While the Institute is thriving as downtown's most colorful community center, anyone who's had the pleasure of chatting with the frenetic performance artist could guess his own absence on stage is somewhat unusual. A favorite anecdote about the animated artist has a reporter in her car, pulling away, while Schaper keeps pace alongside, head stuck through her window, talking a blue streak about an upcoming show. Whether it's in friendly conversation, holding onto a warehouse slated for demolition by ADOT, or in the studio, where his collection of elaborate, found-object assemblages continues to grow in number and dimension, one of the most enjoyably reliable things about Ned is that he doesn't know when to quit.
In his 10th year as Tucson's only "kinetic sculptor," the performance artist voted Tucson's best five years running by Tucson Weekly readers seems to be changing his focus. "I'm not really a performance artist," he says over coffee one morning at a familiar table at Epic Café. "I'm really a social artist. I tell people I'm in the Inspiration industry. I said that when I started my bank account, and she made me say something else.
"But I've realized the importance of what I call social artistry, and creating spectacles of community."
So the 40-something sculptor ceased to be introverted and enigmatic, and branched out in the unlikely direction of custodian and venue operator. "I was working on my art and saying these things," he says of the switch, "but it's different when you walk up on a stage and try to preach at somebody. (For the past year and a half) I've been getting the Institute ready, so people can come in here and do their own thing...
"It actually has to do with what artists do with their talents: Do you want to spend your time making environments and spectacles like artists used to do, instead of hanging little dingo trinkets on the walls? That's what's absurd. What I'm doing is really very traditional. I'm helping people's rituals."
Ritual is a running theme in Schaper's work. His shows, for which he coined the term some years ago "surrealistic pop-science theatre," tend to be variations on a theme, with holidays ranking among his favorites. Atomic Honey, a Valentine's Day show which opened last weekend, is like a wedding: something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.
Some familiar characters like Walter Ego have been recalibrated for collision with the fresh faces of the New Non-Prophet (a.k.a. The Party Arty Scientist), a philosopher who appropriates elements of advertising slogans, political jargon, consumerism and personal experience to fume, lament, catalog and celebrate what he sees as this year's going -- and perhaps growing -- concerns. These poems set to music and costumed in the moving parts and colored lights of his signature sculpture are not without their serious moments; but they rarely, if ever, take themselves seriously.
"It doesn't matter what I think," Schaper says. "I just comment on society." In the show, the Non-Prophet has a pulpit of sorts called the Observation Seat, "sort of a beautiful little display on the Altered Plane, where I sit."
"Part of why I do what I do," Schaper says, "is that I get to sit back and observe. Valentine's Day is an observation: it's on the calendar, everybody's freaking out and going on and on about Valentine's Day. It's this great time to talk about these things."
These "things" include various capers and wordplay buzzing around human and inanimate characters like the Artificial Heart and the 16-foot Energy Plant, the latter one of his largest pieces, "all new, like a big tree, a smokestack, a nuclear power plant." He's cultivated a swarm of atomized bees and a bee-keeper who harvests their atomic honey; and also the inspiration entrepreneur Top Doppler, the Roaring Train, Stupid Cupid and the Yoga Figurine. Their lines are a collage of rhythmic slant rhymes, Seuss-like stanzas and free-form monologues that range from innocuously funny to smartly sardonic -- and at such lightning speed and with such surreal imagery, you'll have to rely on intuition to know what hit you.
"The heart's a neat thing," Ned continues. "It's like Christmas, and Santa Claus and Jesus." Hang on, this actually makes sense.
"I mean, those two," he stops to laugh. "One of my most famous pieces is probably Sgt. Claus leading Jesus Chiquita. It's my Santa, who's having a talk with Jesus on the cross, who is a monkey. And it's like, people have always wondered, "Look you two, what do you have to do with one another? What is going on here? Where do you two relate?"
He's continuing his theme of holidays, no matter how Hallmark hog-tied, as strong cultural link. "This is the same. I've been sitting back watching this Valentine's thing go on for a long time. Plus, it gives you a chance to be really cheesy. I think this show is funny."
It's been almost a year since his last show as the Institute's surreal philosopher Mat Bevel; and before that, it had been a year and a half. Despite their glorious spectacle, his last trio of shows was not what you could call funny. By their titles alone, you get the drift: last spring's Hostage and the Host; and before that, the launching of Image War, featuring the militant Walter Ego. Preceding that was the sharp-edged Crash Caravan.
Recalling that Crash wasn't funny, he laughs: "Well, no. I mean, 'Crash'...." Like all his shows, it's biographical but not literal. The supra-character Mat Bevel is the scripted version of Schaper's own self, the spokesperson for the ideas behind the anecdotes. "It all has to do with some kind of personal experience," Schaper says. "I put things in there, but only to pull out ideas."
Then he adds with a self-effacing chuckle, "The last night of Image War was the last night I lived at my house. That's when I started living at the Institute." Nobody knows better than Ned that the Institute is a nice place to visit, but you wouldn't want to live there. After his divorce, he lived in the windowless warehouse studio for a year. Asked if that was an impediment to working there, he says ambiguously, "Well, it encouraged mental illness."
Again settled in less drafty quarters, and with a thriving venue he envisioned but never quite imagined, it's no wonder he's finally found his tongue and a whole new show.
"I start off as the New Non-Prophet, and he's pretty hilarious. A lot of this is way more to the point because of what I'm doing; I'm now a new non-profit corporation. The Party Arty Scientist is a mish-mash of characters. He's the most colorful character I've been. He's got a big, green helmet with the Viking horns, and then these wings, and an angel upside down -- the descending angel -- and then there's this lampshade on the back that looks like an Indian headdress, sort of. It comes up, and then it goes back, but it's just a lampshade. It's got a light in it and flowers on top. The light bounces when you walk, very mysterious...You can't see where that light's coming from.
"Then when he takes the helmet off he also becomes the bee chaser and all these other characters. I'm layering characters now."
When it sounds overwhelming, he adds, "You don't need to know which character is which. It's surrealistic pop-science theatre. He (Mat Bevel) always ends up being some guy who's going to save the day in one way, sort of a superhero comic book guy. He serves his purpose."
Mat Bevel, "a solo spectacle of art with a cast of moving parts" on stage in the Mat Bevel Institute, is what a shadow box of life might look like if you turned the third-grade assignment into a multi-media art form. "What I have going in there is a mini-culture," Schaper says.
"We find objects and give meaning to objects, then all of a sudden we stick (an object) over here," is his summation of society. "But some meaning goes with it. Then it goes over here and gets associated with this thing with two meanings, and before long you've got this twisted thing...that evolves way down the line into a complex story that doesn't make that much sense."
But not only is it not meaningless, he says, it's our culture. "It doesn't make logical sense from scratch, but it's meaningful to us. It's why we do what we do, and have the things we have."
The merging of reality and theatre, one of his favorite pastimes, comes full circle in the final stage of our interview: "You don't need to understand everything, and in fact it's better not to. We've gotten too logical. This world is not really logical. And yet we go get our car fixed; we want logic. (The world) is all these stories wrapped around each other, all these animalistic things we're living under that aren't logical."
He says what people respond to is "sort of like a modern mythology... (where) there's something going on that we can't quite see the edge of. Ritualization is what brings logic to animal, what connects those two things together."
He says that's what people like about the Institute experience. "People of all ages get my stuff because they don't get it. That's what separates me from the Children's Museum. They can go into the Children's Museum and understand everything they see. When you walk into my place you can't see anything, and you don't know where it begins or ends."