Ben WaltersPenny Arcade: New York ‘doesn’t see the value of culture, only of status’
Ben Walters „The Guardian” 28th July 2015tłumaczenie
Bartosz Wójcik, Marta Keil
The former Warhol Superstar’s current show, Longing Lasts Longer, lambasts the gentrification of her beloved city, which she rechristens ‘the Big Cupcake’
Penny Arcade wants to use the past to keep dystopia at bay. The latest solo show by the Warhol superstar turned performance-art pioneer is called Longing Lasts Longer, and it takes aim at the dizzyingly rapid corporate takeover of space in her beloved New York. Just don’t call it a nostalgia trip.
“It’s not about whether things are better or worse,” Arcade says. “It’s that they are erasing our historical inheritance. The truth is that this destruction is meaningless. There is no public good. But the market says if you complain about it, it’s nostalgia.”
Following work-in-progress previews at Joe’s Pub in New York this spring, Longing Lasts Longer premieres at the Edinburgh Fringe in August. Runs follow at London’s Soho Theatre in November and New York’s Abrons Arts Center next year. Arcade develops her shows by performing them, fine-tuning them one audience at a time – her signature piece, Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore!, continues to evolve 25 years after its premiere – but on the basis of a show at Joe’s in May, her arsenal of aphorisms is already well-stocked.
“How did New York go from being the city that never sleeps to the city that can’t wake up?” she asks, launching into a scathing riff on the transformation of the taboo-busting Big Apple into a haven of infantilised consumerism she dubs “the Big Cupcake”. “Being reactionary,” she drawls, “has never tasted so sweet.” Against a running soundtrack of new wave and rock tracks masterfully coordinated by her longtime collaborator Steve Zehentner, Arcade criticises apathetic young people and prophesies a society bereft of political engagement or social change.
For Arcade, the key issue is gentrification – the takeover by big-name retailers and high-end real estate developers of the sites that store urban history. “This is a change that erases history,” she insists over tea and cherries in the yard of Zehentner’s East Village apartment building, a few days after the show. “This is cultural amnesia.”
Her passion is plain. “The market is a machine that is just knocking down everything in its path. It’s a mentality that does not see the value of culture, only of status. It’s financial totalitarianism.”
Not that Arcade is against change per se. “The first time you see a nice café in a working-class neighbourhood, you say: ‘Oh, great, I can get a smoothie here. I don’t have to get on the bus for 45 minutes to have that experience.’ That’s nice! But now we’re in hypergentrification, when suddenly everything in the neighbourhood gets mowed down to make way for corporate enterprises. There are parts of New York where there is now a Duane Reade drugstore on every single corner. Try to find a cobbler – or a mailbox! Everything is being stripped down to its most profitable. It’s cost-efficient but it doesn’t take in human beings.”
Along with the loss of useful services, Arcade argues, comes the loss of spaces with significance beyond commercial operation. “Gentrification is so malevolent because it erases the example of alternative lifestyles. You don’t have to be some intellectual to care about this stuff. It’s our shared heritage.”
She mentions the recent closure of legendary queer venues in London such as Madame Jojo’s and the Black Cap. “I only went to the Black Cap once, but every time I took the bus past it, my heart raised. Everybody focuses on George Orwell talking about surveillance in 1984 but he warned against two other evils: the destruction of language and the erasure of place. When these places close, you can’t see real life.”
Nostalgia romanticises the past; Arcade doesn’t. Longing Lasts Longer details why she was glad to see the back of the 60s (too much violence) and each decade since – and why she’d much rather be her 65-year-old self than recapture her youth. “I’m grateful to who I was in my 20s for steering me in this direction, but this is the person I was aiming for,” she says. “Only the most boring people in the world look at their 20s as the high point of their life.”
To Arcade, both progressive culture and personal meaning are rooted in self-individuation: developing one’s own distinctive values and taste over decades of unique experience and thought. It’s the opposite of a consumerist identity based on a drop-down menu of pop-culture choices. It’s also the basis of the Lower East Side Biography Project, an oral-history project Arcade and Zehentner created “to ensure that future generations have access to the mad souls of invention that built this New York City neighborhood’s reputation as an incubator for authenticity, rebellion and iconoclasm”, as its homepage puts it. Broadcasting weekly since 1999 under the subtitle “stemming the tide of cultural amnesia”, its many subjects have included filmmaker and curator Jonas Mekas, actor-director Judith Malina, local arts programmer Jack Waters and Arcade’s late collaborator Quentin Crisp.
The Biography Project isn’t the only practical application of Arcade’s beliefs. Recently, the transgender idol Holly Woodlawn – a fellow Warhol superstar who appeared with Arcade in the 1972 Factory movie Women in Revolt – was hospitalised with cancer. Woodlawn was short on medical insurance and unable to communicate with loved ones. Arcade spearheaded a crowdfunding campaign to raise money for medical care and, if necessary, funeral arrangements. The initial $50,000 target was reached within two weeks; at the time of writing, it’s nudging $60,000 and Woodlawn is once again able to talk with friends, though her condition remains serious.
As well as valuing the past, Arcade remains engaged with the future. She’s keen to encourage greater political engagement among those younger people who lack it. “I’m not against them,” she insists. “I’m against what’s been done to them. There’s a gentrification that happens to neighbourhoods and there’s a gentrification that happens to ideas. How did they train people in their 20s to think their priorities should be decorating, wine, cuisine – things that usually happen to people in their 50s when they aren’t having that much sex?”
She wants more young people to join older people to push for progressive change. “My message is always about coalition,” she insists. “I’m really trying to effect change. We’re in the 11th hour and the question is, what can we do? I don’t know the answer. I’m out there asking questions.”