I first met Penny Arcade outside of Barbara Gladstone Gallery in NY in April of 2011, where she was giving a talk on Jack Smith’s work which had recently been acquired by Gladstone. I came to hear her speak because I was a little suspicious of the situation -- Jack’s work being gobbled up by the market --- was Smith turning over in his grave? After Flaming Creatures and good old Uncle Fishhook Smith never made a completed work, he changed each work upon presentation to deliberately avoid the market. At the talk, Penny, in a shockingly accurate mimesis of Jack Smith’s voice, (he was her mentor after all) criticized the professionalization of the art world, careerism and of course “the sacred baby poo poo of art.” Penny struck me as Real and Human, and what it’s all about, so after seeing her perform at Human Resources this past March, Sarvia, my partner, and I set up an interview with the legendary LES provocateur.
Sarvia Jasso: I would like to ask you about performance art in relation to the professionalization of the arts -- something that Jack Smith talked about a lot. Martha Rosler wrote an interesting text about performance art and how it was once a form of resistance (similar to early video art). It was anti-object, anti-capitalist and it was a form of defiance. What are your thoughts about performance art today?
Penny Arcade: In order to answer the question of how performance art went from being a formidable art form that melded diverse artistic practices formed from the unique perspectives of the artists who created and advanced what was an art form practiced at the very margins of the art world by equally marginalized artists (i.e in the early 80’s it was largely the domain of women, minorities and queers since there was no money in it, and small but passionate audiences who had a personal stake in the development of it) creating a highly charged political and personally present form that challenged authority, current art culture and the acceptable contemporary status quo to what is today, a largely banal and mediocre display of personality, one has to understand the culture that was at its roots, the political context of the 1960’s, 1970’s and 1980’s Lower East Side/East Village of NY which spawned and helped form the performance art scene. These neighborhoods were a sanctuary for misfits, radical political activists, and the radical gay scene. The LES/East Village was the domain of outsiders. It was a slum which secured cheap rents with an active urban underclass situated far away from the prying eyes of the middle class. These conditions allowed different types of artists the free time to experiment. Art venues were able to thrive in that cheap rent climate, creating a real authentic movement to rise out of those many factors. There was also an active public that didn’t feel that they needed to be artists themselves but felt a real role in supporting these new forms. Academia shunned these art forms and these artists as did the commercial art world.
Kathryn Garcia: After your performance I was thinking about a subject you brought up about the art world’s turn toward “professionalism.” What do you think about the way things are now, how more and more artists find it necessary to go to “grad school”?
PA: Since the late 1980’s there has been a growing dominance of art school art. Before this period not everyone in the world wanted to be an artist. There was little cachet in it socially. Making art was certainly not considered a “profession” that one earned money from or became famous from. The painter Harold Steveson said, “Some people should be discouraged from making art because if they truly want to make art nothing can stop them!” This is so against the current value that everyone is special and all that is required for their unique talents to bloom is a nurturing academic environment.
What we are left with now is the rampant careerism that has flooded into the art scene as younger artists are coming up during a period which is drowning in the idea that all one has to do to become an artist is go to school and you emerge as an artist after four years. The developmental arc of becoming an artist is never mentioned. People are not taught the idea of developing as artists, they are taught to succeed in the business of art. They are certainly not going to be anti-capitalist (Occupy Wall Street notwithstanding) because their entire raison d'être is to become successful. In an appropriately confused way, since it is a “glamorous” pose to them, they also want to be considered “outsiders,” “radical,” “political,” which is the effect of the commoditization of rebellion. There is a gentrification that happens to buildings and neighborhoods but there is also a gentrification that happens to ideas. Even the most hypnotized mind will understand if it is explained strongly and clearly to them that developing as an artist through process and life experience is at odds with making products and creating a reputation as fast as possible. Making art is like farming, one has to take into account the seasons of one's own life, one has not only to plant seeds, but to choose the best seeds and tend to them, nurture them until they are mature.
My manifesto in the 1980’s was strictly anti-product. Performance to me was a live art form, quite like action painting and that is how I approached it. My work was improvisational, unrehearsed, unwritten. It was conceptual, raw. I went on stage with only "ideas” or stories which I developed in front of the audience and it changed significantly every night. Unlike most other performance artists of the 1980’s, I documented all my work. I simply didn’t release it. I found little support for my work from most arts administrators. My working-class, anti-authoritarian attitude offended many curators who had largely middle-class ideas about being nice and polite. Many found my “direct honesty” in and about my work unsettling, if not rude. The actual quality of my work never entered the equation for them as it did for the public who backed me completely and rewarded me with sold out shows. This was so different from the artistic climate of the 1960’s that I grew up in where even artists and curators that disliked each other were still honest about the quality of the work. Until quite recently I had never been invited to teach at one performance art program in the USA. Sarah Schulman put it most succinctly in a 1999 interview for The Lower East Side Biography Project. Schulman, whose latest book, Gentrification Of The Mind, should be read by everyone interested in these ideas, said, “Because America has no money for highly achieved mid career artists, the only way these artists can earn a living is to teach in MFA programs. You see the people graduating from these programs replicating the ideas of these artists and that is not art, it is something unfortunate.”
The terrible truth is that art is now taught by teaching the ideas of other artists through theory because actually teaching people HOW to do something is difficult. Jack Smith said, “People need to learn iota by iota how to create art.”
We need to consider how art education has been pitched to young people as one more thing to be consumed, to be bought and paid for. The idea that one goes to college for four years or six years or God forbid ten years and emerges as an artist and is then paid to be an artist is a sinister, corrupt idea that has been foisted on American and now international youth. It deprives the young of respecting their own journey and development. Ultimately in art there is only one success, and that success is artistic and for centuries that was the goal.
SJ: In Bad Reputation, you talk about how your work is ageless -- in this particular section you were discussing gentrification. All of the topics that you explore -- sex, sexuality, censorship, etc -- are very relevant to us all, so I'm wondering how you pick the topics for each performance; does the material always evolve from whatever you are experiencing at a given moment in time? Is it a reflection of the current social or political climate? In hindsight, it seems like we haven't made a lot of progress....
PA: What I meant when I said my work is ageless I meant this: Bitch!Dyke!Faghag!Whore! hit the zeitgeist in 1990 to 1995. It spoke to all kinds of people from very different social and economic backgrounds. I retired it in 1995. In 2006 I was asked to bring it back by OutFest in Los Angeles. Everyone who saw it believed it was written in 2006 -- it spoke to them. I did it in NY in 2007, 2009 in San Francisco, 2010 in Fire Island, 2011 in Anchorage, Alaska. All of the reviews spoke of how affecting, contemporary and inspiring the work was. It was not about nostalgia but about now. I just completed thirty-eight performances of B!D!F!W! in London this past summer, and I'll return to London to do ten more performances of it in December of 2012. It hit the zeitgeist again in 2012 in a huge way in London, garnering four and five star reviews in The London Times and other mainstream English newspapers. It is amazing to have that effect once but to have twice over a twenty year period is incredibly satisfying to me as an artist. Yes, the world changes at a glacial pace. We go backwards most of the time it seems. There has been very little progress in society as a whole because human nature sadly does not change. My work is about how I live now. Of course there is always a reflection of my past life and beliefs because all art is rooted in memory, in the recreated, whether that memory is thirty years old or happened two minutes ago. In 1979 when I was living in the woods of rural Maine, while visiting my friend Richard Hanneman in NY, he said to me, “You have to come back to NY and make art.” I replied, “I am making art in Maine.” And he said “You need to live in Maine in the summertime like other people. We need you here in NY and we need you to make one person shows.” At the time I was just starting to think about making a new kind of solo work and defined myself as an experimental theatre artist. I asked, “Well, who is going to write these solo shows?” and Richard replied “You will write them.” And I became increasingly anxious, because while I have always been a writer, I had little self confidence and asked, “But what would they be about?” and Richard said, “It doesn’t matter, we just want to be with you.” Richard died in 1980 and many years later, in 1992, I remembered his words and wondered, “How did he know?” Because by this time I had been creating my own work for twelve years. I am a talker, a teller of parables, a storyteller, because in my southern Italian culture every situation is explained by another situation that happened long ago. I am a Parrhesiastes, a teller of my own truths. Foucault’s definition of Parrhesiastes says, “this implies not only freedom of speech, but the obligation to speak the truth for the common good, even at personal risk.” Foucault goes so far as to say that unless one is at personal risk, one is not a Parrhesiastes. I stumbled on Semiotexte’s book Fearless Speech based on Foucault’s seminar on the subject in a used bookstore in Ayveilk, Turkey in 2008. I was stunned to discover this key element of my entire life in its pages. In 2008, we did an interview for The LES Bio Project on Tom Murrin, the Alien Comic, who I had known since I was eighteen years old. At the end of the interview I left the room so Steve Zehentner could interview Tom about my work. I returned a half hour later and stood in the door because Tom was still speaking. “You go to a Penny Arcade performance and 300 people all think she is speaking directly to them and Penny doesn’t care what anyone thinks of her, she just tells her truth.” I walked in and said to Tom, “But it’s not true. I care very, very much what people think of me. It is very painful for me to tell the truth but I can’t seem to stop myself even though I know while I am saying it that I am setting myself up for people to hate me and that I will lose out on many of the things I want like recognition and opportunities to show my ability.” Tom, like many people, was very surprised. He thought, as many do, that I am just blithely saying what I think despite the consequences. What he missed, as many people do, is that I fear the consequences terribly, it makes me depressed and anxious but I do it from a sense of personal duty and responsibility...
SJ: I am curious to hear what you have to say about feminism and art today -- with the professionalization of the arts, it seems harder to build communities where artists genuinely support each other. Do you have any advice for young artists?
PA: I am a feminist because as a woman I have no choice but to fight to exist in a society that hates women but continually obscures this central fact. It is an obvious fact, not only to me but to many people. If I were a man I would have a completely different level of success for my work than I have in large part because I am a woman. If I were a man with the same level of outspokenness I would be lauded, not put down for being “bitchy.” Biology is a reality. It is not a question of gender but of biology. I believe in my own artistic community here in NY, that there has been some movement in this direction, women who support other women in their endeavors and in their struggles. Women who understand what is at stake, who understand the possibilities that can come when women take backing and supporting other women seriously. But I also experience the daily competiveness of women, who while seeking something for their selves alone, sell their sisters down the river every chance they get. This competition is hard wired, biologically, into us and without a real confrontation of this, of what it means to be a feminist at this time in history, of how we must support our great women artists and help them achieve visibility in a world that ignores women. This action of feminism must be unleashed, not in theory but in action to affect what it means to be a woman in this society, by the woman participating in the arts and everywhere. There are also many men who I experience as true feminists who understand the problems and who actively help and actively engage in promoting the work of women artists.
We are all tethered to values of the era we come of age in. I grew up in an era where the value was that you had to earn the respect of others for your work. This is a very complicated time to be young. When I was young, young people were ignored. We had time in the shadows of life. No one wanted our opinions, our views, no one expected us to be fully formed adults with a point of view at twenty-two or twenty-eight. Be conscious of what you are being sold. Don’t buy into what you are being sold because whatever you are being sold is done to control you. Society wants to turn you into circus monkeys, into a functioning part of an increasingly corrupt and mechanical society. A society without empathy, without history, without humanity.
Every movement towards personal freedom and personal responsibility is immediately co-opted by the market place, from Riot Grrl to Occupy Wall Street. Occupy Yourself!! Notice your fears, your longings, your dreams, your nightmares. Face them as soon as possible because they will be with you always and the sooner you enter into a real relationship with all of yourself the better. Aim for a rigorous inquiry, a rigorous honesty with yourself. Respect your own development. Believe me, it is worth it because we all get stuck with ourselves for life. Amora Fati, the love of one's own fate. You have a fate you know? No one escapes that. Build the life you want, build the person you want to be. It is ok to have heroes, to understand how others have created themselves as humans and as artists but don’t just copy and hope for the outcome you want. Actively pursue your innate values because values must be grown by each of us and they are bought and paid for on the installment plan of life through our own experience. There is no one like you. Isn’t it wonderful? You are in competition with no one when you choose to develop yourself. But you have to choose this over and over. It never stops being an active choice. Ever.
—Kathryn Garcia and Sarvia Jasso
(Image on top: Penny Arcade, Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! Olympia Theater, Dublin, Ireland,1994; Photograph by Darren James.)