Four days before I go to the Tonya Harding & Nancy Kerrigan 1994 Museum, I receive an email from its publicist: “Hi there! A note: please do not photograph the outside of the building or the outside of the apartment – it’s important that the location not be made public. Thank you!” Like most things regarding the project, it’s difficult to know if it’s a joke.
Let’s start with the origin story: Twentysomething comedians Matt Harkins and Viviana Olen, who will later shy away from the term comedians in favor of “performers,” watch the Harding-Kerrigan ESPN film 30 for 30: The Price of Gold – which they refer to as a “Netflix documentary” – then decide to create a Kickstarter page to open a Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan museum in their Williamsburg apartment. In the process, they raise more than $2,000 by promising rewards like “The Scott Hamilton” – “We will write your name down in a notebook under the title ‘Friend of the Museum’. The notebook will be available for perusal at the museum if someone wanted to look through it, although I can’t imagine why that would be interesting. If you would prefer to maintain your privacy then Matt and Viviana will just whisper your name once followed by the words, ‘Thank you.'”
Memorabilia and Harding-Kerrigan craft projects, including a calligraphed tweet, are contributed by strangers. Olen and Harkins have screenshots printed at the pharmacy – “A lot is from Google and screenshots from the documentary!” – and hang them in a very narrow hallway with tiny cards identifying each piece in both English and emojis; emojis conferring the advantage of being “more accessible.”
Evidently, they’ve done some subject-specific research, by which I mean Googling and watching one 77-minute documentary. And according to their Kickstarter, this enquiry has yielded an entire worldview: “Part of the museum team’s research has been the realization that everyone is either a Tonya or a Nancy (if you’re thinking about it, you’re a Tonya. This of course is made more confusing by the fact that, if you immediately thought you were a Nancy, you are most definitely a Tonya. The only real way to be a Nancy is to have very long lines in your body. If you thought you were an Oksana Baiul, well, aren’t you just perfect, we see right through you).”
But no, it’s not a joke – it’s a real museum, as much as a museum can be a museum when its location is protected from the public. Admission, after all, is free, unless you’re one of the people who contributed $75 for the “Nancy Kerrigan Package”, which includes a 30-minute pass for two, two Diet Cokes, a T-shirt and a caveat: “Since the Museum is in our apartment we can’t just let anyone from the Internet upstairs unless you pay us $75.00 and give us your real last name so we can tell Viviana’s sister your information in case you try anything weird.”
When I arrive at the apartment building, or the girding entryway of the museum, depending on how you look at it, I buzz upstairs as I’ve been instructed. I am sure to state my first and last name for the benefit of Olen’s sister, who runs security. I’m given the door passcode and a couple flights up, I’m greeted by perhaps the fastest talking person I’ve ever met. Olen begins launching immediately into explanations about the Tonya Wall on the right and the Nancy Wall on the left and their primary benefactor Lois Elfman, who’s been given a wing – or at least some surface area for her stuff on facing walls. The syllables and giggles run over themselves. I marvel that Olen manages to breathe though it all. Harkins, who works as a tour guide, speaks more slowly. Both call almost every item “very cool.”
On the walls, there are issues of Nineties gossip rags, Kerrigan trading cards, a triple Axel diorama, miniature frames filled with jewel-box skaters and plastic gems, old issues of figure-skating magazines, illustrations, competition press passes and a comic book titled The Gillooly after Harding’s ex-husband. It’s completely awkward to move in a group of three down the hallway, which is not wide enough to raise one’s arms very much and really is a single-file kind of affair – unless you’re an emaciated figure skater or under the age of six. It’s hard for me to imagine how the “Nancy Kerrigan Package” people would arrange themselves.
Harkins gestures toward cross-stitches made by Rebecca and Josh Greco from Aurora, Illinois. And I turn, elbows in, to admire the embroidered shading with my tour guides. On the opposite wall, there are two more made by Kate Fitzpatrick, another Brooklynite. Olen points to one of the pharmacy-enlarged stills, which shows a grimacing Tonya Harding, leg propped up in front of a panel of Olympic judges.
“This infamous moment really drew us in when we watched the documentary for the first time, because I, like, totally relate to that. This is the one picture that we were like, ‘We really want to blow that up. We want that on our wall,'” she tells me. “She’s just being watched by the world and then she messes up and she doesn’t feel right and she’s so stressed and she totally breaks down, as you can see in this cross-stitch, and she skates over to the judges crying and is like, ‘My lace is broken!'”
But I, like most people who have lived through the Nineties, already know the story, and her explanation doesn’t provide additional insight. I’m more interested in the Harding-Kerrigan craft pieces: “Is Nancy supposed to be eating Tonya out in this cross-stitch?”
“This one’s a little weird,” Olen says. “No, I think they’re fighting, and I think that was an accident.”
Harkins chimes in, “I think it’s just the actual, not laces, but what is this? String?”
“We try not to question the art,” Olen says.
“It’s not the curator’s job,” Harkins explains with mock gravity, or perhaps actual gravity, since he doesn’t really know how to explicate the cross-stitch.
“This is just an old phone,” he continues, turning to a small mounted screen playing figure-skating footage, “but it’s linked to my iCloud so if a Grindr message pops up – it has happened a few times – I just ask any visitors to find someone nice.”
The whole tour lasts less than 20 minutes. Altogether, it suggests something like a narrated corridor of memes. It’s a certain corner of the Internet actualized. Olen and Harkins are very excited by a calligraphy piece hanging at the end of the hallway.
“This is one of our first backers, Kevin Burke,” Olen explains. “He tweeted this: ‘If you can’t handle me at my Tonya, you don’t deserve me at my Nancy,’ which we loved. It got, like, nine retweets.”
But, in fact, #THNK1994 has gotten a whole lot more attention than nine retweets. It’s been covered by publications like The Washington Post, New York Magazine, Boston Herald, ESPNW, and now, us. Keith Olbermann named Olen and Harkins the World’s Worst in Sports, which, if you’re of the mindset that all press is good press, is an achievement or something.
If it’s not evident why Olen and Harkins’ project has garnered such attention, it’s worthwhile to consider the Harding-Kerrigan case. In 1994, at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Detroit, then-reigning national champion Nancy Kerrigan stepped off the ice after practice and was clubbed in the leg by a man nearly twice her size, who would later be identified as Shane Stant. The New York Times observed that it was the “third threatening incident” involving figure skaters, one of which was a reported death threat to Harding’s chief competition, Tonya Harding. At the time, Harding was no stranger to violence. Twice, she’d applied for restraining orders against her (then) husband, Jeff Gillooly, after alleged abuse. She’d said that her half-brother made sexual advances on her when she was 15 and that she’d only been able to fight him off by burning him with a curling iron.
A month after the attack on Kerrigan, Gillooly pleaded guilty to racketeering. He claimed that he and Shawn Eckhardt, a man who purported to be a counterterrorism expert and Harding’s bodyguard – Harding’s refutation: “He was just a fat, complete idiot. He was never my bodyguard. Why would I ever hire someone as stupid as that?” – had plotted to have Kerrigan’s legs broken after discarding Eckhardt’s idea that killing her would be easier. Stant and Derrick Smith admitted they’d been hired to execute the attack. Gillooly submitted a deposition with the FBI stating that Harding had conspired along with them. Excepting the O.J. Simpson case, it was the sports story of the decade. And two decades later, it still fascinates many.
This reality is not lost on Olen and Harkins. The day that I visit them in Williamsburg, the two invite me into their kitchen, where Olen offers me a Diet Coke, though I haven’t even paid for the “Nancy Kerrigan Package”, and Harkins sits on a large box. They talk about how, in the early Nineties, a story like the whack attack could remain in the news cycle for months. Their nostalgia for prolonged, high-profile visibility dovetails with their interest in Harding’s life.
“It’s like the American Dream, and then also, like, she made some bad choices along the way,” Olen explains. “And then it’s all kind of ripped away from her. I think if you’re, like, an artist or anything like that, then you’re gonna relate to that idea of, like, ‘If I just work hard enough then I will be seen.'”
Olen and Harkins once performed at the Upright Citizens Brigade, though they’ve since stopped and now work as a hotel receptionist and tour guide, respectively. For a while, they made videos in which they discussed movies they hadn’t seen, but over the winter, they mostly just sat on Harkins’ bed watching Netflix. The “museum” – it’s tempting to envision the entire endeavor encapsulated in giant scare quotes – is one part extension of their couch-potato humor and one part conversation piece.
“It’s like when you go out, not just with a bunch of comedians, everyone’s always like, ‘What are you doing? What are you working on?'” Harkins says. “And it’s always just, like, exhausting. I would rather just talk about this Netflix documentary about something that happened 20 years ago. Can we do that please? And nobody’s really ready to do it, so it’s very cool that we were able to just do that for ourselves. And then we have this place where that’s happening, and now we have people from the Internet who want to come and visit.”
Olen estimates there have been eight non-press visitors so far. Yet there have also been artifacts gifted, hangs with writers like Mary Alice Kellogg (who, they like to mention, asked them to leave her apartment after they drank her wine), and, of course, a bunch of talking online about 1994.
Part of the cultural fascination with the Kerrigan attack derives from the categorical buffoonery exercised by its perpetrators. Upon fleeing the scene of the crime, Stant, for example, found the door he’d planned to exit through locked and reasoned his best bet was to stick the choreography by throwing himself through the plexiglass anyway. But another, more malicious strain of humor trains its sight on the victim, parodying Kerrigan’s plaintive bleating at the time of the attack – “Whyyyyy? Whyyyy?” – as if there’s something worth skewering in someone’s pain and shock at being beaten with a billy club. Then there are the people who think the entire idea of taking out a hit on a figure skater is funny because, you know, they wear dresses and are women, which codes the violence as a safe trifle, like Spring Break Jell-O wrestling with more rhinestones.
Some of the pieces in the Tonya Harding & Nancy Kerrigan 1994 Museum, like the illustration of Kerrigan and Harding as The Shining twins, skew a little toward that mean-spirited humor. Others, however, like the triple Axel diorama made by Britanny Powell Parich, appear to be the work of genuine fans. I ask the curators if they think the contributors understand that the museum is ironic.
“We’re not doing it ironically or sarcastically,” Olen says. “It is a stupid idea to put a museum in a hallway, but I like stupid things. We’re coming at it with the mix of that: ‘That’s a stupid idea – but let’s do it with as much love as we can.'”
Olen and Harkins are friendly, likable people. Their friendship is genuine, and their loopy rapport charming. So you want to give them the benefit of the doubt, even when their claims of sincerity are contradicted by much of their self-presentation. It’s as though Olen and Harkins have overdeveloped their tone-y humor muscles, and now, even when they don’t mean to, they can’t help but flex some facile irony. The irony isn’t pointed at anything; there’s no critique, it just is. When they create a section on their website, “Whyyyyy? Whyyyyy Nooooot?” they’re not intentionally making fun of a physical assault on a young woman. They just sort of think it’s funny. Olen even makes a point of mentioning that she’s been abused by a partner and therefore would never make fun of Tonya Harding.
Later that day she sends me an email:
“And after some thought we have a little clarification,
Regarding our obsession for this, it waxes and wanes but since it has become something bigger, a way to connect with people, a way to inspire art, a way to get out of our comfort zones, all under the umbrella of this dramatic event is very real and exciting for us.”
The next day, Olen and Harkins host an opening gala for the museum at Standard Toykraft in Williamsburg. The venue advertises it with typical whack-job snark: “We’ve been recently hit [in the knee] by the whirlwind of press for the 1994 Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan Museum.” At the entrance, Viviana’s sister, of security team fame, greets guests graciously. There’s a display of cupcakes resembling Christmas tree ornaments, all glittery and bulbous. Beside it, clear plastic swag bags have been arranged. Each contains a black-and-white photo of Tonya Harding, a Nancy Kerrigan playing card, a tea-light candle, a pin and a crayon.
I ask one guy lingering in a corner why he’s come. “Because I was brought here,” he says. “With a person.” I wait for him to elaborate. “Honestly, I drank too much,” he says finally. He starts sinking back into a hanging curtain, then gropes at a bench until he can guide himself into a safe seated position.
Sitting nearby is Sandra Luckow. She’s a filmmaker who made a documentary about Tonya Harding called Sharp Edges and also happens to have grown up training beside Harding under coach Diane Rawlinson. Luckow teaches at Barnard and Yale, and she’s showed up to the event because she’s still interested in the subject of her first film, and probably always will be given their shared history.
At some point in the night, a guy in a trucker hat approaches. Luckow explains to him how she used to skate with Harding. He says, “Here’s what I’ll tell you about Tonya Harding: an incredible person but not so great on the skates.”
“How do you know?” she asks.
“I used to skate with her,” Trucker Hat says.
“Who are you?” she says.
“What are you talking about?” Trucker Hat says. If Luckow was peeved by his Harding remarks, Trucker Hat is furious that she didn’t find his ribbing funny.
“If you think for one moment that she wasn’t a great skater, you are deluding yourself,” Luckow says. Trucker Hat can’t bear the sincerity. He eventually leaves in a huff after answering the question of what brought him to the event with a joke about mushrooms and fungi.
When the lights are lowered, Olen and Harkins climb onto the stage to give a “TED-like talk” on how to build a museum. “What are we doing here? A very real museum dedicated to the very real events portrayed in The Price of Gold by Nanette Burstein,” Olen orates theatrically. Then there’s a short play called “Toe Pick” by Zachary Grady, a song to the tune of George Michael’s “Faith” performed by vowel-averse comedy duo SRSLY, a long anecdote by former Harding impersonator Lynn Harris, and three people who call themselves I AM A BOYS CHOIR, who jump on trampolines wearing sequined skating dresses for an interminable aerobic performance.
But the marquee event is the Tonya Harding & Nancy Kerrigan 1994 Museum video tour. In the video, Olen and Harkins repeat the same jokes they have told every reporter: Everyone, they say is a Tonya or a Nancy. A Nancy has long lines in her body, so on, so forth. The emojis: accessible! They pitch their voices melodramatically. At one point, Harkins performs air-fellatio in the background as Olen describes Harding artifacts. It’s one of those moments where you question their claims of respectfulness and love, their confusion when asked if #THNK1994 is a cynical project. You remember that moment where Olen talked about what future projects would be “on-brand” for them.
But most of the audience finds the performance hilarious. It’s wacky, a little inane, tongue-in-cheek but twee, evasive yet familiar. Irony wants to have it both ways; Olen and Harkins do too. They know how to get the laughs normally attached to irony without inspiring much of the attendant ire. It’s a type of comedy defended by coyness. It’s Tonya dressed up as Nancy, wailing, “Whyyyyy? Whyyyyy Nooooot?”