Nervous tension and excitement buzzed in the air as I entered the arena for the TITEWF World Thumb Wrestling Championship. Promoting the event were world heavyweight champion Iron Sides and his nemesis Captain Kiser. As one of the first 150 attendees, I received free swag, including an Iron Sides’ t-shirt, a TITEWF button and a Captain Kiser mask.
In the crowded arena, fans donned their masks eagerly anticipating the match. Security girls roamed the room, keeping the fans in check. The announcers spoke about the wrestlers’ backgrounds and debated who would win the title. As the contestants entered, the crowd went wild with loud cheers and boos. During the matches, fights broke out in the stands. Kiser and Sides went at each other, jumping off ladders, breaking tables and chairs. A heavily tatted dude in a kilt attacked the referee. The room broke out in mass pandemonium. A carefully choreographed mass pandemonium.
No, I wasn’t at the American Airlines Center for a WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) event. (That event is scheduled for September 28th and 1400 tickets are still available.) I was at the DMA for the 4th and last performance in the educational series by PerformanceSW, organized by Alison Starr and Courtney Brown in conjunction with the exhibit DallasSITES. This week’s theme was Sport and Persona in Performance Art. Unlike previous weeks, there wasn’t an introduction to various artists whose work explores the theme or a Q&A afterwards for the viewers to process what they experienced. Perhaps that is why Starr and Brown scheduled it last. It represented the “final exam” after the three-week primer on performance art.
The performance embraced spectacle, audience interactivity, theater of the absurd and parody. It was so bad that it was brilliant. I’ve read that Hugo Ball’s Zurich Cabaret Voltaire (birthplace of Dada) held raucous events that often provoked the audience into attacking the performers. I think the Dadaists would have been very proud of the event, especially the audience reaction.
Captain Kiser’s brainchild TITEWF (Thumb in the Eye Wrestling Federation) raises the question of whether it is possible to parody something that is rooted in parody. Professional wrestling is all about creating an absurd spectacle. I would argue that TITEWF and the personas of Captain Kiser and Iron Sides is not lampooning professional wrestling, but rather using the language and characters of professional wrestling as a structure to critique the art institution. Kiser is fond of saying, “What’s more fake than the art world? Pro-wrestling.” It is fitting then, that the event was held at the DMA. There were more than a few confused patrons who wondered why the DMA was hosting a thumb-wrestling event. This made me smile.
Leading up to the performance, Kiser created a series of promotional videos that he posted on YouTube and Facebook. Employing the structure of wrestling promos from the 1980s, Kiser uses bad green-screened, dropped-in backgrounds combined with the awkward interviews. The videos are intentionally meant to make the viewers simultaneously cringe and chuckle. What surprised me is that some viewers missed the parody. Kiser has received serious inquiries from folks who want to come and train at TITEWF or host a TITEWF event at their facility.
In contrast to the cheesiness of the videos, there are some beautifully crafted details/objects that might go unnoticed by the average viewer. The thumb-wrestling ring was meticulously constructed with cast-bronze thumbs in each corner. There was also a custom cast-bronze wrestling belt that Kiser gifted to the wrestling winner.
One of the tenets of performance art is the lack of a commodifiable or saleable object. Kiser and Sides created enough SWAG! and artifacts to keep eBay sellers busy for a while, as well as ensure that their heroically strange personas stay present in viewers’ minds.
Iron Sides interview video.