Stephen BottomsCritical Exposure: Politics, Erotics, and Penny Arcade. Extracts
Penny Arcade, Bad Reputation. Performances, Essays,
Interviews, Semiotext(e), Los Angeles 2009, pp. 177–195.
In the clubs, galleries and alternative theatres of downtown New York, during a period stretching from the late 1970s through the early 1990s, there emerged a distinctive theatrical genre-spoken-word performance art, which was not quite drama, not quite poetry, and not quite “art” in the sense of deriving from a gallery – based visual aesthetic. The
leading figures in this loosely-defined movement – performers as diverse as Spalding Gray, Karen Finley, Eric Bogosian, Holly Hughes and Tim Miller – relied on presence,charisma and provocation (both verbal and, in some cases, visual) to capture spectatorial attention. Most of them also used autobiographical narrative, more or less explicitly, to enhance a sense of the performance’s liveness: this person is living out of her life right in front of us, and these are the details of that life. Penny Arcade a.k.a. Susana Ventura, is one the single most accomplished exponents of such monologue-driven performance to have emerged from this time and place: few, if any of the famous names cited above can match her for either the theatrical vigor or the sheer intelligence of her work-at least in this observer’s opinion. It is therefore something of the mystery why Arcade remains one of New York’s “best-kept secrets” – having never achieved the degree of public or critical exposure accorded to some of her peers.
How does one account for this blind spot around Arcade’s work? It’s easy enough to see that her voice is too explicitly confrontational to have been welcomed by the American media mainstream, in the way that figures
like Gray, Bogosian and John Leguizamo have been. Yet equally, despite an academic climate that tends to champion the marginal over the mainstream, my database searches reveal not a single published scholarly article that discusses Arcade in anything more than a passing reference. This dearth of response, I hasten to add, may be as much as a sin of omission as a sign of her being willfully ignored: I myself have admired Arcade’s work for fifteen years, but never written in any detail about it until now. Still, the fact is that Arcade’s “otherness” troubles category distinctions
in a way that has made her difficult to pigeonhole. There is something unquestionably “queer” about her work, for example (and she is often programmed in queer arts festivals) and yet Arcade has never been much celebrated by gay and lesbian critics, as have performers such as Hughes and Miller. As a self-proclaimed “faghag” but not a “dyke”, she appears not to fit the profile to be championed on the basis of sexual identity. As she wryly remarks: “I’m so queer I’m not even gay.”
(Rather, Arcade identifies openly as bisexual, in conscious resistance to any suggestion that she should limit her options.) Similarly, despite her forthright insistence on discussing the rights and experiences of women, she has often antagonized feminists. Her insistent use of erotic dancers in her performances, for example, sits uncomfortably with widely-held feminist views on the objectification of women’s bodies. […] What Arcade has to say has always been of a piece with how she says it, and also with how she contextualizes her words theatrically. The “razzle dazzle” surrounding her work (as Soloski disparagingly describes it) is no mere window dressing, any more than the vibrancy and commitment that Arcade pours into her performances is merely incidental to their meaning: this work is fundamentally rooted in the idea of exchanging energy with audiences. You can see this in the way that Arcade herself is so frequently present in the auditorium as spectators enter pre-show – dancing around, shaking hands, chatting animatedly with anyone who will chat back. It’s also the logic underlying her recurring use of near-constant soundtrack music and erotic dancers. Rather than speaking into a void of silence, Arcade forces herself to compete
for the audience’s attention with her gyrating colleagues – and although the collective theatrical wisdom of century would seem to dictate that you shouldn’t offer distracting movement when you want someone to listen to a soliloquy, the fact is that it actually isn’t much of a competition. Indeed, it frequently seems as if the sensory stimuli of music and dance function to accentuate – rather than detract from – Arcade’s observations, as if the pointedness of her remarks is being buoyed up on a wave of erotic energy. And that, of course, is precisely her point: having something
worthwhile to say can be very arousing.
In a culture where intelligence is so often derided, ignorance actively celebrated (how else did George W. Bush become President), and healthy sexual expression repressed even as pornography is increasingly mainstreamed, Arcade’s is an actively political position. It’s also one informed unmistakably by the thinking of Wilhelm Reich, the Austrian-American psychoanalyst whose work also influenced bohemian writers from Paul Goldman to William Burroughs. “There’s just one energy and it’s sexual,” Arcade contends, almost as if channeling Reich, in Bitch!
Dyke! Faghag! Whore! I’m talking about the life force…the only energy that any of us have… And the thing that’s kind of funny and kind of sad is that none of us, not one single person in this entire room including me, is ever going to be as sexual as we were when we were two and a half years old. Have you ever been with a two-and-half-year-old kid that likes you? They’re just ah, ah, ah, ah, ah…. (Penny raises her arms and jumps around, imitating a child who wants to be picked up.) They want you with every little cell in their body. They’re not trying to figure out what they’re gonna get you to do in bed later. If there is an underlying thematic in all of Arcade’s work, it is perhaps this concern to advocate the full expression of our “life force” – creative, sexual, physically and verbally expressive and to speak out against those societal and political forces that would repress such energizing self-realization. The earliest of the texts in this volume, La Miseria (1991), offers Arcade’s most personal and culturally-specific account of such repression, by reflecting on her own upbringing in a working class Italia-American family where (if we are to believe her account) “misery” was a kind of addiction. The drug was imported from the old country-from a Southern Italian peasant culture in chic subsistence and servitude had become ingrained over thousands of years. It would have been easy for this material to be treated as a kind of depressing, kitchen-sink drama, but Arcade makes a point of juxtaposing stark realities with liberating theatrical excess. La Miseria, first performed at P.S.122 in the East Village, was the last of a series of largescale group shows that Arcade mounted off-off-Broadway in the late 1980s and early
‘90s, in which her own appearance as monologues were interspersed with dramatic sequences that she wrote and directed, but which featured others performers. Many of these actors were clearly and unapologetically “amateur”, and not just in the sense of participating for love rather than money, but their imperfections were part of the point. As Arcade says in La Miseria “anybody can be in one of my show,” because one of her objectives is to celebrate the unpolished uniqueness of ordinary people, rather than the slick virtuosity of trained actors. The inspiration for this approach lies, in part, in Arcade’s teenage apprenticeship with John Vaccaro’s Play-House of the Ridiculous the flagrantly queer underground theatre company whose very name emphasized the idea of performers “playing” wildly, like oversized children, rather than behaving with the approved (repressive?) professional decorum. Indeed, Arcade’s Invitation to the Beginning of the End of the World (1990), which took the form of a darkly demented cabaret show, was essentially an homage to Kenneth Bernard’s play Nightclub (1970), in which she had appeared with the Play-House at the age of nineteen. (The stars of Nightclub, Play-House regulars Ondine and Mary Voronov, were also among Andy Warhol’s “superstars” of underground cinema, and Arcade herself was to become a Warhol starlet in the 1971 film Women in Revolt). Director John Vaccaro, the mastermind behind a slew of twisted theatrical spectacles of the 1960s and ‘70s (see my account in Playing Underground: A Critical History of the 1960s Off-Off-Broadway Movement), is one of two inspirational figures Arcade still points to as a personal mentor. The other is Vaccaro’s friend and colleague, the filmmaker and performance artist Jack Smith, whose estate Arcade became co-trustee of after his Heath from AIDS -related illnesses in 1989. […] La Miseria was no less a fulfillment of this “Ridiculous” trajectory. Soaked in the Roman Catholic iconography beloved of Jack Smith, Arcade’s examination of her working class Italia roots was an investigation of a form of“otherness” that remains little understood in mainstream America. Similar backgrounds had been shared not only by Vaccaro, but by rather foundational figures such as Julie Bovasso and Joe Cino, creators of the Tempo Theatre and Cafe Cino respectively and thus,
in effect, of New York’s underground theatre movement. […]
In 1992 Penny Arcade presented Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! (P.S.122 then Village Gate, 1992), which remains to date her longest running and most widely performed show. Indeed, the decision to work in a primarily solo then made this performance internationally transportable in a way that La Miseria, with its large ensemble, could never have been. The go-go dancers of Bitch! Dyke! (and later, Bad Reputation) need not to travel with Arcade herself, but can be picked up locally and rehearsed into the show within tightl limited time frames. If La Miseria stood consciously in the tradition of the Ridiculous, Bitch! Dyke! owes a debt to another New York performance tradition
that of the multi character monologue show, of which Eric Bogosian and Lily Tomlin are perhaps the most famous exponents. […] Arcade moped to redeploy the multi character format to more overtly politicized effect in Bitch!Dyke! Faghag! Whore! Alongside “Charlene,” the New Orleans Hooker from True Stories, she assembled a telephone operator in a brothel, and several characters from her own personal history as a “faghag” as a “little girl,” and finally as the adult Penny (who, lest we forget, is herself a character created by Susana Ventura). The treads connecting these various roles are, of course, explicit in the performance’s subtitle: The Penny Arcade Sex and Censorship Show.
The word “censorship” stands here as a figure for all those forces that inhibit the free expression of gender and sexuality – most overtly in the kind of verbally violent epithets collected in Arcade’s title. But the word censorship, in
the early 1990s also carried specific political potency as a result of the running battles being fought out in the so-called “culture wars” of that period. Conservative politicians such as Senator Jesse Helms had attempted to use federal funding of the NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) as a pretext by which to condemn and scapegoat a series of radical artists, claiming that their explicit invocation of alternative sexual politics allegedly made them unit
to receive even minuscule support from the tax dollars of “decent” Americans. Among the New Right’s targets were, very prominently, a number of performance artists whose culturally marginal status made them easy game: Karen Finley, Holly Hughes, Tim Miller, John Fleck and somewhat later Ron Athey. Arcade was not a recipient of federal funds, and was never dragged into the firing line, but Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! Actually started out in 1990 as material presented as part of her audit for an NEA Fellowship. She didn’t get the money but at least no one could accuse her of softening her stance in order to ingratiate herself: Bitch! Dyke! Is driver by a ferocious awareness of the (ridiculous) hypocrisies underlying moralizing crusades such as Helms’s. On the most explicit level this is
apparent in the way that prostitution – the selling of sex – is positioned by both Charlene and the Phone Girl as fundamentally conservative industry. It operates conservatively in legal terms, in the sense of desiring its own illegality and taboo status in order to restrict supply in relation to demand (and thus maintain
its market value). But it also caters, as often as not, to the culturally conservative, who likewise have a vested interest in its secretive status: “We take care of doctors, lawyers, CPA s, judges, dentists, ministers…” The problem with blacklisted performance artist, viewed in this light, is that they stout too loudly and openly abort sexual difference, without having anything of marketable value to sell. For Jesse Helms, as for La Miseria’s Billy, these artists should simply “shut the fuck up.”
Bitch! Dyke!, even in its later updates such as the one publisher here, clearly acknowledges its status as a product of the early 1990s: the debates over “gays in the military” which so confounded the early days of the first Clinton administration also figure prominently for example (and have not lost their pertinence in the U.S., even now). But it would also be far too simplistic, and would sell the complexity of Arcade’s performance well short, if the show were to be taken simply as a diatribe against censoriousness and thus-by implication as an invitation to “let it all hang out” sexually. Admittedly, she does indeed let it all hang out by the end of Bitch! Dyke! – performing the last lengthy monologue completely naked and in one sense the entire movement of the piece has LED to this moment, through the stripping away of roles (Phone Girls, Charlene) and personas (Faghag, Little Girl) to arrive at an exposure
of the “naked” Arcade here and now! Yet the point of this sequence is not to naively celebrate the liberating joys of nudity as did, for example, certain famous hippie spectacles of the late 1960s (Paradise Now, Dionysus in 69). Indeed, as Charlene has earlier noted, “the sexual revolution did not do one thing for women in this country except driver down the value of sex and that drove down the price” – a point all too relevant to the (usually male-voiced) hippie – era demand that sex should be provided in the name of “free love”. Rather, Aracade’s nakedness functions explicitly as anti-climax: “I guess by now you’ve forgotten I have my clothes off”, she remarksat the end of her monologue, and certainly that was my own experience of the live show. The point of the scene is not her nudity but its irrelevance. Arcade is not arguing for exposure as the antidote to concealment and censorship because exposure can, well, expose people in ways that May be just as damaging as repressing them. To demand “free love” is to demand the indiscriminate satisfaction of desire and in a consumerist culture that present instant gratification as a primary value, this may simply be the opposite side of the repressive coin. If sexual energy is artificially suppressed, it will eventually erupt, and then merely be spent. Perhaps though, in the playful suspension of satisfaction, there may lie a more politically resistant approach to sexual economics; the potential to save up the war chest of desire. Arcade addresses these points in various, ingenious ways throughout the performance. In the Phone Girl scene, for example, it becomes apparent (repeatedly) that the male clients od this brothel would rather pay $150 for half an hour with a girl than $175 for the full hour. The second half hour is a relative “bargain”, but the men don’t want it because (one assumes) it might mean actually having to converse with the girl, or otherwise “spend time” with her beyond the requirements of a quick fuck. Physical exposure is all that is required, not actual human contact. In the “Faghag” monologue, Arcade connects this point to the history of gay liberation, by suggesting that when homosexuality came out of the closet, gay subculture too fell victim to the demands of instant gratification, losing much of its creative energy in the process: “These new gay men in 1973, they didn’t like to dance. They hated fashion. They hated art. They hated drag queens. They hated faghags. They hated women… All these guys wanted to do was go in the bushes and fuck, just like straight guys”.
Arcade is, of course, exaggerating her point for performative effect: she is not really “sorry I threw bricks at the Stonewall!” Yet her alignment of “straightness” precisely with the demand for and supply of instant gratification
is crucial here: “in 1973, more gay men came out than ever, but they were so straight.” The implication is that queerness equates less with the sexual act per se than it does with perspective, playful, defiant responses to legislated “norms”. Such creativity, perhaps, is defined not by concealment or exposure, but by the erotic interplay of the two. The attraction of playing the faghag, Arcade notes, lies precisely in the game of “hiding gay men in plain sight” – in the fact that a man and a woman out together will usually be read as “straight” even when they are anything but.
Therein lies the fun, and the eroticism, for those of a mischievous disposition. Similarly, the attraction for Arcade’s Little Girl persona of hiding in the dark relates not to what darkness conceals, but in what it may, through an active imagination, reveal. “The antonym of queer is not ‘heterosexual’ but ‘straight’,” notes critic Roberta Mock: “To be straight is to aspire to the restrictive fictive constructions designed to preserve the status quo and/or to refuse to reflect upon or acknowledge the positive potentials of alternative strategies” (2006: 210). In the early 1990s, however, when Arcade was creating this piece, and when “queer theory” was enjoying its first, heady rush of exposure in the academy, there were all too many who rushed to place labels (“restrictive fictive constructions”) on what did or did not constitute queer identity. Those who did so simply mimicked the censoriousness of and played into the hands of a dominant culture that maintains its hegemony through strategies of “divide and rule”. Too often, moreover it was comfortably-off, middle-class commentators who presumed to judge the queerness quotient of those who were socially marginal in much the same way that, a generation earlier, middle-class feminism had looked down on the working-class lesbian bar culture of butch-femme role-play, declaring it to be merely imitative of patriarchal norms. These are some of the factors underlying what was and perhaps still is, the most controversial section of Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore!, in which Arcade playfully critiques the lesbian community for excluding her: “I always wanted to have the support of lesbians. I always wanted to have the support lesbians. I always wanted to have that myth of community. [But] lesbians think that if you’re bisexual, it’s because you’re not trying hard enough… If you sleep with boys, you can never have the support of lesbian, not unless you’re battered. Lesbian love battered women!” There is the danger here, of course that in provocative overstatement Arcade runs the risk of simply reinforcing anti-lesbian prejudice among non-lesbian sections of the audience. Divide and rule. The call here, perhaps, is for good, old-fashioned, feminist sisterhood – and against the exceptionalism of a victim culture that presumes to elevate certain kinds of marginality over others. Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! is not anti-lesbian, but a plea for inclusiveness on the ground of the continuing mutual cultural disadvantages shared by women of all varieties (and summed up in the show’s title). Why, Arcade asks finally, are leftists, feminists and “freedom lovers” so “very picky about who we form coalitions with? We don’t form community yet “she adds even as those on
the right “don’t care who they form coalitions with” – whether they be “neo-Nazis, white supremacists, [or] demented born again Christians who don’t have one drop of Christianity in them.” This last phrase, which imputes positive value to “true” Christianity, points to one more destabilizing twist in Bitch! Dyke! – a show whose politics are summed up in what is also a statement of faith. “I know that there is more love in the world than anything else because love expands and fear and hatred and ignorance contracts,” Arcade remarks at the midpoint of the performance: “You should love somebody and you should let somebody love you back. It’s the most political act you can make.” The sentiment is both implicitly queer (the gender of the “somebody” you love being entirely immaterial) and classically Christian. Moreover, despite her “hatred” of the church, voiced in La Miseria, her revisiting of the confessional booth scene here in Bitch! Dyke! suggests a certain, perverse attraction to religious to an unseen stranger in a darkened space in, we are reminded, inherently erotic. So too was the teacher-pupil relationship that Arcade apparently shared. As a girl in Catholic reform school, with the charismatic Mother Mark. (Again, in both cases, the eroticism arises precisely from the suspension, even the impossibility, of sexual gratification.) But if Arcade seems to advocate, as potentially revolutionary, a Christ-like approach to sexuality – one that is joyful, loving and queerly innocent; just like the child pleading to be picked up. For me, this is summed up most immediately in the use Bitch! Dyke! makes of erotic dancers. Women and men who make their living through the sale of sexual allure are frequently looked down on by the respectable and intellectual – but therein lies another form of class prejudice, since sex workers of all descriptions have often turned to the trade through simple economic necessity. Christ himself, who made friends with prostitutes, was apparently well aware of this and Penny Arcade’s attempts to extend the status of “artist” to working go-go dancers can be seen, in the same light, as an honoring of the despised. Moreover, her dancers can also be seen as epitomizing precisely the erotic interplay of concealment and revelation
that the performance foregrounds as a strategy of resistance to the mainstream cultural imperative of instant gratification. Never resorting to striptease (and thus to the eventual approximation of climax), Arcade’s dancers are instructed to express their own eroticism rather than attempting to seduce or pander to the spectator: the result is a sustained exploration of energized individuality which never seems titillating in any degrading sense. Indeed, when I first saw Bitch!Dyke! at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1993, only months after finally admitting to myself that I no longer ascribed to the (literal) Christian beliefs that I’d held since childhood, the show struck me as an entirely life-affirming experience which was in no way “immoral”. […] At the end of the show, moreover, on the way out of the theatre, we were greeted by the dancers, now fully dressed in their street clothes, as if we were an opposing sports
team being applauded off the pitch. The opportunity to shake their hands, to thank them for the show, rearranged the dynamic of watchers and watched into an egalitarian moment of genuinely warm interaction. This was the real moment of “revelation” […] The international success of Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! opened many doors for
Arcade: in 1996, for example, she presented a sprawling large-cast extravaganza of operatic ridiculousness called Sisi Sings the Blues, commissioned by and for the Wiener Festwochen in Australia. For her next major show, though it was logical to head in the opposite direction and rein her aesthetic in: Bad Reputation can be read as a streamlined
fusion of La Miseria’s autobiographical approach with the monologue based orientation of Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! which largely dispenses with the stylistic jaggedness of the former and the multi-character layering of the latter, to present a tightly cohesive theatrical essay on the cultural mistreatment of “bad girls”.