I can now tell you this from experience—there’s really no perfect way to prepare for a performance artist to come to your home and do your dishes. I found myself slightly anxious in the hours before The Dishwasher—a.k.a. Brian Feldman—came over to perform Dishwasher, his Capital Fringe piece. I don’t tend to suffer from too much anxiety on a normal basis, but I did find myself worrying whether I’d left too many dishes for him, feeling proud that I’d just bought new sponges (god forbid he have a reason to judge the quality of my cleaning equipment), and wondering what he’d think of the state of an apartment that, on July 11, was still recovering from a Fourth of July rager.
Right on schedule, Feldman arrived with photographer Sonja Bradfield in tow at the apartment I share with three roommates. Now, four people with one small kitchen can produce an impressive pile of dishes on any given day, so we are fortunate to have a dishwasher (machine, not person) that generally keeps us in a fairly livable condition. However, I gather that Feldman wasn’t quite prepared for the one-day-old mass of dirty dishes we’d left in the sink in anticipation of his arrival. Eyes wide, he asked if we had a sink stopper (we didn’t) and whether he could rely on our dishwasher (of course).
Over the course of the next 45 minutes, Feldman meticulously scrubbed every whiskey glass, salad plate, wooden cutting board and crockpot we’d left for him, with an eye for detail I’m afraid to say we don’t often employ. After a few minutes of getting accustomed to the stranger in the kitchen, I was surprised to find how natural it all was. We ran through discussion topics—other performance art pieces he’s done, recent shows we’ve seen around town, the perennial Washington, D.C. vs. New York City debate, what other Fringe pieces look good. Just a normal conversation between two theater nuts. I had to remind myself that he was technically in the middle of a performance, but when it came down to it, that was the point.
“[Performance art] is immediate, it’s intended for audiences here and now and if you miss it, it’ll never happen again,” Feldman told me in my kitchen. “It always adapts and is flexible, and is almost like a collaborative effort between the performer and the audience, if you can even call it an audience. A co-participant. One of the best things about conceptual performance is that it doesn’t have to be defined. It could be anything.”
And over the course of his history with performance art, “anything” seems about right. Feldman’s bug for the medium set in early. As he approached his bar mitzvah, he begged his family to participate in a conceptual art piece where party guests would watch them eat dinner together on stage. His mother refused at the time, but many years later consented for a piece called The Feldman Dynamic as part of the New York Fringe Festival. Many other performances have followed, including txt, which is running in Washington D.C. every week this year.
As for Dishwasher, the impetus came from an actual dishwashing job in an Orlando restaurant. As Feldman looked at the insurmountable, infinitely growing pile of dishes, with the hubbub of the line cooks chattering in the background, he thought that the only thing missing was an audience. That was four years ago, and it has finally come to be as part of Fringe, where 18 lucky viewers—and their co-inhabitants—will have their homes turned into conceptual art spaces.
Back to my kitchen: for the second half of Dishwasher, Feldman cold-read a monologue of my choosing. After seeing a few other unusual spins on Shakespeare during Fringe, the Bard was on the top of my mind. After all, his oeuvre has survived stranger things than a rooftop reading in Georgetown (She’s the Man, anyone?), and I couldn’t resist the meta-ness of hearing The Dishwasher uttering the line, “All the world’s a stage.” Feldman took ten minutes to prepare the text, and I my roommates and I clamored out of a bedroom window onto the roof for a picturesque excerpt of As You Like It, appropriately surrounded by trees. And perhaps the strangest part of it all: He was great! After 45 minutes of dishwashing and ten minutes of prep, Feldman rendered the classic monologue with power and creativity and as much honesty as he brought to washing our dishes. Which again, is his entire point.
Don’t get me wrong—this endeavor is certainly abnormal, but long after our dishwasher left, my roommates I sat about, dirtying more dishes with over-easy eggs (and missing our washer), discussing central questions of life and art and where lies the divide. By tidying a few kitchens over the next few weeks, Feldman is challenging the very definition of reality.
Dishwasher will perform every night during the Capital Fringe Festival at the ticket-buyer’s private residence.
Photos by Sonja Bradfield