Stories of John

First Contact

I met John Liebrand in Chicago in the late 80’s. I had heard about his performance work and everyone was saying I should see it. “He’s ripping you off” was the call I heard. At the School of the Art Institute of Chicago people were telling him he should see my work. John was attending the school to get his Masters degree. At the end of his first semester he called me and asked if I would stand in for him at his review. I had never met him or seen him perform at this point and he thought it would be amusing for me to present his work to the staff at the Art Institute. I had attended S.A.I.C. several years prior and was familiar with the Staff. The premise was that John had been hit in the mouth with a baseball and his mouth was wired shut and he was heavily medicated. He brought over his notebooks and I made myself familiar with his work for the semester. On the morning of the review we met and went over a bit of Johns theatrics. He would require me at one point to smash up some aspirin and help him drink it down. He would also write down responses and I would read them to the review panel. All in all it was a very amazing experience and I realized immediately that John was creating very interesting work. His work was very real and certainly no rip-off of what I was doing.

Brendan deVallance


Here is one sent in by Robert Daulton:

My Dear Brendan,
John appeared in and around the performance venues in Chicago about 1988. I saw him several times at the Art Institute and at various performances in the capacity of an audience member before I ever saw his work. You introduced him to me in your selfless role of vanguard enabler, but he was so internalized and my persona was so vain and megalomaniacal that our connection was weak and noisy with the background static of my own dissipation and ego. At that time, I perceived even someone as self-effacing as John as a threat to what I pathetically thought was my "status" within the community of live artists. I grudgingly witnessed one or two brief works by him in some "variety show" gigs that were so endemic at that time, but I viewed him as just another autistic retard performer, the style of which I believed you were supreme. He seemed to idolize you and it appeared that he found it difficult to speak at all without an interpreter.
On a cold, cold winter evening around that time, late '88 or 89, I was one of several performers at a Lower Links show, perhaps one of the shows you curated with such tenacity, sincerity and aplomb as part of your neverending battle to create a "scene" out of a molehill. You were self-assuredly confident that somehow you could make Ronald Reagan's Chicago of 1987 into Zurich of 1914, or Paris of 1924 or at least Homburg of 1959, and I was swept into your one man zeitgeist that night.
Drunken and obnoxious, I delivered my cliched self-aggrandisement as usual to the apathetic crowd of maybe nine persons at the club.  I don't really recall if John came on before or after I did, but I was determined to experience his acrimony and pain and react to him in a confrontational manner to see what he was made of - to see if there was a chink in his armor - to take him at his word, since he seemed to be crying out for someone to care, to respond, to join in, to actually be there in synch with his call to the crowd, which was, really, a call to join him and take up arms and a call to a violent revolutionary overthrow of the phoniness of performance, of interpersonal relations, of living in such a stupid "Wall Street" (starring Michael Douglas) milieu as a less than human bunch of poseurs, against the pennilessness and pointlessness and the isolation.
As soon as he began reading I pointed a lazerbeam, which I had stolen from the holography department of SAIC, directly at his coke-bottle-bottom glasses. The beam refracted into blinding star-points of intense incarnidine, just the effect I was looking for, but it clearly made John nervous. Lazers weren't very common in public then (you had to actually plug this one into the wall) and he came from the stage down to where I was sitting to ask me to please stop, and ask if it would damage his eyes. I basically laughed in his face, feigning incomprehension, so he re ascended the stage and continued. I watched smugly, shouting occassional reactive snide asides at him. I could tell it was bugging him. He would glance at me nervously. I wanted to fuck his show up, to out retard the retard, to one up his ass.
At some point he had brought an axe or a sledge up and was daring the crowd to smash his head in with it, so i JUMPED UP THERE TO DO JUST THAT AND AT THAT POINT JOHN STOOD UP TO ME AND CALLED ME ON  MY SHITTINESS!! He said, sotto voce, that he would have prefered not to die that evening, but if I had the balls, I should take my best shot. Enraged, beaten and frustrated again, I walked offstage, got my lazer and left the club, climbing those dark stairs into the cold, cold, winter coldness at two a.m., headed somewhere to try and fuck some girl I'd never met, and would never meet again.
I never really got to say thanks, John.


Here is one sent in by Nancy Forest Brown:

Once upon a time, John Liebrand was working on a piece that he was going to perform at Chicago Filmmakers (I think, not sure). He decided he needed to try it out first and arranged to do it for a class that was scheduled in the SAIC performance space in the six to nine PM slot. My 4D class was on the same night down the hall in the old 4D room. As part of the piece, he needed to suddenly vomit, but John didn’t know how to make himself vomit at will. He really wanted to blow chunks. His solution was to drink a bottle of Ipecac. Not a good idea.

He performed the piece for the class. When the class let out, the students all left and so did the instructor (Werner, as I recall) - leaving John in the booth vomiting uncontrollably. They just left him. My class ended. As I was getting ready to leave, a student working late in the basement (ceramics maybe) came running up to me to tell me there was a guy really sick down the hall – he was throwing up. I ran down and found John dry heaving, convulsing, bent over a bucket. He was unable to stand up. I’m familiar with Ipecac and also how to control it. I had the student take a jug and run to the bathroom to fill it with water. That’s the antidote – you have to drink a ton of water. She came back and I got John to drink, though it was difficult because it would come spewing out as fast as he got it down. But finally the water began to take effect and the vomiting stopped. He told me what he’d done. By that time a security guard had arrived, heard about the Ipecac, and wanted to report John, as though he’d broken some anti-drug law – pure bullshit. It took me about half an hour to talk the jerk out of writing John up. When it was all over, I made John promise he wouldn’t use Ipecac again. When he made a promise, he’d keep it. That was John.

A few weeks later, the finished piece was about to be performed, huge audience, and John was backstage getting ready. He was taking a really long time. When the crowd started getting fussy, I went backstage to find out what was holding him up. John was back there with a big pile of aluminum containers of frozen (thawed but still cold): macaroni and cheese, creamed spinach; a Stouffers assortment - which he was trying to eat, gagging and choking the whole time. He told me he needed a lot of it. He said he hated frozen food and he thought if he hated it, that would make it easy to throw it up. He still didn’t know how to vomit at will.

So I taught him how to put his fingers down his throat; how to do it surreptitiously so it would appear spontaneous. I guaranteed him that if he got his fingers far enough down his throat, the food would all come flying out. He was amazed that it could be so easy. His anxiety overcome, he wolfed down an amazing amount of gross, but colorful, food. That night, John vomited in his performance. He vomited and vomited and vomited and vomited and vomited and vomited – the audience was stunned. The food just kept coming endlessly, projectile-style. He’d pause, they’d think it was over, and more would come. And more and more and more.

Unfortunately, John had added far too many elements to his piece and it meandered aimlessly. It was probably the worst, most boring piece he ever did. The vomiting was the only interesting part in the whole thing. All because he was afraid he couldn’t vomit at the right moment. The fact is, if John had done nothing but vomit and left all the other nonsense out, the piece would have been spectacular. I don’t think anyone has ever thrown up so much food for so long ever in the history of human overindulgence.


Got any stories about John that you’d like to share? Send them in and I’ll post them here.