This week, VFD (the Dalston nightclub formerly known as Vogue Fabrics) is hosting Femmetopia, which celebrates the venue’s evolution into a much-needed femme-centred queer space with a line-up that’s crammed full of performances by artists including FK Alexander and Lucy McCormick, protests, workshops, parties, and a ‘non-stop erotic disco’. And it reaches a climax with the arrival of New York artist Karen Finley, who’s become a performance art legend since the 1980s, when she was one of the NEA Four – a group of artists whose funding was cut for ‘indecency’, related to iconoclastic works like Yams Up My Granny’s Ass. Her new performance Unicorn Gratitude Mystery is a response to contemporary American politics, ideas of whiteness, and of the agency of the female body in a world controlled by a male elite. What follows is an exploration of these themes, in dialogue with Femmetopia festival co-curator Phoebe Patey-Ferguson.
Phoebe Patey-Ferguson: I wanted to start by asking about the performance Unicorn Gratitude Mystery, and how it came to be. Did it emerge from your experience of the US political election in 2016? How did that time feel for you, and what motivated you into making something that responded to that experience?
Karen Finley: Just prior to the election I was working on several themes and one of them was the Unicorn as a symbol of whiteness and neoliberalism, this mythical and sacred symbol. And I was also working on gendered behaviour expectations of thankfulness, and I was also working on tragedy, or trauma, that is put into the media and played as a space of intimacy. For example Malaysian Airlines flight 370, where the whole world is looking and the disappearance into the blue. And while I was working on that with the election I realised that those themes were also part of the election- which would be, the mythical status of whiteness, the unicorn and what that stands for. The gratitude and women, in terms of women, and always being submissive in a state of thankfulness. And the third thinking about blueness in Nationalism, and blueness even in terms of depression or truth or behind it, and looking into the blue and thinking about it more in a symbolic Jungian way. It’s the same in Britain, where red white and blue are so coded. It’s like attachment theory, the flag can become looking into the mother’s eyes, and people can really become physically distressed in using it and the violence behind these meanings. And then of course there’s Trump and his racism, and also his sexual violence. But also, there is humour, the cartoon quality within his character as well.
PPF: With Trump and Hilary, you’re performing as them, but you’ve said you are not ‘doing an impression’ in the way we might expect of satirical comedy like Saturday Night Live. Instead, are you channelling their energies, or creating a kind of portrait of them for us?
KF: I think that my answers can be hypocritical with each other, and I allow that space within my answers for the understanding or the interpretation of the work to have a tension with each other. So the space has a tension within itself, and that’s why it’s not something that will be on SNL, or something that you will see on Monty Python in that tradition of parody. It is deconstructing parody to a place where you are going to have the emotion or the anger or the fear behind it, so that’s why I feel as an artist I appropriate these cultural movements or genres as an artist to push them deeper to expose something else. And I think that’s why this piece in London will work because I think that parody or satire, and using humour, is part of a national culture-speak, alongside the British stiff upper lip.
I’m performing a week after the royal wedding and that is this place of relatability, in terms of looking at race and the two countries and imperial colonial powers and what that all means. The first time I performed in London I performed just days after Princess Diana’s wedding. And when I performed there I was criticising the monarchy, as a young woman, and I remember that the artists at the gallery [where Finley performed] that you think would embrace my criticism did not embrace that. So I think it’s important to have these tensions and I feel like art is all about tension and I think that this piece that I’m doing has discomfort in it too.
PPF: And we see in the Royal Wedding, what obsesses everyone is the body of the bride. What is she wearing, what does she look like, what is her sexual history, how does she hold herself?
KF: And is she adorned or not? What I find interesting, with Princess Diana it was the idea that she was too much. There was too much gown. And in this one, there was this idea that for a princess, she wasn’t enough, she should have more adornment.
PPF: And there was this torrent of tweets at the beginning about how she was wearing white, people pointing out the fact she shouldn’t be wearing pure white, because of her history, she shouldn’t be allowed to wear virginal white…
Again, we see this obsession over her body. Over the female body. And your work has always engaged with this idea of the agency of the female body against the fetishisation and subsequent control by a male elite- especially the media and politicians. How they seek to control our reproductive organs, our sexuality, the performance of our bodies through control, or policy or shame itself. This has been strong thread in your work that we can see directly manifested in poems such as Dear PMRC. And in such events as the Royal Wedding, and especially in Trump’s politics, we can see that fetishising violent sexual drive manifested so strongly still. Is that something that you still feel like your pushing against?
KF: That’s exactly what it is. And I think when I’m talking about Hilary’s body in the performance, I’m talking about other bodies too. I’m thinking about, in a Shakespearean form, about these celebrity figures. And it’s not that they’re archetypes but we have an awareness of this history of abuse and violence that women have to navigate — I think that’s very very true. And I’m trying to show the violence that was going on to Hilary, and that’s not supposed to be about her politics or her policy, I’m talking about a femme body. There was the same thing with Meghan, was she feminine enough, was she enough of this or that, and it never worked, it never could work.
PPF: I would relate to that in my experience as a woman in my daily life, but for you as a woman who has been in the public eye, and at times been sensationalised in the public eye in a very high profile way, you are also always considered either too much or not enough…
KF: Yes, that’s exactly it, no matter what you do. And for Hilary’s generation, whatever her personality or how she would choose to do it, it still happens. And I resent that. And it goes beyond just being woman-identified, it really has to do with a fear of a femme-persona. And I show that with Trump that he actually has this hatred of femme-ness and femininity. And you see that with his own hair! Trump has feminine tendencies, as the term used to be, the way he uses his hands, to counter that he has to make sure he has an aggressive male presentation. Surrounding himself with women of child-bearing age, who look like Barbie dolls, so that he’s looked at in a certain way. I discuss that in the show, and how we see that, and how that’s being played out in politics. What I’m addressing in the work is gender, and what angers me, in a person like Hilary, or for many of us, is that you have the additional burden beside the trauma of being projected on, analysed and critiqued, that your personality- whether or not you can handle it, whether you’re an introvert or extrovert or undervert- your personality has to come into it whereas a masculine-presenting man doesn’t have to have that burden.
PPF: You often identify your practice in performance, teaching and writing as cultural activism, why do you think this is such an important role for art?
KF: There’s several ways of looking at it. One, I think that cultural movements erupt, and just being in them is activist. What I know of VFD is that the existence of it, and the motivation since Lyall founded it, to be providing a space for this community. It is the sacred space of the club. To have fun, joy is a space of activism. Keeping your dignity and humanity in the face of everything else going on. So I don’t think activism has to be this conscious, deliberate organised thing, it can be an impulse that’s driving you to create new things in a community situation. As an educator I want to bring an awareness to people that sometimes feel that they don’t have a voice, to tell them that they can be more deliberate and to teach them how to strategise to respond as the artist as historical recorder. How can they be part of acknowledging and interpreting events or history. And I think there can be a way whether it’s through graffiti art or the way you dress, there’s many different ways that one can be responding to the world.
There’s a difference between creating work for the greater good and being in a gallery thinking about sales. And that’s something that does concern me sometimes, in terms of the art market and the relationship to branding and capitalism and politics. As artists we have to be careful that if our work has a political message that it doesn’t become neutralised because of institutions, that’s often difficult.
PPF: In addition to your performance, the book launch for your new book Grabbing Pussy and the film Far East of Eden are also being shown at the Femmetopia Festival, did you conceive of these as a ‘Trump Triology’?
KF: For the book I was inspired by Ginsberg’s Howl, how a poetic text can resonate within a current political world, and that came out in the 1950s, with McCarthyism and 10 years post World War Two. And that’s what I started this work as, thinking of it as a poetic text in response to events that were going on in terms of policy or words but there’s a lot of humour in it too and a lot of daring language. It does speak to the #metoo movements and other current issues such as Confederate statues. It is very very funny, I have more spaces of overt humour in the book, but it’s done poetically.
PPF: Summed up in the title ‘Grabbing Pussy’ which, although horrible and violent, is also a strangely funny phrase.
KF: Yes, and the film was the thing I made with Bruce Yenemoto before the performance. It was made through research into US policy and immigration and the history of exclusion acts. Trump isn’t the first one, this has been a part of American policy for much longer. So we’re talking about this history of anti-immigration. And Bruce’s parents were both interned in Japanese Camps, in the US during the Second World War. So Far East of Eden deals with these current political issues in a historical context, a re-visiting. I’m there with him, as an ally, speaking about it, about politicians and the actions in policy. It still exists, these policies, in the US, in France in Britain, this continues.
Femmetopia Festival is on at VFD all week, culminating in ‘Unicorn Gratitude Mystery’ on Saturday 26th May. See the full line-up here.