Russell Hirshon may be the first candidate for mayor of the District of Columbia to suspend himself from a nightclub ceiling, belly down above the crowded dance floor, with bags of swimming goldfish hanging from his arms and legs.

He's also probably the first to have hosted a "Meaning of Life" party at an Adams-Morgan bar, complete with pretty girls high in lifeguard chairs, a "priest" saying Mass at a nearby altar and "an S&M installation" for the benefit of guests.

"I don't mind doing anything that will make people think," says Hirshon, a lanky 29-year-old with a wedge-shaped face, curly black hair and the earnest intensity of a golden retriever studying an ice cream cone. His stunts, he says, are serious efforts to awaken voters to the city's problems.

"These things appear lighthearted to get your attention," he said. "But people relate to them on another, deeper level, and that's what I'm after. As a person running for mayor who is a performance artist, I'm not afraid to hang from the ceiling. Or sit on a toilet in the middle of K Street rush hour to draw attention to the homeless. Or be a human sundae ..."

A human sundae?

"I covered myself with fudge and whipped cream and cherries and stuff. ... People ate off me with plates and forks."

So far his campaign performances have been largely confined to the dozen-odd bars and nightclubs where he's poured drinks and brainstormed party themes since dropping out of Boston University in 1980 ("youth in turmoil," he explains). His sundae job took place at the Fifth Column on F Street, a darkly cavernous former bank where the ceiling-hung junk sculpture includes a wrecked Volkswagen that periodically vomits soap bubbles onto the pansexual dancers below. Hirshon opened his campaign there, having himself winched into the air in midspeech, then descending again to the music of a rock band called Gimme the Gun.

His campaign posters are likewise unique. One pictures the candidate, sporting a toothy Timothy Leary grin, beneath the legend "A conscious choice for an unconscious world." Another shows him bare-chested and wrapped in the flag: "Hirshon -- Absolute Mayor."

If all this puts Russell Minos Baptiste Hirshon just a tiny bit outside the District's political mainstream, that's all right with him. He doesn't expect to be elected, says he's not the best person for the job, and is well aware that some people may consider his style more galactic than political.

"The obvious question," he acknowledges, in his Florida Avenue apartment festooned with Fiorucci posters and Playboy magazines, "is whether this whole campaign is a performance art piece. No, it's not. I'm honestly trying to make this city better. But I can only try with what I do best."

He's considered putting his unique campaign approach at the service of either Democrat Sharon Pratt Dixon or Republican Maurice Turner, he says, "but they won't return my calls. I tell them my name and they say, 'Wait a minute -- you're the guy on the toilet, right? Uh ... we'll get back to you.' They must think I'm going to come down to their place naked, with a reporter."

But there are those who understand what he's doing. Explains Greg Johnson, the graphic artist responsible for Hirshon's eye-catching posters: "Russell running for mayor is no funnier than Marion Barry running for anything."

Actually, Hirshon says, it was Barry's trial over the summer on drug charges that helped prod him into politics. He acknowledges experimenting with a panoply of drugs himself in his youth, but says: "The media was all over this drug thing like it was news. I've known the mayor used drugs since I was a kid! It was playground talk" in the Potomac Palisades area along MacArthur Boulevard, where Hirshon grew up.

"That wasn't news. What is news is that people are being blown away on the streets, and the District schools are a bad joke, and nobody is really, really outraged about it. Instead, we're getting used to it."

On July 20, he says, he was watching television and saw a report about "a kid who got shot in the back of the head just walking to Hardee's. And none of the Democrats {campaigning for the September mayoral primary} even mentioned it. Not one! They were all into typical D.C. politics, tearing each other down, out for themselves. And I said, 'I can't believe this. Murder's become acceptable! It's just statistics ... part of living in the city!' And I thought, 'This is not normal. I've got to do something.' "

Four days later he registered as an independent candidate for mayor.

His assets were not exactly formidable. He had no money and no organization, and was not even entirely sure which ward he lived in. His sole previous political activity was a successful campaign for youth chairman of Neighborhood Planning Council 4 when he was 16 ("I got 25 votes").

He did, however, know a lot of people.

A graduate of St. Johns who dropped back into D.C. after his brief fling with Boston, he had taken courses at local colleges in everything from acting to engineering and had drifted into bartending "to pay the bills." Along the way he discovered a gift for entertainment, graduating from drink mixer to impresario by orchestrating such well-remembered parties as the Egyptian event at Cities with the giant pyramid, pharaoh costumes and wall hieroglyphics, and the "western" at Baja with the fiddler, saddles and live pony tethered on the patio.

"Let's face it, the club scene is basically a sewer," he sighs. "People come in and drink, and some of them are pretty disgusting. But I like people, I like socializing, and I like making people happy. So I asked myself: Why, with all the bad stuff on the club scene, couldn't there be some good? And we did some benefits in the bars for the homeless, and Toys for Tots things around Christmas."

He started his performance art about two years ago. It didn't always go as planned.

Once, in the interest of art, "I walked onto the dance floor at Cities, a spotlight came on me, and this guy came up and shaved off my hair. It was different. But I regretted it afterward. A week later there was this big article on skinheads, and I was walking along in my leather jacket, and heard: 'There's one of them! Let's kick his ass!' And I was, like, 'NO! WAIT!' "

When he decided to run for mayor, Hirshon said, he intended to get on the ballot "and be taken seriously." He was well on the way in collecting signatures on his nominating petitions when he hit a pothole by the District Building on his yellow Harley-Davidson motorcycle and ruptured a spinal disk. He was flat on his back for three weeks.

"Worst time of my life," he says, shaking his head. "I couldn't even put up my posters."

Without the petitions, he missed his shot at the ballot and has had difficulty as a write-in candidate getting a forum to deliver his message. But he struggles on.

He doesn't campaign door to door because "people don't like to be intruded on," but his phone number is on his posters and he says he returns every call.

So far, his posters have cost him $3,900, of which he still owes $2,200, but he's not accepting contributions: "I want to change the way you think, but I don't want you to pay for it."

He had hoped the posters would send much of his message, but many have been ripped down and lugged home as treasures by fans of political exotica. That distresses Hirshon. He wants people on the street to see them, "react to them and think: 'A conscious choice for an unconscious world. What does he mean by that? Is he making fun of the whole D.C. establishment? Is he lampooning Barry and drugs? Is he saying the whole city's unconscious?' "

Such pondering, he says, is designed, like everything in his campaign, to winch voters out of apathy and into action, to make them demand more from the candidate they vote for, whoever that is. He doesn't expect it to be Russell Hirshon.

"I'm just an average guy," he says. "I'm not asking anybody to vote for me. I'm asking them to make a difference, a real difference, in this city. I'm convinced this is the way I can be most effective. I can only work with what I have."