Parsons is easy to pick out of a crowd, even the leaderless one at McPherson Square. His lanky frame and stringy, carrot-colored hair were clearly identifiable from a distance when protesters erected a temporary barn at the encampment. He was the one singing the refrain to Kanye West’s “All of the Lights” as National Park Police shone floodlights and carted off protesters who refused to leave the illegal structure. There were people being arrested. Where else would Parsons be?
Parsons grew up in Fairfax and Annandale. He studied studio art at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. Like many D.C. artists, he supported himself after school by working at the Phillips Collection as a security guard and at the Bethesda Apple Store as a genius. Though he still makes some art using prints and media, much of Parsons’ career has involved performance art and getting into trouble.
Parsons’ initial claim to fame came on April 28, 2007, when he circumcised himself with a pocket knife in front of about 20 people at an exhibition opening at the Warehouse art gallery. During the show, he’d already pulled out bits of his own beard with a pair of pliers, mashing the hair into a hole in the wall. I was in the crowd. Thanks to a dull knife, the final snip seemed to take all night; the crowd cried out as he sawed at his penis.
Before he plugged the wad of bloody foreskin into wall, Parsons explained to his audience that he intended the piece—titled “shrapnel”—to convey something about suicide bombers, whose attacks leave fragments of themselves and their victims embedded in the walls.
Afterwards, two friends transported Parsons in yet another Hyundai to George Washington University Hospital, where they were asked to attest that he was in control of his mental faculties. “I hobbled into the ER with a blood-red jacket around my waist, holding my dick like a preschooler waiting to pee,” Parsons says.
The friends agreed that Parsons was sane. His art, like his activism, has always involved a degree of danger. Before Occupy, in fact, much of that activism was about art. When the Smithsonian Institution in 2010 censored part of an LGBT show at the National Portrait Gallery, Parsons volunteered to man a temporary “Museum of Censored Art” trailer that was stationed outside the museum for several unheated winter weeks. The protest won an award from the American Library Association for intellectual freedom. “It was probably pretty near a full-time job for him,” co-organizer Michael Dax Iacovone says.
Parsons’ propensity for getting in artistic trouble also explains why he was even in D.C. when the Smithsonian scandal broke. He was supposed to be at the annual Art Basel Miami Beach festival. The plan had been to bike there as part of a work he titled “Drone II.” Parsons was to ride more than 1,100 miles while composing 14 songs about a “post-apocalyptic alternate vision of Art Basel Miami Beach” on a keyboard. Alas, he says he was arrested just north of Richmond for riding his bicycle on an interstate highway and that he spent 10 hours in Pamunkey Regional Jail.
It’s not clear from Parsons’ description exactly how this aborted concept album was supposed to relate to an annual event that is as concentrated a gathering of the one percent as you’ll find anywhere in the art world, a commodities convention that happens to trade in visual art. Still, it’s clear it was project borne of some frustration.
Along with members of his Kool Raunch Collective, Parsons hit the same themes last September. Concerned that the first (e)merge Art Fair was too Miami and too upscale for the District, a group of local artists organized a counter-fair. Kool Raunch’s performance plans, though, proved too much for the counter-fair’s organizers. So Parsons arranged FairFairFair, a counter-counter-fair at a new art space at 1337 H Street NE. Kool Raunch staged a show in which ensemble members dressed in togas, threw red paint, and wrestled in the ensuing mess; skinned calves’ heads were also involved. A result of the chaos: Ally Behnke, the 1337 resident who invited Parsons (though she says she never agreed to hosting the performance) got evicted.
“I don’t know if you’ve ever gotten in a car with a drunk driver, but that’s the way it feels,” Behnke said of Parsons immediately after the incident.
Though Occupy came to town without any arts-related agenda, it’s no surprise that Parsons joined up, spending several nights a week at McPherson Square and getting arrested twice for his trouble. Wheatpaste depictions of his Dec. 16 arrest for blocking an intersection quickly appeared on U Street NW and in Columbia Heights.
But Parsons’ history may explain why the local arts community often seemed less than impressed with his subsequent fast. “I really hate him and hope he starves to death, seriously,” wrote one active member of the D.C. art community who knows Parsons socially, following Parsons’ decision to stage the hunger strike. “His need to feel important will finally be the end of him.”