East of Eden


Left: Cover of Cynthia Carr's Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz. Right: David Wojnarowicz. Photo: Tom Rauffenbart.

Critic and writer Claudia La Rocco recently caught up with the pioneering performance art journalist Cynthia Carr in SoHo. They talked about her latest book, Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz (Bloomsbury, 2012), and her time spent writing for the Village Voice during a period that spanned the culture wars, the AIDS crisis, and the fabled East Village art scene.

Claudia La Rocco: So many things changed for me as a writer when I found you and Jill Johnston; your books were incredible guides to me. Was there anyone like that for you?

Cynthia Carr: Well, Jill Johnston definitely. But there weren’t many books available then. I did have The Art of Performance, edited by Gregory Battcock and Robert Nickas, and I had Queer Theatre by Stefan Brecht. I loved reading his descriptions of Jack Smith and The Ridiculous Theater, Hot Peaches. I felt that those people were big influences on East Village performance. But I was very much self-educated in terms of writing about performance art. I never took an art history class. And at that point, of course, performance was not even taught in colleges.

CLR: What did you study?

CC: I started in journalism at the University of Iowa, until they redid the whole program so it was sort of based on what I later realized was semiotics. I didn’t want to have a journalism program based on semiotics! It just seemed so foolish. I wanted to write stories. I switched my major to English and got into the Iowa Writer’s workshop as an undergraduate in fiction. I saw performance art for the first time in Iowa City, Iowa of all places. I remember sitting around in a circle while some performer came in and ran at such high speed that he was running up on the walls. I can’t remember anything else that happened in the show but I remember that.

CLR: What year was this?

CC: That would have been around 1970. Then when I moved to Chicago after college I started subscribing to the Village Voice so I could read about artists like Meredith Monk, Mabou Mines, and Richard Foreman. Jill Johnston had moved into her Lesbian Nation phase but I loved that too. When I started writing about performance myself, I was going to WOW in the East Village about every week. I had just started at the Voice as an art director.

I used to go to, say, the Pyramid Club or 8BC or Chandelier. I would take my cassette tape recorder in my purse and attach the microphone to the strap. I would take profuse notes, and then I would go home and transcribe the entire tape; I have a notebook filled with these transcriptions and drawings of the costumes and everything. It’s about an inch thick, typed single-spaced on both sides. I was trying to teach myself how to really observe. A lot of the performances were absolutely terrible. But there they all are in my notebook. It was a way get to know the club scene as well, which is what I was going to cover in my column. (It was actually at the end of the scene, which was so short.) The first thing I covered was in 1985, this Ethyl Eichelberger piece at 8BC. I just thought this stuff ought to be covered and no one was going. The theater critics didn’t want to go.

Karen Finley performing “I'm an Ass Man” at the Limelight in New York City.

Someone had reviewed a Karen Finley piece and really ripped it, I remember. I have to say that when I started watching performers like Karen Finley and Dancenoise and so on, it was like nothing I’d ever seen or heard of and I really questioned myself. “Why do I like this?” But I knew there was something there that was just so gripping to me. When I saw those early Karen Finley shows, I would get goosebumps. I think with performance, you have to pay attention to that, about how your body is reacting. Are you revolted? Are you ecstatic? Are you bored? Then the hard question—why? I watched this stuff for a long time before I started writing about it. I remember seeing a really great Dancenoise piece at Franklin Furnace, which was one of the only places in the art world that would allow this sort of thing—I mean a show that ends with a floor covered in slime and fake blood on the walls. I thought, “Am I wrong to love this?” There was no context for it. I tried to watch more and more of it and then develop an idea about it and when I did a cover story on Karen Finley in 1986, I got such a reactionary response. I had never seen anything like it. I don’t think anyone on the Voice staff had either. The Men’s Room was covered with graffiti about Karen. People had brought in cans of yams that were sitting on desks. I went in that day just thinking I was going to get some copies of the paper. As I was walking in the door, a senior editor was walking out. He said to me, “I just want you to know that I like the piece but I can’t say so publicly.” And I thought, “What?” I walk in and there’s this electric current of people arguing.

Claude Wampler, N’a pas un gramme de charisma. (Not an ounce of charisma.), 2013. Performance view, The Kitchen, New York. Photo: Paula Court.

BRILLIANT,” the man behind me at the Kitchen exhaled, to himself and his date and anybody else within earshot on this particular Sunday afternoon, during the final performance of Claude Wampler’s N’a pas un gramme de charisme. (Not an ounce of charisma.).

It was spoken in that reverent, self-satisfied stage whisper, where it’s always ambiguous as to whether the person is speaking about the art, or himself for perceiving the art, or some combination of the two. And lo. Just then the woman onstage—well, technically on the risers where the audience typically sits but which in this case formed the stage, with the audience sitting on the literal stage—collapsed awkwardly backward in an inflated poof of shiny fabric.

Why do we go to the theater? What keeps us coming back to church? I thought about this vague question a lot this past weekend, a weekend over the course of which I spent thirteen full hours in the theater: one at Wampler; two watching the Trisha Brown Dance Company at the Brooklyn Academy of Music; and ten (in a row) at the Public Theater, for the Soho Rep. production of Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s Life and Times: Episodes 1–4.

That’s a lot of hours watching other people’s lives. Maybe it’s not so bad if it makes us feel something—even self-satisfied. Or maybe it is: “I think audiences really want somebody to entertain them and make them feel special,” Wampler mentioned in an interview, reaffirming that she’s trying to “refuse this demand.”

This is a predictably condescending thing to say. But more to the point, where’s the refusal? N’a pas un gramme de charisme., which is (wink wink) all about charisma, is a frothy, disaffected art-world spectacle, populated by John Tremblay’s colorful chunky Flintstone-esque objects and camera-ready dancers (including, creepily but not nearly creepily enough, Wampler’s eight-year-old daughter) and presided over by Mitch Margold’s organ music. There’s a bored and sometimes charmingly awkward seduction at play. Everything is pretty serious, even the awkwardness, and despite the funky sound, the only people who look like they are having sustained fun are the black dancers seen on grainy, 1970s-looking recorded footage. In her 1981 essay “A Criticism of Outrage,” Jill Johnston remembered an event in 1952 in North Carolina, “where hundreds of black people danced freely to a disco band and refracted light displays. We whites were stamped on the backs of our hands with infrared numbers and herded to a balcony where we were allowed to watch.”

It’s all a little queasy-making. (But then, not nearly queasy-making enough.) So were the Katz Deli hotdogs served during our cafeteria-style dinner break in Life and Times. They were oddly satisfying (though not as satisfying as the pb&j sandwiches the audience got at Nature Theater’s No Dice from 2007). And here I want to start inserting “like” and “um” and “you know” into my sentences, because this is a huge and happy part of the point of the company’s productions, which feature unedited phone-conversation scripts

Nature Theater of Oklahoma, Life and Time: Episode 2, 2013. Performance view, The Public Theater, New York. Photo: Nature Theater of Oklahoma.

In this case the conversations were with one gal, Kristin Worrall, who performs with the company and who grew up in white middleclass New England suburbia. We get to hear all about it: the crushes, the fuzzy childhood memories, the humiliations and the triumphs and the brushes with less sheltered lives. Devastating social hierarchies. “Gay” as a playground catchall insult.

“Did it get stupider? Did we get bored with it? Maybe they got bored with it?” a friend mused after it was all over, as we hustled out into snowy, midnight SoHo. I dunno. But I found myself a little too entertained, and turned off by Worrall’s continual references to people’s looks and lack of intelligence. Put a recorder on anyone for eight hours and it doesn’t stay pretty. Or eight seconds—Björk was at the Public that Saturday, along with a hefty chunk of the performance-world intelligentsia, and during our dessert break (brownies disappointingly free of additives) we watched an influential curator snapping a covert picture of her with his iPhone. Life and Times!

I don’t know if we want art to make us feel special. Somehow I think it’s more about movement—to catch us up in something urgent, no matter if it’s the urgency of the mundane everyday, something we have to say “yes” or “no” to. I adore Nature Theater for its dogged insistence on that everyday, stylized just beyond an inch of its life. But the zipping between pathos and slyness wears me out. There are more “states” than California and New York.

There’s New Jersey, for example. And Newark (Niweweorce), Trisha Brown’s gorgeous anvil of a dance; to see the cast emerge exhausted and triumphant from its unrelenting geometries at the Brooklyn Academy of Music Friday night was pretty grand. Some of them probably weren’t born yet when Brown made the dance, in 1987, when she and Donald Judd somehow dreamed up the idea of sending her valiant phrases cutting across a stage while his vibrant color scrims descended periodically like guillotines. And now they’re all that remains: a mobile archive with no new material to store. Brown, who has been in ill health for years, wasn’t in the theater, and her company faces that unsolvable dilemma of how to move forward now that she no longer is.

Brown’s radical days are long behind her, and so it’s doubtful her supporting staff will make the radical decision to fold up the tents for good. What’s the right move here? Just like always in church, there’s no one qualified to say.

Claudia La Rocco