John Fare is a fictional performance artist who in a short story published in 1968 is described as having used robotic surgery to remove parts of his body onstage. By 1972 his final performance was declared to have been suicide by beheading. The original source is a short story entitled “The Hand” by N.B. Shein (possibly a pseudonym), published in Insect Trust Gazette 3 in 1968. It is a piece of cracked humour done in the style of the underground writer and mail artist Blaster Al Ackerman. Shein’s story is presented as a review of a piece of live art but it is so crazed that it is difficult to read it as anything other than a figment of some drug loon’s imagination:
“While the audience, seated on folding chairs surrounding a cleared space in the centre of the room, watched silently, Fare and his two assistants (Andoff and Golni Czervath) brought in skeletons of metal, tubing, wires and heavy anonymous boxes and assembled the equipment, piece by piece, in the cleared space in the midst of the audience. Their movements, graceful and sure, and the subtle lighting effects created a weird atmosphere in the small gallery, added to — not destroyed — by the fact that the lights were operated in full view of the audience. It requires a good sense of dramatic timing to bring this sort of thing off and Fare succeeded, employing all the cliches of science-fiction (the mad scientist touch) and creating the performance right in front of the audience.”
Tim Craig published an embellished version of the piece in Studio International (November 1972, page 60). This was in reply to a letter to the editor inquiring about an artist named Fahey who ended his career by having his head amputated onstage. Craig clearly doesn’t take the original piece at all seriously. He edits it, partially rewrites it, and – assuming he isn’t the original author using a different name – passes it off as his own. His additions include observations such as:
“I was reminded for a moment of a xylophone recital I and a girl named Nellie had gone to about ten years earlier on the planet Neptune. Her last name was something like Fisher, only it wasn’t Fisher.”
The point of Craig’s additions seems to be to underscore the fictional nature of the piece. Making the whole exercise look even more like a prank is the appended editors note: “The letter below, and the attached comment by Tim Craig were held over from earlier this year from motives of distaste, and for checking.” Ha ha ha!
Insect Trust Gazette and Studio International provide us with the following biographical outline of our fictional phantom: John Charles Fare was born in 1936 in Toronto and attended Forest Hill College. In 1959 he moved to London to study at the Bartlett School of Architecture, but soon left to live in Copenhagen.
Fare was briefly held in a mental health facility for exposing himself in public at performances. After his release, he was re-arrested for gluing objects to a car. The car’s owner, musician and inventor Golni Czervath, did not press charges and befriended Fare. The two developed a robotic amputation machine with the painter Gilbert Andoff. The first performance was a lobotomy on Fare in June 1964. All performances took place on a Friday.
By the time Fare performed at the Isaacs Gallery in Toronto on 17 September 1968, he “was short one thumb, two fingers, eight toes, one eye, both testicles, and several random patches of skin.” The amputated parts were preserved in alcohol. That evening, he had his right hand amputated. Fare’s body was fitted with small microphones, which transmitted his pulse and breathing frequency in a distorted fashion. Craig states Fare appeared in six further shows between 1968 and 1972.
In 1985 Danny Devos wrote to Isaacs Gallery founder Avrom Isaacs enquiring about John Fare and his supposed performance in 1968. The response included a statement in writing that the story of John Fare “has no factual basis,” adding “there was no such person as John Fare as far as I know.”
The story was reprinted in The Coil Handbook edited by John Sanders and Mick Gaffney (London 1986). This included further correspondence with Isaacs, who said, “I know of no such person as John Fare. In the sixties I had a series of mixed media concerts in my gallery, and out of this came the myth of John Fare. Every five years or so, someone rediscovers the myth and writes me a letter such as yours.”
Note on the twin original print sources for this urban legend: The Insect Trust Gazette ran for only three issues from 1964 to 1968. Leonard Belasco, Jed Irwin, Robert Basara, and Bill Levy edited the magazine in Philadelphia and later California. The magazine took its name from a line in a William Burroughs novel. Burroughs contributed work to the first two issues. The magazine grew from the literary scene surrounding Temple University in Philadelphia.
Aside from pieces by Burroughs, the first issue of Insect Trust Gazette included various other chance compositions: a computer-generated prose poem, a Brion Gysin permutation, as well as selections from Jackson Mac Low. The magazine also featured some famous artistic ancestors of the post-war avant-garde and the cut-up: surrealists in the shape of Hans Arp, Antonin Artaud, Paul Klee, Max Ernst and Paul Eluard.
Insect Trust Gazette 3 featuring the John Fare short story leaned more towards concrete poetry. This, the final issue, is full of visual prose and poetry. Unlike the first issue which is small and perfect bound, the third is larger in size and spiral bound. Typography and graphic patterns take centre stage. Individual pieces experiment with a number of different fonts and font sizes as well as punctuation.
The best known of the Insect Trust Gazette editors is William (Bill) Levy. He was born on January 10, 1939 and left the United States in 1966. He edited or founded other magazines such as Suck and The International Times, as well as the European editions of High Times and Penthouse. Among other titles, Levy is the author of The Virgin Sperm Dancer, Wet Dreams, Certain Radio Speeches of Ezra Pound and Natural Jewboy.
Studio International is a British publication that began life as The Studio: An Illustrated Magazine of Fine and Applied Art, the first number appeared in April 1893. It championed and influenced art nouveau and the arts and crafts movements. After the First World War, The Studio attempted to maintain its circulation by covering impressionism, futurism and cubism. In the second half of the twentieth-century, the magazine was redesigned and re-launched as Studio International. Peter Townsend became its editor in the 1960s, with Charles Harrison as the assistant editor. Richard Cork, replaced Townsend as editor in the mid-1970s, after the magazine had run the John Fare piece.