michelle handelman

Hustlers & Empires 

Multichannel video installation with live performance, 2018


Hustlers & Empires is a new project by Michelle Handelman that has been commissioned by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art as part of their 2018 Performance in Practice series. Hustlers & Empires interweaves stories of three aging hustlers from different time periods who each find themselves pushed out of their own game and forced back to confront what their lives have become. It looks at transgression as a mode of survival, examining the complicated relationship between pleasure and risk, and how identity is formed in resistance to oppressive forces.

This new commission draws on the stories of three real and imagined hustlers, inspired by Iceberg Slim’s Pimp (1967), Marguerite Duras’ The Lover (1984), and Federico Fellini’s Toby Dammit (1968). Handelman re-contextualizes these historical and literary characters through three legendary performers—Shannon Funchess, John Kelly, and Viva Ruiz —in a queer, feminist framework, opening up questions of survival and belonging, intersecting with issues of race, class, and gender.

Each performer has written original songs and monologues in collaboration with Handelman that break apart the original narratives, rewriting them from a critical perspective. This collaborative rewriting is used as a tool of subversion, questioning existing power structures while illuminating the trajectory of radical queerness within the criminal and cultural underground. Handelman extracts​ ​from​ ​these​ ​stories​ ​existential​ ​questions​ ​of​ ​survival​ ​and​ ​belonging,​ ​looking​ ​at​ ​oppressive​ ​systems​ ​of  economic​ ​control​ ​that​ ​are​ ​just​ ​as​ ​relevant​ ​today. 

Hustlers​ ​&​ ​Empires​​ ​will​ ​be​ ​presented​ ​as​ ​a​ ​synchronized​ ​three-channel​ ​projection​ ​that​ ​gets​ ​activated​ ​by​ ​live performances​ ​within​ ​the​ gallery space.​ ​


Shannon​ ​Funchess​,​ ​inspired​ ​by​ ​the​ ​story​ ​of​ ​“‘​Iceberg​ ​Slim’,​​ ​a.k.a.​ ​‘​The​ ​Pimp’​​ ​figure”,  is​ ​a​ ​icon​ ​in​ ​the​ ​underground​ ​music​ ​scene​ ​known​ ​for​ ​being​ ​the​ ​founder,​ ​vocalist,​ ​and  multi-instrumentalist​ ​of​ ​the​ ​dark,​ ​electronic​ ​band​ ​LIGHT​ ​ASYLUM.​ ​Funchess​ ​developed  her​ ​powerful​ ​contralto​ ​singing​ ​in​ ​a​ ​Southern​ ​Baptist​ ​church​ ​choir​ ​as​ ​a​ ​child,​ ​adding​ ​Joy  Division​ ​and​ ​Bauhaus​ ​to​ ​her​ ​list​ ​of​ ​influences​ ​as​ ​a​ ​teen.​ ​She​ ​has​ ​collaborated​ ​with​ ​acts  such​ ​as​ ​TV​ ​on​ ​the​ ​Radio,​ ​The​ ​Knife,​ ​and​ ​LCD​ ​Soundsystem​ ​to​ ​name​ ​a​ ​few;​ ​and​ ​in​ ​2015,  she​ ​participated​ ​in​ ​a​ ​Knight​ ​Foundation​ ​residency​ ​in​ ​Detroit,​ ​spearheaded​ ​by​ ​the  electronic​ ​duo​ ​ADULT. 

John​ ​Kelly,​​ ​inspired​ ​by​ ​the​ ​story​ ​of​ ​“​Toby​ ​Dammit​”​ ​a.ka.”​The​ ​Actor​”,​ ​is​ ​an award-winning,​ ​New​ ​York​ ​City​ ​downtown​ ​legend​ ​whose​ ​works​ ​dealing​ ​with​ ​queer​ ​identity  and​ ​the​ ​AIDS​ ​crisis​ ​have​ ​been​ ​performed​ ​at​ ​The​ ​Kitchen,​ ​Lincoln​ ​Center,​ ​the​ ​Warhol  Museum,​ ​the​ ​Whitney​ ​Biennial,​ ​PS​ ​122,​ ​Brooklyn​ ​Academy​ ​of​ ​Music’s​ ​Next​ ​Wave  Festival,​ ​and​ ​London’s​ ​Tate​ ​Modern.​ ​He​ ​has​ ​collaborated​ ​with​ ​composers​ ​David​ ​Del  Tredici,​ ​Laurie​ ​Anderson,​ ​and​ ​The​ ​Jazz​ ​Passengers,​ ​and​ ​his​ ​acting​ ​credits​ ​include​ ​‘The  Clerk’s​ ​Tale’​ ​(Spencer​ ​Reese),​ ​a​ ​film​ ​by​ ​James​ ​Franco.​ ​His​ ​musical​ ​gender-crossing  performance​ ​as​ ​Joni​ ​Mitchell,​ ​brought​ ​Mitchell,​ ​herself,​ ​to​ ​tears​ ​calling​ ​his​ ​portrayal, “uncanny.”

Viva​ ​Ruiz​,​ ​inspired​ ​by​ ​the​ ​work​ ​of​ ​“​Marguerite​ ​Duras​,​ ​a.k.a.​ ​​‘The​ ​Lover’​”,​ ​is​ ​a​ ​musician  and​ ​Ecua​ ​Yorquina​ ​multidisciplinary​ ​performance​ ​artist​ ​whose​ ​work​ ​navigates​ ​through  diverse​ ​cultural​ ​intersections.​ ​As​ ​a​ ​musician,​ ​Ruiz​ ​has​ ​collaborated​ ​with​ ​Desi​ ​Santiago  from​ ​the​ ​Latin​ ​art-house​ ​duo,​ ​ESCANDALO,​ ​and​ ​sound​ ​maestro​ ​Gavin​ ​Russom​ ​(LCD  Soundsystem)​ ​in​ ​the​ ​disco​ ​mystic​ ​commune,​ ​THE​ ​CRYSTAL​ ​ARK;​ ​and​ ​as​ ​a​ ​dancer​ ​and  performance​ ​artist,​ ​Ruiz​ ​has​ ​performed​ ​with​ ​Debbie​ ​Harry,​ ​Danzig,​ ​THE​ ​BIG​ ​ART  GROUP,​ ​the​ ​Caribbean​ ​queer​ ​RAGGA​ ​collectives’​ ​2017​ ​residency​ ​at​ ​the​ ​New​ ​Museum  NYC,​ ​and​ ​she​ ​stars​ ​in​ ​Bruce​ ​La​ ​Bruce’s​ ​latest​ ​feature​ ​THE​ ​MISANDRISTS.​ ​As​ ​a  filmmaker,​ ​her​ ​telenovelas​ ​have​ ​premiered​ ​at​ ​Deitch​ ​Projects,​ ​NYC​ ​and​ ​internationally. 

CREDITS (partial list)

Directed, Produced and Edited by Michelle Handelman

Starring Shannon Funchess, John Kelly, Viva Ruiz

Produced by John Morrow
Co-produced by Kenneth Filmer & Thomas Burr Dodd, Brooklyn Fireproof Films

Cinematography by Ed David

Costumes by Karen Young, Zaldy, Neon Music

Set Design by And Or Forever

Sound Design by Quentin Chiappetta

Still Photography by Mr. Means

Original music by John Kelly & Carol Lipnik, Viva Ruiz & BEARCAT, Shannon Funchess, and Jonathan Kreinik