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Performance Notes: how to lighten up and join the mainstream


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One day last year African American performance artist Danny Tisdale set up a table on the sidewalk outside his studio in Harlem and started hawking skin-lightening products. Tisdale called himself Mr. Tracey E. Goodman, president of Transitions Inc.--"We turn minorities into majorities." It was a trial run for a performance piece he took around New York City last May and is bringing to Randolph Street Gallery Monday night.

Tisdale wasn't ready for the response he received in the heart of Harlem, where his half-hour performance piece turned into a four-hour colloquium. He was astounded at the number of blacks who told him they'd never heard of skin-bleaching creams such as Dr. Fred Palmer's Skin Whitener. "I was trying to tell people I didn't get these products downtown. I didn't get them from the south. I didn't get them from overseas. I didn't get them from the west coast. I got them right around the corner. People didn't even know that these products were being sold in their own community."

An equal-opportunity salesman, he also offers a sunless tanning lotion and hands out mock advertisements: "Are you tired of being called asian, black, jewish, indian, italian, or so on? Now with Transitions Inc., you can be called exotic!" In a fictional testimonial, one satisfied customer states: "Because of Transitions Inc., I now know how the other half lives."

Tisdale, a 33-year-old graphic designer, was born in Compton, California. His father, who worked in a refinery, moved his family to Simi Valley after the Watts riots, when he was promoted to a management job. Tisdale, entering junior high school at the time, went from a school with no whites to a school with almost nothing but whites. He says he adjusted, though cops in Simi Valley harassed him just as they had in Compton, and notes that his thinking was more influenced by the conflicting opinions of his older brothers, one of them "a hard-core Black Panther," the other "a hard-core right-wing Green Beret."

Tisdale, who went on to study business and art in college, adopted an ironic approach as he looked at the inside dynamics of contemporary black culture. His latest museum installation was titled "The Last of the African Americans."

"From the 1980 census to the 1990 census, ten million black people disappeared," he claims in one of his performances. Tisdale believes these people simply opted to reclassify themselves. Tracey Goodman prefers to give the credit to Transitions Inc. "The number-one surgery in Japan is eye rounding," Tisdale goes on. "Again, that's the kind of information that is real--but you're not quite sure whether it's real or not because I give it through the perspective that these sort of things are happening because of Transitions Inc."

Tisdale moved to New York to work for Andy Warhol at Interview magazine, where his job as advertising production manager gave him a window on the machinery of style and surface. "I just wanted to see how Andy Warhol hustled all those people," he says, adding eagerly, "I love magazines."

In his own art projects he has adopted the slick strategies he learned. "I try to make the presentation kind of seductive, so I can sucker punch my audience and bring them in," he explains. "Then once I get them in, I throw substance right in their face. If I throw a little humor in there, well, it keeps them."

But Tisdale's message is meant to subvert the standard marketing mentality. "If we have long hair, they want us to have short hair. If we have short hair, they want us to have long hair. If we're dark skinned, they want us to be light skinned. If we're light skinned, they want us to be dark skinned. To advertisers, when we look in the mirror there has to be something wrong with us, or else they can't make money off of us."

When researching his latest project, Tisdale approached the manufacturers of skin whiteners and sunless tanning potions. He thought he had explained the point of Transitions Inc. to the targets of his critique, so he was surprised that the executives loaded him up with packaging and statistics. They even tried to enlist him to do surveys on segments of the market they hadn't reached. Only when a delegation came to see one of his performances did they grasp the concept of Transitions Inc. Tisdale hasn't heard from them since.

You can hear Tisdale lecture at 6 on Monday, October 5, at the School of the Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson. It's $3; call 443-3711. And you can see his alter ego Tracey Goodman at 8 at Randolph Street Gallery, 756 N. Milwaukee. The performance is free; call 666-7737.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bill Stamets.

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