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Artist Jason Handelsman Stages Drop Out of Life, a Self-Help Ponzi Cult Critique

Monday morning, August 1. Hot and sunny. It’s 10:15, and 2000 Ponce de Leon Blvd. hardly seems like the address for an art happening. There’s a bit of bliss to be found in the determined faces of businesspeople scurrying in and out of the building, telling of what I’m about to experience. Jason Handelsman, a former New Times contributor and current artistic agitator, has turned this destination’s fifth floor into the home of his latest project.

It all begins swimmingly. The advertised start time was 10 a.m., but Handelsman is nowhere to be found. Sitting in a furnished but seemingly human-devoid office area, I can barely make out the clacks of distant heels walking with intent. I don’t venture around because I’m overcome with the idea that I’ve been sucked into some kind of boiler room/Ponzi scheme scenario. I clutch my pen like Joe Pesci in Casino, just in case. Handelsman, it turns out, is with his toddler and trying to pay his cell-phone bill. On the phone, he is bemused by my timely arrival.

“I came up with this whole HANDELSMANTRA idea a couple of years ago,” he explains. “I don't like performing it at clubs or bars, although I have. And I've been visualizing performances in stadiums around the world, like huge outer-space stadiums in my mind. And then this opportunity to use an office building as a venue just materialized in reality. Because that's where it's at in the Supreme Reality.”

Within this space, the artist is exploring ideas of beliefs and their passionate followers. Handelsman the person and HANDELSMAN the idea – an idea he insists must be written in all caps though it is not to denote exaltation but rather a soothing incantation – are separate entities. The latter, culled from the braising of Masonic teachings, religious idolatry, self-help culture, and transcendental meditation of the David Lynch variety, is something like an art-imitating-life persona. This is satire; this is Tony Robbins exorcised through Kevin Spacey’s Big Kahuna character as 40-something punk-rocker Handelsman.

He shows up in a purple shirt and sneakers, recalling the garments worn by the Hale-Bopp suicide cult. But this piece is also about spouting business trends from the pulpit of capitalism. His toddler is in tow, introduced as a “wizened Handelsman elder.” The artist carries a harmonium tucked away in what looks like a pizza-delivery bag. It’s past 11 a.m., and we are apparently the only souls on the floor. Handelsman gives a tour of the establishment — gesticulating with abandon and harping on the importance of what he visualizes. These are the prepackaged offices of BizNest, a company providing fully furnished and virtual offices spaces in the heart of Coral Gables. Handelsman has somehow gotten himself access for the week.

“Last year, I really wanted to take a plane somewhere away from Miami... anywhere," he says. "I'd been wanting to go to Chicago, mainly to experience Kuma’s Corner. Every time I drove past the airport on 836, I'd visualize going into the airport and getting on a plane. Around that time, I saw a commercial for Judge Mathis submissions, and a week later I was flying to Chicago to be on national television... all expenses paid, no less.”

His infamous Judge Mathis appearance (which actually happened) is part of the installation/performance, albeit with a restricted screening schedule owing to the episode being aired only once to date. Think of it as a riff on the power of self-actualization. The clip also lives in a flash drive as a cell-phone recording by frequent collaborator AholSniffsGlue. Along with Ahol and another former New Times contributor, Jacob Katel — AKA Swampdog — Handelsman completes their collaborative entity, the Huffer Collective.

“When I do TM [transcendental meditation], there's a feeling of dropping out of life, if only for 20 minutes," Handelsman says. "Jerry Seinfeld said it's like you're a cell phone and you need to drop out of life in order to be recharged. It's a similar feeling to being in a house of worship and receiving the Holy Spirit. That's really my intention — that charge. Einstein called it 'Unbounded Awareness.' Going to church, or temple, or mosque, is really a form of dropping out of life. I'm very familiar with the spiritual realm and the existence of paranormal activity. But... Drop Out of Life With Handelsman is really just a site-specific installation in the center of a Coral Gables office building. It's conceptual art. You enter the Offices of Handelsman and drop out of life! I create objects as artwork. I use sounds, silent warfare, brainwashing techniques, God.”

Handelsman hands his son a large bag of organic raisins, breaks out the harmonium, and dives into the musical aspect of the piece. Influenced by the name and execution of Sleep’s magnum opus, "Jerusalem," an hourlong track of sludge/drone metal, Handelsman's music feels like a mantra as he recites his manifesto — a printed work bearing only the first letters of every word, a memorization trick he credits with his freemasonry.

At this point, the confused faces of middle-aged businessmen — renters of these cutting-edge offices caught off-guard by their newest neighbor — head to the lobby. They're there to bitch and moan about the artist's work interrupting their phone conferences, but Handelsman, ever the professional, reassures them he’ll be done soon before fleshing out the remaining portion of his manifesto.

My fears of getting caught in a scheme or, worse, getting indoctrinated into a religious cult, have mostly vanished. 

“I was a person of the street for a number of years," Handelsman intones. "I smoked hash with GG Allin. I have a felony. I had absolutely no responsibilities, no calendar, no bills, and I was never sober. Going to jail and having friends overdose was no big deal. However, I've faced heavy repercussions from that lifestyle. Sleeping under a bridge is not productive. It's much easier to be a homeless, drug-addicted, train-hopping crusty hipster complaining about poverty than it is to work hard at making dreams a reality.”

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This is conceptual art, based on Handelsman as concept — an immersive foray into what makes him tick in the form of a time-share sales pitch. Before I leave, he has offered me a job as office manager, a position I’m sure will jeopardize my actual day job – it would be like joining a cult. I would be dropping out of life with Handelsman. Lucrative an offer as it may be, I decline. But I’ve been touched, a low rumbling of “Handelsman” playing on loop like a deranged Benedictine monk given free range inside my brain. Getting inside my brain is his “spiritual graffiti.”

“I'm a conceptual artist," Handelsman says. The Church of Scientology is down the street if that's where your Pokémon Go takes you. There's a Chabad Center directly across the street next to a Persian restaurant. The Coral Gables Masonic Lodge is a few blocks away. Books & Books is nearby with so much information. You have been indoctrinated because there is no Handelsman. Handelsman is the only Handelsman.”

Drop Out of Life With Handelsman
From around 10 a.m. to roughly 4 p.m. daily through Friday, August 5, at 2000 Ponce de Leon Blvd., Suite 533, Coral Gables. For information, email Jason Handelsman at azar.alcazar@gmail.com. Iron Forge-made T-shirts are available for $29.95.

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