The Case Against Art
Lawrence got out of the cab about six blocks from where he intended to go, as he was instructed. He had thought that would have to explain why he was taking a cab to a row of flood damaged buildings with no business or club in sight past dark, but the cabbie kept it professional or misanthropic, simply taking the twenty and leaving Lawrence seemingly in the middle of nowhere. This had been a fairly successful industrial complex fifteen or so years ago, but the hurricane had damaged most of it beyond repair and all the businesses had left. Once in a while there was some article about ridding the area of the eyesore, but the truth was that the owners were enough money to keep it nominally vacant.
Lawrence checked the pockets in the wool overcoat as he walked. Smartphone with a GPS program running. IR goggles. 38 revolver. Money clip. Keys. Everything else was in the leather medical bag that he held in his left hand as he walked, trying his damnedest to ignore the near zero temperatures.
Finally the phone chirped once. He was close. He scanned around a bit until he found the white handprint next to an old wood door with a chemical warning sticker on it in one of the warehouses. He opened the door and walked down to this month's iteration of Fakir's playhouse.
The stairs went down, down, down. After three flights he shed his overcoat, placing it in an alcove that already had a few garments in it. Anna kept the playhouse itself hot, nudity being as common as clothing in the playhouse. Lawrence was not nearly as open, sticking to a black turtleneck and slacks combination, better to hide stains that he would inevitably get through the long night. He knew Anna was more than happy to get one of the assistants give him a ride back to his place, but he wanted to make sure that there was nothing on him that would cause a nosy cab driver to ask what he had been up to.
After hanging his coat, he opened up the medical bag. Laser scalpel, fully charged, with spare pack. Three air hypos. fifty cartridges for the air hypos, a collection of painkillers, quick coagulants, antibiotics and antivirals. Nanotech skinglue. Suture thread and needles. Steel staples. Finally three doses of a coma inducing drug for extreme cases. And finally, a pair of medical goggles, blue rubber gloves and a simple surgical facemask.
Three more flights and he was at the door. The playhouse would not be officially open for another hour. He removed the old Yale key from his pocket and opened the door.
One of the things about the playhouse was that since Anna moved it from place to place was that he never knew what he was going to see. This month he walked into a brightly white tiled room, with white neon casting a glare on the near mirror surfaces. A table was set up near the entrance, with a collection of wine bottles and plastic cups. There was a stack of programs on the other side of the entrance. There were a few steel chairs scattered here and there, matching the steel chain and hooks hanging from the center of the ceiling.
Beyond that, the only other visible thing in the room was a new looking hose hanging from the wall. The setup crew were away from the moment, probably getting the hors d'oeuvres ready.
Lawrence picked up the program, there was going to be two exhibits/performances tonight. Lacey Brown and Jessica Place, two locals, were collaborating on a piece called "Maenads" and Alistair One was performing a piece called "Angel in Reverse". Neither of them had been performed before, but two performances meant an easy night for him tonight.
The door opened again, and two twenty-somethings with shaved heads walked in with some boxes. He recognized the girl as Lileah, who had worked at the last few playhouses. Lileah nodded as a greeting.
"Doctor," she said after putting down her box. "Anna wants you to set up in the back corner."
"I'd rather have a side room to work in." he replied.
"At the last playhouse, some of the attendees wanted to see you work."
"I am not an exhibit."
"But you are entertainment between performances."
"Where is Anna?"
"Picking up Alistair One from the airport. He had to get smuggled in again."
Lawrence nodded. Alistair had a tendency to sometimes perform in public. Last year he had taken a filet knife to his torso in a shopping mall in full view of a news crew covering a teenpop concert. Since then he had been mostly confined to Eastern Europe, where they didn't seem to care as much.
Lawrence knew that Anna would insist, and probably give him a bonus. It's not like he could keep people from watching him. The artists tear themselves apart in the name of art, Lawrence put them back together. It was a beautifully symbiotic relationship.
He carried his bag over the corner, where the male worker was already setting up a table for him to work on. There was another box containing the tools too large for him to carry that Anna held on to. He removed the surgical goggles, gloves and mask from his bag, as much for disguise as they were for protection. Now he was simply the Medic, as much a fixture of the Playhouse as blood, or bone, or skin, or Anna herself.
As if summoned by the thought, Anna walked in. She kept her own image as mutable as the location of the playhouse, helped along by what had to be raging surgical addiction. Last month she had been a pale ghostly figure with comically large breasts, this month she was tanned to an unnatural level, slim and androgynous in in a men's suit. Only the eyes, custom made silver implants, gave her away. She had invented them herself twenty years ago and while she had licensed the basic design to two major medical concerns, the secret of her own quicksilver eyes she kept to herself.
"Medic", she said harshly. Last month she greeted him with a running hug and a kiss. "Are you ready for tonight?"
The crowd finally began to arrive in earnest. The audience was strictly capped at 100 spectators, at which point the door was locked. This added a race against time element to Anna's scavenger hunt, which only increased the underground popularity. Lawrence would have hated to tell them that the playhouse had not actually got to a hundred people in the last few months. The cold weather always drove down the audience, few wanted to spend the time in near zero temperatures to find it.
At one am exactly, Alistair made his way from his back room to the center of the gallery. The lights dimmed slightly, quieting the crowd. Alistair was a slight young man, about twenty pounds underweight. He was naked, holding nothing. A white light trained on him, illuminating his dark skin which was crisscrossed with numerous scars from previous, less prepared performances. He smiled, his teeth nearly luminous framed by his dark features. Lawrence wasn't sure what he was going to do until he noticed the metallic glint on his fingertips.
Without breaking the smile, Alistair ran one of his fingertips down his face, from beneath his eyes to his jawbone. The razor under his fingernail parted the skin and muscle delicately, creating a bloody trail down his face, gleaming ruby in the spotlight. A faint electronic beat started as he repeated this for each finger, leaving five incisions under each eye. Lawrence heard some murmuring, but the audience remained quiet. He was satisfied to see there there were probably going to be no fainters tonight, he had enough to deal with with the artists without waiving an ammonia capsule under the nostrils of some freshman art major.
After his face was complete, Alistair began to work on his chest. The audience remained silent but Lawrence felt the anticipation grow, this was what they had come for. Alistair's carvings into his own flesh had been covered heavily, even being exhibited in some smaller galleries using the method of pressing his cut flesh against white canvas. He worked quickly, his fingers flashing as he made shallow cuts in his pectorals and abdomen. After a few minutes, Lawrence realized that he was recreating one of his earlier pieces, changing a few details here and there. While he worked, he saw Lileah, black mask added to her black outfit, manipulating the chains that hung from the ceiling behind his back.
Alistair finally opened his arms. The audience saw the work on his chest, a series of geometric shapes and lines, resembling language, but probably existing nowhere but Alistair's own head. When Lielah handed the chain to Alistair, Lawrence pretty much knew the climax.
One-one thousand, two-one thousand......
Lawrence starting counting in his head. The hooked chains raised to the ceiling, tearing Alistair's skin off his back into the shape of wings. The audience watched in rapt attention, as Alistair's blood from his face and chest ran into the drain at his feet.
Eleven-one thousand, twelve-one thousand.....
Lawrence knew that the skinglue was unlikely to work effectively on degloved skin after 45 seconds, and would definitely not work after two minutes. He knew that Alistair knew as well, but there was a paranoia that tonight was the night Alistair would take it too far in the name of work, and would just let himself bleed out in front of everyone.
Twenty-two-one thousand, twenty-three-one thousand....
There had not been a death at the playhouse since Lawrence had begun his tenure as the Medic. The performances were not technically illegal, being covered in art journals and tabloids alike, but it was judged as distasteful by average citizens. Lawrence knew his presence was more Anna wishing to avoid scandal rather than any sympathy for the lives of the performers.
Thirty one-thousand, thirty one-one-thousand...
Alistair let go of the chains and his skin fell back into place. The audience lightly applauded as an attendant rushed Alistair over to the medical area. Lawrence didn't bother examining or asking any questions, he simply sprayed the glue onto the exposed muscle and tendon, then smoothed the skin into place. A mild adhesive in the spray would hold it there for the hour it would take the nanobots to reattach the flayed skin. His other self-inflicted cuts were gruesome, but superficial enough to wait until his torso skin was safely reattached.
Alistair looked at him, the endorphins dancing in his eyes. "How was it?" he asked.
"Intense," Lawrence replied. Truth was, it was a bit derivative of his previous work. He understood the idea of making himself into his own frame for a piece that had made him famous, but he couldn't help but feel it was a bit stale. Lawrence didn't want to upset him before the nanobots did their job, though, so he said nothing else.
"Thanks," Alistair replied, settling onto the gurney where he would lay for the next hour. There was already a line of the audience waiting to ask him questions.
Two hours later, Lawrence dropped the bloodstained speculum into the tray of medical grade alcohol. Jessica Place babbled incoherently on the table as the painkillers that Lawrence had given to her mixed with the stimulants she had taken at the beginning of her performance. He had an adrenaline shot ready to go if the mixture started to go wrong, but she had stabilized. The workers were hosing the blood off of the chair they had used and the tile floor. Despite his worry about spectators, most of the sixty or so people there were munching on cheese and puff pastries and still drinking the cheap wine. Internal injuries were not as interesting as others, probably, and once he had managed to stitch her up, the show was, he guessed, over. The only one bothering him was Lacey, who seemed vaguely interested but not overly concerned. He noticed that she had not washed the blood that stained her hands to the wrists before grabbing a few pigs in a blanket to snack on.
Lawrence finished by applying some nanogel and injecting her with a dose of antibiotics. Jessica sighed as the topical effect of the healers kicked in. Lacey popped the last sausage into her mouth and leaned in.
"How long till she's ok?"
"No strenuous activity for at least 48 hours. And no penetrative sex for at least seven days."
"Can she go to the bar later?" Lacy asked.
"My advice is to head home and watch a movie."
"OK." Lacy's own injuries had not been nearly as comprehensive, nanohealers and dissolving sutures on her face and chest had done their work leaving only faint pink lines across her cheeks and breasts. Lacey's and Jessica's work always involved sexual violence of some kind, Lawrence understood the message but since he had seen five of their performances in the last year, he was beginning to find the themes repetitive. Alistair, at this point, was recovered enough to be mingling through the crowd, with only thin lines of blood oozing from the edges of his flayed skin.
With the second performance over, the audience started to fade out. Most were regulars, with a smattering of new faces. No passouts this time, no vomits, just people accepting the art as it was. For the last few years Anna had drawn a steady crowd from New York and Philadelphia, with reasonable coverage from the bodypunk journals. Lawrence had heard about a few others, mostly in Europe and Japan. The Playhouse was one of only two in the US, the other in San Francisco. He knew Anna felt some pride in that.
After the last spectator had left, Lawrence took off his goggles and mask. Lielah was already waiting there with a bag to dispose of them, along with his blood covered gloves. Lielah handed the bag to one of the other attendants, then produced an envelope from her jacket.
Lawrence took it and gave it a quick glance. Inside was a thick bundle of hundreds.
"Thanks," he said, "but where's Anna?"
"She had business to attend to. She informed me that I was to give you a ride to any location you liked."
This was unlike Anna, but the weight of the evening began to hit him. "No thank you," he said as he gathered up his tools.
He waited until he was about five blocks from the warehouse before triggering the pickup signal on his smartphone. By now the first purple of dawn was beginning to creep up over the horizon but the air was even colder than during his arrival. Within a minute a cab pulled up, once again asking no questions. It was about a 45 minute ride back to his place in the city. As he rode, he began to feel a bit of disappointment in the night's performances. He couldn't help but feel a slow downward trend in quality over the last year. Maybe he was just jaded, but there just wasn't any creativity anymore. There was shock, but the meaning was gone. He had heard about some new artists in Beijing, but their work had been so brutally repressed he doubted Anna could get them. Maybe the movement just needed some new blood.
Lawrence was so tired at that point that he didn't even smile at his unintended joke until he was almost home.