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Crackhead Barney Wants to See You at a Protest

Just don’t ask New York City’s foremost living performance artist why she does what she does.

(Stephanie Keith / Hell Gate)

Crackhead Barney, perhaps New York's most prominent living performance artist, can't walk down a Manhattan street without getting recognized. "I love your shit," I overhear someone telling her while we're on the phone. Just last week, she became national news, after a confrontation she had with the actor Alec Baldwin went viral. "Say 'free Palestine!'" she heckled him while at the Bryant Park coffee shop Maman. "Say 'fuck Israel!'" (A few months earlier, Baldwin had gotten into a bit of a verbal tiff with pro-Palestine activists who demanded he condemn Israel's bombing campaign in Gaza, an exchange that led to the actor being escorted away by the NYPD.) Eventually, Baldwin slapped Barney's phone out of her hand. 

Crackhead Barney in studio for her appearance on "Uncensored" with Piers Morgan (courtesy of Crackhead Barney)

The next day, Barney performed in Union Square with a messy blonde wig on her head, white powder smeared haphazardly on her face, and her arm in a cast, and took the whole getup to a follow-up interview with Piers Morgan. "I was maimed by Alec Baldwin!" she screamed on Morgan's YouTube show. "My legs don't work!"

She told me on the phone that she did that to flip the script: "I'm the victim. Because white people are always the victims."

How did the exchange with Baldwin happen? "Some people think I'm a Fed, some people think it was planned. No! It was completely random," Barney said. "I've been trying to run down on Alec for awhile now, and it finally happened!" She added, "I got so much hate mail, death threats, racial shit, just for doing that to Alec. It brought him down to earth, that's what fucked with people." Barney, clearly born to troll, started cackling. She appears to thrive on negative attention, though she says she didn't confront Baldwin for views: "He's a Baldwin, it's a Hollywood family. When I did that shit with him, he became like a regular nigga. He's fighting with a crackhead!" 

Barney, who keeps her real name private, was raised in Jamaica, Queens, by Nigerian immigrant parents. She began her performance art practice at Hunter College, after becoming disillusioned with painting and sculpture. "They weren't giving me what I wanted out of life," she told me. "Then when I did a performance and pulled lipstick out of my pussy, I was like, this is what I want to do. That was like 2007."

Over the next decade and change, she began performing, mostly on the subway and in parks. At the start, her content was not particularly political (she actually started off performing in a literal Barney the Dinosaur suit), and she struggled to get traction for her art. "I just kept performing. And I would cry and get upset, I saw all my friends getting grants and getting residencies, and I was just like a bum." When the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020, the only audiences she could find were at political rallies. "I would hear all the crazy shit the people at rallies would tell me, and I was like, we should be recording this," she recalled. That's when she began her incendiary show "Crackhead Barney & Friends," which she posts to YouTube, Instagram and other social media. She delights in mindfuckery—whenever a Crackhead Barney video appears on my timeline, the first thought is often, what the hell am I looking at? But then you see the screen name, and know that it's Barney doing what she does: invoking the deepest form of cringe and finding a way to bring New York's social order into a sudden, crisp focus. And she's probably almost naked.

Since then, Crackhead Barney has haunted demonstrations across the political spectrum in the city, so frequently that she could taxonomize different kinds of white supremacists to me over the phone. And then she told me which rallies to go to across the city.

Anytime: Pro-Palestine rallies all over New York City

"I go to Washington Square Park a lot, check out all the rallies. When I went [to WSP] last week, it was very chill. When I go to these rallies, everyone knows who I am. They always say, 'Oh, we love your show!' It's annoying, because sometimes I just want to be a normal person when I go. They want to know about my art process, they tell me about their art process. I don't give a fuck. I don't want to talk about art. Art is very draining, it's very intense. Sometimes I just want to blend in. Sometimes I'm just trying to take footage. Not all the time [do] I want to be this figure, this cast member. When I'm performing, I'm performing.

"It took years for this Palestinian-Israel conflict to come to the forefront. It was always like this, even when I went to school, this bullshit. But now people are opening their eyes to it, and I just love it."

Mondays and Saturdays: Food distribution by Unapologetic Tawk with Relly Rebel at Tompkins Square Park, Manhattan (Mondays) and Lexington Ave between 124th and 125th Streets, Manhattan (Saturdays)

"Relly Rebel is an abolitionist. He's great. He's been out in the streets, protesting, fighting cops. He has a distribution of clothes and food. He's amazing, amazing, amazing. I love him."

Fridays: Washington Square Park Mutual Aid at Washington Square Park, Manhattan 

"I love them. They also do food distribution, clothing distribution. They've been doing that shit since COVID."

Tuesday, May 7: minor a by Nile Harris, 99 Canal Street, Manhattan (Free)

"I love Nile Harris. He's an innovator. He's a Black faggot. He takes risks in theater, because he's trying to be normal, and you know, win the hearts of these really rich white people, but then he'll have me there. And I find that very endearing and risk-taking and brave. Because if you wanna win the hearts of these rich white people with money, you don't bring me. But he does curate me in his shows. I went to the Whitney Biennial as his plus-one. He wants to be accepted in this art world bourgeoisie, and then he'll bring me."

Wednesday, May 15: Crackhead Barney at Judson Memorial Church, 55 Washington Square South, Manhattan (Free)

I asked Barney to share what people could expect at her performance at Judson Memorial Church, as part of its "Black Aesthetics" series. "It's garbage. Don't watch that shit at all. There's no meaning. Don't come there looking for a meaning, or an explanation," she replied. "Whatever you're searching for, you're not getting. So don't ask. People are always like, 'What does your art mean?' I don't know."

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