ST. PETERSBURG — Curtis Bryant was walking alone Friday morning along Central Avenue when he saw a sign outside the Morean Arts Center reading "free juice."
He wandered into the gallery and found Brian Feldman standing at a juicer in overalls, ready to tell him the rules. In the corner, a camera was streaming the whole scene live to the internet.
"I'll make you some juice, but first you have to draw me a picture," Feldman told him, as he'd told others throughout the morning. "Draw an orange for a small cup, a cup of juice for a medium, or draw me making the juice for a large."
Like the others, who'd scrunched their faces, cocked their heads and looked at Feldman apprehensively, Bryant looked unsure. But, like all the others, Bryant, 54, picked up a crayon and got to work.
Feldman, 36, is a performance artist from Orlando whose work often includes bizarre feats of endurance. He leapt from a 12-foot ladder hundreds of times for the piece "Leap Year Day," and stood in a boxing ring hugging his dad for an entire Father's Day for "24 Hour Embrace." He's performed all over the U.S., been rewarded with fellowships from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities and Florida Division of Cultural Affairs, and had his work reviewed by the Washington Post.
Last week, he took the stage at the Walt Disney Amphitheater at Orlando's Lake Eola Park to perform a new work, "Brian Feldman's William Shakespeare's Macbeth," during which he spent two hours and 42 minutes repeating the word "Macbeth" more than 17,000 times. He wore a hockey mask, and the audience had been given ear plugs ahead of time.
After that, he drove to St. Petersburg to continue work on his first-ever performances in Tampa Bay, which include squeezing oranges, washing people's dishes and climbing inside a coin-operated game.
The first is titled "Fresh Squeezed," billed as the "longest performance art piece in the history of Pinellas County," and the first in the Morean's history. It has Feldman standing in the gallery's window, squeezing fresh, Florida orange juice for what will amount to 140 hours when it wraps on April 30.
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"He throws you off with the 'draw me a picture' thing. I can't even remember the last time I drew something," Bryant said after he'd filled in a slightly lopsided orange in colored pencil.
But is what Feldman is doing art? Bryant was sure of only one thing.
"This juice is pretty good," he said.
Bryant received the 289th cup of juice, something Feldman dutifully recorded on a note pad with his juice-stickied hands. After two weekends of Fresh Squeezed, the gallery is lined with art created by visitors. There are basic oranges, cannibal oranges consuming more oranges, dragons eating oranges, oranges bursting with sunlight and portraits of Feldman himself in every style.
Feldman doesn't shy away from the oddness of much of his work. He couldn't help but beam as he called his "Macbeth" "the absolute weirdest thing I've ever done."
He doesn't get too analytical, but does present things to think about. The program for his "Macbeth," for instance, notes the superstitious aura around the play's title and asks "What is the power of a single word?"
For a guy who once married a stranger chosen via a game of spin the bottle as a statement on then-illegal same-sex marriage, then got an annulment in a companion piece titled Brian Marries Anyone, Part III, giving away free orange juice is pretty tame.
"When people hear performance art, some people get scared, they say, 'I want no part of that'," but for an introductory to performance art, I think something like this is great," he said. "It really gets people in the gallery for an extended period of time, they stay, they talk to each other, they talk about art, they talk about citrus. When you're competing against social media and TV, anything that engages and builds community is a good thing.
"I've done so many projects over the past 13 years. The one through line in all my works is the fact that they bring people together."
Feldman was originally pursuing a conventional acting career, when he had an idea. This was 2003, when reality television was really taking off. He would have dinner on stage with his family in front of a paying crowd.
"I thought I'd invented something totally new — reality theater," Feldman said of what became the "Feldman Dynamic" for 40 performances. "Then someone was like, 'Oh, you're a performance artist. This is performance art.'"
Photo by Helen Henny
Many of Feldman's projects are free to the public and funded through fellowships, sponsorships, donations and his own funds. "Fresh Squeezed" is an independent project with help from the Morean and sponsorships by Maxwell Groves in Avon Park (the oranges), Leafy Greens Cafe and Cider Press Cafe, who provide Feldman's meals.
He's not abandoning the more experimental stuff. Feldman is set to perform "Dishwasher," in which he'll visit people's homes in St. Petersburg and wash their dirty dishes. When the dishes are clean, they hand him a script of their choosing, anything from original poetry to a scene from a movie, and he'll perform it solo. Once, he performed the entire Vagina Monologues on a rooftop in Philadelphia.
"One time, someone handed me the lyrics to Beyonce's Single Ladies, and said, 'Perform it with a Scottish brogue," he said. "I went into the bathroom, tried to get the voice down, barged out and performed it as dramatically as possible. And it worked, they loved it.
"The cool thing about that is you're giving over almost entire control to the audience. They determine what it's going to be, the layout of the house, how many dishes, how many people are there. As a performer I surrender all control, just go in there emotionally open, ready to experience whatever they throw at me."
On Friday, he'll be at the Gasp! Gasparilla Fringe Festival in Tampa to perform one of his signature pieces, the "Skill Crane Kid." That one involves Feldman getting inside one of those coin-operated games with the metal claw that's meant for plucking out stuffed animals.
"It's a recreation of a specific incident that happened in Wisconsin, but it has happened multiple times throughout the country and the world, where kids crawl into these machines and get stuck," Feldman said. "This particular kid, when they asked why he went in there, he said, 'I don't know, I just wanted to be in there.' That was good enough for me to say, 'I want to recreate this for people.' It's really fun."
The crane game will be operational during the fringe fest, and cost 50 cents per turn.