It all started when two dudes married a tree. I think. That happened in 2009, but today’s story may actually date back to 2001, when Devon Britt-Darby, also known as the Houston Chronicle’s former art critic Douglas Britt, embarked on a career as an escort/artist/blogger. The escort part only lasted three years — shortly after that career ended he joined the Chronicle — though he’s now resigned from the position, reclaimed his escort name, and is retracing a trip he made during that former life. This time he’s doing it without a dangerous meth addiction. The account I’m about to impart occasionally sounds as chaotic as I imagine that trip to be.
First, back to the tree. Even before the marriage ceremony took place, Britt devoted about 800 words at the Chronicle explaining why he thought The Art Guys (Michael Galbreth and Jack Massing) had made a piece guilty of more than just folly. The main issue, as Britt tells it, is the conflicting claims made by the group; they told Britt that when they do something they do “the real thing”, but legally speaking they weren’t doing anything of the sort. The state doesn’t allow two men to marry a tree. Britt takes issue with their positioning of the act as real not just for being misleading, but for being insulting to gays and lesbians who, with gay marriage being very much in the public eye, suddenly appear to have less rights than a tree.
So, fair enough. Galbreth later defends the piece, saying it’s about nothing, which sounds about right, until you actually think about it. As Britt-Darby rightly points out on his blog Reliable Narratives, the tree is a work of social sculpture, its meaning largely defined by the discussion that surrounds it. As such, “the real thing” machismo The Art Guys attached to the act has some very real unintended consequences; consequences they might have acknowledged in good faith (The Stranger’s Jen Graves spoke to both Art Guys in a piece on Britt; Galbreth, it seems, is a real charmer.) It also explains why Britt, who is gay himself, would come to have such an investment in bettering the piece.
Fast forward three years, and the tree saga continues. Toby Kamps, the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston senior curator who commissioned the piece, is now a curator at the Menil Collection and scheduled a tree planting for November 19th. Britt gets wind of this, hatches the idea to attend the ceremony as a legally married man, and the next thing you know, I’ve received a marriage proposal. “I hope you’re not offended that you were my third choice,” writes Britt, wooing me with frankness. First and second picks Jen Graves and Mary-Louise Schumacher could suck it, I thought; my lawyer needed only to alleviate my worries that a quickie marriage wouldn’t jeopardize my green card status.
Nothing like that turned out to be a problem, but ultimately it was a word of parental concern and my own cold feet that made me turn down the proposal. Britt said the act “would underscore the fact that what the Menil has accepted into its collection is not a behavior [a real act of marriage],” but I wasn’t sure that would be apparent to anyone but us. Activism is bombastic, and rarely so complex as this project seemed.
Britt ultimately marries a stranger, Reese Darby, and changes the title of his piece from “The Art Critics Marry Each Other” to “The Art Gay Marries a Woman”. His wedding takes place at a strip club, and in a video posted on his blog he says that by the end of the event he could no longer tell who was from the news world, the art world, and the sex world. This is a blurring Britt enjoys: “That’s the world I want to live in,” he declares.
All this, plus revealing his former career as an escort to his readership, was supposed to make the pages of the Chronicle, but that article never got written. I can only speculate as to why his old life was important to this story — I suspect it has something to do with the value he places on the aforementioned blurring — but that’s another tale. As Britt-Darby recounts on his blog, the paper asked him to remove the names of Nina and Michael Zilkha, the couple to whom The Art Guys had dedicated their tree, from the piece. “The Chronicle said, ‘They are too powerful’,” Britt-Darby recalls in a video; Michael Zilkha is a trustee at the Menil Collection.
Anyway, this didn’t sit well with Britt, but by that time the wedding had also stirred up a lot of unresolved internal conflict, so he requested that the Chronicle give him an extended leave of absence. During that time he would retrace a journey made in the early 2000s as a sex worker. The paper declined his request, but he decided to make the trip regardless. He’s older, married, and not on crystal meth, so the trip may prove more illuminating. The funding source however will remain the same. On his blog, he explains that giving up the Chronicle’s platform for art writing in exchange for escort services wasn’t particularly hard. According to Britt-Darby, the escort blog attracted more readership and dialogue in 2001-2004 than Houston’s largest paper.
The critic’s chronicles are supposed to amount to social sculpture, though at this point, it mostly reads like a pilgrimage. In one video, he reveals that he’s running on little sleep and using lots of stress to keep his mind as amped up as it was when he was on drugs. All this, to access old memories. In another video showcasing the frivolity of The Art Guys video, he cuts off all his hair, sprinkles it around the sapling’s new ground, and places a Ring Pop on the tree. The absurdity of the later video verges at times on hilarity, but ultimately both do little to encourage the conversation about art Britt-Darby seeks. Very few of his posts have any comments at all.
As for the tree, someone snapped it in two last week. Local blogger Robert Boyd speculated that Britt-Darby’s repeated warnings may well have sparked the vandalism, but also points to a Facebook post by daniel-kayne, who lives in the area and regularly sees kids drinking in the park and getting up to no good; mostly this is to refute the speculation about Britt-Darby, but so be it. The post thusly concludes, “no word from the tree-killing asshole about why he (or she) did it.”
Britt-Darby included this piece this morning in a media roundup on his blog complaining about personal slurs in the media and linking to tree conversation around the web. The post is interspersed with ads for his escort services.
*No one I read mentioned the porcelain, limited edition wedding cake topper The Art Guys made as a self-portrait, which, at least from afar, seemed the only reasonable piece to have come out of The Art Guys’ project.