John Fare: The Story of Missing Parts  

Have you ever heard of John Fare? Or John Charles Faré? Don’t be mislead - it is the same person. First time I heard of him was at a dinner in 2002 in New York. His story, or what I would call ‘the story of missing parts,’ was extremely bizarre: supposedly John Fare was a wealthy, and perhaps psychotic, artist who rose to infamy in the 60s after he contacted a cybernetics and robotics expert who helped him construct a programmable operating table with randomizing auto surgery.  At various performances throughout Europe and Canada, Fare was supposed to have had numerous body parts lopped off and replaced with bizarre plastic decorations, each crude precursors of the now-standard flesh/hardware interface. The legend goes that, between 1964 and 1968, Fare was lobotomized, lost one thumb, two fingers, eight toes, one eye, both testicles, his right hand and several random patches of skin. As you may have predicted, a robot-assisted-suicide was his ultimate performance.  

“He killed himself in the very close circle of fans and that was his last art piece,” said Georg as he finished telling me Fare’s tale. “Was it a malfunction of a robot?” I caught myself in the momentarily suspension of disbelief as the story seemed too unreal to be anything but the vehicle for a conversation that would change the flow of dinner. “No, he claimed that dying is an art like everything else. Yet I am not sure whether the death of him was real or fake. He might have performed an Andy Kaufman-type of prank on his audience.” “Was he a prank himself?” I wondered. “We don’t know yet, that is up to you to investigate.” Georg and Elke shrugged their heads.   

To be introduced to something from its final moment was quite a puzzle. However the name of John Fare was easy enough to remember, so I Googled it when I came back from the Rocking Horse. My suspicion that John Fare was a creation of Georg’s immediately vanished as I came across a number of Google hits, which ranged from an extensive John Fare biography published by Tim Craig in Studio International, vol. 949, Band 184, November 19721 [i] , to the List of Unusual Deaths [ii] where John Fare is introduced as a “Canadian artist, decapitated by a robot during an art performance.” The list also states the date of his death: 1971 (in other sources it is 1968.) Here we come across the first parallel with Lee Lozano [iii] who probably is the most blunt case of withdrawal or disappearance from the artworld, yet not such an extreme one as John’s, who merged life and art seamlessly through the act of a suicide.

1971 was the year when Lee Lozano did her Drop-out piece and left New York. She died in 1999 in Dallas and since then her Google hits are only rising. The same counts for John Fare: every day there are more hits on Internet on him including the article in The Guardian [iv] on Gregor Schneider, “an avid admirer of a Canadian called John Fare who removed various bits of his body in a slow and bloody process of auto-amputation.” Actually, German-speaking performance art scholars seem to be particularly keen on exploring John Fare’s story and his Amputationsmaschine. There are a number of attempts to relate him to the body art of the 60s [v] ,, to contextualise within the framework of an industrial culture [vi] , or to trace back his predecessors to the sacrifice culture of Christian martyrs [vii] . On the other hand, a British music journalist recounts, “Fare cuts an eccentric figure. He wears trousers made from zips and has a diagram of a brain tattooed onto his shaven scalp. The performance artist paced his left hand on a chopping board with the fingers spread. Fare’s assistant, Jill Orr, is partially sighted and she slammed an axe between her boyfriend’s pinkies with increasing speed. Eventually the axe severed Fare’s little finger. This was the end of the performance art element within the evening’s entertainment” [viii] . Doubtless to say it is a mere impersonation of John Fare in the concert of Nocturnal Emissions [ix] that took place in London in 1997, but it only confirms the stubborn elusiveness of his mystery.   

None of these studies of course take John Fare into its main focus, which allows him to remain as an enigmatic, fragmented and peripheral figure, as half of the eyeball of The Residents. He bears the elements of identities and fits with the oeuvre of other artists of the period like Rudolf Schwarzkogler or Bob Flanagan: he is a masochistic mandroid with a rather occult agenda. Yet John Fare is at his best when he fluctuates between these different stories. In this respect his role is similar to Ed the barber, a character from The Man Who Wasn’t There by the Coen brothers, insofar as he is a locus of a number of narratives unfolding around seemingly the same subject, and thus constructing the locus itself.  This is where the entropic glory of John Fare comes from. Basically he wasn’t there... but didn’t we just see him? Or to put it another way, did he create his life through an act of death? He might have become a perfect phantom of disappearance.   According to Adam Parfrey “The strange legend of John Fare resurfaces every few years, much like the rumor of Rudolf Schwarzkogler’s supposed self-castration (he actually jumped out of a window to his death). [...] It is a story that no one has ever successfully corroborated, but its perennial fascination demonstrates, beyond our natural morbidity and ghoulishness as a species, the hold of these atavisms upon even relatively sophisticated minds” [x] . I wouldn’t go so far as this to mount John Fare’s legacy on the ever-present set of basic instincts, but would rather again click the link to return to Lee Lozano [xi] .  

Do you think that the robot-assisted-suicide act was indeed the last piece by John Fare? How was he able to disappear and where did he go? How many times did he try quit making art? Remember when Sadam was still on the run and US troops were unable to find him in 2003? Thomas Y. Levin proclaimed that “Saddam has successfully disappeared into media.” It was a paradox, but this contradictory nature of not-being-here-since-being-everywhere is the driving logic for the culture of disappearance. A number of years before Sadam became the star of the show that was his last piece with a rope, Michel Foucault was underlining [xii] the impossibility of the act of disappearing or dying in the modern State: State and market (and their marriage confirmed by a Catholic Church so perfectly in the case of Piergiorgio Welby [xiii] ) will not grant you the right to exit as far as you are productive and useful. Yet the truth is that you don’t have to be alive to be productive. “Death means a lot of money, honey” Andy’s words are relevant as ever. He knew what he was talking about: logistics of post-mortem affairs of dead artists and celebrities is a lucrative business [xiv] . Therefore Lee Lozano actually didn’t die, she has become an undead, like Bas Jan Ader, and disappeared into market.  

John Fare is also undead. Perhaps this was his price for the achievement of the total unity of life and art. So far I haven’t come across any of his works, it seems nothing survived his last act, or at least have been attributed to him. I also never met this trickster who is proven to have been alive only because of the nature of his death. But the fact that his story has become a collective property made me think that perhaps this was his intention—to become a part of us and to test our abilities in knowledge production as we speak about him.    

Raimundas Malašauskas