The Provocateur: Philip Huang Foists Art on and Unsuspecting Public
by Rachel Swan
One of Philip Huang's forthcoming projects — and he has a slew of them — will involve a guerilla theater performance outside the 24 Hour Fitness in downtown Berkeley. He'll call it "Witness the Fitness." "It's like, 'What the fuck are those people looking at, on the treadmill?'" asked Huang, who was never one to shy away from a bemused audience. He's taken the public art concept to all sorts of unlikely places, including a bathroom stall at the Coppola vineyard, several gay marriage protests, and a construction site two blocks away from Ground Zero. When it comes to art, Huang confesses to being a bit of a free-market libertarian. He doesn't believe in grant applications or waiting around for someone else to curate your work. He's skeptical of third-party mediators. He also sees nothing wrong with foisting product on an unsuspecting public.
So you might call Philip Huang a living, breathing, walking piece of performance art. Last Tuesday he went to UC Berkeley — his alma mater — dressed in clothes he'd slept in the night before: a faux camel's hair coat from Banana Republic, Converse sneakers with flames, dark-blue long johns, and an orange scarf with tassels. Were it not for the get-up, Huang might have passed for a Cal student. He's 34 years old but looks younger, with his preppy bowl haircut and horn-rimmed glasses. A few months ago he left two part-time jobs — one as an HIV test counselor, the other slinging gelato. Now he writes and performs full time, often staying up until 5 a.m. to work on fiction. (He used to contribute book reviews to the Express.) Born in Taiwan, he grew up in Asia and later immigrated to Phoenix, then to a working-class neighborhood of Los Angeles. He's gay and proud of it, fascinated by all things camp, and into being outré. For Huang, the line between "art" and public disturbance is perilously thin.
"That's part of my thesis," said Huang. "Most art sucks, and most artists with careers shouldn't have careers."
Huang has performed in myriad venues throughout the Bay Area, including Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, TheGarage, CounterPulse, and Oakland Asian Cultural Center — where he premiered Semen and White Lace: A One Woman Show, last year. For the most part, Huang prefers to stage things in his own living room, where he maintains total creative control and collects all the proceeds. Last year Huang held two shows in his south Berkeley apartment building, redubbed "the Dana Street Theater." He said he collected roughly $300 a night. This year, he's organizing a Bay Area-wide home theater festival, which will include local choreographer Keith Hennessy, writer Kirk Read, and porn star Annie Sprinkle. "Artists have always made shows in their own houses," said Huang. "But I want to take it to the next level. Let's legitimize it. Let's call it 'theater.' Let's charge money for it, and let's make a festival out of it. My message to artists is 'You don't need an institution to have a career.'"
At this point, Huang seldom uses the imprimatur of a big company. He's the consummate free agent, and it goes beyond having a home theater. Huang subscribes to the philosophy that anything can be a performance, so long as you have the means to document it. Thus, he always leaves the house armed with a small Flip cam and digital recorder. He has a special talent for digesting life and creating spectacle.
His YouTube videos are a mirror reflection of that sensibility. In "Roe Vs. Wade Vs. Philip" he infiltrates a "Walk for Life" rally. "Let's hear it for 'pro life!'" Huang screams when the camera starts rolling. "Abortions suck. Screw abortions!" After six minutes he gets ejected by one of the organizers. In "Ave Maria" he sings an aria while sauntering down Santa Monica Boulevard. In "Philip Vs. Prop Church" — which was inspired by an Express story about Oakland Bishop Salvatore Cordileone — he stands across the street from the Cathedral of Christ the Light at Lake Merritt and asks passerby if it looks like a giant vagina. In "Mariah Audition Tapes for Precious" he arranges a towel on his head to look like a big mop of hair, and recites Mariah Carey's lines from the film. A minute and a half in duration, the video comprises several close-up shots of Huang, pretending to be a glamour queen, pretending to be a social worker. "Can we talk about the abuse in your household?" he croons. Huang's best video to date is "The Lunar Homosexual Agenda," in which he hijacks a Westboro Church anti-gay demonstration, carrying a sign that says "No Fags on the Moon."
We've seen this type of protest art before, with the Yes Men, Reverend Billy, and even graphic designer Shepard Fairey — all of whom are famous for inverting hierarchical forms. And Huang sees himself as part of the same postmodern lineage. He cites the British graffiti artist Banksy as his main idol. To a certain degree, he's glommed onto the culture jamming phenomenon. But Huang is also a different species of provocateur. His motivations for doing things independently seem personal rather than ideological. He likes having complete control over his work, using theatrical shock tactics, and, above all, getting under people's skin. It wasn't satisfying enough to just get a few Lake Merritt joggers to agree that Christ the Light looked like a vagina. He had to ask if they'd finger it. For his last video, "Drunk White Girls Vs. Drunk Asian Girls," Huang went around Telegraph Avenue asking people which group is more irritating.
Last Tuesday's UC Berkeley excursion provided infinite opportunities for more video shoots. Huang had his camera and recorder in tow. He passed through Sather Gate Plaza and gazed into the window of a men's wrestling club. "That's super hot," he said pointing at the big window, as a pair of half-naked men pretzeled each other on the other side. "It's like when you're in a hotel room and you get the 24-hour porn option. You never know what you're gonna find."
Sproul Plaza was fertile terrain. Huang had hoped to find some Tea Party protestors at the lip of Telegraph and Bancroft avenues, but instead he found a more sedate group of sign-holders, promoting a blood drive. Members of the UC Berkeley Men's Octet were posted at Sather Gate, singing and passing out flyers. A gentleman in an American flag T-shirt held court outside Dwinelle Hall, lecturing about Communism. Huang waded through crowds of students advertising Haiti fund-raisers, Magic School Bus performances, and activist groups. None of them seemed quite worthy of provocation. The singers and blood donors were benign. The American flag guy was too crazy. He passed a "diversity wall" with black-and-white photographs, showing slices of the UC Berkeley population. "I always tell people this is a memorial for the students who died during terrorist attacks," he said.
It seemed like Huang wouldn't be able to leave his mark anywhere that day. Then a girl accosted him in Sproul Plaza. She complimented the orange scarf. She asked if he would pose for some type of student-club promotional photo. Huang conceded. The girl set him up next to a handsome young man and has them both hold signs. Huang lay down on the ground and wrapped himself around the other guy's legs. The guy rolled his eyes and laughed uncomfortably. Onlookers snickered. The girl snapped her picture.