Adrian Parsons and the Art of Political Performance

By Jenny Cutler Lopez on November 29, 2016
adrian parsons, east city art, performance art, dc, artist
Adrian Parsons, 2013.  Image courtesy of the artist.

“Don’t pay any attention to what they say about you. Measure it in inches,” pronounced Andy Warhol in the 1960s. But in 2016’s cacophonous media, those inches are scarce for most artists.

With every rule, there is an exception and in this case, it is Adrian Parsons, 34. Since 2007, Parsons’ performance art has garnered attention and made waves here in DC and nationally, with most press procuring dozens of reactions ranging from dire political need to dismissing Parsons’ work as frivolous.

Born and raised in Fairfax County, Parsons moved to DC after graduating from Saint Mary’s College in 2005. In 2007, an onstage circumcision catapulted him into the limelight followed by a hunger strike to direct attention to DC statehood and voting rights. In between and beyond these two media-juicy headlines, Parsons has exhibited in numerous DC galleries with visual and participatory art shows. Interested in physical and political systems, Parsons knows that, “in some ways there has always been a message behind the art.”

Though he still makes traditional visual art, performance art is his first choice as an artistic medium. Performance art has long been viewed as an egalitarian art form, most notably because of its absence of resources, allowing for people of any economic strata to use it as a conduit for social change. And, since the results of this year’s presidential election, local artists including Parsons have been further galvanized to use their art as a platform for social change. “Performance allows an artist to use the always available, zero cost, constantly renewable tool of the human body to make work,” he says.

Parsons views Trump as an expert performance artist which makes the President-elect’s actions “…obtuse to those without experience of oppression—whites above the poverty line. If [his actions weren’t] performed, we would be horrified. Once it becomes a reality through his policies or his appointments…. the consequences of his platform will be real with or without his buy-in to the non-performative reality.”

Parsons’ passion and experience will emerge in greater doses in the coming months and years.  He believes “protest is ALWAYS performance. It’s not writing. If it were, you’d write ‘My Body My Choice’ on a 3×5 inch card and be done. Protest is not solely civil disobedience because otherwise you’d get arrested, bailed out and go home without the public knowing. What does one do? They go to a park off Pennsylvania Ave., get 50 friends with 50 signs and get seen. Directing a message at those who need to hear it, waking up those who agree but aren’t fighting yet.”

How do you deal with harsh criticism? Have you ever had a surprising comment? Where?

It’s a resource. I’m lucky to usually receive feedback, at times criticism, rarely harsh. In the latter case, if that’s the dialogue, I’d rather it be there then the silence of no comments, no down votes, no lurkers. A surprising comment I got was during an endurance piece at Transformer, Everynone. I was positioned on a 12 foot ladder writing a running list of 9 years of artworks written on the gallery’s walls. An older Czech placed herself under the ladder and was saying that my work evoked the Velvet Revolution. Bumping against the ladder was unnerving but I was more concerned I’d drop on anyone below. And, the best troll I’ve ever had was an interview with the Daily Caller during the hunger strike for DC. As they left, they passed me a wrapped Pop-Tart. Well played, crypto-fascist psuedo-journalist.

Do you have any rituals?

I have to run. Or swim. I lost my headphones recently and that was a nice change. If I’m making music, even at a laptop, I have to stand; might be some kind of call back to middle-school choir. Posture controls volume and affects pitch, but also tempo if you’re doing something rhythmic. The body can’t be ignored and it reminds you.

First three favorite performance artists that come to mind?

chukwuma (c-scratch) of ATM data, is a sound and performance artist from DC who’s now in Philadelphia. ATM data is making art out east coast club music turned in to noise sets, performative launches. They are doing everything right.

Jefferson Pinder was always influential to me but I finally saw his work live at the Corcoran in 2014. His actions are powerful, his visuals are powerful. Together they are iconic.

Now he’s better known for his sculpture, but Charles Ray’s performances from the 1970s are perfect and uncomplicated. A clock controlled by a human operator is the best one-off description of subjectivity.

Connect with Adrian on Instagram @adrian_parsons