An Interview With Grammy-Crashing Performance Artist Michael Portnoy, 20 Years After 'SOY BOMB'
Two decades ago, performance artist Michael Portnoy brought a healthy dose of anarchy to the music industry's most formal night of the year. One of many extras hired to "sway arrythmically" in the background during Bob Dylan's rendition of "Love Sick" at the 1998 Grammys, Potrnoy unexpectedly seized the spotlight by thrusting himself, shirtless and flailing, into the performance's foreground, with a perplexing two-word phrase written on his chest -- "SOY BOMB."
The phrase became an iconic part of late-'90s pop culture overnight -- eventually earning parodies on SNL and The Tonight Show With Jay Leno -- and remains Portnoy's greatest moment of mainstream exposure. But 20 years later, the enigmatic performer has little interest in further explaining the what or why behind his 35 seconds of notoriety: When asked by Billboard how he decided on "SOY BOMB" as his message of choice, Portnoy claims that the words appeared unexpectedly on his chest as a result of a blood transfusion from a horseshoe crab ("It was horribly itchy!")
Portnoy is much more excited to discuss the many other works he's devised since '98 -- particularly his most recent project, Wrixling, described on is website as "A new form of one-on-one, online Participatory-Psychic-Scrambling," in which paying customers schedule private 25-minute sessions with one of a half-dozen Directors of Behavior (including Portnoy). "As we say in Wrixling, 'When the world gets confusing, we get confusinginger!,'" the ingénieur proudly explains.
Read our conversation with the multimedia artist below -- which also includes Portnoy's take on New York's best Chinese restaurants, his affinity for Thundercat, and the "porcupine suit" he originally had planned as a "SOY BOMB" backup -- and read all about the stories behind "SOY BOMB" and the 1998 Grammys here.
You've explained your art style as "extreme participation" -- how would you further define that for those unfamiliar, and who do you see as some of the genre's other great practitioners?
That was a bit tongue-in-cheek, but let’s go with it! In most of my work, I’m interested in stretching the bounds of language, logic, behavior, and the self — to give people new ways of talking and being being together which are more abstract, poetic or absurd. I see it in contrast to lighter, more passive forms of participation, some types of immersive installations or theater, for example, where the viewer is placed within an unusual situation, but still behaving and speaking as they normally would. I require my participants to be something much stranger than they are.
Sadly, all the other great practitioners of the genre have been exiled and their names stricken from the official record.
What are some of the projects you've worked on over the last 20 years that you think have best exemplified your artistic vision?
Some recent ones I’m proud of: Character Assassination, a late-night TV talk show shot in Cologne, Germany, where I sit at a desk in front of a huge post-apocalyptic backdrop and cook up devilish fake news about people in the audience, who’ve all become Facebook friends with me several weeks in advance. There’s 100 Beautiful Jokes, a film of me performing 5 hours of heart-wrenchingly experimental jokes in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. And my linguistic game show, 27 Gnosis, set in a lilac gravitron hidden within a huge mound of mud!
What inspired you to start Wrixling? Was it easy to enlist your co-directors of behavior?
When the internet started, there was this utopian promise that you could be whoever you wanted to be, and travel into new, alien realms of experience and thought, but what it’s become is all about us, the inescapable self, what we want, what we can buy, who are friends are, how much they like us, how we can make ourselves appear even better online, etc. Trapped in our bubble of people who think exactly like us. This responsibility to maintain and pimp up the self everyday is exhausting and still leaves us with no real feeling of connection to others.
There’s nothing I find more revitalizing than escaping myself by diving into a world of high-level nonsense with another person, a shared fever dream where we play many different roles and make words do unspeakable things to each other. That’s Wrixling! The Directors of Behavior are a group of hilarious and inventive actors, comedians and poets, and I had to search long and hard to find them. They had to be experts in the dark arts of Confusion.
What's the best reaction you've gotten to a Wrixling session? Do you have many return or regular customers?
We just launched after the new year, so it’s all very fresh, but one of my favorite responses so far was, “It was just great to have space and time and enough structure to allow a conversation which is as wacko as the one I had with your performer, and which I would love to have at least once a day in my daily life." We’ve had a lot of people so far that have booked sessions with multiple Directors of Behavior, so to get the fullest experience.
You say in your intro video [under the name of SenDirB PartanakootiG] that "for many years, I just couldn't stand what passed for conversation." What's the best conversation you've had since you've started Wrixling?
There was one session I really enjoyed with a woman in Paris who insisted, despite all my attempts to steer her elsewhere, to communicate without words, and only with her body and all of the objects in her apartment. It became like a debate of dueling physical routines!
How, if at all, do you relate to popular music in 2018? Any songs or music videos from the last few years that you find particularly compelling?
From this past year, one of my favorite albums was Thundercat’s insane funk-fusion Drunk. Great to hear something so musically sophisticated and weird that still grooves and is getting such a huge critical response.
Do you often get confused with Mike Portnoy, drummer for prog-metal band Dream Theater?
No, although a lot of the music I make has the spirit of prog rock in it. In my dance piece 77 Blinks, five dancers just blink their eyes to an intricate and unpredictable taiko drum score. But despite the names, he and I have quite a different look.
I saw you say in a recent interview that the only things you really love about New York are "the Chinese restaurants, the Duane Reade stores that are open all night long, and my friends and family." So what's your preferred Chinese place in the city? And why Duane Reade over Walgreens and CVS?
For years, my favorite Chinese was Mee Noodles on 2nd Avenue between 49th and 50th, for their heaping bowls of soup. I prefer Duane Reade over the others because it’s the only one that’s a real NY institution. I appreciate those all night stores the most when I’m working overseas and there’s no one place to find prosciutto, eye drops, and a Flash Drive at 3 AM. Also my wife and I, for some reason, come up with our best physical comedy late at night in Duane Reade.
You obviously aren't particularly fond of answering the same questions about "SOY BOMB" that you've been asked for the last 20 years. What's one question you wish you'd been asked over that period?
No one asked me about the porcupine suit. The original plan was to construct a hidden metal suit under my clothes and if you pulled a lever, long 4 foot spikes would have popped out in every direction, making it physically impossible to remove me from the stage without some kind of magnetic crane. Imagine, I’d still be on that stage today with my shirt off doing that stupid dance!