Marching to the Beat of a Drum on His Face: An Interview with Jon Brumit, Public Artist
by Kathy Leisen
The arts assume many different forms and genres, sometimes even from a single artist. A man of varied disciplines, Jon Brumit is such an artist. His work includes site-specific installations, a venture in community radio as art, and putting a drum on his head for passers-by to beat. His website boasts three separate biographies: one that speaks to his “love of stories,” one that is for more “academic” purposes, and one that attempts “to render non-linearity and inconclusiveness as or within a raw critical narrative framework.” Whatever the form of his art, one consistent element has been his interest in engaging the public in creative and often unexpected ways. With disparate creative work – and just as disparate biographies to tell their story – Jon has special insight to share on public performance. His work has been presented around the country, including a project in guerilla broadcasting that made it to the 2008 Whitney Biennial: Neighborhood Public Radio (click here for installation details). For me, one piece stands out in particular, a public performance piece of his called “Drum on my Face,” and it inspired me to find out more.
What is it about doing projects with the public that you find so compelling?
Jon Brumit: Probably the best thing is designing some kind of scenario where everything seems clear or engaging or fun enough for strangers to engage with me, and then to have the space and the time unfold into something else – something unexpected.
Just like the immediacy of theater is so profound and intense and beautiful, and the awkward silences and spaces become so charged and seem to heighten and elevate our senses or awareness.
That is the hope. I don’t know that we can ever really know that we will affect a perceptual shift or that we could ever know which part of something will affect anyone in a particular way. Just offer it up, pay attention, take notes, and try to enjoy the whole thing. Take failure as just another tool in the box that looks like a lot of other things but has the simple effect of just slightly re-orienting a direction.
Can you give the stats of Drum On My Face? How long did you do it, how many times, how many people drummed on your face?
Jon Brumit: I started it in maybe 2001 or 2002. I went out about 5 times for between 30 minutes to a few hours. There was a great response, really. I was thrilled to experiment in such a raw and direct way.
I had started to think, while busking with a portable suitcase drum kit in Baltimore in about 1996, that maybe the obligation to pay (on behalf of passersby) if one stops or enjoys the performance was just too much…too open-ended…and so maybe I should devise a kind of simple contract to avoid confusion or whatever. Anyway, so spelling out DRUM ON MY FACE $1, coupled with the action of saying PLEASE with a slight bow and nod as I try to hand folks the drum-mallets was enough to persuade people that interacting with a street musician could be easy, affordable, and entertaining while still being musical to some extent.
And of course, there is the addition of the unpredictable, confrontational, or violent. Part of the experience, although spelled out on the sign, ended up being much more than bargained for. I remember one guy turned around in the middle of the street to hand me a $5 bill – without ever picking up the mallets – and told me he hoped I became a millionaire. And a few people would be utterly offended by the mere suggestion that anyone could or should enjoy such a violent interaction with another person. Probably 200 people took part, in total.
On your website, the audio of the performance has people laughing – was that the typical response?
Jon Brumit: Yes, predominantly laughter – sometimes hysterical. I did also notice that the people that played the longest were actually less rhythmic than other players.
What was the most surprising thing someone did?
Jon Brumit: The single most terrifying moment was a guy who, after grabbing the mallets sort of quickly, reared back as though he was going to tee off or something…super terrifying. I saw it coming and interrupted the guy by waving my arms with my eyes probably wide open saying (loudly, so he could hear me through the drum head in front of my face) and as nicely as possible, “I’M A PERSON, NOT A GOLF BALL, OK!?” And then something registered halfway through his swing towards the head of the drum and it ended up being pretty calm in the end – super scary though.
As a drummer and percussionist since I was about 15, I’ve broken a bunch of drum heads and was imagining him breaking through the head and my face getting tenderized with soft slow motion felt mallets, but it takes so much energy and aggression to break a head, I think he was more rearing back in a sporting way – not so much in an aggressive way. Anyway, it’s hard to predict what will happen. And you know, by asking people to drum on my face, I couldn’t really stop him altogether. It’s probably a good idea to just imagine that most people mean well and just hope for the best.
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