Art In Conversation
PENNY ARCADE with Nick Bennett
“You’re not a legend only because of what you do, but because of what you participate in”
Many of us find ourselves using the words “strange,” “trying,” or “surreal” to describe “the times we find ourselves in,” but no one else may understand just how ridiculous the New York of the past and present is than Penny Arcade. To quote directly from her bio, Penny is an internationally respected performance artist, writer, poet, and experimental theater maker. She is the author of 16 scripted performance plays and hundreds of performance projects. Her work has always focused on the other and the outsider, giving voices to those marginalized by society. Her willingness to speak truth to power, and her decades-long focus on the creation of community and inclusion as the goals of performance, and her efforts to use performance as a transformative act, mark her as a true original in American theater and performance.
Having seen Penny live and many other of her performances online and on her Patreon page, you can understand why she is called “the Queen of New York Underground Theater since the 1980s,” a title she has earned through her respect for artistic lineage, her tireless process of self-individuation, and her passionate interaction with her audience. The way in which she draws the audience into a truly living theater is something that transcends any physical space, and can be felt even from the quarantine of one’s home.
The following is an edited conversation from our Zoom conversation that took place on April 14, 2020, the Brooklyn Rail's 21st New Social Environment daily lunchtime conversation. To get the full essence of Penny, I urge you to watch her animated presence in full on the Rail's Youtube page.
Nick Bennett (Rail): It is my absolute pleasure and honor to be in conversation with you, Penny. Before we start our conversation, I want to know how you are doing?
Penny Arcade: I’m excited, I love the Brooklyn Rail! The Rail has been a blow against mediocrity since it started. There’s so little out there that isn’t a co-optation. We’ve been dealing with the commodification of rebellion for years—honestly, since the ’80s. The Rail represents lineage, it represents the generations of people who are interested in history, in going forwards and backwards. I don’t think people really understand what “contemporary” means. This is a huge problem in the world. Contemporary means everyone who is active right now, not everybody who is active between the ages of 18 and 37. Someone like Jonas Mekas was contemporary until the absolute last second that he was alive. And who was younger and more engaged than Jonas Mekas? Nobody. I think that this is very important and it’s something that the Rail holds space for.
But I’m doing great. Even though we’ve lost so many friends, including the music producer Hal Wilner, and Rose Royale, also known as Eddie Shostak, who was a great painter and performer, both just last week. There’s a lot of people that I know who are sick right now. I think many people aren’t taking this seriously. Given the life that these friends have lived, for them to be killed by this very small virus, which is doing so much damage, is such an ignominious way to die. But I’m very happy that some friends have survived.
Rail: That’s great news to receive.
Arcade: I’m an introvert, so being at home is no sweat. All the introverts are having a great time, because we don’t want to go out anyway. I’ve been so busy because I do Facebook live twice a week on Thursdays and Sundays at 5 p.m. There are a lot of people who want to convene, we want to be together. That’s the whole point isn’t it? I came back to New York in 1981 when I was 30, for one reason and one reason only: for artistic community, and that does not mean just artists. It means artist and audience, it means all people who are interested in culture—politics being what we do to each other, culture being how we talk about what we do to each other. For me, the audience has always been a part of it. They’re not the wallet; they’re not separate in the experience of art.
Steve Zehentner, my long-time collaborator of 28 years—it’s actually his birthday today! Steve is saying the same thing, “Oh my God, I’m so busy!” A lot of us are busier now than we were before. I’m currently writing my memoir, and I’m connecting with the public live on social media. Long before art schools promoted a thing called “social-practice,” I was giving out my phone number to the entire audience after every show! I did that from 1985 until 1996, and then when more people were online, I started giving out my email. I still give out my phone number and people call, “Oh! I thought I’d get a machine.” And I say, “You would … if I wasn’t home.”
Rail: [Laughs] Happy birthday Steve! What projects were you working on just before we all had to enter quarantine?
Arcade: The last show that we just started, Notes from the Underground at the restaurant and event space Pangea on Second Avenue and East 11th St, which has been around since 1985 as a place where artists and audiences have gathered intergenerationally. This new focuses on what Steve and I feel is happening in this country and around the world with this enormous swing to the right; this anarchiste de droite—right-wing “anarchism” from the liberal world which includes this horrible form of censorship and controlling language, particularly from the academic queer world, where you want to just slap them. In Notes from the Underground we were grappling with watching so-called liberals play right into the hands of the right wing and unwittingly supporting totalitarianism. I get so tired of hearing about “the Left” in the US—there is no Left left. Now I’m doing a lot of research on the conspiracy theories around COVID-19. I am very worried about the failure of democracy, of totalitarianism, but I’ve been worried about this since I was 17.
The supposed queer liberals are all “Marsha P. Johnson!” and all “Jack Smith!” But they have CO-OPTED those artists who are dead and cannot speak for themselves. Marsha P. Johnson would be smacking them all! For example, saying that Marsha P. Johnson was a trans woman—sorry, Marsha P. Johnson was a queen. There was no way that Marsha wasn’t going to be full-on Malcolm three times a month. Marsha did not want to be a woman. Marsha wanted to be Marsha except when they felt like being Malcom! That film Happy Birthday, Marsha! (2018) had me in a rage. The act of portraying Marsha in some perfect pink boho art-deco apartment, when Marsha was in fact homeless except for when she stayed with Randy Wicker, was THEFT. What part of Black Street Queen do these people not understand? Then they show Marsha on her pink telephone telling someone she is performing at Stonewall that night—well Stonewall didn’t have performances in those years, and certainly not on the evening of the Stonewall Uprising. Marsha wasn’t there during the initial fight. These same kinds of people try to co-opt the artist Jack Smith, and they have no idea that they would not have lasted two minutes in Jack’s presence. But what can you do with this erasure of history that we’re dealing with? It’s a critical issue. One thing I always found really supportive and endearing in the Brooklyn Rail, is that the Rail also fights against the erasure of history. I don’t know why every 25-year-old wants to be important. Your crowning glory is you’re 27? Develop! I’m going to be 70 and I’m just hitting it! There’s no 25-year-old that can out rock me.
Rail: Not possible.
Arcade: Every generation is tethered to the values it comes up in. This is a super-reality that we cannot escape from. The values of my generation were that you had to pay your dues, you stood in line. You learned from other people and their experiences, and that gave you the insight to develop more rapidly in some ways than they did. The bias of people in their 20s is that they deserve all of this respect whether they’ve achieved anything or not. The way I confront my bias is that when it comes to acting on an option—I have many more options than somebody in their 20s, 30s, or 40s because I have more experience—but at the moment I have to act on that option, I’m just like somebody who’s never done anything. It’s like the Buddhist concept of “beginner’s mind,” to be totally open. What’s better than being a beginner? Nothing! It’s like in acting, or in music, or in poetry—a beginner who isn’t copying or putting it on will always be more interesting than somebody who has bad habits in their art form. Better to be a stark beginner.
Rail: There are many things I’d like to talk about today, and you’ve already begun to touch on some of them. These intergenerational exchanges that need to happen, and how institutions factor into these exchanges is something I’d like to return to. But as a framework for our conversation today, I want to focus on New York; not just how it will be affected by COVID-19, but by so many other factors that have been changing it over time, since your work has so much to do with this. I want to play a few minutes from a video by Jonas Mekas titled Letter to Penny Arcade, and in it he is responding to a question that you asked him: “Why do you like New York?”
Arcade: The question was actually, “Why do you stay in New York?”
Rail: Ah! That’s an interesting distinction, yet it still leads to larger questions for many of us: is it possible to stay in New York? Where is the future of radical art being made? Can that stay in New York?
Arcade: So wonderful to see and hear Jonas, always a poet! What is so beautiful here is how New York grew inside Jonas. This is what he is talking about here and we all experience this—even people in their 20s who have only been in New York a short time will see a lot of places they loved disappear because of COVID-19. It’s interesting to consider New York during this pandemic and what it means, because a lot of people, even you Nick, have asked me how I feel toward COVID-19 vis-à-vis my experience of the peak years of the AIDS epidemic in the ’80s and ’90s. Except for the not knowing, which is a similarity between then and now—how you get it, who’s getting it, why is this person dying in three days and this person survives—we could still go out, be together, and gather. Now, it’s this enforced isolation, which is hard for so many people, especially the extroverts. People think I’m an extrovert because I’m a performer, but introversion and extroversion are just about how you act in and process the world.
Rail: Nostalgia and longing are at the core of your show Longing Lasts Longer (2015-2019). When I saw the show last October at Joe’s Pub, I was reminded at one point of Fran Lebowitz in Martin Scorsese’s documentary Public Speaking (2010) where she says, “The culture is soaked in nostalgia. That’s caused by the older generation, not by 17 year old’s—Whoever is driving, they’re the one that has the accident.” Who do you think is behind or responsible for this saturation of nostalgia? And do you see it as a threat to the future of New York?
Arcade: Gentrification has been a hallmark of my work since 1981. But the situation right now in New York relates to the hyper-gentrification we’ve been suffering from since 1993. There is so little left of the East Village. This was a neighborhood that virtually stayed the same from when I was 17 years old until I was almost 50! And thinking of Jonas Mekas—the East Village and the Bowery remained the same for him from 1949 until 2000! That is a lifetime! We lost a few places over time but nothing like what happened after 2000. Fran Lebowitz and I are the same age, and we’re similar for many reasons—I always say that she’s the butch Penny Arcade. [Laughter] But with all respect to Fran, she doesn’t interact with technology or go online at all, so she really doesn’t know about the marketing of nostalgia to young people. As Fran has pointed out, all those things that people were complaining about losing in 2005, I too hated those places when they showed up in 1993 because they were what displaced what had been around since the ’60s. Gentrification has been with us for a long time.
Right now, we’re in a very peculiar moment because we’re on pause. There’s this eerie stillness where we can see what is there and we have the experience also of what we’re missing, and we have no real idea of what will happen in the near future. Even just getting a coffee, or as Nick asked me today about cooking—I’m a New Yorker, I don’t usually eat at home. I can make food and I know what good food is. I find it bizarre how millennials crowd restaurants just to try fancy cocktails, and that every restaurant is filled with people under 50. In my 20s, 30s, or 40s, did I ever think about food? Never! I was thinking about sex! I don’t even remember what I ate in my 20s, who cared?
Rail: Yes, the primary life force. That ties perfectly to the cupcake as a symbol of Hannah Arendt’s Banality of Evil (1963), a reference to Longing Last Longer, which focuses on gentrification, among many other topics. I find it interesting that you corrected the question you posed to Jonas before—why do you stay in New York? What is it about New York that holds you here?
Arcade: I stay in New York because I have a cheap apartment.
Rail: One of the best reasons. [Laughs]
Arcade: That’s number one. But whether you’re in your 70s or your 20s, everybody who stays in New York stays for one reason, and that’s because you have an energetic connection to the city. People live in New York because we are polarized to the granite ignite under our feet. That’s what Walt Whitman meant when he wrote Leaves of Grass (1855), “If you want me again, look for me under your boot-soles. / You will hardly know who I am or what I mean; / but I shall be good health to you nevertheless, / and filter and fiber your blood.” We’re all in the thrall of that magnetic reality, which isn’t for everybody, but it is for anybody. I have that connection to this city, but that’s what darling Jonas was talking about; I don’t have to leave my house to be in New York because New York is in me and all of those streets live inside me, they are part of my capillaries, my veins, my interior communication network.
The New York that exists for all you younger creatures out there, as you experience it right now—that New York is going to disappear, as this raging capitalism takes over every bit of space here. What is happening economically is going to define these younger generations for the rest of your lives. Some people are thinking about COVID-19 like, “Oh, is that what AIDS was like?” The loss of life, the overwhelmed hospital systems, that was 1 percent of what AIDS was like, but you’re getting a taste of wholesale tragedy. Just as the government abandoned gay people during the first ten years of the AIDS epidemic, so have Americans as a whole been abandoned by Washington ignoring this building pandemic. At some point, you’ll feel an intense impact of what the loss of New York is for you. When New York is only a marketing capitol, it is not what anyone came here for.
In Notes from the Underground, I say, “Soon the only people that will be able to see the sky will be people who can afford to live on the 35th floor. And the sky used to belong to New Yorkers. We saw ourselves against the sky.” In the ’60s there was the downtown drug scene of mostly speed-freaks and junkies, and they used to call New York “the set.” New York was like a stage set that everything played out on, and you always had this scale of yourself in New York and the sky. More and more now with these horrible towers you cannot see the sky anymore. We live in this moment where we all have the time to meditate on what will be lost. Even in Bushwick, where you get a sense of an alternative similar to the East Village of the ’60s to ’80s, a lot of that’s going to disappear too. Because of what Naomi Klein has called “Disaster capitalism,” that is what happened after 9/11. But now there issues no one is talking about: overwhelming poverty of the working poor, the underclass, and the homeless.
By March 12 we realized we had to cancel our upcoming performances, so we immediately created the “Penny Arcade Performance” Patreon account, where we are uploading over 2,300 unique videos of my performances, of full-length plays, of talks I’ve done from Australia to the Bronx.I have interacted online since 1993 and with video since 1985. I always resent the idea that people my age are Luddites—who does anyone think were the first adaptors? Us! For those of you who know astrology, Uranus is the most elevated planet in my chart and Uranus rules electricity, television, and new communication forms.. I’ve been recording all my work since the ’80s, and I never put it out because, being an anarchist, I was anti-product, but I videoed everything and I knew that eventually I could make that available at any time I felt like it. I am totally committed to my relationship with my audience and to dignity for everybody, so anyone can see the work and can participate in live events as those are being set up.
Rail: I do want to say to everyone that for as little as $1 per month, you can support Penny's work through her Patreon account. Please support your local legendary anarchists.
Arcade: We want our Patreon to be available to everyone, with dignity for all involved, and I want young people to be able to see all the work we made and how we made it! There is a master class on my Patreon page. The whole concept of the “emerging arts”—which is such a pyramid scheme—it is there to destroy young people. Because from time immemorial there were young artists who became old artists; now you have to have this hothouse environment so these young artists can “hatch.” People have this concept that you go to school for four years and that makes you an artist—and that’s stupid! You become an artist over time. And honestly, here’s a $10,000 gift I'm giving each of you: You become an artist in your own time. You’re living in a world where you’re being told that if you don’t have your point of view, your voice, your unique blah blah blah by the time you’re 25 years old—you’’ve failed. That is the most dangerous and incredible cooptation of your power. What if you’re somebody who's designed to be what you dream of being, with that thing ticking inside of you, not at 35 or 25 but at 47, at 41, at 38, at 70? You’re really going to sit on your creativity—block your own creativity—so that you can fit into someone else’s mandate? That’s pathetic.
Right now, we’re streaming La Miseria (1991) which I wrote when I was 40. Before that in 1985 (at 34) I was doing completely improvised rock and roll theatre with an incredible band. I was doing character work and talking directly to the audience and singing songs by songwriters I knew —and I remember saying: “If I don't get reviewed now, well, this is as good as I get, I don’t get better than this!” I think that is a natural thing for someone in their mid 30’s to think because you have been going since you were 15 and you finally get something together and you want it to be successful. I seriously believed that what I was doing at that moment, at 35 was the best I could achieve. I actually said the words “I don’t get any better than that.” I was so lucky I didn’t get recognition by the press or that’s all I would have ever done!
Rail: What year was that?
Arcade: That was 1987 when I was 36 years old. I had a huge audience, sold out every night, four nights a week when nobody did shows four nights a week. And I did not get reviewed. All the critics, and arts administrators in the not-for-profit industrial complex didn’t like me because I was doing rock-and-roll and I was talking directly to the audience. They had no idea what I was doing. They didn’t understand that I was doing something new. That I had already been doing experimental theatre for almost 17 years then! From 36 to 40, I didn’t get any attention, I couldn't get booked for a while, not even at Performance Space 122. But between 1990 to 1991, I wrote four full-length plays, with between 12 to 33 people in each. I would have never made that work, I can tell you right now, if I had gotten the attention that Karen Finley or Holly Hughes was getting then. I respect Holly and Karen a lot, but they were the critics’ darlings and I was ignored. But these days they’re not performing as much anymore, and I have never stopped working and I am working more than ever now! [Laughs] They’re both artist-academics now. I did 193 shows of Longing Lasts Longer in 45 cities from 2015–2019. I have contributed to new art forms every decade since the ’60s. Excuse me, but where’s my MacArthur grant?
To go back to this thing of what New York is going to be—it’s we who are going to carry that New York forward, and the Rail is one of the few places that will, in an existential way, carry that history because we may lose everything. I have said gentrification is the erasure of the visibility of the alternative. If all you know are Starbucks, then you can't imagine a hole in the wall coffee place. There was never any room for big chains in New York. We didn’t want them. I was walking in the West Village about six months ago and there were like 30 people standing on a corner, and of course curiosity is my most elevated character trait, so I said, “Excuse me, what's everybody looking at?” And this girl who is maybe 26 years old, points up and goes, “That’s the apartment where Friends was filmed!” And I said, “No it's not, that’s the exterior shot.” I said “Are you serious? You’re in Greenwich Village. Do you know what happened in this 15-block area? Do you know the poets, artists, and thinkers who walked these streets? This is what you’re interested in—the exterior shot for Friends? Are you insane?”
Rail: At this point, I would be remiss to not share with our audience some of the legendary people you’ve worked with, such as John Vaccaro at the Playhouse of the Ridiculous, as well as Andy Warhol, appearing in Women in Revolt (1971). I’m interested in how you’ve maintained the spirit of improvisation that the Playhouse of the Ridiculous was known for, and that you continually improvise and create works in front of your audience. You break down that line between stage and audience literally in your show on censorship Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! (1990-1995 then 2006-2019) where the audience joins you and the performers to dance on the stage. How have you continually embodied this anarchistic spirit that connects back to The Living Theater?
Arcade: John Vaccaro was the first person who put a rock band on stage—in fact the writers Ragni and Rado who wrote Hair (1967) used to come to watch the Playhouse of the Ridiculous rehearsals. All of the work we were doing was improvised, and we would do this every night for two or three months and then put the show on stage. When I started making my own work, the only way I knew how to make theater was to improvise so that’s what I did in front of the audience. And the audience is not people who are on boards, or funding panels, or people who have jobs in the arts—that audience was and remains the amazing people that are up for anything. The audience is the midwife. You do not have an art scene because you have a bunch of artists. The audience can go anywhere an artist goes and they are brilliant, and without that audience you don’t have art. The real art scene is two-thirds people living an artistic life to one-third people making art.
I grew up doing theatre that knocked down the fourth wall when I was 17, 18, 19, and so on. I was 34 years old before I started making my own work, even though I started performing at 17, and I was there to knock down the other three walls which were between me and the audience. The important thing with the Playhouse of the Ridiculous is that when John Vaccaro talked about camp, it wasn’t like goofy, feather boa, bullshit. It was about showing your political point of view, even though John is the person who pioneered the use of glitter on stage, so he invented the whole glitter/glam scene! The people on stage ranged from their 20s to their 50s— it was always intergenerational. So, when I started making my own work, of course I put elements of the Playhouse of the Ridiculous in it, it’s in me. The Ridiculous manifesto was: We have gone beyond the absurd. Our situation is absolutely ridiculous—the ridiculousness of real life. That’s why my work is all non-fiction. Who needs fiction?
My play La Miseria (that’s streaming now and forever on the Patreon page) has 33 people in it from age 8 to 80, with 95 percent of whom are non-actors, including a completely homeless person. So, I look for the ridiculousness in life. Which is like the cupcake, to go back to Longing Lasts Longer, where I say: “New York has gone from being the Big Apple to being the Big Cupcake. There are a hundred cupcake shops in a 10-block radius of my apartment. People are staggering from one cupcake shop to another.” Isn’t there something scary about a group of 30-something-year-old women oohing and awing over a plate of cupcakes? It's the infantilization of an entire generation.
Rail: Tracing your artistic lineage back to people like Vaccaro, and to other collaborators such as Quentin Crisp (who referred to as you as his soulmate), for example, can you talk about how this lineage has formed your own trajectory and been a part of your own self-individuation?
Arcade: Brilliance and individuality come in the package of highly self-individuated people, and I invite all of you to honor your own self-individuation, as I have honored mine. I think that’s where my relationship with Quentin Crisp came from, and I’m thinking specifically of The Last Will and Testament of Quentin Crisp which is an amazing performance we did together in Vienna in 1995. This was after I had been friends with Quentin for nearly a decade and I had presented him many times to new generations. And I'm thinking just now, as always, about Jonas Mekas. I watched Jonas from afar since I was 17, and I was 42 the first time I knew that he came to see one of my shows. Then sometime when I was 44, two years later, Jonas was receiving the Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Embassy, and I got a phone call from The French Embassy and they said “Jonas Mekas has asked us to invite you as one of his very dear friends.” And I was honestly gobsmacked. My mouth is still—not now, you can’t see it, but inside—30 years later, I'm still going, “Me? A friend?” It was overwhelming. So, I still have at all times in my mind and in my heart that example. We need examples. If you never see the work of highly self-individuated artists, of someone who has made work for a long time, who has spent years developing their craft and aesthetics, it won’t trigger something inside of you that you might want to follow. If you only see the work of young artists, where will that get you? You don't necessarily have to want to be a performance artist or a theater artist or a poet or an oral history person like me, but you might see my work and that might trigger something else in you. We ask only one thing of art and that is that it be good.
Someone recently wrote to me and said he was afraid to look at my work because he didn’t want to be influenced. I said, “Hon, you’ve got to be worried about copying. Don’t worry about being influenced.” Influence is agreement. You see something and you go, “Ah, I agree with that, that resonates with me.” We look for these signposts in our lives.
Rail: Mentioning Jonas Mekas and Quentin Crisp makes me realize that your career not only deals with a history of New York and of the counterculture, but of the history of queerness. You yourself were at Stonewall on the second and third nights of the riots (which I know you prefer to uprising), and have always worked, collaborated, and lived with queer people. I’m thinking especially of Jackie Curtis, Jack Smith, and again of Quentin Crisp.
Arcade: I was at Stonewall the first night and each night after, but later at night and not inside the bar, I always make that distinction. I was at Max’s Kansas City when people came in and told us what was going on, so of course we went to check it out. But to answer the bigger question, that was a time on the cusp of becoming for those that were gay and marginalized. Coming from a small town, I was branded at 13 a slut because people saw me as a sexual being, something I did not know was somehow apparent. Imagine if they knew I was bisexual? When I came to New York I met a lot of other people who were different like me, who also had come from small towns having had similar horrible experiences on one level or another of simply being different. New York was a melting pot, and we were queer and we were artistic. I didn’t know I was an artist. I was a working-class kid with no education and no privilege of any kind. The most disruptive art at the time was made by people like Vaccaro, Jack Smith, Warhol, H.M. Koutoukas, all who came from working class backgrounds. They had no preconceived ideas of theater, so they reinvented it. And the queer world was full of people who weren’t gay, like Patti Smith, David Johanson, and Iggy Pop. In the gay world of downtown art, there was a lot of permission and permissiveness, precisely because it was an outsider gay world. This transgressive energy cannot function as it did then because now there are all these PC rules in the queer world. How can there be experimentation if you have to account to a committee of people’s opinions for every word or action you try?
Rail: At the heart of this history of queerness is a transgressive will. Is there a future for this transgressive spirit in New York?
Arcade: People deciding who is queer and who isn’t—I have to share an example of how this really annoys me. C.A. Conrad, a great poet who’s a queer radical anarchist and is also super promoted by the powers that be, wrote this piece SIN BUG: AIDS, Poetry, and Queer Resilience in Philadelphia for the Poetry Foundation and dedicated it to me, writing me this big thank you note, saying this piece was going to be dedicated to me because I have always been such an ally of the queer community. And I wrote back and said, “Ally? You cannot call someone like me who has lived their entire life in the gay world an ally! The gay world that exists right now exists in part because of me, and people like me. I am a bisexual fag-hag. I am not an ‘ally.’ I’m so queer I’m not even gay!” This is the exact opposite of the kind of thinking that went on in the ’60s through the 80. It was my culture. No one thought I was a tourist in the gay world. It was a time when we were under siege and someone on our side was one of us! But it shows you the bias that still exists towards bisexuals. This is really annoying.
Once in Portland when I was performing Longing Lasts Longer someone in the audience asked me, “Penny how do you explain the fact that you make incredibly queer work for a very heterosexual audience?” Because 75 percent of my audience is heterosexual, and why is that? First of all, that's the percentages among humans. 10 percent of people are queer or homosexual. Young queers don’t come and see my work because they are very mandated societally. If you’re not trans, or a person of color, with one green eye and one blue eye, they’re not coming to see you. They don’t go to see work or historical lineage, they go see who they are told it is acceptable to see according to their identity. There is no lineage left in the gay world.
So, I turned to Steve Zehentner, my collaborator who was sitting in the audience, who always wants to take a back seat in public, and I said “Steve, you are a heterosexual man and yet for 28 years you have made completely queer work. How do you explain that?” And Steve, even though he doesn’t want to be in the spotlight, said that growing up in Dubuque, Iowa, it was gay men who showed him in his late teens and when he was in college what was possible in being a man that wasn’t the same old macho crap. What was available to him growing up was this very narrow definition of what it meant to be male. Regardless of how you identify yourself, you can learn and be inspired by others, in different worlds from you, for instance, in the gay and queer community that don’t identify as you do and vice versa.
In gay bars all throughout America and across the world, from the ’50s to some places now, a gay bar is the place where all the outsiders hang out. If you go to any gay bar in middle America, nobody is asking if you’re a card-carrying homo. That only happens in Bushwick or in Williamsburg, where so-called queer people are creating the same institutions of oppression and judgement that so many gay and queer people gave their lives to break down, and that is a serious indictment.
Rail: This touches on two things you’ve said that come to mind. We’re talking about young queer people and we’re also talking about an intergenerational exchange. There is also the problem of groups of people communicating only with people of the same age or interest range. How do you think we can better foster these intergenerational exchanges?
Arcade: Well, what was considered the downtown art scene in the ’40s to the ’70s was co-opted by marketing and advertising in the late ’70s, when college students started reading the Village Voice and the Soho News in their dorm rooms and deciding what was cool and what wasn’t cool, That type of marketing had not existed before. The mentality became, “Oh, the Talking Heads moved to the East Village, so we should move there.” And it started to become more and more monogenerational. But bohemia and the alternative world is always intergenerational. Life is intergenerational. When I was 18, if I went to a party and everybody was 18, I was at the wrong party. I wanted to see someone older, to meet people who could tell me something, who had done something.
I started The Lower East Side Biography Project (episodes also available on Patreon) in 1999 with Steve Zehentner as an ongoing oral history archive with the goal of stemming the tide of cultural amnesia. For example, we recorded the great Betty Dodson, the sex educator whose work was buried under The Vagina Monologues, which Eve Ensler obviously used Dodson’s work as a jumping off point for her own but gave her no credit. Dodson is in her 90s and rocking right now. Gweneth Paltrow just featured Betty Dodson on her Netflix series to give you an idea how long mainstream recognition takes for original thinkers. One of the motivations for why Steve and I started this project was all these incredible people were dying and nobody was interviewing them or recording these oral histories. When we started, I was approached by public television, and they wanted to have artists elevate what was on public access. I thought I could train all the artists I know to use video, and then everyone could document their work. But no one my age was interested in that. So, then we started a training program through the Manhattan Neighborhood Network, and Steve came up with the idea to give these interviews to young people to shepherd this history forward, because of course young people don’t have ideas! I was a Warhol superstar when I was young, and I didn't have any ideas. I was looking for an idea. When a young person is confronted with a human being who is a ball of ideas, no one can interact with those ideas better than a young person because they can see the distinct elements of those ideas. They bring all of their hunger for understanding, their comprehension, and even actualization to these ideas.
I think we have 70 finished biographies and 150 that we need to make so anyone who knows how to edit video and who’s interested should just send me an email at [email protected] and I’ll hook you up with Steve to edit one of these great biographies of so many amazing people that we have. The whole idea is to continue this intergenerationalism, because I was the youngest for 50 years, and now I'm the oldest. And, like I said to you the other day, you’re not a legend only because of what you do, but because of what you participate in. I participated in the late ’60s with people who were 25 years older than me, like Jonas Mekas, Judith Malina, all of these people who came before me but who I’m always lumped in with. It's a great honor but I don't deserve it because I'm still super young. I’m not 92, people, I’m 70!
Rail: We’re all throughout our lives in a process of individuation, whether we’re old or young.
Arcade: Exactly. Of becoming, that’s very important. You want to do everything in your own time. It’s very important because the last stage of life, which really starts to begin when you're around 58, and then it really ramps up when you’re 60, and then you end up in placid waters when you’re 70 but still floating down the stream. I’ve talked about this with Marianne Faithful and used to talk about this with Judith Malina of the Living Theater: the last stage of life is so important!
They keep telling you that the most important time in your life is between 15 and 40, or 15 and 45. No! The most important time is this last part of your life, which is the completion of character. Now why do I say it's the most important time? Because many never get there. If you’re bemoaning that you’re 25, or you’re 30, or that you just turned 40, or 50, or 60, you’re abdicating! You’re running away from your old age. You’re losing the opportunity. You have to be present for the completion of character, and it's harrowing and exciting. Because you have to face your life: what you created and what you didn’t create, and you have to face who and what you became. I’m very lucky because I grew up to be the kind of person I wanted to be.
Arcade: I want to commend you in front of your boss—because I wasn’t all that sure about you in the beginning, full disclosure, but yesterday we had a magnificent conversation. It never occurs to me that anybody is intimidated by me because I'm so friendly—
Rail: You are.
Arcade: I’m super friendly. And we had such a rollicking conversation yesterday, it was brilliant, and you have that wherewithal to ask really good questions and to really understand what I'm saying, what I'm trying to say, and then your written questions were so good, and so I just want to commend you for such a job well done.
Rail: Thank you Penny, that means so much. I really truly look forward to maintaining a friendship, moving forward.
Madeleine Cravens: I think now is probably a good time to get some audience questions. Would that be ok?
Arcade: Sure, go ahead!
Rail: Yes! Thank you again Penny, thank you for complimenting me in front of my boss. [laughs]
Cravens: Thank you for the absolutely wonderful conversation. We have so many questions. First I'm going to go to John who has a question about authenticity. John, I'm unmuting right now and you should be able to just directly speak.
Audience: Hi! Thank you, Penny, for such a great presentation. You’re really an inspiration to see that there’s still an artistic movement in New York City. In addition to the Rail, where are some places where there’s still an authentic, would you say counter-cultural or subcultural artistic movement?
Arcade: I think it's everywhere. The problem is that the real values of the counterculture—and here once again I have to quote Jonas Mekas, where Jonas said, “We’re not the counterculture, I hate that word! We’re the culture!” Everybody is jumping right now on the COVID-19 virus pandemic bandwagon to try to promote their blog or their whatever they're selling, you know? The truth is that there are certain hallmarks to art, and one is self expression and the other one is communication. So wherever people are inclusive—it has to be inclusive, it can't be exclusive—all over the world in every city. Where are you located?
Audience: I’m way the hell up here at the farthest end of Queens.
Arcade: I think everywhere there are people trying to do stuff, and I judge it by: is it inclusive or exclusive? Wherever there is inclusivity, there is the ripe and fomenting place of art. But we can’t not face the truth, which is that the forces are against us. The forces of commodification, the forces of free market capitalism, where you only hear about the same eight bands, the same six painters, the only woman poet, there only queer poet—that stuff is not going away. Through these venues like the internet, for as long as we get to have the internet—that's another question that we didn't get to, like, when are they going to start charging us? I thought I was going to miss all this shit. I never thought this pandemic kind of stuff was going to happen before I died. I thought I was going to miss it all. I thought, “Haha, you don't like what I have to say, but in 30 years I’m going to be dead and you’re not going to have any water to drink.”
Cravens: Now we're going to go to Charlie. I'm unmuting you now.
Audience: Thank you Madeleine, thank you Penny, and thank you Nick for this very stimulating and inspiring conversation. Earlier in the talk, Penny, you describe yourself as a true anarchist and I just was curious to hear about what that means for you and how you enact true anarchism.
Arcade: Anarchism for me means non-centralization, and inclusion for everybody. So I have always been horizontal. The audience is equal to me, I don't feel superior to the audience. I've always maintained an open door policy that got me into trouble with a lot of institutions because anybody who couldn't afford to pay was always welcome. For me, I’m not a Bakunian anarchist, blowing shit up. When I was a teenager I was involved with Up Against the Wall Motherfucker group, with Ben Morea and his band. And very few people know this, it was a very feminist organization. The women had equal power to the men, and they did advocate armed rebellion and armed revolution, throwing bricks off the tops of the buildings onto St. Mark's Place at the cops. I was one of the people throwing bricks at Stonewall—Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers were at Stonewall, too, for all these people who think it was only gay, lesbian, and trans people. Everybody was there, there were ecologists at Stonewall. But anyway, that's my anarchism. Next!
Cravens: Amazing, thank you. Ok, now we’re going to go to Philip. Philip, I am unmuting you now.
Audience: Hi Penny, my question is—Penny Arcade—is that the name you were born with?
Arcade: That's pretty well known but I'll say it for you guys. My birth name is Susan Carmen Ventura—I'm from an immigrant southern Italian family so nobody could say Susan. It’s a horrible sound in Italian. They called me Cecina, so then I got put away in reform school when I was 13 and I had a Spanish teacher who called me Susana, and then I started using Susana. Then when I was 17 years old, I was coming down off LSD and I found a book on a garbage can cover on the corner of 1st Avenue and East 9th street, and the protagonist's name was Kinkade. I got back to where I was living with Jamie Andrews, a 27 year old gay man who’d taken me off the street into his one room studio apartment. I lived there for one year, sleeping on his drawing table. I knew he was on his loft bed and I knew he was going to wake up and I was always afraid he was going to throw me out because I’d already been homeless for a year at that point. I knew what living on the street was like and I’d been raped many times and it was a really terrible reality for me. I heard him waking up to go to his market research job and I thought, “Oh my god he's going to throw me out!” So I suddenly said, “Jamie! I changed my name!” It came out of nowhere. He went up on one elbow and said, “Oh really, darling? To what?” and I said, “Penny Arcade!” It just formed itself with the Kinkade name in mind, and Jamie said, “That’s fabulous darling, do you want an egg?” The name stuck and when I started Playhouse of the Ridiculous. When the press would ask me why my name was Penny Arcade, I would tell them that I was saving Susanna Ventura for when I did something good. Unfortunately, it took so long I got stuck with Penny Arcade.
Cravens: Thank you all! Just before we get to our poem which is how we end these as per Rail tradition, I just want to thank you again, Nick and Penny, this was so important. I know for me personally it was lovely to hear you treating life and artistic practice with a bit of patience and I’m thinking about how I'm really excited about the art that I'm going to make when I'm 40, 50, 60, and 70.
Arcade: That’s great.
Audience: Thanks Madeleine, and thank you Penny so much for being with us here today. I chose a Bernadette Mayer poem for today because it captures the things I'm thinking about right now, which are youth, rent, and birds. This poem is called “Walking like a Robin.”
take 3 or 4 steps then stop
look smell taste touch & hear
is there anything to eat?
oh look, there’s some caviar
it must be my birthday, thanks
i must be very old, like seventy
i guess i’m falling apart, i’ll just
sew myself back together but will it last?
please take a piece of me back home, each piece
is anti-war and don’t pay your rent, in fact
remember: property is robbery, give everybody
everything, other birds walk this way too
Arcade: What a great poem.
Audience: One of my favorites, I love her.
Arcade: Bernadette Mayer, doesn’t get better than that! And lookit—70 was in it, I’m gonna be 70 in July.
Audience: Happy almost birthday!
Arcade: Thank you, and Steve, my collaborator, it’s his birthday today, and the birds because of course we can finally hear them, can’t we? And then rent: always the rent, as Jack Smith said, “What is this rent that can never be paid!”
Cravens: Well thank you everybody, this was so special.
Arcade: It was so much fun.
Rail: Thank you, Penny, it was such an honor.
Arcade: It was so great to be with everybody.I love it, I love being part of the Rail. And remember, you can sign onto Patreon for as little as $1, and tell your friends. Because one of the reasons why we’re doing all of this is so that younger people can see work and be inspired toward whatever it is you are making. You don’t have to be an artist. Being an artist is so overrated. But living an artistic life, that is a very difficult thing to do. And there are very few artists who actually live an artistic life. When I was 20, I didn’t know if I could be an artist, but I did want to live an artistic life.
[chorus of thanks and byes]
Arcade: Write to me if you want at [email protected] Always happy to help.