Blue Man Group by Stanley Moss

BOMB 32 Summer 1990
032 Summer 1990

Technology versus humanism: Three figures painted blue, bald-headed, with no ears, systematically square off against a parade of familiar household products. Then begins the chaos with Cap’n Crunch cereal, Jell-O, a talking kid’s toy, fluorescent toothpaste, amplified instruments, a film of fractal projections, day-glo paint, and a cascade of 100,000 ball bearings rolling across the floor at Franklin Furnace.

I invited Chris Wink, Phil Stanton and Matt Goldman to discuss their work. Unlike their eerie synchronous behavior on stage, Chris arrived first, followed by Phil and Matt minutes later. Over a table soon-to-be-littered with spent juice boxes and Oreo carcasses, Blue Man Group described their vision. At the interview’s conclusion, the table top resembled the stage after one of their performances.

Blue Man Group We act as a single unit so our part should read, B.M.G., Blue Man Group.

Stanley Moss You’d like the responses to be collective?

BMG Absolutely.

BMG We’d like to have our names in the thing, but…

SM The most obvious aspect of your work is the continuing collision with technology.

BMG We combine the seemingly different ends of the spectrum: chaos and order, technology and art. And hope this intersection is communicated. When we got together in this little tribe, tucked away in this little cubicle somewhere, sheltered from the bombardment of progress, which we were monitoring, we saw ourselves as huddling in from the storm—the storm of progress, the storm of technology—and the questions were: Where should human beings fit in? What is this thing that no matter what, is human and how do we protect that? We were drawn from different professions. A lot of people have been involved and come and gone to other things, but they were drawn by this feeling: What is going to happen? That’s where we get into the electronic tribes. How do we keep the childlike, the innocent, the passionate, the dangerous?

SM Everything you use in performance—Jell-O, Cap’n Crunch, fluorescent toothpaste, primitive drums, amplified sound—is a series of collisions with a techno-object. The entertainment precludes the intellect during the performance, but later, the intellect puts it all together. I realized that there was a much deeper message than the vicarious participation. I assume that it always is a scripted work?

BMG There’s a repertoire of pieces, and they fit together, and new pieces are being written. But no show’s ever been the same. This tends to drive the strict theater people crazy. They say, “Well, I liked it, but I need beginning, middle, and end. I want that Aristotelian…”

SM Is there a beginning, middle, and end to your performance?

BMG There’s an emotional narrative.

SM You do have a narrative within each bit.

BMG The narrative is left partly to the person to ponder and put together in the days that follow. The experience itself goes bit to bit. What we hope for is that within the bit there’s a discovery, a beginning, middle, and end in the sense that we come to something, we discover it, something twists at the end—in that sense we’re very classical. But we’re not telling a literal language story.

SM What governs the arrangement of bits then, if anything? I mean, is it truly random? You methodically destroy the set. You get messier and messier. I wanted you to play even more with those forbidden substances, get dirtier and get your hands all gooey. And there is more flagrant destruction as you go on. You get to greater chaos, breaking synthetic things back down to their elemental components.

BMG We start slowly trying to pare the brain down to the cortex, to the brain stem, right? The stage gets transformed from a pristine stage to one that has either art or waste, depending upon where the stuff landed. There is a certain mythical characteristic to Blue Man. When Blue Man shows up in the landscape that’s on that stage—traditionally, our landscape, industrial landscape, information landscape that we are a part of, that we see—it’s very unfamiliar to Blue Man. Blue Man’s very timid. He will be confused.

BMG Right.

BMG There are just as many contradictions within Blue Man as there are in the show. He’s very wise and innocent.

BMG There’s a danger underneath, there’s a sweet…

SM Does each of you play a separate aspect of character? You’re breaking down what we—each of us walks around with three or four people inside of us.

BMG It is an ideal…

SM It’s funny, because there are three definite people. And they cooperate.

BMG Well, it’s a single organism with three parts that seemingly are similar and yet very distinct. Even in its diminished state.

BMG And that’s very important. The reporters of our culture always want our names. They want to separate us. There are isolating and insulating forces. One of them is the star system. Another one is having your VCR at home. Anyway, they want to get you separated and figured out. It’s an act of defiance, wearing all the same blue clothes and being on the stage as one person. It’s passive-aggression.

SM I’m not supposed to be able to identify the character in performance with a person from my own world. That demystifies, demythologizes the guys who are sitting across from me. The three guys on the stage then become…

BMG One.

BMG Everyman. It’s not like we become clones. There’s nothing robotic or clonelike about it. It’s individuality existing within comedy.

SM That scene where Blue Man stands and listens to the rock ‘n’ roll song. “She loves me…” And everybody shakes their head, “Yes.” “She loves me not,” everyone shakes their head, “No.” It lent a human dimension to the characters, a gesture which demonstrated emotional response. Characters seemingly inhuman, returning to humanistic behavior.

BMG That’s a genre, a device—the fish out of water. That’s something a lot of films do, take someone out of their world. Aliens or mermaids can see through fresh eyes—innocent eyes—it’s framing things. You can look at the mundane because we’re blue, and we’re bald, and we’re all sitting together. And our motions are diminished.

BMG Blue Man doesn’t see things the way most people do, Blue Man doesn’t come to a box of Cap’n Crunch and see food.

SM What does Blue Man see in a Cap’n Crunch box?

BMG Maybe it’s what Blue Man doesn’t see.

BMG He sees something that says it has a loud crunch. It’s marketed for its crunch, not its food value. Blue Man tries it out as a musical instrument.

BMG Right. It’s Blue Man’s symphonic exercise.

BMG Blue Man finds the essence of the crunch.

BMG By hyper-consuming it, he transforms it…

BMG Right. You can stuff it in your mouth until you can’t get any more in and then the crunch is happening and it becomes a percussive crunch.

SM How do you do that? Amplify your jaws…

BMG We’re mouth-synching; we’re mouth-synching to a tape.

BMG That’s a good little area to take on, consumption, you know? Just by hyperconsuming, it becomes funny. We either diminish or exaggerate at different times. Like the dance part is very diminished.

SM The dance part?

BMG When we’re doing she loves me, she loves me not.

BMG We call that a dance.

SM This brings to mind the fact that your pieces are meant to be performed in front of an audience. The work could not translate well to video, only because the personal stake, which I had as an audience member, would be greatly diluted…

BMG No. Not until they get a tube that’s more interactive.

SM Like a holodeck. The moment in the show where Blue Man surrounds what appears to be a cylinder of Jell-O and we, the audience, can look through that cylinder and see a human face. Then you cooperatively dismantle the Jell-O. And we hear a monologue. Now, what was that?

BMG That was a show-specific piece in monologue time.

BMG You heard a character called Adolph Beck reciting what was called, “Bonehead Puma of Ennui.” It’s about not succumbing to the puma. And he looks like he’s gonna go with it, but he’s drawn to the bonehead, to the buffalo of his zeal.

BMG The puma of indifference.

BMG And Jell-O is a techno-item.

BMG Jell-O and gel toothpaste and different foams. We have a piece where huge ice buckets are filled with paint. And we drum and the paint flies up, these huge quantities…

BMG We love all these different materials as rheologists. We’re interested in rheology, the study of matter, form, and flow…

BMG … flow and deformation of matter.

BMG That point where it’s about to go out of control is very intriguing to us. What kind of ritual of exuberance can we create? I’m thinking specifically of the drum painting. The joy of this color explosion. That’s a very pure and simple childlike creative urge.

M Why is the responsive drumming funny? One character goes, Boom boom, another one goes, Boom boom, the third one goes, Boom BOOM. And everybody laughs.

BMG That goes back to the idiosyncracies of the characters. It has to do with timing.

BMG He goes, Crunch crunch crunch crunch, crunch crunch crunch crunch, crunch crunch crunch crunch, CRUNCH, CRUNCH, CRUNCH!

BMG These guys are going on and on, and I’m waiting, and then Boom!

SM You always play the loud part?

BMG I’m always the loud part.

BMG He’s always the quarter notes. I’m the eighth notes, and Chris is the sixteenth.

BMG People can relate to it, because it’s comic. They see how it gets pretty tricky. And then there’s the person who surrenders…

BMG We practice for hours.

SM Do things ever happen that you don’t expect?

BMG We know they will, because we’re always right on that edge, so necessarily we go over it.

BMG The set’s booby-trapped. Sure. There’s a snap, and someone’s up in the tree, hanging upside-down like in Gilligan’s Island.

BMG We set up this landscape to play in and then we go play in it. We can’t predict how it’s going to come out.

BMG Like the marbles. We had six-thousand three-hundred marbles, but the most we ever rehearsed with was a couple hundred.

BMG The biggest problem I have is that I’m not supposed to break character. It really bugs me, because I’m watching this stuff for the first time myself and I would love to just sit there. We built a slowness into the characters so that we can take it in.

BMG We have other shows where props swing out into the audience—paper comes rolling out—you’re a part of that waste, we’re there playing and you’re there playing with us.

BMG Consumption always has waste as a by-product. When we go to a catered event, these people are on, there’s a beautiful setting. And we do our eating piece to Bolero—with candelabras and everything—and then color oozes out our sides and all hell busts loose.

SM You have a tableau or a menu of technological expressions that you can draw from to express your emotional observations.

BMG It’s as if we get this feeling, and we call up a switchboard operator and say, “Here’s the feeling, now connect, get me there somehow with these wires. Get me a patch.”

BMG In the group, that organismic quality exists both on and offstage.

SM I can see that. That you sit clustered together the way you are sitting across from me now. You have a bonding experience that gave birth to the creative work you’ve produced. Tell me about the talking toy.

BMG Oh, oh.

BMG Kiddie City. It’s incredible. It’s a computer—that is a true collision of technology. A little robotic figure with a jaw that moves.

BMG And his arms move.

BMG Absolutely grotesque.

BMG And it’s also a game show host.

SM Blue Man pushes the buttons, but then refuses to play the game according to its verbal instructions.

BMG It drives you crazy. It dictates the pace of the circus.

SM And then the toy has the last word. He says, “If you don’t want to play, fuck you.”

BMG Right.

SM Does he really say that, or did you create that?

BMG No, we reprogrammed it.

BMG I’m a master programmer.

SM It’s the hand of God.

BMG But that’s why it’s so accessible to everybody. It’s on the gut. Boy, you see this thing, you want to take a hammer and smash it. Instead, we smashed it in a slightly different way, by having it blow its cork.

BMG There’s Surrealism in the Blue Man—Salvador Dalí said his role was that of a thaumaturge, a worker of wonder, a maker of magic. It’s not that we’re magicians, but there’s that effect of magic.

SM The magician’s always working in an illusion, and what you see is not really what’s there, it’s what you believe you want to see.

BMG We do the same thing, only backwards. We try to distract you from your distraction so that you see the reality (laughter). It’s like sidewards magic.

BMG The fact of the matter is, if we are distracting you from consciously confronting a social issue at the moment of performance, and then you later go back and reconnect, that’s all about society and progress and civilization and culture and industrialization. Blue Man is an analogy for the emerging global experience as opposed to the local one.

BMG We’re on a rocket ship learning curve.

SM Blue Man as space traveler…

BMG … flying around the universe…

BMG … dropping in.

BMG Simply reacting…

BMG … to what’s there.

BMG And the problem is, the problem is making sense.

—Artist and corporate graphic specialist, Stanley Moss also designs BOMB magazine.

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Originally published in

BOMB 32, Summer 1990

Featuring interviews with Barbet Schroeder, Blue Man Group, Jeanne Silverthorne, Angélica Gorodischer, Richard Nelson, Ed Lachman, Alain Kirili, Griselda Gambaro, and Deb Margolin.

Read the issue
032 Summer 1990