Trigger Magazine, October, 2005
Finding a Sign of Intelligent Life in the Universe
by Mikal Saint George
Photo by Evan Sung
Penny Arcade is not an interview subject. Penny Arcade is a one-woman cultural prism. She bends and refracts the light of human experience and displays shades and colors of a shared spectrum we never knew existed and at times were afraid to look at. More than just entertainment or a hipster “happening” the Arcade experience is a journey through space, time and thought. Not everyone has appreciated this.
Those who shun seatbelts and helmets will ride happily. In fact, they will walk away with new insights into their own reality - jagged edges and all - grateful for the opportunity. By displaying her nude psyche in her work Penny has become a mirror to her audience. For many however, looking in the mirror is difficult. Not because of the blemishes, thinning hair, and gravity-beaten body parts – make-up and a weekend at The Golden Door will take care of that. It is the realization of the harsh banality that instead of resisting, so many of us have instead drunk, sucked and snorted - hoping to dull the pain of reality with the falsely protective veneer of conformity.
Penny Arcade is the personification of opposite. Diminutive in size she is still a larger than life physical presence – her famously voluptuous figure the embodiment of feminine abundance and maternal largesse. She is humbled and surprised by her influence while being fully aware of her power and patiently awaiting full recognition. She is uninterested in, say, developing Sandra Bernhard’s eye for haute couture yet has created a signature style that is off limits, really to everyone – it is pure Penny.
Her thoughts shoot out like bullets. Her ideas, her words vying to stretch and pull in one hundred directions all at once. A creative taffy pull, the evolutionary process condensed, sped up and stuffed in a cleavage bearing vintage halter dress. It is not possible or necessary to keep her on track. She is the conductor of this train of thought and it is best to admire the view and take in the journey for its full value. When she gets you to the destination she has in mind, the seemingly disparate thoughts, the sudden subject changes, will fall into place and make more sense than you thought possible. Over time her thoughts will become more powerful in your own mind with the growing resonance of an unseen but heartfelt guiding spirit.
Meeting with Penny was, for me, a bit of a harmonic convergence and I think of her constantly. After our interview in late August I went to work on several film and TV projects that had me on location – outdoors – in New York. Working outdoors on location is always a challenge. Production is frequently stopped by passer bys screaming “Hey, what are you doing, making a movie?” Was it the lights and camera that gave it away? These chronic interruptions and overall lack of respect for the doing of our job is viewed by the general public as perfectly acceptable and even considered an inalienable right by many.
It would not be considered acceptable however, if I were to walk into an accountant’s office and scream, “Hey what are you doing? Adding numbers? Are you adding numbers for any famous people? Can I add some numbers too?” This kind of interruption would require them to start their whole project over again from the very top. If this were to happen several times throughout the day a simple task could actually take 18 hours to complete. I of course would get huffy when security asked me to leave and tell all the accountants that they are just a bunch of “nobodies” anyway.
The point being that artists, regardless of the medium or level of proficiency are regarded, at best as a commodity, a marketing tool - especially helpful in increasing property values (just look at Astor Place). At worst, a plaything, a piece of celluloid created specifically for momentary amusement undeserving of the kind of simple respect commonly extended to the kid steaming milk at Starbucks.
One day, between takes I make eye contact with a certain well-groomed blonde making her way through our makeshift set on a midtown sidewalk. You know the one; oh I can’t remember her name. She works in marketing or P.R. or something? It will come to me. Anyway, she has a commanding presence, I notice this immediately. But, I ask myself, what precisely is it that commands (demands?) attention? I work in film and television, contribute to various arts magazines, and occasionally go out after dark just for fun. I am accustomed to celebrities, have seen star power up close and thoroughly enjoy it. Am I sensing the gifted white heat of a true star?
No, it is not that kind of charisma, per se, that is her…Oh, what is her name??? I wish I could remember! Is it a physical thing? A stimulation of the aesthetic side? Her perfectly cut and colored hair sporting five or six shades of blonde? No, 500.00 haircuts are a dime a dozen around here. The too tight jeans worn with Prada flip flops and a Louis Vuitton bag almost big enough to pack for a weekend in Provence? No, that’s old news. I know, the unmistakable air of refinement and elegance that is the result of generations of impeccable breeding…yeah right, we all know it is not worth continuing that thought. Let’s see, what could it be?
I notice her unusual features. They stand out to me because she is sooo well known for pointing out the physical shortcomings, real or imagined by her, of anyone she comes across - usually anyone who has less money than she. Oh, come on! What is her name? She accidentally paved a new drive way or something for, like, a country club in the Hamptons or Rhode Island? Whatever. As we make eye contact she slightly lowers her eyelids and gives a faint, smirky smile. Mona Lisa realizing she just swallowed a bad clam.
I know what it is! I know what makes her a standout! No, it’s not just photocopying her father’s Rolodex and calling it a business of her own. It’s that unmistakable air of smugness! The kind that comes from half a generation of too much money and cheating your way through prep school! The kind that gives you the indisputable right to plan photo opportunities at the greatest museums in the world like M.O.M.A and the MET! You hire DJs and host birthday parties for rap stars at these hallowed venues – you have heard that they keep art there too. Kind of like a closet. Only without the backlit shoe rack. If her name comes to me I will let you know.
An actress I was working with tells me the story of taping an episode of MTV’s The Real World. A commercial she had recently shot was premiering during this particular episode. She comes home, rewinds the tape and fast-forwards in search of her spot. She is semi-astounded at what she sees. Barely post-adolescent kids yelling, drinking, then crying on the phone. It is same sequence of events, over and over again for the duration of the episode. Somewhere in Dante’s Inferno there is a circle for the insipid where poor souls are forced to sit at badly lit bars and watch eternal loops of The Real World on video screens while being force fed shots of Jagermeister. Watch it in fast forward and get 27 minutes of your life back – and possibly avoid eternal damnation.
In 1991 when The Real World premiered on MTV it held great promise. It seemed to be following in the groundbreaking footsteps of the legendary Loud family. This is, of course, back in the days when MTV still actually had a little something to do with music and had yet to become a marketing tool for tee shirts. Not surprisingly the program has degenerated into young men who use the words “bro” and “dude” every other second and whiney girls who scream their demands for respect as “strong women” all while constantly getting drunk and having sex with the boys of the house in the ubiquitous hot tub. Lance Loud must turn in his grave every time he sees the trail he blazed into cultural history abandoned for an escalator to the mall and a gift card for Claire’s Accessories. Never, ever watch anything about anyone who has a less interesting life than you do.
I have recently read that the average man in his mid to late thirties living in New York City earns 43,000.00 per year. Surprising considering Manhattan’s high cost of living. One would think the average would be more like 150,000.00. Perhaps what is even more surprising is the fact that the lifestyles of the two would not be significantly different. Both would be working feverishly to support their crappy one-bedroom apartments, obsessing over retirement, social security and credit card debt. The main difference being that Mr. 150,000.00 per year can afford a better brand of vodka to drink away his hopes and dreams while briefly stifling his anxiety over the career he does not want and the life he does not have. They are both grateful for Internet porn.
We meet with Penny Arcade at the downtown studio she has maintained for more than 20 years. The neighborhood, like everywhere else on Manhattan Island, is filling with chic little bars, bistros and luxury loft spaces. Step through the looking glass that is Penny’s front door however and it is 1983 all over again. I half expect a pissed-off Lydia Lunch to come stumbling down the silver spray-painted hallway resplendent in ripped fishnets and stilettos on her way to cop.
Mikal Saint George: Did you have a bad reputation?
Penny Arcade: Yes.
MSG: You were a bad girl?
PA: You know I have whole show about it called Bad Reputation
and what I say is: When a girl is branded bad at 12 her world falls apart. She is rejected by her family, kids her own age and society all at the same time. Being a bad girl is not about wearing too much make-up, too short skirts or fishnet stockings. It is about being cut out and left out of society because you can’t handle the pain in your life in a way society thinks is appropriate. So your mute with rage, you act out, you’re bad.
I had a really bad reputation. Mostly from other kids, based on the fact that I didn’t fit in and that I was outspoken. Also interestingly enough, when I was twelve there was another girl who was also – I’m Italian, first generation born in America – but this girl had actually migrated. I met her, when she was ten and her mother worked in same sweatshop as my mom. She was a year older than me and she actually impersonated me and went around fucking all these boys. These Puerto Rican boys and doing all this intense stuff and saying she was me! Which I always say, how bad was her life if she thought I had a great life?
Then I got put in reform school when I was 13 with these nuns, the Sisters of the Shepherd – that movie The Magdalene Sisters was based on those nuns. Two years later she ended up there. I had actually found out from a guy in downtown New Britain, Connecticut – where everybody used to call me Gidget, that was my nickname (laughs) yeah, I know pretty funny. I was chatting with this hood on Main Street and he said “Oh, what’s your name?” I said my name is Gidget and he said, “Your not Gidget! I know Gidget – she’s a slut!” I’m like, no I’m Gidget and he’s like, “No your not, you don’t look anything like her!” Then some other girl who got put away after me said you know, this girl Fortunata -- that was her name! Imagine! Fortunata! That she was impersonating me, which is so crazy. I have been thinking I want to write a film script about it.
MSG: I was about to say I used read scripts as part of my job with a movie studio and nothing this good ever came across my desk!
PA: I know! The Sacred Heart Academy for Wayward Girls was where I was put away with nuns. Three or four of the nuns I interacted with were former fashion models! I actually want to do a Disney treatment. Two of them were lesbians. Then there was Mother Marc who was my favorite.
MSG: That is just incredible! You must write this!
PA: I know. I did it in England last year with an English cast but I didn’t have access to the people I work with in New York. The dancers were great but they were all hip-hop dancers. I couldn’t really do there what I do in New York. I am basically the person who started using erotic dancers and stripping and burlesque in 1989 – or as I like to say - before the burlesque revival there was the burlesque backlash. Somebody had to start it! I tend to get left out of that history because people want a career and they don’t tend to talk about that. So what happened is because I didn’t have access to the kind of dancers that I normally work with, which are a combination of erotic dancers and jazz dancers - people who are highly skilled, I ended up going back to the script and writing more of a one-person show out of it.
Kind of when I got involved with the gay world is when I got put away. Because they let me go home once a month and because I was totally ostracized in my hometown because I had been put away - in 1963 that was a really big deal. I ended up meeting this guy named Larry Buscaino who was this totally flamboyant, completely out fag. He was amazing, completely a dandy. Always carried his guitar. People would say “Your queer,” and he would say, “What about it?” That is why I have so much trouble with the way the so-called gay world is now. When I hear the term gay role model, I have exactly the same reaction to it as the term emerging artist. It’s like, you know, no one needed gay role models in the 1960s. That whole protectionist attitude! Yeah, lets pull people kicking and screaming out of the closet to be our role model. Why does a role model have to be someone who is famous and successful in the world?
MSG: It’s and AD campaign…
PA: What is that about? It’s a really pathetic idea because real stars are not manufactured. Any star – any one – as we know can become…I mean Kathy Hilton? Give me a break! Everyone knows real stars and has real stars in their lives. Real stars are irrepressible. They don’t need to be manufactured.
I started going to gay bars when I was fourteen. I would come out once a month when I came home. I met Larry Buscaino in this pizza parlor in my town. When I came on these once-a-month weekends I would climb out my window and he and this bunch of queens would come and pick me up at 11:00 at night when everybody in my family was asleep and take me to these gay bars in Hartford, Connecticut.
The thing that is wrong with the gay world today, like the art world, is that the gay world that I grew up in was a multi-generational thing. The really cool people were mostly over 40. The people that you wanted to work your way up to were the people over 40 who hung out at a certain table in the gay bar. You would try to position yourself so that you would hear those conversations. It was not only multi-generational, it was multi-ethnic, multi-racial and multi-economic strata. The really incredible stuff that happened in the 1960s happened because it was that clash and that combination of low art/high art where somebody who was a car mechanic by day but was a major opera head would be talking with somebody who was an opera head who was the head of a bank. That’s why the kind of art that took place in the 1960s happened - because of those kinds of combinations. I hate to break this news to people but [sotto whispers] there were people who weren’t even gay! Hanging out in gay bars! Because people who were different hung out in gay bars and nobody ever asked anybody what their sexual orientation was. In a gay bar in the 1960s it was like, wow, you want to be there? That’s cool.
That whole concept of identity politics, people were not applying their attention to identity issues. They were applying it to the real problems in the world, to the major problems of the world. Not just to identity problems which is counter evolutionary and counter revolutionary.
I started identifying myself as a fag hag because at that time in the early 1960s there were not a lot of girls in the gay bars. There would be a couple of fag hags but not many, a few lesbians but not many because dykes didn’t really go out then. When people would hear me, and of course when you are young you mimic everybody, everybody would be like, “Is she real? Is she real!” Of course because I was an obnoxious, rebellious child I would say, “I didn’t spend two months and 25,000.00 in Casablanca to have you ask me if I’m real!” So then there was rumors all through the late 1960s that Penny Arcade was a sex change.
MSG: I remember hearing that. So let me ask you something. Fortunata, starting very early in life, was imitating you to some degree. Pretending to be you. Did you feel like that was a glimpse of what your future was going to be like? You have influenced so many artists; I don’t know if you even realize how many people (laughing) steal from you!
PA: I do. I always say that the longer it takes for an artist to get recognition the luckier they are. It’s human nature to stop evolving once you get the juice. When I was 36 Karen Finley and Holly Hughes were getting written about and getting a lot of attention and I wasn’t, even though I had as big, if not bigger in some cases an audience than they did. I was very resentful. I can remember saying, "This is as good as I get. I don’t get better than this! I need to get reviewed now!" And I didn’t. I didn’t get reviewed for another four years and the interesting thing was that work changed so exponentially in those four years, which really made me feel very humble because I know that I am just like anybody else. I wanted the attention, I wanted the reviews, I wanted the acknowledgement but if I had gotten it I never would have evolved past that. I never would have done it because I didn’t believe that I could. I didn’t have that kind of faith in my own self. I think for me one of things that is curious and unique about me is that I didn’t really have sense of who I was until I was in my 40s.
In 1991 I got a telegram at PS 122 because the New York Times had written a 300 word blurb about me [she then states with wry sarcasm], they weren’t up to writing a review, and I got this telegram from somebody in Connecticut who apparently went to school with me. I have the telegram somewhere, she said:
Dear Susan, [her given name]
I was so happy to see this in the New York Times.
I always knew that you were going to be somebody really famous and important.
Or else you were going to be dead.
Could it be this girl Marilyn who lived down the road from me when I was in 7th grade? It was very interesting, I have never really understood how I was perceived. I never agreed with people’s perception of me but I never really understood it, even in New York. I always say,when Penny Arcade is considered the weirdest person downtown there’s a problem. I grew up in a time of giants, with Jack Smith and Jackie Curtis. People who were really weird! The world has changed so much in the East Village and downtown New York over the past 15 years.
PA: These people who can’t handle me, how would they ever handled Jack Smith? They would never have been able to be in the same room as Jack Smith? I am constantly surrounded by artists who are in their early 30s and want me to treat them like we are equals but we’re not. I’m 25 years older than them. I never said more than “Hello” to John Giorno until I was 44 years old, I was in too much awe of John Giorno. It’s a different world. The East Village has always been Bohemia. It is all about your lineage as an artist. The gay scene was also about your lineage and who your mentors were, the people whose footsteps you were walking. Before everybody wanted to be an artist there was the concept of living an artistic life, which is much harder to do. That was always my goal, to live an artistic life. I was always drawn to highly self-individuated people who had developed their own point of view. You develop a point of view over 30 years, you don’t develop a point of view over five years.
MSG: Thank you - absolutely!
PA: As I say in New York Values
, when you are older your own authenticity is a great comfort to you. A life cannot be purchased, a life cannot be downloaded. You have to live your life and you have to walk your path. That is your reward. That is what always drew Quentin Crisp and I to each other. Quentin recognized in me that I was…as Kieth Richards once said to me “Hello, fellow traveler.” A fellow traveler. A person who is on their path. Everybody has a path but not everybody chooses to walk their path. Some people choose to try to purchase a path or copy a path.
MSG: Yeah, they try to buy a path off the rack!
PA: Right. I know that a lot of people are influenced by the kind of work that I do. Not even counting New York or London or Sidney or any of the places where I know that I have made a very profound impact in the kind of work people do. I was in Huntsville, Texas. There is an art school there – I think it is called Sam Houston University – and they have a big writing, dance and theatre program. I was brought there to do a lecture demonstration. Dr. Miller who is the head of the art school – a great, amazing person – had said to me, “You know a lot of the kids here are big fans of your spoken word. They have this book Verses That Hurt
that you were in and they would like you to autograph it, would you consider autographing it?” I said yeah, I’ll do it.
So at the end of my lecture/demonstration I decide to do No Mona Lisa, which is in that book:
No Mona Lisa
I am magnum mouthed
I am honey snatched
My flavor changes constantly
No Mona Lisa
I stroll like a sailor
Bullets pass through me
And I keep moving
No Mona Lisa
No sidelong glance
Supposition, preposition, have no place in my communication
When I talk
When I talk
When I talk
You know exactly what I mean
Mona Lisa has no mouth
She stops at the waist
I hate that bitch
No Mona Lisa
I don’t price-down, preview or go on sale
I’m no collector’s item
No creator’s pet
No Mona Lisa
I don’t hang around
But if I have it's for you, your lucky
You can take it to the track
You can take it to the bank
You can deposit it
No Mona Lisa
I cannot be catalogued or dissertated
I cannot be viewed from a different angle
I cannot be seen in a different light
No Mona Lisa
No sidelong manipulation
I never had a father
I never learned how to be that kind of whore
You need a daddy to practice that kind of stalking
You need a daddy
I never apprenticed to my mother
I was not well for that center of attention and protection
I was nobody’s angel
I grew wild, uncultivated, ungroomed, unprotected and unpromoted
To a position of power
I know what you want, when you want it, how you want it
I deliver without a sermon
My religion has no Pope
I am a loner
You are lucky
I never learned how to simmer contentedly
I boil over continuously
Hot, sweet syrup between my legs
Hot, sweet syrup between my legs
When I’m in love I stay wet all the time
When I’m in love
When I’m in love
When I’m in love I stay wet all the time
I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I,
I stay wet all the time
I stay wet all the time
Mona Lisa has no mouth
She stops at the waist
I hate that bitch
Mona Lisa sits
Two lightning bolts in my fist
A crescent moon over my cunt
I don’t need special lights, special glass or a smoke-free environment
I am 3-D
You can touch me
I touch back, talk back, bite back
No Mona Lisa
I don't hang around
I tell you the truth
I am ruthless
No Mona Lisa
You are lucky
MSG: (along with everyone else in the room) Bravo! Jesus Christ!
PA: I performed it and afterwards all these kids – which of course were all the weirdo, queer kids – all came up. One said, “Wow, I have seen that performed so many times but I have never seen it the way you did it.” I said…what? He said, “Oh, that is one of the most popular slam pieces in Texas.” I’m like…it is??? He said, “Yeah, I’ve seen like 25 or 30 different people do it. All these different girls and some boys did it.” I’m thinking, I wrote that when I was 45, how does an 18 year old do that piece?
MSG: Do you like the fact that an 18 year old is able to grasp, or at least attempt to grasp the work of a woman in her 40s?
PA: Well, I’ve never lived a life where I would be a particular age because you learn how to be a particular age by society. I ran into Kembra [Pfahler] from Karen Black and she said, “Oh my God, I am going to be 40 and I have been on Avenue B since I was 17.” I said well, yeah, I’m going to be 50 and I’ve been on Avenue B since I was 17. She said, “You don’t look 50, you are 50?” I said, "Why would I look 50, I am still living the same life I was living when I was 17!"
The truth is that when you are young there is a great deal of insulation between you and the world. As you get older that insulation wears away. That is why people become so frightened as they get in their 40s and 50s, because all of the sudden everything that your mother told you is true. You find out that the world is a very cold and inhumane place, especially if you have chosen to go your own way your whole life and you just find out that there is not a lot of comfort in the world. The world is a very harsh place…mostly.
I think in terms of someone who is 18 and doing No Mona Lisa…Verses That Hurt
came out in 1996. The 7 inch A Cunt Is A Useful Thing
came out in 1992. I met girls at Outfest in 2000 who were 23, 22 or 20 who had bought that 7 inch when they were 11. I think they are responding to that voice of isolation because I am isolated, I am an isolated person. Young people feel their isolation very acutely before they try merging. Quentin Crisp said (She channels his voice and mannerisms dead-on), “Young people will always rebel against their elders and conform with people their own age.” That is largely what happens. I will walk around in this neighborhood and there are people who are 23 and they will look at me and they will try to ascribe some kind of behavior on me based on the fact that I am not 27. I think that is hysterically funny.
MSG: When did that happen though? We have all witnessed the homogenization of the East Village. We have all seen East Islip move on to Avenue A, but when did everyone start living from the same press release?
PA: Part of it is, and I hate to be a conspiracy theorist, but the show New York Values
, which I did in 2002, is about the comodification of rebellion. Rebellion has been commodified which takes the total teeth out of it. People come up to me who are 20, 23 years old and they say, “I am an activist too!” You don’t call yourself an activist! Your community calls you an activist. It’s like saying you’re a saint.
MSG: It’s like being a self-proclaimed diva. It doesn’t count when you call yourself a diva. Everyone else has to ascribe that to you and then maybe…maybe you qualify.
PA: It would be all right if people who were calling themselves activists were actually activists. You can say you’re a Buddhist without meditating. You can say you’re a communist without going to meetings but you can’t say you’re an activist with out acting. You’re not an activist because you occasionally show up in your dorm or a coffee shop and say something annoying. You have to be selflessly working, usually behind the scenes. People think that being an activist means that you are standing up and being seen. Activists are behind the scenes.
MSG: It’s also not about working merely for the title. People are so salivating for their 15 minutes…
PA: Its all been gentrified. There has been a gentrification of neighborhoods but there is also a gentrification of ideas. What I see in the whole Riot Grrrl movement, which I really embraced in 1992 because Riot Grrrls started coming to me. I said here is a feminism that I can identify with. I always was a feminist but I was not a second wave feminist, which I was totally annoyed by. When I was 17 all the second wave feminists like Robin Morgan really wanted me in their camp because I was 17 and I said to them, "This is just tea party for the wives of leftist political assholes." And they weren’t mad at me, they still wanted me to be with them. I told them I don’t hate men! All the men I know are either gay or they're OK. Amazingly enough I had been raped five times before I was 18 and I still didn’t think that it was men – just men – that were raping me. Something was raping me and it happened to be men but I didn’t think that this meant that all men – I didn’t think rape was the province just of men
MSG: That is incredibly profound! Where in you did you find the strength to maintain that outlook?
PA: I don’t know, I really don’t know. I know when I was 37 an astrologer was doing my chart and she said, “Oh, you have Jupiter rising and that gives you a great deal of grace, you are a person of tremendous grace.” I said, "Really?" She knew a lot about me and I asked why she had said that and she said, “Well, for instance you were raped five times before you were 18 and you don’t hate men!”
I think there are some elements that are in our nature, it doesn’t matter what age you are. I know when I turned 20, Lisa Robinson, Danny Fields and a whole bunch of New York tastemakers in 1970 gave me a birthday party and they all said they were so relieved that I was no longer a teenager. They said that I was hard to take as a teenager because I was that kind of idiot savant child. But then I got very dumb in my 30s and 40s so it doesn’t count. You have your periods where you collapse then you have your areas where you are profound. I think there is this profoundness in everybody. We just have our own little area where something grows really well there all by itself and then the rest of it we have to work hard to develop. A lot of the stuff that we really need to develop we don’t want to develop. We're afraid to develop because we think we can’t develop it. We all know what we need but we’re afraid or we think that we can’t.
MSG: How do you get over fear? You must experience fear at some point.
PA: I experience fear all the time. I live with fear constantly and I talk about it constantly.
MSG: Maybe you don’t get over fear but how do you stand up to it and move forward?
PA: You first have to be willing to tolerate the feeling. You have to sit with your fear for a really long time to discover what the nature of it is. I am somebody who spent years and years and years running away from my fear. Even though I ran away from my fear by running into it. That is the way some of us do it. That’s why I feel right now the way I thought I would feel when I was about 27. I am sort of like just figuring it all out now. Quentin Crisp used to say, "The purpose of life is to reconcile your glowing opinion of yourself and what your friends call the trouble with you." That is absolutely true. That is also a minefield. If your really isolated you may have one or two people in your life who tell you what is wrong with you, which we never want to hear. If you are not terribly isolated you get a lot of different ideas from different people about what is wrong with you. What people think you should do.
When I feel like that I will often put on Otis Redding, I have lived my life through Rock & Roll. A lot of my performance is designed so that I can play records and make people listen to them! In real life if somebody comes to my house I try to make them listen to a song and they won't do it. But when they are in the theatre and there are 300 of them then they will all listen to the song. I got that from Otis Redding, that point where he sings, “I cant do what ten people tell me to do” in Sitting On The Dock Of The Bay – it’s a great moment in that song. That’s the element.
I remember being at Mass Art and being there talking to their Masters program and this guy – I was talking like this, like I do, all different subjects – put up his hand and goes, “Can you just give us something that I can go back to my studio with?”
MSG: What does that even mean?
PA: He wanted to go and make work and he thought the visiting artist’s purpose is to give him something to go on so he can make art. I said this is a Masters program right? He said, “Yes.” He was really annoyed with me. I said that means you have been in art school six years, right? He said, “Yes.” I said you have been in art school for six years and you still think something from outside of you is going to make you make art? He said, “Well just tell us when you get rid of self doubt, how long does it take?” I said you don’t want to get rid of your self-doubt – that is your only tool as an artist!
You can always tell the work of people who have gotten rid of their self-doubt. They make horrible, dead work. Fear is the same thing as self-doubt. You need to embrace your fear because everybody comes into this sphere with a few things that are yours, your problems are yours, your fears are yours, your heartbreak is yours. Mining that is so important in terms of living an artistic life - which I think is so much more profound than actually being an artist. Everybody’s an artist now. Everybody wants to be an artist. I didn’t even realize that I was an artist until I was in my late 40s, I really didn’t! I was striving to live an artistic life. I was incredibly famous in New York in the late 1960s, which was different than being famous now. I was really well known because the scene was very small and because I was a performer. Oh, and I had 34 DD breasts [back] when the only way you could get those was to be born with them. And because I was a major fag hag. Which is what I started to say earlier.
If you asked John Vacarro - who was my director in the Playhouse of the Ridiculous when I was 17 until I was 21 – even though I was incredibly talented and super high energy, I never had the killer instinct to be a star. I was always a star but everyone wanted me to go to Hollywood and I didn’t want to go. That wasn’t what I wanted. That is why when I made the statement at the Howl! Festival launch where I said that my loyalty to downtown New York was not really rewarded, some people got upset.
What I was really going for was this long-term development. It is kind of strange to me that nine out of ten 24-year-olds know who Margaret Cho is and they have never heard of me. I find that really odd. I was complaining to my shrink about not having a career like Sandra Bernhard or Magaret Cho – which I find ridiculous – and he said, “Susana, you have spent your entire career criticizing the main stream and now you expect them to reward you?”
I realized that, with all do respect to Margaret Cho and Sandra Bernhard, they blow smoke up the collective gay arse! They are the cheerleaders and I’m not. I am the one who is saying that I am tired of hearing people whine about how hard it is growing up gay and having your family hate you. What about the rest of us? Our families hated us for no reason! At least you have the moral high ground. At least you can say my family hated me because I was gay and you can get on with the rest of your life! Look at me some 30 years later, I’m still saying my mother hated me. I don’t know why she hated me, she never told me! Being a lesbian was just one reason why my mother hated me.
Also, with what happened with the gay world, everything has been rearranged. Who would ever have believed 30 years ago gay people would judge people on the basis of their sexuality. That’s really weird! Margaret Cho’s huge success does not really come from her saying she is bi-sexual. It comes from her positing that she is a dyke.
I toured all over the world doing Bitch!Dyke!FagHag!Whore!
which was mainstream, in Australia I did 140 shows in 14 months, I’m totally mainstream in Australia. Last night at dinner my friend Richard, a virtuoso violinist, asked, “How could you in 1994 tour a show called Bitch!Dyke!FagHag!Whore!
all over the world and be in major newspapers everywhere? How did you do that? It was just part of the zeitgeist, but it just didn’t carry over. People like Lea DeLaria and people who knew about that in 1994 – Sandra Bernhard, whoever - were not rushing into Gay Pride events saying “Oh my God, you have got to bring in Penny Arcade and Bitch!Dyke!Fag Hag!Whore!”
That has to do with gay marketing and people being careerist. It’s not really about getting the word out there. That’s why I despise gay marketing so much. I have been known to say if I see one more rainbow kitchen magnet I a going to kill somebody! You identify, you brand…queer is not a state of mind. When I started saying queer in the 1970s, it was not against the heterosexual world. It was against the so-called gay people who were deciding who was a part of the gay community and who wasn’t. The people in the 1970s who came out and immediately formed committees and said we couldn’t say dyke or fag or whatever. We were saying queer to upset them. So queer was pre Queer- which is a brand. It’s no longer a state of mind that by force sets you apart.
For the past six years when I go to universities I have said, "You are not queer." You are not a 23 year old queer with your 27 queer friends – queer means you have no friends. Queer means you have sustained a period of exclusion so profound that it would never occur to you in a million years to exclude anyone on the basis of something so trivial as their sexual orientation, their ethnicity, their gender or the color of their skin. You just wouldn’t do it because you have experienced a profound sense of exclusion. Which is what Quentin Crisp was all about. Quentin used to say, “My life has been a journey from the outskirts of the world to heart of humanity.” The great heartbreak of Quentin’s life was not being beaten up in the street in the 1930s because he was different and wore lipstick. The great heartbreak of his life was being put down by gays and lesbians in the 1990s because he wouldn’t conform to the gay company line. That’s something that people are really going to have to come to terms with. As Quentin said in my new documentary Beyond Queer: Bohemian New York and Cultural Amnesia which showed at Outfest, “The answer to are you gay is not I am, I am but, not today, thank you.”
It’s very complex what is happening right now, I think is so dangerous and terrible because people are not understanding backlash. They are not understanding that the flipside of always being left out is that you want to be special. People like me grew up feeling like I can’t be like everyone else and everyone in my town hates me so I am special. It’s so hard now. I find young people are very ageist and really lame. I always say nobody who is young is cool. Not everybody, there are lots of throwbacks. When your young though the most you can do is try not to be uncool so that cool people will let you hang out with them so you can learn to be cool. Nobody is just cool.
MSG: You are absolutely 100,000% correct.
PA: I was saying that in my show Rebellion Cabaret at Fez and there were all these 20-year-olds in the audience giving me the evil eye. I would say I know you hate me but I am not trying to put you down, it is a message of hope! If I thought I was as cool as I was ever going to be at 22, I would have hung myself! There was the idea that you would evolve.