In Freedom, Frank

Dr. Steven E. Brown Co-Founder of the Institute on Disability Culture, in the United States, describes the life and work of Frank Moore, a Berkeley, California, USA performance artist with cerebral palsy. First published in Mainstream: Magazine of the Able-Disabled, June/July 1998. Internet publication URL: www.independentliving.org/docs3/brown98b.html.
I lie here in my universe of the mat, my bed. I always have been here lying in my universe forever, forever. My mat, my pillow, my sheet, my blanket...for countless force-fed meals, enemas, baths, shaves, haircuts, pissed-on sheets...many many harsh-lighted days, many, many semi-dark nights. Outside my universe there are bony fingers, blotch-skin creatures. Sometimes they invaded my universe...the sickly-sweet smelling ones. They "take care of me"...they handle me like they handle my pillow.

Frank Moore, an underground performance artist from Berkeley, California, who has significant cerebral palsy and for much of his life has been labeled non-verbal, is a beacon of possibilities in life and art.

My first encounter with his work came when I read the long prose poem "Out of Isolation," from which the opening paragraph is quoted. I contacted him and we've been communicating ever since via letters, poems, prose, e-mail and a variety of publications.

Frank's incredible lust for life and art has brought a tribe of people together through a variety of means, most recently through his e-salon.

A perfect example of the ideal, Moore espouses that the world is changed one person at a time. I am unclear who lurks on the e-salon, listening but not participating, but active contributors to the daily conversations include Frank himself, many talented artists, academics, zine (small press, non-establishment magazines) publishers, web site creators, an Indian chief, and even a few disability rights advocates. Many individuals are multi-talented and fit more than a few categories.

Common elements among e-salon participants seem to include desires to be creative, true to oneself, and respectful of other participants in the growing salon. The result is the creation an amazingly supportive online community. Gregg Johnson described the e-salon in a college paper:

"They [e-salon participants] speak however they choose on the list, they speak in poems, they rant or whine, they formulate well-rounded theoretically and philosophically stimulating electrobabble. The majority of them create; people on the list spend their paychecks mailing out their small press magazines with their print runs of 100; they write plays that 50 people will ever see; they record tapes of their own in their bedrooms and send it to their friends...they sleep with girls or guys, and maybe vegetables if they're lonely, then they draw it or write about it, but it's not pornography."

Many people in the San Francisco area remember Frank from his 1970s entourage, "The Outrageous Beauty Revue." The group performed self-described Tack Rock in various states of undress and lit up the stage with their renditions of popular songs and whatever else seemed to fit any particular night.

Before the term disability culture attained any kind of popularity (or notoriety, depending upon your perceptions), these performances included people with and without disabilities making fun of popular culture in ways no one would expect, especially from someone with the kind of severe handicap, to use the language of the time, that many people believed belonged in a nursing home.

Frank himself proudly recalls being one of the first seven performance artists blacklisted by Jesse Helms. If galleries booked Moore, they were then liable to lose their government monies because his art was considered obscene.

How did he attain the roles of guru, shaman, artist, and underground disability rights advocate he now holds at the age of 51?

Born in 1946, in Columbus, Ohio, Moore lived on an Air Force base until the age of eight. His father, a master sergeant, then took his family all over the United States and to Morocco and Germany before settling in Redlands, California when Moore was 16.

With a child unable either to walk or talk, Frank's parents were advised to institutionalize and forget him. But they rebelled and kept Frank within the family home, fighting for him to be a member of his community.

As many of us with disabilities can understand he lived the life of an isolated outsider even within this home setting. In fact, until he was 17 and invented a head pointer he had no way to communicate beyond family members. He constantly struggled to break free from the restrictions of his body and self-image.

Moore's emerging personality fit well with the protest movements of the 1960s. In high school, he snuck into a mimeograph room, with the protection of a friendly teacher, and ran off copies of a political column for an underground newspaper. In college he started doing political pranks like rolling into a Marine recruiting office to enlist and see the reactions.

In the 1970s, shortly after the intense emotions of shootings on college campuses over Vietnam war protests, Frank dropped out of college and moved to Santa Fe where he joined an art commune. There he rejected politics and turned to art (in 1963 he had started to play with oil paints) and magic to make change.

While Moore began to understand his role in life as an artist he still needed to break through the isolation of physical contact. As a person with spastic cerebral palsy, he had little confidence in his own ability to become romantically involved with someone. As an artist, he both wanted and needed to communicate with people on an individual basis.

In one of those inexplicable epiphanies that many of us undergo he decided that his self-image of ugliness projected into the world and contributed to his isolation. Changing his self-image he exposed his new inner awareness of beauty to external examination and learned that people believed he actually looked different.

Moore took his wordboard onto the streets and waited for people to interact with him. And they did. He learned that if he opened himself up to possibilities, opportunities came along.

One such incident he often describes. About two years after Frank had started doing formal performances and workshops, he was searching for someone to perform in the nude along with him (his first nude play was accepted on a college campus in 1970, but he could not find actors) and he ran into a woman who worked in a travel agency. She was intrigued. They've now been together for more than 20 years.

When Moore was ready to leave Santa Fe, he created a performance art group which he first moved to New York City, then to Berkeley. The Outrageous Beauty Revue of the 1970s became the Outrageous Horror Revue of the 1980s and 1990s.

Moore has described himself as being lucky to be born an exhibitionist into a palsied body, which people want to stare at, and fortunate to be continuing the tradition of the deformed shaman.

"Primitive tribes believed that if a cripple could survive childhood, he was blessed by the gods. He was special. He was not really from this physical world. He belonged to the spiritual world, with an inside channel to the gods. He was not suited for the normal activities of living such as hunting and fighting. But everything he did or said were omens from the gods. He was taken care of by the tribe and lived in freedom."

Altered realities through warping time and body imagery play integral roles in Frank's subversive art. Caves also fill important components of the art. Time, nudity, and caves are often combined at his performances, which have lasted as long as 48 hours.

While other members of his troupe perform and interact with participants, Frank often is apart, meeting people in his cave. Only they know what happens.

The nudity in Frank's life and art easily offends people. Although subverting reality is a goal, he has also coined the word "eroplay" to explain the importance of nudity in his work. He describes eroplay as the activity of getting people to know one another's bodies in a fun and non-sexual way. In contrast, Moore defines pornography as sexuality without feeling.

Frank does not fit easily, if at all, into the conventional disability rights movement. But his life is a testimony to our rhetoric of independence and equality of opportunity. His catalog of successes include books, pamphlets, videos, a well-respected zine, THE CHEROTIC [r]EVOLUTIONARY, and his web site, The Web of All Possibilities. Here you can visit the Shaman's Cave, see paintings and photos (he is currently requesting nude photos from all e-salon participants), link to many other sites, and keep up with current performance art activities.

Frank supports people who remain true to their vision. You might even say he supports the vision(s) that live through people. Consistent with his life of subverting traditional expectations, he is resistant to labels:

"I agree that by accepting labels like gay artist, black artist, crip artist, woman artist, etc., we artists are playing into the forces that seeks to isolate/fragment people, to box art into neat fashionable packages, easy to identify [and once identified, thinking usually stops], into sound/image/cultural bites...i've always dodged being "a crip artist" because that limited the art. art should be free to explore anything, to use anything to reach the universals."

You can check out the possibilities at: fmoore@eroplay.com, http://www.eroplay.com or PO Box 11445, Berkeley, CA 94712.

English