"Walt Whitman" Describes 19th-Century "Sailor Thugs," Learns About the Internet at Scope Art Fair

A lot inside the eminent Scope tent at Art Basel appealed to the "shock factor." Like that very detailed line diagram of a woman giving a man anal pleasure. Or the massive installation display of dead fetuses strewn about a child's nursery. Or that "thug fountain" so generously bestowed upon the fair by VH1.

But what do you know: amid all the flashy chaos, the most interesting exhibit (to us, anyway) came in the form of Miami-based performance artist David Rohn, who we found tucked away in a corner of the fair, posing as the late Walt Whitman and reciting sweet nothings of poetry verse to passers-by.

Rohn is a well-established master of disguise. Last year at Scope, he tickled audiences as "The Amazing Ultran," a fortune teller puppet that came to life inside a carnival booth. Never breaking character, Rohn painstakingly handwrote fortunes for each visitor, divulging equivocal- and sometimes amusing- predictions of their future.

This year Rohn headed in the opposite direction, choosing to ponder the past as the great 19th-century poet Walt Whitman. Rohn's character was almost completely concealed within a large wooden crate that sat nondescriptly in a corner of the entrance hall to Scope. Three peepholes allowed for people to take a look inside his lair, and a microphone and speaker were mounted on the wall so that you could converse with Rohn one at a time.

The beautiful thing about the wooden crate was that when you looked inside it, you felt like a voyeur, as if you truly were peeking into a different time. And what a different time it is, given the over-the-top setting of Art Basel itself. There was a tangible separation between the rest of the fair and Rohn, nestled into the crate with all his antiquated objects, an open book resting in his lap.

We got a chance to chat with "Walt" about the big, bad 21st century and the madness that is Art Basel. Here's what he had to say:

New Times: So, Walt, Miami doesn't really seem like your scene. What do you think about all this Art Basel stuff?
Walt: Well... It's confusing. It's very busy. But I thought it was a good opportunity because I'm coming out with a new edition of my poetry book, Leaves of Grass, and I want people to know about it.

(This comment, in addition to his mention of a recent stroke, led us to conclude that he was speaking from somewhere around 1890, two years before Whitman's death)

Have you seen anything that interests you?

Well, there's that thug fountain outside.
A bug fountain?

No, a thug fountain.
So a fountain of bugs?

Nooo, a thug! Have you heard of thugs before, Walt?
Well, yes... I think it's like a street urchin.

Are there thugs in your time?
Oh, yes.

What do they look like?
Well, a lot of them are sailors. What about this thug outside? What does he look like? Do you find him attractive?

Not really my type.
Do you like poetry?

Oh, me too. Very much.

I'm actually a writer myself... a journalist. I write things for the Internet. It's this 21st century contraption where people can read lots of your writing from anywhere in the world. You don't have to write letters or anything.
Kind of like a telephone?

Sort of...
I do like these telephones. What an invention. I can sit here and speak to you as if you were right beside me.

What can people like us in the 21st century learn from yourself, a writer from another time?
Well, I'm not really sure that the times are that different. I suppose that they are in a lot of ways. I know you have your Internet and all of that. But, you still have a lot of wars, and the separation of the rich people and the poor people.

What do you like about your own time?
Well, shall I read it to you?

At this point, Walt launched into a lengthy passage drawn from "I Sing the Body Electric." during which point the line behind us started to get impatient, we said our good-byes, and we turned back to the modern world of Internet access and non-sailor thugs. We'll miss you, Walt.

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