Interviews

Penny Arcade on the Professionalization of Performance Art

Penny Arcade (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Penny Arcade (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

“New York used to be Sin City,” says performance artist Penny Arcade. “I came to New York to sin! New York City went from being the Big Apple to the Big Cupcake. People are staggering from one cupcake to another!” She has a point. A big cupcake is very different from a big apple — it’s slathered in cloyingly sweet frosting, one of those frivolous bourgeois concoctions without any real substance. Isn’t that a lot like New York City these days?

The opening analogy is from Arcade’s recent show at Joe’s Pub, Longing Lasts Longer, which was one of the most meaningful performance art pieces I’ve seen lately — and I’ve seen quite a few. I attended the last of her six performances, in November, and there wasn’t a dull moment, unlike some of those pretentious and precious performance art shows I’ve been stuck in downtown or in Brooklyn. Although a powerful indictment of the contemporary urban landscape, Arcade’s show was funny and down to earth. Her manifesto was not just a negative diatribe; it had a positive message. She was all dolled up in a bright pink dress matching her dyed pink hair. In raconteur fashion, she addressed the audience directly with her loud and expressive voice. At the beginning of the show, she wandered through the audience in an antic mood and almost dropped the microphone. “If I were 23, I could make a grand doing that,” she quipped.

Arcade often says things others are afraid to say, not just to offend people, but because some things need to be articulated. She has sometimes been dismissed, and at times she has complained about being an outsider in the rarefied New York art world and contemporary performance scene. In her Denial of Death performance (2011), for instance, she critiqued Performa founder RoseLee Goldberg for ignoring Jack Smith in the 1980s and for excluding her and the rest of the New York City underground from Performa 2009. (Arcade still has never performed at Performa.) Has she been excluded from Performa and other art institutions because of her outspokenness and criticism?

In Hilton Als’s New Yorker review of her book, Bad Reputation, published in 2009 by the MIT Press imprint Semiotext(e), he ascribes her status in the art world to class:

Working class, ethnic, and not model tall, Arcade was the other New York City girl: hardworking and obscure, with a considerable chip on her shoulder, all of which she transformed into art. Her primary subject has always been herself, and the will it took to crack Manhattan’s class-conscious art scene. Once installed, though, Arcade never relaxed. She continues to critique the very world that now considers her a legend.

In Longing Lasts Longer, Arcade stated emphatically: “The radical downtown art scene has been invaded by middle-class values. People hate excellence and have developed a taste for mediocrity.” I agree that things have become a bit bourgeois in New York City. The avant-garde and underground art scene has been evaporating with rents skyrocketing and artists having to leave town. I spoke on the phone with Arcade about these and other issues after Longing Lasts Longs closed.

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Penny Arcade career timeline (image by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)
Penny Arcade career timeline (image by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

Geraldine Visco: You’ve been doing a lot of traveling lately. Will this show be traveling to somewhere else?

Penny Arcade: Well, probably. We’re talking about taking it to London and Edinburgh. This has been a residency at Joe’s Pub to actually develop the work. I develop all my work in front of a live audience. Usually I just improvise, but now I’m doing a lot of writing at the same time, so I’m always building on the show every performance.

Eventually it will be one of my full-length works with video and music. People have liked it. It’s about real stuff, like all my work is. It’s stuff people can use. It’s useful to people, which is important to me.

GV: Joe’s Pub is in a way not a place for theatrical performances, but you feel like it’s working?

PA: The space is a nightclub, not a theater. But their policy is to develop all kinds of work there. And we’re living in a period when there aren’t very many spaces to perform in and to develop work in. So Joe’s Pub is fulfilling a great service for a lot of artists.

GV: You don’t have a definite tour set up yet?

PA: No! Normally other people who do theater would develop a show over two years, writing it and working with their collaborators in a room. And I don’t do that. I develop my work in front of an audience. And [Joe’s Pub director] Shanta Thake is allowing me to do that at Joe’s Pub. I make work way faster than a lot of people. I’m developing these texts over a three-month period, whereas the Wooster Group would take two years. But they get funding for that and I don’t. So I’ve always worked really fast. The next incarnation will be with video and music. If I don’t bring the show to England this spring, I’ll probably try to mount another presentation of this in New York, but in a theater.

GV: You don’t get funding because you’re not applying for it? Or what’s the apparatus there?

PA: I do apply for funding, but now art funding is flooded with emerging artists — people who graduated from university programs. Young people [today] don’t do what people used to do when they were young, like go out and just try to put their stuff up in holes in the wall. They apply for grants and residencies. They’re taught to do that. I mean, I just had my first artist residency, at MacDowell, and I’m 64 years old.

GV: How was MacDowell?

PA: It was wonderful. It’s a really altruistic place where they care about art. There are all generations of people there, but it’s kind of shocking to me that there are so many really young people. It never occurred to me to do that when I was young. I was always just making my work for the public. I make my work the old-fashioned way. I work for it and people buy tickets. And that’s what supports my work.

GV: At MacDowell you were working on some of the work you’re doing now?

PA: Yes, my collaborator of 23 years Steve Zehentner and I were working for a month on the show. Wrote a lot of material up there.

Penny Arcade (courtesy the artist)
Penny Arcade (courtesy the artist)

GV: So it was a good experience?

PA: We’re used to working three or four days, when we can. Everything we do we just do ourselves. We can’t wait around for grants. We just keep going, and get denied for grants, and keep going. It was great to be in a situation where all our meals were taken care of, and we didn’t have to think about the problems of everyday life, and could just work.

GV: You’ve been doing a lot of touring with ‘Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore!.’

PA: I always tour a lot. I did 48 shows of Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! in London in 2012. In 2013 and 2014 I toured Scandinavia for the first time. I toured Portugal and Zagreb, and in Croatia for the first time. I tried to stay off the road this year, because I really wanted to be at home in New York, but I’m ready to go back on the road.

GV: What is the difference between the art and performing scene here and overseas?

PA: There’s more support for the arts outside of America, but that’s always been true. In New York it seems a lot of people go out to see art as part of a social scene, whereas in Europe they go just to see the work. I keep telling younger artists: At some point you’ve got to be critical about how successful you’re being socially, and how successful you’re being artistically. It’s pretty easy to be successful socially when you’re in your 20s and 30s and you’re socializing all the time, you’re going out all the time, and people come to your shows because people like to know artists. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re successful artistically.

GV: Artists coming from overseas — do they get a similar kind of reception?

PA: There are very few opportunities for foreign artists to perform in New York because it’s too expensive to house people and there’s no money here. There’s no money for productions. Almost everywhere theaters say that they’re producing, but they’re presenting. Meaning they’re not paying the costs of making the work. They basically give you the theater and the electricity and you have to provide everything else. In Europe there’s simply more support for the arts. But that’s changing too. They’re starting to follow the American model.

GV: Do you see a way that people in New York can change things?

PA: I think people are doing the best they can in the cracks. But there are different periods in time. In the ’90s there was a lot of cachet around going to see live performance. Lots of younger people who probably wouldn’t have gone to see performances went to see performances because it was the “in” thing to do. A lot of younger people right now don’t go to performances. They go to restaurants. They know about wine. They’re into fancy cocktails. They’re not into sitting and watching work, you know?

Penny Arcade and Gerry Visco (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Penny Arcade and Gerry Visco (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

GV: What advice could you offer people just starting out in performance art?

PA: The number one piece of advice I have is to get out of your own age group. Intern and try to work with people who are older and more experienced than you are. That’s not done at all now. Now all young people have their own production companies when they’re 22 years old. Art was done the same way for a long time — you were young, you came, you watched a lot of other people and you started to struggle to make your own work, and eventually people came to see you and you made a little bit of money. Now that economic structure is totally broken. Young people only go to see a few other people; they only go to see people whose careers they want to emulate. And they mostly stay within their own age group. So you have tons of people who are all 22 who make their work with other 22-year-olds. You can’t get much mileage out of that. You need the inter-generational thing, I believe: the energy of the young and the wisdom and experience of the old. But I can’t worry about them.

GV: How did you start out?

PA: I started doing theater in 1968 at the Playhouse of the Ridiculous, and I worked with Warhol. Then I went to Europe and I worked with a lot of companies. Then I lived in Maine and did more work with more companies. Then in 1981 I came back to New York because Ellen Stewart asked me to do her 20th anniversary, to do a play I had done in 1970, when I was 20. At that time performance art was just getting a toehold in the East Village. It was mostly minorities and gay people and women who were doing it. There wasn’t much of an audience and there was no money and you could do whatever you wanted — and I found that really appealing.

All the performance art being done in the ’80s was very highly individualized because people just did what they wanted to do. Now performance art has become kind of a catchall. Basically, people study the ideas of other people, so it’s not as highly self-individuated as it had been. It’s more cookie-cutter. People think that they can put in some text, some video, some food, and some bodily fluids, or nudity. There’s kind of a formula. Most of it’s tiresome. But some people will develop and some won’t. It just depends on how great your need to self-express is.

GV: You did the film with Warhol, but then went into the performance field. Did you decide that film was not your métier?

PA: No. When I had black hair and I was 30 I went out to auditions and everybody always said, “you’re so charismatic and we’ve never seen anyone like you, but you don’t really read as white.” They couldn’t cast me. Being of a working-class disposition, I wasn’t going to wait for somebody to give me work. I just decided to make my own work. And I made it thinking that people were going to see me and then cast me in films. All of that happened at the height of the AIDS epidemic. On a lot of levels, the audience that would have swept me into the mainstream died. That’s OK. You have to accept what happens in your life. I just never stop making work, so that’s what’s good about me. Makes me happy.

GV: What’s the difference between the visual art world and the performance world now?

PA: There’s not much difference now. You can see the influence of Andy Warhol because there’s not that much art in art now. And there’s a lot of art in advertising. This week I saw Cristina Vergano’s show at Woodward Gallery. She’s an amazing painter. But a lot of stuff in the galleries falls into two or three elements. This is not the most experimental period I’ve ever lived in, where there’s a lot of innovation going on. There’s a lot of technological use and a lot of emperor’s new clothes stuff going on in the art world.

But the market has invaded so deeply that people are afraid to follow their own hearts. They’re very conscious of what the market will bear or what trends are “in.” You hear it in the way people talk, using buzzwords — “gender” and “social practice.” It’s kind of funny.

Patti Smith (left), Jackie Curtis (center), and Penny Arcade (right) (photo by Leee Black Childers)
Patti Smith (left), Jackie Curtis (center), and Penny Arcade (right) (photo by Leee Black Childers)

GV: What do you feel about the world today?

PA: We’re in an emergency wishing it would go back to being in a crisis. It’s 2014 and you look around on the streets and see Dickensian poverty. Homeless people in rags. Even in the ’80s we didn’t see the kind of poverty we’re seeing on the streets right now. Everything now is ruled by the media. Mediated by the media. So drug companies and the food industry have become as powerful and opaque as the banking industry. We just don’t know what’s really going on. There’s not much transparency in anything. We’ve lost a lot of power as American citizens.

We’ve really abdicated our responsibility to a democracy for the people and by the people. So we’re getting what we deserve because we’re not involved. Everybody’s living in a virtual world to one degree or another. My show is about that, about how that was created. How did we go into living in this virtual reality almost all of us live in now? Very few of us are really grounded in the real world — having real friends we see face to face. It’s kind of sad and mechanical out there.

Penny Arcade will participate in the 41st annual New Year’s Day marathon benefit reading for the Poetry Project on January 1, 2015.

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