As far as performance pieces go, the structure of Brian Feldman’s BFF is easy enough to understand. Each show time1 has one ticket. If you buy it, you and Feldman will spend two hours hanging out. That’s it.
The actual specifics of each two-hour period are completely up to you and Feldman. By showing up you become not only BFF‘s sole audience member2 but also its costar. Want to go bowling? You can go bowling. Want to go swimming? Dive right in. The idea is no matter what you do, the fact that you’re doing it with a complete stranger forces both you and Feldman to confront the experience of making a new friend. In this way, the work is completely successful.
On its Kickstarter page BFF is billed as having no beginning, middle, or end. Though really, it does have a beginning, and it is awkward. Don’t let this deter you—uncomfortable moments are just part of the experience. The thing is, while Feldman is an accomplished performance artist3, he is not some sort of friendship expert with a superpower to make social interaction immediately smooth and rewarding.
When you meet him in front of Fort Fringe there’s going to be unavoidable bouts of social clumsiness coming from both sides. My own time starts with a trip to 5th Street Ace Hardware—Feldman wants to get a spare key for his apartment made—and we make the same just-met-you, how-long-have-you-been-in-DC conversation you’d make with any new acquaintance. Once we leave the store, we’ve still got more than 90 minutes left together and it’s not clear what we should do. As we stand at the corner of 5th and New York, it’s not even clear which direction we should walk.
This tension is actually part of what makes BFF interesting4. Participants aren’t swept away on some perfectly curated friendship-building experience. As far as I could tell, Feldman makes no attempt to be some platonic ideal of a best-friend-forever; there’s no show and he’s not acting a part. Yes, he’s friendly, but if you make a bad joke he won’t pretend it’s hilarious. If you say something he disagrees with, he’ll argue against it.
You get the impression that it’s entirely possible that your experience could go badly, or at least be incredibly boring. Feeling that failure is an option creates the same tensions and anxieties you’d experience in a non-performance art situation. When there is a lull in conversation—and there were several in my time with Feldman—you can expect to feel the same compulsion to fill the void as you would if you were on a blind date.
Following a whim—and a pressing need to do something—we decide to eat at the Eritrean Cultural Civic Center. As we pick at our injera and hilbet, it’s clear that your two hours with the man aren’t a fantasy world bracketed and set apart from real life. Feldman expects to get to know you and for you to get to know him. He talks of his previous life in Orlando, his struggles moving to DC, and his views on statehood, public transport, and acting.
There’s no taboo about acknowledging the artifice of your situation, either. Feldman openly talks about BFF even describing his previous outings5. At one point later in the outing Feldman gets a bit of bad news via his phone which adds a gloom to his demeanor that looms for the rest of our time. Clearly, there is no distinction between the events of a BFF session and real life.
By its end, BFF has accomplished what it was designed to do. The production’s two hours had me both interacting with a stranger and constantly examining my own feelings about the interactions. Attending the piece manages to be entertaining and engaging as an activity while still prompting serious bouts of introspection which continue long after Feldman has left me alone. No, Feldman will not be my new best friend forever, but he certainly has given me something to think about for a long time.
– The meetup with Brian Feldman as part of BFF takes place several times a day but ends at 4:30pm July 29th. After that, you’ll have to meet him on your own. The Fringe experience leaves from Fort Fringe, 607 New York Ave NW, Washington, DC.
Details and tickets
1Though calling it a “show time” is a little misleading for reasons that I’ll get to soon. It’s tough to decide what to call each instance of BFF since “performance” isn’t exactly right either and calling it a “staging” is just wholly out of the question, for obvious reasons.
2That is, aside from the dozens of people who witness the two of you hanging out. In a way, they’re audience members, too, whether they know it or not.
3For an earlier piece Feldman forced himself to eat everything on the menu at a Loving Hut restaurant, an act of endurance that seems simple when compared to the fortitude required to have tête-à-têtes with complete strangers all day for two straight weeks.
4And its title slightly sarcastic.
5It’s an odd experience talking to an artist about a performance that you are not only part of but part of at that exact moment. The whole thing has the opportunity to get so reflexive and meta as to make a hall or mirrors look simple. I decide to change the topic to avoid any tedious Ouroboros-shaped headaches.