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In Performance: three artists mad about TV

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While some performance artists deny television's influence and others use video uncritically, the Loofah Method--a three-person multimedia performance troupe based in Bucktown--embraces TV, using the medium to critique the medium. "We all grew up with this TV blasting at us," explains video artist and Loofah member Kurt Heintz, "and we don't want that anymore."

Instead Heintz, working with musician Mark Messing and performance poet Cindy Salach, creates pieces combining video, music, and live performance that expose the various ways television manipulates our feelings and influences our thoughts.

"We're basically, at a gut level, angry at the TV," Heintz continues. "We are angry for what it's doing to us, and we are angry for what it has omitted."

In a piece the group did before the election, "I Dream of George," Salach played Dorothy while a gigantic, digitally manipulated video image of the president's head played the Wizard of Oz, revealing the humbug behind the great and powerful Bush. Likewise in "Vogue With the War Dead" Salach sings a parody of a vacuous Madonna song as the jumping-off point for, as Heintz puts it, "fucking the media." In the piece, which manipulates video footage of the Iran-contra hearings, Salach, Messing, and Heintz make barbed comments about American militarism in general and the Iran-contra affair in particular. "We get to fuck Oliver North back for the bullshit he's perpetrated," says Heintz.

The Loofah Method was founded one evening in 1987, when Salach and Messing ended a date--"Our first," Salach admits--by recording some of her poems at his loft. At the time Salach, a free-lance advertising copywriter for Spiegel, was already making a name for herself at Marc Smith's weekly poetry slams at the Green Mill.

"I thought he'd never call me back again because my voice sounded so stupid on a tape," Salach says.

Messing didn't share her low opinion of her voice. He took his favorite poem of the bunch, a short piece called "The Loofah Method," and set it to some music he'd composed. Someone at the Green Mill happened to hear the recording and asked Messing and Salach, "Can you perform this live?" Before they could answer, fellow slam poet and painter Mark Howell piped up, "Sure!" He later helped Messing and Salach make the work more visual.

They performed the piece at the Green Mill soon afterward, and it went over so well that Messing, Salach, and Howell--who dropped out of the group in 1989--found themselves getting invited to various group shows around town, performing at Link's Hall, the Organic Theater, and the now-defunct Edge of the Lookingglass.

"That carried us for an entire year," Messing recalls, "at which point we decided to take responsibility for the Loofah Method."

Heintz joined the Loofah Method in 1990. A hacker since high school, he eventually moved into video and computer graphics because he couldn't stand the idea of doing "other people's accounts receivable" for the rest of his life.

Heintz had been courting the group since he first saw them perform, at the Get Me High Lounge "the same week the Challenger exploded." His big break didn't come, however, until three years later, when he discovered that he and Cindy were "hardware-compatible. We both had Amigas. She was doing her catalog work on an Amiga, and she needed some software kink straightened out. I was like, 'I'll give it a look.'

"I had some tape of Mark and Cindy performing, so I asked myself, 'What can I do to make them know what I can do with this machine?'"

"Get out," Salach interrupts, laughing. "That's why you did that?!"

"Yes," Heintz admits. "I wanted to do that to say, 'I know this machine, don't mess with me.' So I sampled them. I did a digital-video sample of them."

Using computer and video equipment he'd acquired over the years--"My dining room is decorated in middle WGN period"--Heintz manipulated Salach and Messing's images to create a short animated sequence starring them, which he replayed on Salach's computer. "I said, 'OK, Cindy, watch.' There she is talking on the screen, and Mark is doing this wiggly dance behind her--and her eyes lit up." Heintz was immediately invited to join the Loofah Method.

In the three years since Heintz joined up, the Loofah Method has become a tight creative team. Still, as Heintz notes, "There is a bonding between Cindy and Mark that I dare not violate. They are partners beyond Loofah Method, but I feel very close to them." Asked to describe the dynamics of this three-sided collaboration, Heintz recalls a game from his childhood: Tip It. "You have these three pins, and you have to balance disks of various weights on them, and the toy guy on the top is balancing on his nose. If we go too far one way or another, the guy on his nose falls off. That's a bad sign. We want to keep his insurance rates low."

The Loofah Method's next show, a collection of pieces called Looking for a Soft Place to Land, opens at the Live Bait Theater, 3914 N. Clark, January 21; shows continue Thursday through Saturday at 8 and Sunday at 7 through February 28. Tickets are $10; call 871-1212 for info and reservations.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J. Alexander Newberry.

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