THE FAMILY OF SHAME
The Family of Shame Subversive Arts Conglomerate 2003-2005
When I first arrived in Philadelphia after college, I inherited a legacy admission into a tight knit social group of decadent creatives through my then fiancé, Christianne. I was immediately at home and the pedal got stomped down hard on the weirdness accelerator within weeks of our arrival. A new party, always strangely themed, always addled with a rainbow treasury of drugs and sexually charged energy, marked each weekend. These weren’t raves, but small loft parties with industrial nitrous tanks, infusion jars of mushroom tea, mandatory lipstick and so, so much whiskey.
The small group started developing tongue and cheek rituals. A particularly odd night involved a circle of us stripped to our underwear, a squeeze bottle of GHB, a human beat box, and my dear friend Kevin sporting a Halloween mask and an old baseball glove. This was the night the Circle of Shame was born. The shame came in two rounds, the punishment dolled out by Kevin's dirty glove, and the awkward group brunch that followed the morning after.
The Circle of Shame careened into darker, weirder places, and more and more lines began being crossed. The morning-after brunches became more and more uncomfortable as well, as we all regularly woke up tumbling down the shame spiral.
It sounds narcissistic to say I caused the death of the Circle of Shame, but I kinda did. Christianne split on me with little warning and in my heart break, I chest beat clenched to my new dear friends while drawing lines and demanding pledges of loyalty from the people she grew up with. Cruelly, those lines held for a while, but in such a small incestuous circle, my wounded cock tilted the apple cart repeatedly and caused more strife and division. After rebounding rudely through the group one to many times, and disastrously breaking the rules of Sancho, I found myself exiled by the circle I named and helped form.
Another source of tension I had created within the circle at this time was my fixation on art attrition- as I found myself alone and doubling down on a commitment to an artist’s lifestyle, the other members of the circle where abandoning their creative aspirations for steady work and family planning.
And so, during a time of loss and isolation, I set out to create a new art family- and monetize it.
I launched the Family of Shame Subversive Arts Conglomerate through message boards. There was no social media, no MySpace yet, no Friendster. Few artists had web pages and most galleries were still reviewing work through photo slides.
The concept of the FOS was simple- it was to be a juried collective of unflinching, disturbing artists that wouldn’t easily find a place in traditional art settings. The FOS would provide these artists with a web portfolio, license their work for brick & mortar merchandise, and promote “Alternative to Galleries” art openings.
I developed the concept with Miss Mary, a web designer who peddled in antique photos that I had regularly tapped for my photomontages. Her pug, Miss Pansy, became our logo and we set out to find talent.
Those early days produced poor results, but eventually we attracted legitimately talented artists. However, even those solid talents were overwhelmingly unbalanced people. When you create a collective called the Family of Shame, you attract people who would be attracted to a collective called the Family of Shame.
Three artists rose to the front as the concept solidified into an actual company- Lauren Simonutti, a Baltimore based photographer, Ryan Widger, a Philly born grad student at Cranbrook Academy, and the horrible human being and brilliant multi-media artist whose name I refuse to speak- only known as the Shit Show B, who was finishing her MFA at PAFA.
Lauren Simonutti was no-nonsense, highly organized and ambitious, a godsend natural born businesswoman who arrived week after week for development meetings, ready to take control. The Shit Show B was a young girl of means and offered to finance the whole operation, the merchandise- everything. Ryan was both trust fund moneyed and work savy and once he was done with his degree in Detroit, he would be back to jump into the project full time…
Then I learned the greatest lesson I could ever impart to anyone- don’t start fucking your investor. It was a bad idea. Plus it came out she was married. Plus it came out she was a borderline personality. As this horrible lesson was sinking in, I took solace in my other two superstar talents- Lauren who was foaming at the mouth to get started, and Ryan who was only a year from joining me; this could still work.
The Shit Show B drove to Baltimore with the finalized partnership agreement for Lauren, whose merchandise we had already put into production, cause you know, what could go wrong? This day was like Christmas for me. With my apartment transformed into an office stacked with print merchandise already promised to multiple stores and the perpetual gaslight drama from my other partner/investor/married girlfriend, I needed the stability of Lauren.
The Shit Show B called me after she had let herself into Lauren’s house. The front door was open and Lauren was laying naked in a pile of empty Listerine bottles.
This is how I found out that my brilliant star-talent, and born-to-lead-soon-to-be-partner, was a severe schizophrenic who periodically medicated with DT levels of alcohol.
Ryan was in town that same weekend. We sat in the newly opened Johnny Brenda’s and as I tried to delicately spin the situation to him, Lauren called from the hospital in the mist of a full hysterical psychotic break. There was no fixing this. He calmly backed out of the room.
I found myself contractually bound, financially reliant and interpersonally intertwined with one unbalanced woman in a company that had a large stockpile of merchandise that wasn’t actually licensed from another impossibly irrational one.
The FOS merchandising project ended up in the trash pile, literally. A dozen boxes of prints, posters and postcards from our first wave of artists were left on the corner for the trash man to take away.
But while the print end of the FOS was an interpersonal and professional nightmare that had all but put me over the edge, the Alternative to Galleries shows had taken on a life of their own. Initially meant to just be displays at bars and coffee shops for members, we soon began including odd performance art and strange lounge acts.
I pushed through the membership of the corset designer and event promoter, Psydde Delicious, under the guise that he would be doing textile art. At that time Psydde was the city's top promoter, running parties at a dozen different locations and his Fast, Cheap & Out of Control DJ night was at the peak of it’s notoriety.
With a guaranteed attendance through Psydde’s PR machine, the events became less and less about visual art and more about attendee interactions. Psydde and I began using the FOS as a platform for social experiments and PR hoaxes, and I had my degenerate party scene again.
And then I shut it down. I had started work on the artistic albatross that became the Mind is Meat is Machine mural print. Realizing that I wouldn’t be finished with it for years, and with the looming possibility of a legal showdown with the Shit Show B, I just didn’t have the energy or inclination to continue. However, the lessons I learned working with Psydde became invaluable in the development of my future Follies.