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An auctioneer’s rhythmic chant is not often appreciated as a piece of music, but Tony Goodman of Galax has been using his tongue-twisting verbal skills to move more than houses and cars.
For three years, he’s been moving the collective hips and bobbing heads of the international art world.
The veteran auctioneer has been one of the most unlikely stars of the international modern performance art world.
You picture an auctioneer rattling off streams of numbers at machine gun speed, maybe selling livestock or property at an estate sale, and that’s Goodman’s everyday job.
But, once a year or so, he leaves Southwest Virginia to join avant garde San Francisco performance artist Doug Aitken at one of his elaborate “happenings.”
Goodman has been to England and Switzerland as part of Aitken’s experimental performances. The artist likes using unconventional voices and performers, and the fast-paced cadence of an auctioneer is one of his favorite “instruments.”
His latest collaboration with Aitken was at a high-profile fundraising event for the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles.
Celebrities are usually the entertainers, but on Nov. 13, 2010, it was Goodman who entertained the stars at this unique event. The rich and famous who paid $10,000 per seat to attend included Priscilla Presley, Vera Wang, Gwen Stefani, Gavin Rossdale, Kate Bosworth, Rachel Zoe, Kirsten Dunst, Rosanna Arquette, Patricia Arquette and Albert Brooks.
The venue was a city-block size tent decorated with zigzagging neon tubes across the ceiling, bathing the guests in a psychedelic glow. The dinner tables were actually drums, played after the meal by drummers who had only moments before been the dinner servers.
Aitken prefers the term “cultural ambush” for his performances, which bring together art, music and design. The audience is caught off guard by a fascinating mixture of sounds and sights.
Don’t think mingling with the artistic elite has changed the country boy, a North Carolina native who still wears his signature cowboy hat. Having traveled to Europe twice for similar performances, he says the trip to L.A. was like visiting another planet.
The theme was “The Idea of the West” and it was conveyed musically by solo artists Beck, Devandra Banhart and Caetano Veloso and rhythmically by a gospel choir, Goodman and the troop of auctioneers and a performer who used bull whips to create a mesmerizing sound precisely choreographed to the music.
In a YouTube video of the performance, Goodman stalks a stage where the drummers are creating an almost tribal rhythm on the tables. Dressed in a blue and black outfit, he delivers a rapid-fire stream of unintelligible words and syllables that mesh with the background music.
It’s not singing so much as a chant, like a Tibetan monk on fast-forward.
So what’s he saying?
“I’m just repeating numbers, like I would at an auction,” he explains.
The event ended up raising $3.2 million for the museum.
Goodman has auctioned property and vehicles for nearly 30 years, but only started his world-wide travels with this band of artists and entertainers in July 2007, where he first performed in Manchester, England.
A fellow auctioneer asked Goodman if he would like to take part in the Manchester International Festival, an 18-day, major art event that draws worldwide attention.
Goodman said the opportunity was so intriguing that he decided it was too interesting an experience to pass up.
Not only would the event incorporate his skill in auctioning, but it would also draw upon his talent as a singer.
The production — in which Goodman participated with four other auctioneers from the U.S. — was only one portion of dozens of performances held at the Manchester Opera House during the festival.
This festival was a congregation of the world’s most famous contemporary artists, and it provided the opportunity for them to direct completely original, new work. The goal of the artistic directors was to push the limits of what had been done previously in the world of contemporary performing arts.
That’s where Goodman first met Aitken, when he performed in the artist’s piece titled “Light Bright Now.”
The performance began with a darkened opera house and sound effects that created the illusion that large, metal doors were locking around the approximately 800 audience members.
The lights slowly came up as soft music played. Goodman and the performing auctioneers — who were secretly embedded in various locations throughout the audience — began to stand one at a time and chant a rhythmic auction call.
In 2008, Goodman performed with the troop in Basel, Switzerland and was scheduled to perform in London in early 2010, but volcanic ash halted air travel and that show had to be cancelled.