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The Perfect Trifecta

The new attention economy will always privilege the lowest common denominator in performance art, as it does in everything else.

· 8 min read
Crackhead Barney, Deborah de Robertis, and Ava Louise
Left to Right: Crackhead Barney, Deborah de Robertis, and Ava Louise (all images from YouTube).

Over the last month, three apparently unrelated events have demonstrated that art featuring female nudity will get noticed regardless of its aesthetic bona fides or authorship. It does not matter if it comes from a prankster who stages ambush interviews for social-media consumption, a feminist whose earnest work is displayed in museums, or an OnlyFans model hijacking a public interactive installation. They all attracted plenty of attention across mainstream, independent, and social media, because female nudity (who knew?) is a highly effective attention amplifier. 

On 24 April, Piers Morgan’s show Uncensored featured a seven-minute interview with a woman who goes by the name “Crackhead Barney.” A few days earlier, a video went viral in which Barney ambushed Alec Baldwin in a New York coffee shop and attempted to browbeat him into saying: “Free Palestine! Fuck Israel! Fuck Zionism!” Morgan (or his producers) evidently decided that an interview with this person would make a good opener for a debate about the Gaza war between pro-Palestinian YouTuber Hasan Piker and pro-Israel journalist Emily Austin.

Viewers who only knew about the Baldwin incident from Crackhead Barney’s recording (where she remained off-camera) probably expected a strident comparative-literature student activist in a keffiyeh of the kind familiar from campus protests. Instead they were greeted by a young black woman in a messy blonde wig, “white face” makeup, sunglasses, red lipstick, and a neck brace, whose hiked-up inside-out and backwards-worn spaghetti-strap top exposed her naked breasts, the nipples of which were covered by surgical tape. When she leapt to her feet a few minutes in, it turned out that she was also wearing a loosely tied adult diaper. The semi-nudity was just another transgressive trope, along with the theatrical shouting and derangement.

Morgan referred to Crackhead Barney as a “performative artist” (he meant “performance artist”), but despite his pained expression, he treated her as a serious guest whose purpose was to spread a pro-Palestinian message. She did not oblige, however, and spent her allotted airtime goading her interviewer to change her diaper and take her to tea with the Queen. This behaviour may have looked like evidence of a serious psychiatric disturbance, but Barney is a performance artist of record who graduated from CUNY’s Hunter College with a degree in painting and sculpture. Her performance had something of the “funny-not-funny” Andy Kaufman vibe that subverts traditional comedy with an outrageous alter ego.

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