You May Be Tested Later On This Material (1985)

I learned quickly that if I wanted to make larger work a good strategy was to develop it in modules. In 1985 I was working toward a piece called Vegetable Love when I was invited to do a performance at the Noyes Cultural Center in Evanston, IL. I therefore put together what I assumed would be the first module of my work-in-progress, and called it You May be Tested Later On This Material. I had no idea at the time that this would eventually become my best-known performance work.

Tested was intended as a critique of structuralism, as an ironic critique of all my worst habits as a teacher, and as a critique of the denial many gay men were feeling at the time, as the AIDS crisis was steadily worsening ("I don't need to be tested!"). When I was in the middle of writing this script, my best friend in Chicago - a funny, brilliant man named Timothy Paul - died at the age of 29. Despite all my attempts to be ironic in this work, the pain I felt about this loss came bleeding through the humor. My little deconstruction often left audience members in tears.

For most people, the real core of this work was when I attempted to explain the idea of kinship, or more specifically, gay kinship. Since kinship was originally used to chart marriages and births, the idea of transposing this to queer culture involved a leap into the unknown. It also becomes quickly obvious that my discussion of the kinship of "Gay Man A" is actually a break-down of my own past relationships. My "analysis" quickly spirals out of control: "But A just really couldn't stand C because of his relationships with B, D, and E!" By the end, instead of an objective analysis, I am covered with colored chalk from head to toe, and left a stammering, sweaty mess. Friends would come up afterwards, look at the smeared chalk wall (or chalk-board in some performances) and shake their heads: "That's how my sex life looks, too!"

In the years that followed, I often performed this work at academic conferences, under fictional titles, waiting to see how long it took audience members to realize that what they were seeing was not an academic analysis of structuralism, but an example of performance art. This work was also the beginning of an attempt on my part to minimize the technology required to present my work; I became fond of saying "a box of colored chalk and a tomato - that's my idea of technology."

Tested became my best-known work not only because I performed it frequently. It was also published in the magazine Whitewalls, and later included in the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art's exhibition Art in Chicago, 1945 - 1995.

The first performance of You May Be Tested Later On This Material at the Noyes Cultural Center in Evanston, IL, on April 27, 1985 (my 32nd birthday). All photographs by Kevin Wolff.