Cupcakes, Leather, and Conformity: A Conversation With Artist Penny Arcade

by Melynda Fuller

“The cupcake represents what Hannah Arendt called the banality of evil,” Penny Arcade says during one of the more charged moments of her latest show Longing Lasts Longer, which had a run at Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse at the end of 2016 during an ongoing world tour. The show explores the loss of art and individuality in our culture while, at the same time, refusing nostalgia. “If you’re not depressed and confused by life on earth, there may be something fatally wrong with you,” she says later.

Longing Lasts Longer began as a series of photographs before morphing into a collaboration with I Love Dick author Chris Kraus. In the ’90s, the two performed at legendary venue The Kitchen. “I had just had a similar experience [to the plot in I Love Dick] with this guy I had been involved with in Australia who wouldn’t see me. I had written him a letter every day for three months… so I really identified with what she had done and I created this performance where I located I Love Dick in this landscape of Longing Lasts Longer.

Soon after the performance at The Kitchen, Penny met, fell in love with, and married singer/songwriter Chris Rael. She set the show aside until their painful breakup and in 2008 revisited the performance, stripping it down to its emotional bones and centering it on her quest for transcendental love. Soon it transcended that love and Penny came to understand the piece as a longing for the loss of culture: “Once hipness was commodified and all these people wanted this authenticity, this edginess that used to belong only to a very small portion of society, as soon as rebellion was commodified, with tattoos, black leather jackets and on and on, [we lost] that culture. That’s why I always refute nostalgia. The authenticity is still here, it’s all just underground. The surface is a simulacrum.”

Raised in a working class Italian family in New Britain, Connecticut, Penny has a personal history that’s the stuff of legend. After running away at thirteen, then being sent to reform school for the eighth and ninth grade, Penny stole money from the sandwich shop where she worked and hopped a bus to New York. Homeless, she was rescued from the street by Jamie Andrews, who introduced her to John Vaccaro, founder of Playhouse of the Ridiculous, where Warhol saw her perform for the first time. She quickly became a fixture of the downtown arts scene, appearing in Warhol’s film Women in Revolt and later traveling with Vaccaro’s theater troupe. She began touring her own work in the ’80s with While You Were Out, and has since performed over 30 pieces in the U.S. and abroad.

But it was Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! that became her best known work. “I was just in Australia and hadn’t been there in 20 years. People were coming up to me and saying, ‘You have been part of my consciousness since I saw Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore!, and your values helped support my values. I don’t have children, so it’s an interesting to have this connection with all of these people all over the world and to see that I contributed to them,” she says. “Most of the stuff that I’ve learned came at a huge personal price to myself, so when I can share it with people it’s like, ‘Oh my god, you have $100 worth of pain, you give one to 99 people and you get stuck not with $100 but $1.’ It’s very exciting to contribute.”

Backstage, after the next to last performance of Longing, Penny sits at her dressing table, surrounded by mounds of makeup, her shock of white hair glowing in the mirror lights. A makeshift bed is pushed against the wall, and after watching Penny pony and writhe and scream and twist across the stage for over an hour, its presence or necessity isn’t surprising. In promo shots and earlier clips from the tour, Penny appears as a cherry bomb in a silky bright red wig and red polka dot dress. In her hands she holds the offending cupcake with a grenade lit atop it. But, this Penny is a bit more subdued in appearance, wearing a pink lace shirt and white pants, if not in personality. An hour with Penny Arcade is a lesson in earnest conviction lit by a fury that’s been burning since youth. When she speaks, everything is roared as fact, life lessons are delivered as carefully formed, but irrefutable, aphorisms.

Talk turns to today’s cultural and political climates, and their intersection. “What’s really nasty is that anything an artist might say, whether it’s a critical or confrontational artist might be totally misinterpreted,” Penny says. The writer and scholar Darius James is sitting with us and brings up Lenny Bruce as another example of this. “The artist right now is being called on to be a pain killer. When you look at what performance art is about in New York right now it’s about a cult of personality,” Penny continues. “It’s not political and I’m not a political artist. I’m a person happens who happens to be political, but I do cultural critique.”

With the inauguration of Donald Trump weeks ahead of us at this point, Penny exudes anxious wisdom: “As far as I’m concerned, totalitarianism is rolling in and there’s no way to stop it. We have unfortunately wasted the past 25 years [and failed to form] a real coalition to try to fight. [People] are so depressed right now because they instinctively know that it’s end game. Something vast has taken root and there’s so much disinformation.” She shoots a finger in my direction. “We used to be led by young people because they’re always idealistic and can see what’s missing, but now they’ve been turned into experts so they’re not experimenting. We need that energy of the young, we really need it,” she says.

The stampede of gentrification, whether it’s destroying the culture or specific neighborhoods, is at the forefront of Penny’s work. With longtime collaborator Steve Zehentner, she has been working on the Lower East Side Biography Project. Its tag line: Stemming the Tide of Cultural Amnesia. The project’s aim is to preserve the endangered culture of the neighborhood through documentary and oral histories of long-time and notable residents like novelist and essayist Bruce Benderson, sex educator and artist Betty Dodson, and other luminaries like Taylor Mead and Jayne County. “There are people for whom art is vitally important,” says Penny. “They surround themselves with art and that used to be the story of the East Village, people tethering themselves to low paying jobs and cheap apartments so when they weren’t at work they could do what they wanted in their free time, which was thrive by feeding themselves art. And that’s why the scene was so great, not just because there were artists but because there was this incredible audience who supported original work and those are the people who have supported my work for 30 years and I was doing work in holes-in-the-wall.” According to Penny, the death of that culture led to the death of connoisseurs and the vibrant art scene that went with it.

I ask her about the importance of women telling their stories. “I’m somebody who comes from a working class immigrant background where I was told to shut up and not allowed to speak,” she says. “For someone like me [the work was a way] to define myself by my own terms in society.” Relating women’s stories back to feminism, she theorizes with no uncertainty, “Some men are preternaturally unable to understand what it is like for women, how hard a woman has to work, how good you have to be. There really is systematic misogyny, and very few women champion other women. That’s why feminism hasn’t moved to the widest margins — it’s not because of men, it’s because of women. Women want women to be like each other. Men will always get behind the strongest and most original and charismatic. It’s a weird reality.”

As our conversation winds down, Penny is philosophical, with no waning intensity, when examining her seventh decade of life and where she hopes to head next. How she’s survived —childhood, her youth in New York, five decades of an underground artists life — is still a mystery to her. “People always ask me, ‘how did you survive?’ and I don’t know. I want to write an autobiography, because in writing an autobiography I want to find out how I grew up to be who I am,” she says. “Even I don’t understand, but I did survive. And I not only survived, I thrived.”

She continues, “If you have a rigorous inquiry into your own life, when you’re 60 you get to start all over again like you’re 20, but this time raised by yourself with your own values. At the end of your life you get stuck with what you gave, not what you got, and that’s an amazing thing, and it’s very exciting because I always gave the best of myself and I got it back.”

Penny Arcade 76

Photos by Teddy Wolff

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