There aren’t a lot of places where hip-hop and nudism overlap, but Charles Irvin’s performance Breakin’ Boundaries sits in the obscure center of that Venn diagram. Irvin’s breakdance routine, complete with cardboard floor covering and cheesy video projection backdrop is a lo-fi version of early 1980s B-Boy culture, except Irvin doesn’t quite have Boogaloo Shrimp’s moves. Or pants. Irvin pop-locks and backspins, even shakes his junk wearing nothing but a knit cap.
First performed in 2002, Breakin’Boundaries has been a bit of cult hit. I had heard of it well before I ever saw grainy video documentation of it. This past Saturday night Irvin re-performed the piece at the closing party for Kathryn Brennan Gallery, this time with some new twists. The party, held at Cottage Home in Chinatown, was a sendoff for Brennan and her director James Griffin before they reopen the gallery this September in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The crowd was thick and anticipation was high as people realized Irvin was about to perform. Whispers went through the crowd. An attractive young woman, when told there would be nudity, gently elbowed me to get a better view.
The music started before Irvin made his entrance. Lightly swirling sounds elicited someone in the crowd to say, “Nice one. ‘Tour de France,’” referring to the 1983 synthpop single by Kraftwerk. The choice of this song, sampled by Dr. Dre’s World Class Wreckin’ Cru in 1984 and by Diplo on his 2004 remix of M.I.A.’s ‘Lady Killer,’ signals that Irvin isn’t so much digging in the crates as digging in hip-hop’s subconscious. Kraftwerk is as much the underpinning of rap music as anything this side of James Brown and created a mood that was pure pre-natal B-boy style. And then he shuffled out onto the cardboard trying to pop-lock.
The performance was brief and clearly rehearsed. Irvin is a mediocre dancer, but you can see him doing his damndest. There were some truly original moves, where he seemed to crank himself up and down, from standing to squatting, by moving his hands in a circular motion. As he cranked down his balls were given space from his legs and cut a semicircle in silhouette. He did a successful spin move, but on his ass rather than his back or head. He used his knit cap as a seat to reduce friction while he was spinning and then threw the hat into the crowd. There were squeals of delight. I think someone kept the hat as a souvenir.
Irvin’s moustachioed face, a bit like a young William Faulkner seemed at odds with his nearly hairless and healthy physique. And the dance style was unmistakeable—awkward white dude trying to be cool. But that is a trope that seems pretty out of date in an age when conventional wisdom says that white kids are the predominant consumers of hip-hop culture. Instead it rings, like much of the performance, as having its origins in the 80s. Remember when hip-hop was fun? Remember when you went to art parties and people got naked? There’s something in the performance that feels like a ritual dance to resurrect exhuberance and infantile erotics, without some of the heavy moodiness and bathos associated with a lot of performance work.
Breakin’ Boundaries, in spite of its silly premise, manages to contain subtle cultural critique. While very early hip-hop involved some flamboyant sexuality in the form of the outlandish costumes of Melle Mel and others, there’s nothing in its history as goofily transgressive as Irvin’s floppy-cocked moonwalk. Performance art has involved plenty of nude artists in the gallery, but rarely for the explicit purpose of eliciting giggles.
What does Irvin’s performance have to say about the culture at large? If it’s fair to say that adherence to common sense can never produce radical thought, then Irvin is well on his way to producing radical thought. The elements that play as spoof on the genres deployed in Breaking Boundaries undo a lot of the seriousness that usually limits the possibilities of those genres.
- Julian Hoeber