Trigger Magazine, August, 2005
Howl! Festival 2005
by Liberation Iannillo
Liberation: How did you become involved with the Howl! Festival?
Penny Arcade: They called me. I am a figure of prominence in the East Village art scene, both as a community member and a theatre artist. I have a problem with artists who just show up for high profile activities. They are never there when people are getting evicted…
Liberation: Or to help save the Liz Christie Garden.
Penny Arcade: Right. I have lived in the East Village since I was seventeen years old and it represents a lot to me, it saved my life. The East Village and the Lower East Side are very special even though I came here as a runaway and got sucked up into the street drug scene.
I am by nature a very loyal person so the Lower East Side, the East Village, and the downtown art scene represented my family. I was thrown out of my family so whereas I came here and it should have been a spiral downhill into drugs, prostitution, murder and death, instead I emerged as this performing creature and that was the magic of the downtown art scene. I didn’t come here looking to be an artist. That was something that used to happen here. There was a magic down here where somehow, when it all shook out, magical things happened, there was nothing like it. Luc Sante, who wrote Low Life, calls New York an accident corridor. In my misguided loyalty, instead of just being loyal to the elements of it, I became loyal to the place and to the scene which, because of AIDS, really changed. That can’t be stressed enough.
The East Village was the art scene largely because there was this extraordinary type of person, largely gay but not only gay. I really get annoyed when I hear people like Sarah Shulman, who I love and respect a lot because of the pain she endured from her family for being rejected for being gay. [She] always wanted to divide people into being gay and straight. The East Village wasn’t like that. Are you still straight if you live in the East Village? I don’t think so! I always say that straight, in the 60’s and the 70’s, didn’t mean heterosexual, it meant narrow minded. It meant you were either aligned with the evil dominant culture or you were not. There was this diverse, extraordinary energy in the East Village in the 70’s and 80’s that… this is what people don’t understand about multi-generationalism. Jack Smith, Peter Hujar, Jackie Curtis and endless other people who died in the 80’s, they were in their late 30’s to their late 60’s. They had started out in their teens so there are always these generations. I am like John Giorno because I am one of those people who fall between generations.
There was always a great interest in the history of this neighborhood and the people who lived and performed here. Most of us were either rejected by our families, or we rejected our families and the mainstream culture so we sought people to recreate families and recreate our history. There was a great interest in being aware of your lineage and celebrating your lineage. The kind of careerism that goes on today was unthought of then. People would always tell you who their influences were, they were excited to tell you.
Liberation: It seemed to be more organic then.
Penny Arcade: It was more organic, absolutely! Now, because of the academic art scene which has gone on since the 70’s, the kind of people who set out to be artists, who go to school to be an artist…that is a very specific mentality. That is a very competitive kind of person and they will always make art school-type art, they can’t help it. Healthy, balanced people do not become performers because healthy, balanced people do not have such low self-esteem that they have to a) try to give themselves the idea that they are more talented than other people and b) lie and hide who they are influenced by and that is a standard practice right now. I would personally be humiliated to not talk about the people who I think are the most talented.
When I see someone with their four piercings and six tattoos, they are doing spoken word and performance art at 27 and have an MFA in art to tell them how to go, where to go, who to copy and how to a grant for it! It is not the same thing as these highly original people and I am not one of those highly original people. I have some originality but I am not someone, who, for example, it is 1925 and I decide to make this dramatic leap into art that has never been seen before.I am working on a theme that was presented to me. I find it obnoxious that people who are working on the 77th variation of that theme, whereas I am working on the 2nd, have no idea that they are working on the 77th variation and they have no modesty and no awareness of how that variation got to them. People act as if they are exhibiting great originality because they wear ripped black stockings, glitter, or proto-punk wear. I feel like saying, "If you think I am so old school, why are you dressing the way I did 25 years ago?"
I commented to Charles Henri Ford about the number of writers that he published not only in Blue but in View which was this famous magazine in the 40’s that Andy Warhol named Interview Magazine as an homage to. Charles was the first person to publish Genet in America, he published Allen Ginsberg, and I said to him, “You’re so amazing because you promoted so many artists,” and he said, “I wasn’t promoting artists, I was exercising my taste!” He was someone with very high self-esteem and I like to think of myself as at least being honest when it comes to the fact that there are other tremendous talents in the world. I do that to the extent of telling my audience who else to go and see and have sold out many shows just on my recommendation because I know the audience can’t only just go to see me.
The art world is always talking about the shrinking audience. Well, the shrinking audience is coming from the stupid careerism and from this emerging arts obsession. The real audience that existed for so many years in the East Village has abandoned the venues because they are being presented constantly with student artists. Not a mix of artists which they would totally support but just this one kind of artist who is an art school artist and the public knows more about the history of the medium…
Liberation: …than the artists do.
Penny Arcade: It’s really quite pathetic. I became involved with Howl! and FEVA because they both wanted me to be there at the inception because it is the type of work I have always been doing. I made sure I knew and saw all the work that was out there that was great. I never went by reviews, I made it my business to seek out performers and I still do. The idea that the media has about Howl! is that they think it is some kind of a nostalgia for the way things were. Sorry! It is already so far beyond the way things were. I have done performances in 1987 where I am talking about the gentrification of the East Village, not just the gentrification of the buildings and the neighborhoods. There is also the gentrification that happens to ideas and that gentrification is the ugliest. What has happened in the art world and what has happened in the gay world are atrocities. It is spitting in the faces of people who lived and died for the things that they believed in and now people are coming along with gay marketing ideas or lame art career ideas. A lot of gay marketing people right now are freaking out because the youngest generation is completely rebelling against the whole commercialization of the rainbow and I have been talking about it since 1992.
Liberation: I am on the fence with the whole issue. Take the Fab Five. Part of me finds them incredibly offensive because they perpetuate the stereotype that gay people are all just very funny and our talents lie within making over pudgy, middle-aged men so they can get married, though we can’t. Then the other part of me thinks, well, at least there is some gay representation on television even if it isn’t representative of me.
Penny Arcade: But the truth of the matter is that the desire for representation is exactly the same as Penny Arcade saying, “Where’s my representation, when has the gay world represented me?” I got my ass kicked all through the 60’s and the 70’s, what gay pride event have I ever been featured at? You are talking about the mainstream world and this is really a fantasy. It is like me saying to my shrink, “Why aren’t I getting this recognition from the mainstream?” and him saying to me, “[because] you have spent your entire life criticizing the mainstream.” If the mainstream is made up of frightened, narrow minded people who are worried about their Visa card and who are worried about what their next door neighbors are going to think, and they can’t even be kind to one another or their children, why should they be kind and thoughtful and considerate to a bunch of people they do not even know?
I think there is a tremendous infantilization in the gay world that did not exist in the gay world I grew up in, which was rugged, fierce, and ballistic. What people today are going to create a Stonewall riot? It’s not going to happen! People who rebel are always the people who have nothing to lose and what the so-called gay community did by pushing for gay marriage this election year was retarded! They should have pushed for a class-action suit through the Supreme Court based on the separation of church and state that would have given gay people the same right as heterosexual people have because heterosexuals do not have a right to get married without a marriage license and a marriage license is secular. The so-called gay community, which I don’t believe in, is either a bunch of self-serving activists who are not looking out for the greater good of all or they are marketing people who are just looking out for their own wallets. They could have saved democracy. We are all entitled under the laws of the same treatment meaning we can all apply for marriage licenses, licenses to join our finances and our fiscal lives. Because really it is all about finance, it is not really about emotions. Gay people today who are largely middle class have a very emotional attachment to gay marriage and it is infantile.
You are looking at the same powers that be who are hiding the destroyed bodies of the men and women who are fighting this totally illegal war in Iraq! The same people, who are in collusion to hide the truth of what we are doing in Iraq, not only to the Iraqi people but to our own soldiers who come back, they have the nerve to stand on the floor of the Senate and the floor of the Congress and talk about the rest of us not being patriotic? These supposedly uber-patriotic people are voting to shut down the VA hospitals. They are hiding these people coming back who are not being given housing…
Liberation: And they are kids! They are in their 20’s! What is the next generation going to become?
Penny Arcade: I believe we are in a horrific thirty year period of totalitarianism. I have deep resentment for the so-called gay community because instead of leaping on to the extraordinary brave work that people did all the way into the 80’s, they have flip-flopped and started judging people on the basis of their sexuality and have recreated the same institutions of hatred and oppression that all of these people before them have given their lives to fight. It doesn’t make any sense! Some 20 year old is going to judge me because I am bisexual? Strangely enough, a disproportionate amount of my friends are lesbians as compared to gay men because the gay men of today, who have the attention span of three Madonna videos, are not my scene. I need fierce intelligence. They can all just keep going to see Margaret Cho, they’re not my people.
The truth is that at different stages of your life you change. I will probably become a huge gay icon when I am in my 80’s, which is how the world goes because the world is not smart.
Liberation: I don’t know if I can out right blame the media but I feel that the way information is presented to the public makes them lazy. I feel as though that in the age of the sound bite, it is not cool to think anymore.
Penny Arcade: There isn’t much thinking involved, that’s for sure. The gay world and the art world are inextricably intertwined. The truth is the same for both of them which is the things that set you apart and made you shine in these groups, besides physical beauty which is always important, was your intellect. Somebody who was a great conversationalist or someone who was very knowledgeable or who was very witty would always beat out somebody with fabulous cheekbones. Both of those worlds mediated through the spoken word, it was all about conversation and exchanging information and that was all oral history. The way music is created in bars now, people don’t have to talk. Conversation is an art form and that art form that has been lost. People are incapable of having a conversation and frequently they have danger-buzzwords so that when you’re talking, if you’re not talking in a highly encoded way so that the person can hopscotch in what you are saying and meaning, they get very upset.
Liberation: When did everyone become so vapid?
Penny Arcade: The gay world and the art world both existed because mainstream society was vapid. The dominant culture is vapid because it is based on fear and greed and these things make you smaller, not bigger. AIDS wiped out an entire generation or two.
Liberation: People my age and younger never saw that. They never saw the suffering that so many people went through. They didn’t experience all of their friends dying around them. It is scary because this younger generation thinks that because there are drugs that can treat HIV, they think they can do meth and bareback and everything is going to be OK. Nobody talks about the nasty side effects these treatments have.
Penny Arcade: Quentin Crisp said, “The young always want to rebel against their elders and conform with their peers.” It’s interesting in that AIDS is romanticized in part and then it is also ignored in part. We all know there are highly resistant strains of AIDS out there. I was thinking this the other day, it was the first time it occurred to me because I guess for a pretty self-centered person I’m not self-centered enough. People ask me why I am not as well known in America as I am in Britain, Australia and Europe. I realized it is because of AIDS and in the 80’s I was taking care of my friends. I was performing but my main day to day life had to do with visiting people at home, visiting people in the hospital, and bringing people food. Everyone I knew was sick.
My loyalty to the Lower East Side has been, in some ways, misguided. I say that only because now the whole way of life and the whole scene that I was really loyal to has all but disappeared. That is why I think, with the success of Bitch!Dyke!FagHag!Whore! in mainstream venues all over the world, that transformational theater is profound and has a profound effect on people. People would come to that show who were homophobic and then would wait in line afterwards to tell me that they suddenly understood. That is why people in New York came and saw Bitch!Dyke!FagHag!Whore! eight, fourteen, sixteen times. People would bring everyone from their work, they would bring everyone they knew. That is the thing about art, we want to share the art that affects us. For me literature, film, music, poetry, painting and theatre have always been super important to me.
What we are trying to do with Howl! is… we are not going to stem the tide of change that is happening but we still want to make a space for the kind of people who have always been drawn to the East Village. The East Village is a state of mind. There are people of all ages who are drawn down here, whether they can afford it or not, because they feel that spirit and that spirit is not going to be killed off right away. A lot of that spirit came not only from the artists who were here but from the people who lived an artistic life and that is why the Howl! Festival exists. The New York Times tends not to write about or review me, Bina Sharif, and a lot of other highly achieved, mid-career artists who have a lot to give to younger audiences as well as older audiences. Younger artists need to see the kind of work that we have created to feed into what they are doing.
The Howl! Festival is largely un-curated so that everybody can be part of it which is a positive thing. On the other hand, it leaves the media to once again fixate on the same three or four names.
Liberation: I thought it was very important that you mentioned that at the press conference earlier this month that though we all love Debbie Harry and Moby, there are a lot of people out there to discover.
Penny Arcade: Right. The issue is that the media is always going to glom onto the same names because the media is frightened. The public looks at the mainstream media to give them the idea of who they should go see. There are amazing things going on at Howl!. This year Chris Rael is doing three things that are really interesting. Last year he booked seven nights of performance at Living Room, with seven artists every night and it was the most amazing curation of music in the East Village that you could see. There were phenomenal people every night of all different age ranges. This year he is presenting a film he has made out of it, LES Is More, which is your crash course into the most original music going on by people who gave the East Village its reputation for making this highly independent, alternative music. The same night there is going to be Tale End of a Dream which is a film he is doing about his fifteen years he has done with his band, Church Of Betty, which is made up of independent artists playing his music. This year on August 25th he is curating one night of music called Stringapalooza which is all of these downtown bands that use string instruments, it is going to be an amazing night of music.
Liberation: Who else are you looking forward to seeing?
Penny Arcade: I am really looking forward to the video programs that are going to be at the Pioneer Theatre, especially Clayton Patterson’s video. I am looking forward to seeing what Bina Sharif is going to put on this year. Way The Fuck Off Broadway is funny, both Chris and I are going to be participating. I have to say that WTFOB, just the title, is such an art school mentality because all of us who are working downtown felt our work deserved to be on Broadway and we didn’t like being ghettoized. It is one thing to be considered too radical and too out-there for the mainstream but when the mainstream comes downtown and makes it so we can’t live our alternative lifestyle because the rents are too high, and they drive out our Spanish and ethnic neighbors, the lifestyle that we live that was once alternative is no longer alternative because of the economic conditions. Calling something WTFOB becomes a kind of co-optation. As I said in my show New York Values, “When uptown becomes downtown, where is there to go for an underground superstar except up in flames?”
I was in California and I met this filmmaker, Daniel Peddle, at Outfest and he made this film called The Aggressives which is about these black dykes in The Bronx who are very masculine but they identify as women and as lesbians. It is totally different from the whole trendy trans thing which apparently is making a lot of people nuts.
Liberation: Look at Amanda LePore, who would have thought that she would have the career she has. I think that takes a huge amount of balls to do what she has done. I give her a lot of credit.
Penny Arcade: I have been friends with transsexuals my entire life. It never even made a blip on the screen when I met my first transsexual when I was fourteen. I had no reaction whatsoever. The thing with Amanda is that her body is an art form and I have no problem with that. I think it is so interesting right now that so many people under the age of twenty are trans-identified and it is not the boys, it is the girls. While they dress as men and have all that going on, they are not cutting off their breasts and they do not want to be boys, they identify as lesbians. I said to Daniel, “I’m done. I feel done in the East Village, I really don’t fit into this neighborhood anymore.” He said, “What! You can’t leave the East Village! You are the East Village. I mean if you weren't here, it wouldn't be the East Village anymore.”
Liberation: Where would you go?
Penny Arcade: I don’t know, maybe LA because it’s hard to commodify LA. As I say, “How do you destroy a strip mall? How can you tell?” It is not as easy to brand it the way the East Village is being eaten up. Part of the reason I moved to New York was that it was anonymous and New York is losing its anonymity and it is becoming suburbanized and I have been saying this since 1993.
Liberation: It is a shame because with the buildings going up like the one at Astor Place and the one on Chrystie Street, they are being advertised as being in close proximity to SoHo and the East Village so residents can take in the artistry but what they fail to recognize is that as they bring these buildings in, they force the community out! They removed the cube from Astor Place for cleaning yet they have always cleaned it without moving it. I can understand that they didn’t want kids loitering outside their glass castle but come on.
Penny Arcade: That’s the whole point. The kind of people who have the money to buy into the East Village are not the same kind of people who support the venues that need a lot of support because of the amount their rent it. What has happened in the East Village and downtown, and this is a word to everybody who thinks that they are young, cool and trendy. People who are young, cool and trendy are no longer taking their cues from the underground. They are taking their cues from the mainstream and they are going to see the people that the mainstream magazines are writing about. They are not going to see people like me. They think that Margaret Cho is underground and edgy.
Liberation: Just because someone gains weight and says fuck a lot doesn’t make them edgy.
Penny Arcade: It also has to do with how you are promoted. I did Wed-Rock last year and they put me on 6th. I thought I was going to go on early before the people who are more mainstream than me. I went on after Sleater Kinney, who I love, after Margaret Cho, after Sandra Bernhard, and by the time I went on that audience had already seen all of their favorites that they read about in Rolling Stone. There was a very small part of the audience who knew me, it was a very vocal part of the audience and they were very excited about me being there. All of the performance that I did... unlike some people, I am not there to blow smoke up the gay ass! I was saying we should be defending democracy by holding up separation of church and state, that we had an opportunity and a responsibility. A lot of the material I did was, “If I see one more rainbow kitchen magnet I am going to kill somebody… since when does the rainbow only belong to gays and lesbians… please wear the rainbow because then all the people who are ashamed to be gay will see you’re gay and then they’ll feel better about being gay… then everybody will know who is gay, no, not like the Nazis, they wanted to know who was gay in a bad way.” A lot of the material I was doing…
Liberation: Did they know what to make of it?
Penny Arcade: People were screaming, they loved it because people are really being fed a politically correct line. They were flipping out and people were talking because they really didn’t know who I was. Afterwards I came off stage and Sandra and Margaret come out with their entourage and they are just looking at me. They are not coming over to me. If Sandra and Margaret have never heard of me then that is really pathetic.
At Outfest I was on a panel called Queer Failure. Failure is something that people are really afraid of. I always believed that I was going to be a household name and I thought I would do so by becoming really good at what I did. I had no idea that it had nothing to do with that. Quentin Crisp was right, all I had to do was show my breasts and I would be Pamela Anderson. My standards were really high because my standards came from the gay men that raised me. It took me a long time before I read the writing on the wall and went, oh my god, what was I thinking? It’s hard to talk about this stuff without people thinking that it is spilled milk. You can’t depend anymore on the downtown public to promote you to visibility because they are taking their cues from the mainstream. I was really well known in New York in the 80’s because I performed 40 weeks a year here. I am now in my 50’s, and I could go out and perform like that but why would I? I do sometimes because I want to see the look on young peoples faces when they see someone like me perform, it flips them out. When they see me, they see the political, the funny, the extreme individuality, the totally off the wall point of view, and the intelligence that makes them tie the strings together in their own mind. I am their dream.