A self-described interventionist/immersionist performance artist and sculptor, David Henry Brown Jr. has been riffing off the dark side of American popular culture since the 1990s, often placing his physical body into the work and morphing his identity into things around him. His work frequently involved fabricating characters that intervene with real life social situations, catalyzing reality around him into a work of performance art.
David’s work first became notorious when he impersonated New York socialite Alex Vonfurstenberg (sometimes stylized as von Fürstenberg) in 2000, crashing VIP parties for a whole year and meeting and taking pictures with celebrities like the Clintons, Harvey Keitel, Oprah Winfrey and Puff Daddy. Prior to that, he stalked Donald Trump for a year in 1999 and took photos with him, even predicting his presidency with his social experiment Trump For President 2000 where he created posters and campaigned on his behalf. His most recent persona is David Henry Nobody, Jr., an alter ego who creates the most sensational body of self-portraits on Instagram where he obscures his identity using complex arrangements of props such as food, paint, advertisement cutouts, household items or trash. To describe these creations, which border on humorous and disturbing, the artist coined the name Resemblage from the terms “resemble” and “collage.”
The motif of the social mask has run throughout his work as a recurring theme for the last 25 years. By continuously examining images of our image-obsessed culture, each of David’s personas sought to shock people into seeing their current reality in a new way.
PRØHBTD chatted with David about his many personas and transformations, the notion of Fantastic Nobody, Trump’s presidency, consumerism, social media and much more.
You have been playing with ideas of representation and identity since the 1990s. How did you first decide to become New York socialite Alex Vonfurstenberg, and how did this experience influence your art and your life?
The foundation for Alex is complex. It is influenced by my artistic circumstances of that era. It is also influenced by my youth. So, firstly, I came up as already shape shifting from youth culture scene to scene before I became a behavioral sculptor and performance artist. I was a metalhead, then a punk, a Deadhead, into industrial punk, indie rock, hip-hop and rap, techno, drum n’ bass and electro. I would shift my appearance and lifestyle to assimilate to each group, creating a splintered hybrid identity. On one hand, what seemed superficial would end up creating the basis for a life of depth as an artist. As my future formed and manifested, I started to understand that how I was behaving was a product of my immersion in society. The issues of representation and identity were already present.
I decided to become a “celebrity fanatic” after witnessing the behavior of the public when I was collaborating with British artist Dominic McGill. Around 1997, we were going around Manhattan with a roll of red carpet, dressed in tuxedos with white gloves and standing in front of prominent celebrity-expectant locations such as Trump Tower. In one bit of footage, a really cheesy moment takes place—a star struck fan runs up and has his photo taken with Casey Kasem. I thought I want to become that fan! It seemed so loaded, like a dark look at ourselves as sycophants of capitalism. The context was so hollow yet fascinating, as there was actually no one showing up at our undercover vérité performances. Everyone was just waiting for Godot, literally.
At the same time in the ’90s, my friends and I started coining the phrase “Fantastic Nobody” to describe amazing-looking people who would be at every hip art opening and party we’d attend. They looked like they should be famous, but when you got to know them and went to check out their “studio,” they actually really didn’t do anything at all! This was the beginning of my understanding of a fake person, and that I was also complicit in being fake.
Alex Vonfurstenberg came from my interest in brainwashing myself to becoming addicted to celebrities like the public was/is. I intuitively took on a Fantastic Nobody persona to infiltrate the circus of power in American celebrity culture. You must keep in mind that I grew up disdaining celebrities as a punky dude, and it was no easy task to change what I believed in. Also keep in my mind that me and my deplorable punk rock artist friends, who were not connected and not from rich families, became very versed in sneaking into any cool dance party or club. We never paid and never waited in line. The language of hacking reality was already in the air all around me. We had a killer nightlife using our smarts and a shoestring budget.
I went out for a few months in 1999 in a $20 vintage suit and a conservative look trying to meet famous people. After repeated failures, one night I said I was Alex Vonfurstenberg at the door of a club where there was a party for the singer Barry White. I was ushered immediately into the VIP area as Alex, and I met Barry and got photos of us together. The project took off from there, and I spent the next year going out at night as Alex. I broke into scores of VIP parties, including Hillary Clinton’s 53rd birthday benefit at the Ford Foundation in Manhattan where I met President Clinton and Hillary. Sixty photos, taken by handing a 35mm point and shoot camera to strangers, were achieved in that year going undercover. I outed the project to the press just before my solo show opened at Roebling Hall Gallery in Williamsburg in October 2000. The story became something of a scandal in the media, and my photo editions were sold to prominent art collectors.
Alex affected my life greatly. On one hand, it advanced my notoriety as an artist, and on another, it created a huge disparity between the public image—an illusion—I created and my own actual roller coaster personal life where there was lot of daily uncertainty about how the fuck I was going to eat and pay the rent. The success and subsequent schism of it all was kind of a mixed blessing. I started chain smoking and partying a lot harder [because] I was nervous! In my art I had bent morals, karma, time and space and was faced with unexpected challenges in my real life and future. I have very few regrets about it all.
You went on to stalk Donald Trump as a performance for a year and even campaigned on his behalf for president in 2000. Now that he’s actually president, how do you look back on this social experiment?
I was interested in Trump initially because I thought and still do think that he is such a cheesy representation of white male patriarchy⎯the freaky thing under the conservative and conformist mask. He looks like a laughable cartoon character version of how stupid I thought some adults looked as a child, from a child’s perspective, like a professional wrestling version of a big business man. By stalking Trump, I wanted to unmask this dark white male encoded into my own personality. Trump is the dark side of America. He is greed, lacks a moral compass and is psychotic⎯the insatiable and diabolical Id.
I met Trump five times over a year in 1999 and a sixth time at the Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, New Jersey, where I had him autograph all five 8×10 prints of us together with a gold paint marker. “You must be a HUGE fan,” he said. I also joined his presidential exploratory committee as I viewed it as an extension of my performative obsession with him. Posing as a conservative douchebag/turd operative, I made a Trump For President 2000 sign and took it to the streets of NYC to ask the public if they would vote for him. I brought legendary videographer and photographer Richard Sandler out with me and recorded the action. I thought the whole thing was totally absurd at the time: Trump as President. Richard remarked at one point, “Hey Dave, you know what you should call this project? The Bottom of the Fucking Barrel!!”
Now that he is president, my work about Trump seems pretty damn prescient. I predicted the future. My view now is that it was a dark warning shot 20 years ago that was ignored and not heeded.
Over the past 25 years, you have reinvented yourself over and over, creating a range of different personas. Could you tell us something about this transformation process and the relationship that forms between you and your characters?
I don’t try to contain the creativity of my work to just an object only. My work is structurally focused on the relationship between images and behavior. As opposed to art being purely mental and separated and packaged to create its own reality, I think that art and its surroundings are inseparable. I am interested in how immersion in image affects behavior. Somehow, I have noticed that the things surrounding me affect my personality. This knack for mimicry could be due to the fact that I am a Libra. I have gone ahead and let this tendency and the philosophy I developed to influence my judgment and creativity. I have created personas to adapt artistically to different aesthetics. If a writer can write while in character, why can’t an artist? I want to live inside the creativity as much as I can.
The characters change because my work keeps morphing and reinventing itself. I am thoroughly opposed to having a singular look or aesthetic for my work in the long run. I feel that this is only done to make money and that’s not my primary objective. The philosophical constructs I employ allow me to be free to change how I see myself as an artist. I have changed my work many times and reinvented myself because each body of work is born, lives and dies. I am always being true to the moment and true to themes that resonate with exactly where I am in my life and where I see society. The transformations are intentional. I want my retrospective someday to be even more drastically jarring than Francis Picabia’s, from creative period to period. I want to challenge the idea of being a brand, by being a brand that keeps mutating.
In order to be yourself you have to let go of yourself. The character is generally something greater than just me. By going into character I feel I become larger than life⎯mythological almost and more creative, a better problem solver, a more insightful me. The character is the symbolic self created by trial and error and experiment. I have often placed myself in social systems in order to force a character to appear. For example, by trying to meet celebrities experimentally for a few months and failing, I had an “aha” moment when I started saying I was Alex Vonfurstenberg. By discovering the character, the performance opened way up. The idea that Art is a Framework for Life to flow into the work, which comes from FLUXUS, holds true for my approach.
I also develop the characters by exposing them to an audience. I take the call and response with an audience, their reaction, and use it to allow me to enhance the work so it communicates better. This could come from wearing a strange costume in public and seeing people’s reactions or presenting Resemblage on Instagram and observing the feedback in comments I get. This conceptual orchestration comes from the idea of getting the audience to complete the work of art, which originates from DADA.
In recent years, you have garnered attention for Resemblage “anti-selfies” that blend collage and sculpture with your face as a canvas. How did you become David Henry Nobody Jr.?
I became David Henry Nobody Jr. as a result of joining Instagram in 2014. By 2015, I began focusing on surreal self-portraits using myself as a model and muse as I felt my personality being recorded and assimilated by the Matrix that is social media. As a Gen X artist, I feel tremendous distrust of authority and corporations, and David Nobody on one level is my way of grappling with the change in technology and our revolution that is happening at present. As opposed to shunning the change, I wanted to take it on and to see reality through the kaleidoscope for the masses that has emerged. Like all the social systems that I place my creativity into, I wanted to hack Instagram with my work and playfully sabotage the shit out of it, deconstructing it into my own life and psyche.
As I began to spend more and more time being addicted to my phone, I noticed I was viewing reality—IRL—more often through my device. From this, I inferred that because I was being reprogrammed to how I see life itself via social media, this in turn caused my brain to superimpose or distort how I was seeing actual real life moments. I began to make myself look more like an animation or CGI collage as David Nobody by physically attaching objects to myself, mirroring what I feel we as humans are being exposed to and becoming. The work got stranger and stranger as I ruminated and deconstructed my circumstances and turned myself pictorially inside out to become a Resemblage. It seems to me that the change in technology is yet another important chance for us humans to introspect.
The term Nobody in my handle is a nod to my philosophy of the fantastic nobody: a fake celebrity or person. Now, however, the definition has morphed and adapted into meaning No Body, as in literally not having a physical body. I believe that when you are on the internet via your phone, you lose your body and become a formless digital consciousness. I often have to explain the significance of the term Nobody, although there is indeed a deliberate self-deprecating pun in its meaning, as it insinuates low self-esteem. Isn’t this what consumerism and social media make us all feel, though?
The term Nobody is also a reference and a connection with my collective, The Fantastic Nobodies [2004-2013], where I go by David Nobody, just as the Ramones, called themselves Dee Dee Ramone, Joey Ramone, etc.
This character wears the consumerist excesses on his exterior self, such as food, toys, magazine cutouts, etc. How does this practice reflect on contemporary Western society and its dynamics?
Well, it seems to me that the extreme consumerism of the west and the United States in particular stands as a commodified system of oppression, waste, self-destruction and environmental destruction. Racism and sexism and every other kind of social trigger we could ever think of have been used to dehumanize the public and sell them a bunch of bullshit to “fix” their lives. We already wear this language “on” our lives per se, so I’m basically exaggerating the juxtaposition of the self and an incessant consumerist constellation of junk that already surrounds us into a coherent but irrational self portrait of humanity. It ends up being weird and funny and surreal, which is just how I think we will look to the humans of the future: I think we will not appear to make sense at all.
How does Instagram as your current chosen medium of performance play into the themes you explore?
There is no doubt I set out to create a body of work that would kill it on Instagram, and this is in a sense part of the performance. David Nobody exists in the trope of the “enfant terrible internet performance artist.” The app created a framework for art to flow through it. Instagram has eliminated the art world gate keepers so that visions such as mine that are not congruent with a current, very conservative and academic gallery scene can be seen by everyone. Social media has provided amazing opportunities to share my work with other creators and people all over the world. I really appreciate it, but it has also made our reality much more superficial and the mindset of the public much more consumerist. Instagram is just more consumerism! Like all technological challenges that humans have adapted to in the past, it’s the artist’s job to show how to do it more imaginatively. Just as painting once changed its roles in response to the invention of photography—impressionism, cubism, etc.—so now are art and performance changing their role in response to the rise of social media. I’m addressing all this through my work, through Nobody.
There’s something amazing about the instant gratification of Instagram. I once viewed this tendency in myself as a weakness—instant gratification seeking—but now I increasingly see it as an advantage. Instagram has made it much easier for me to create and share. This ease of proliferation creates a stream of consciousness type flow that I’m familiar with from one idea to the next. I can look at my portfolio of work anytime [as] it’s in the palm of my hand. Sometimes I watch my videos just to crack myself up and put myself into a better mood or get inspired. I can feel the patterns and relationships between many ideas running through the work, and I learn from this ease of observation.
David Nobody has gone through a range of elaborate transformations, assimilating his appearance to the objects he places around himself. Could you tell us something about your working process?
For the studio work I am constantly collecting and looking for new props and materials in the trash, in junk stores, on Craigslist, in 99-cent stores, wherever it can be found. My studio is full of stuff, and the remnants of former props and wearable sculptures. My ideas are half preconceived and half experimenting on camera. I keep putting things all over myself and recording it in photos and videos until it becomes something unexpected. I go from an irritable/bad mood at first to eventually feeling at peace and focused on what I’m doing while being extremely present. As I transform myself into a Nobody, I become someone/something else. I go into character and keep altering and shooting until the piece becomes too physically painful to wear or to the point where I nailed an idea. The studio Resemblage work is very specific to the camera, and it’s all about how it reads on a screen. After I’m done, I’m ecstatic, and I clean up the disaster in the studio and cook dinner, often late, like 11 p.m. I used to not edit my media, but now I am increasingly editing to strengthen the focus.
Your bodies of work have covered a lot of topics. How do you think your work has evolved over time, and what would be the common thread that runs through it all?
My work has gone from impractical and massively physical in the early ’90s—the Human Weeble Wobble, for example—to much more recording specific in this future. I could contradict that any time, though. (Laughs.)
The common thread is an urgency of being as creative as possible in all the different periods and bodies of work and collaborations of each chapter/episode. Let’s leave it up to my retrospective to probe that very question, though.
Could you reveal some of your future plans and projects?
Yes, I want to design and produce and sell a coffee table book of many images of my Resemblage work. I have a 16- minute documentary that just came out on my work made by Keith Arronowitz, which will be featured in a bunch of film and video festivals in the next year. I’m looking forward to seeing the reaction to the doc. My first collaboration with Adult Swim is about to be released. I will have a video in the new episode of Off the Air, and the episode is called “Fashion.” I’m trying to produce a new Human Weeble Wobble sculpture this fall in Miami. There are many sticks in the fire!!
In general, I have a lot of good proposals, and I’m hoping more galleries and exhibition spaces step up to the plate and offer me fucking shows!! I’m certainly on the look-out for a mid-career survey or retrospective… I have the repertoire. I will carry on trying to change what art can be instead of accepting the status quo.
Photos by David Henry Brown, except for the live performance images, which were shot by Olimpia Dior and curated by Coco Dolle from the “Self-Portrait as a Buffet Table” live performance at the Spring Break Art Fair, 2017.