A Life Story From the Dark Side of America
The Sunday Herald , November 7th, 2004
A Life Story From the Dark Side of America
by Mark Brown
The victory of the ultra-conservative candidate, George W Bush, in a presidential election contested by two pro-war, multi-millionaire white guys has done little to portray the political and social diversity of the United States.
It was with perfect timing, therefore, that Penny Arcade, self-proclaimed bad girl and doyenne of performance art, arrived in Scotland to play the Glasgay! arts festival.
Arcade, aka Susana Ventura, last performed in Glasgow – a city she applauds as a “centre of working-class intellectualism” – in 1993, when she brought her unambiguously entitled sex and censorship show Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! to the CCA.
Her latest work owes an observable debt to that piece, but is none the worse for that. Now aged 54, Arcade’s description of herself as an “anti- censorship feminist” only touches on the breadth of her vision.
As with her mid-1990s piece, Bad Reputations combines hard-hitting autobiography and social commentary with music and dance from performers whose personal histories give faces and names to the political buzz-phrase “social exclusion”.
On her last trip to Scotland, Arcade was joined on stage by performers she described as “erotic dancers” from strip clubs and lap dancing bars. According to the programme notes for this show, the main complaint against her choice of dancers a decade ago came from “angry feminist lesbians” who didn’t think it was possible to be both erotic and feminist.
In that conflict she considered herself a stalwart supporter of sex workers, while her detractors suggested she was a partner in the exploitation of women.
This time round she may face further accusations of exploitation. If the brief biogs of the dancers – women and gay men – are to be believed, they include a former Big Issue seller, a failed porn star and a former detainee of Strangeways prison in Manchester, who served time for a public indecency offence.
Those who level exploitation allegations against Arcade are missing the point, however. The writer and performer believes that although “we may not all live in the same morality, we do all live in the same economy.”
She has experienced the hard edge of street life in the US – from numerous rapes, to drugs episodes, and becoming part of the persecuted New York gay sub-culture in the 1960s – and she takes a pragmatic and libertarian view on sex work.
She is sick of what she considers to be the liberal hypocrisy regarding women who have become engaged in prostitution or drug addiction, or ended up on the streets.
Such women are, she argues, too often dehumanised by the label of victim, and considered as, at best, charity cases. She, by contrast, wants them to be centre stage and (in the videos recorded with the Streetwise 2000 organisation in Greater Manchester) to give them their own voices.
Although much of her script is delivered in the first person, there is much more to the piece than autobiography. From her upbringing in a working-class Italian family in the industrial town of New Britain, Connecticut to her rough introduction to New York life, and on to her work with Andy Warhol, Arcade’s story is never merely her own.
In many ways her show is like a spoken language partner to the music of those other Warhol collaborators The Velvet Underground and Lou Reed.
She talks with humour, anguish and palpable anger about the girls (and ex-fashion model nuns) she met at Catholic borstal, and her encounter with one of its alumni in New York (who was, by then, a drug-addicted prostitute).
Her narrative unfolds like a set of explicatory notes for such painful and powerful Velvet Underground songs as Heroin and Caroline Says.
Arcade is sometimes credited – by herself, among others – as the originator of performance art. For sure, she has, for decades, been engaged in a form of live performance which reminds us that we are all performing every day of our lives.
Her stage persona is part storyteller, part political activist. It’s impossible to see where her own personality ends and her theatrical character begins. Whatever artifice she employs, however, there is an undeniable and unpretentious honesty to her show.
She speaks with resounding and apposite wit about those who attempt to elevate live art events to the status of museum pieces for a select elite. Arcade was once asked to define the term “transgressive art”; she replied that it was the phrase academics use to describe real life.
There is an informality, one might even call it a studied amateurishness, about her performance which doesn’t quite account for the technical and presentational glitches in this show.
Put together, she says, on a shoestring budget and with just four days’ rehearsal, much of the piece is, in truth, as rough as a badger’s bum. The remarkable thing, however, is that, somehow, that doesn’t seem to matter.