan” since no one in our talent pool can really remain in the shallow end where the “fans” might aimlessly splash or flounder. We are a collective of medical enthusiasts, and, yes, quite a few of the nurses do have a background in burlesque.
¨Q: There seems ascribed qualities to some of your staff, like RT the Robot Teacher, with his general scientific knowledge base like that of a spoiled suburban undergrad. Do you see certain character elements in each of the performers – in the group’s nurses also?
¨A: It’s very hard to pin these things down as all of the characters are evolving and make an effort to work against type. The robot character has probably never performed a single action driven by simple logic. Likewise, Abram, the gorilla, has an unpredictably finicky and delicate personality. The ape and robot would seem to suggest an easy dichotomy of logic and passion, but we’re not interested in that sort of thing or in audiences externalizing and pigeonholing their own attributes in such a tidy manner.
¨Q: Margaret Cho has been associated with the group. How do you see the suggestive comic elements in your work? Are there other performers you’re interested in working with? I’d love to join if I could.¨
A: Well, perhaps we should visit Canada. Margaret has always been a champion of alternative lifestyles and ways of dueling with the mainstream. Anyone like her who understands the benevolent use of comedic shock therapy for this sleeping world would be a welcome accomplice.
Q: Do you feel a sort of fondness for the ambulance, where a lot of this has happened for a while?¨
A: Absolutely! I noticed this on our last road trip to the San Francisco Bay Area. There is a certain smell to the diesel, the vinyl seats, the old plaster casts and other less predictable or unseemly performance residue that can’t help but warm the heart.
¨Q: What sort of erotic “managed accidents” are coming up for the group?
¨A: Hard to say, as everything is erotic and everything is accidental. Every action has erotic subtext as long as we stop defining eroticism as narrowly as our parents would, and every action we take can really be reduced to managing the grand accident of fortune. We assign much greater significance to the terms “accident” and “safety” than is common. We regard life as a grand accident, and safety as the form of dance that propels us through this matrix. And, as anyone who’s been to one of our shows can tell you, we live out this elevated sense of accident with a good degree of gusto. Sadly, club owners aren’t all interested in such metaphysical enthusiasm, and reproducing eyeball gouging or flaming kerosene spills always involves the kind of mess, danger and uncertainty that makes it difficult for us to book venues.
¨Video tends to allow us to manage reality a bit more than live shows, and though it certainly lacks in immediacy, that’s what we’re working on this summer. We just finished rushing out a topical swine flu PSA, which allowed our nurses to wallow in fake blood after beating on fake pig carcasses – i.e., “beating swine flu.” It was good visceral fun, even if a lousy pun was the cause of it all.¨
More info: www.artofbleeding.com.
Louise Bak is a poet, with books including Tulpa and Gingko Kitchen. She co-hosts Sex City, Toronto’s only radio show focused on relations between sexuality and culture (CIUT 89.5 FM). Her performance work has appeared in numerous spaces and in video collaborations such as Partial Selves and Crimes of the Heart.