A DIFFERENT KIND OF INTIMACY
Don't miss Karen at Changing Hands Bookstore on Friday Dec. 1 - see below
Karen Finley is someone who cannot- and should not- be ignored. --Mel Gussow (in the Introduction)
Performance artist Karen Finley is known for breaking the rules, and in her new book she has defied genre boundaries to produce a hybrid combination of memoir and collected works. In A DIFFERENT KIND OF INTIMACY: The Collected Writings of Karen Finley (Thunders Mouth Press, November 8, 2000, $17.95 trade paperback) she tells the story of her life via her art and vice versa. From her groundbreaking performances in venues such as the Kitchen and Franklin Furnace to her fight against censorship as one of the NEA 4, this is a life and a collection that embodies the cultural conflicts of the last two decades.
A DIFFERENT KIND OF INTIMACY brings together for the first time Finley's texts, performances, short stories, essays, op-eds, art and photographs. Included in the book is the text for the never-before-published, Obie award winning The American Chestnut for which she received a Guggenheim, and an excerpt from her forthcoming directorial film debut, Shut Up and Love Me, produced by Forensic Films.
Life of the Artist
Throughout the book, Finley intersperses selections from her works with commentary on how her life and art interacted. Her family's hereditary depression, her father's suicide, becoming a mother and the devastating personal consequences of the NEA 4's battles against the government all play into the story of her works.
Hers has been what she calls a career of "causing psychic disturbances." In a scene that sets the tone for her controversial works, Finley opens the book by recounting an appearance in Cologne Germany in 1981. The piece was a musical comedy in which Finley and her partner, Brian, played Eva Braun and Hitler. "There is no way to put this delicately," she remembers, "I turned around and Brian was lapping up my shit."
During the early 1980s, Finley was part of the legendary group (John Sex, Ann Magnuson, the Beastie Boys, Madonna) that performed in the monthly downtown cabaret known as No Entiendes. In her hands, a can of kidney beans, melted ice cream sandwiches, candied yams and perhaps-most famously- chocolate, became props which symbolized abuse of women.
When she performed Yams up my Granny's Ass in 1986, a cover story, "Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts" appeared on the cover of the Village Voice, and her life changed overnight. The following week, a scornful and sarcastic response piece from Pete Hamill appeared in the same newspaper. "Hamill apparently never went to see the performance that he devoted so many words to excoriating," she writes, "because he imagined that I actually took an uncooked yam and sodomized myself with it on stage."
A DIFFERENT KIND OF INTIMACY provides Finley's long-awaited response to Hamill:
I thought about writing a letter to the Voice, but every time I sat down to write, ÔI never put a yam in my butt,' I'd think-but what if I had? SO WHAT? I felt that defending, explaining, clarifying, would somehow be giving in to them. In retrospect, I wish I had had a sense of humor about it, that I had used humor to puncture HamillŐs posturing. But I had so much invested in being taken seriously. I felt that women were always laughed at or sexualized when somebody wanted to shut them up, and I didnŐt want to risk that happening to me. I did react to the attacks in one way-they pissed me off so much that I became even more determined to continue doing outrageous work using my body.
Later that year, she planned to perform a portion of I'm an Ass Man, a piece that imagines what is going through a rapistŐs mind, at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in London. The day before, The Daily Mail dubbed her the "high priestess of pornography," and she was threatened with arrest and deportation if she performed.
"The political climate in Britain at the time was such that they were looking for someone to make an example of," she remembers, "and I didn't see any reason why I should play into their hands and become that example. I didn't want to be the ICAŐs martyr or [obscenity crusader] Mary WhitehouseŐs publicity pawn. And I definitely didnŐt want to be arrested in a foreign country where there was no First Amendment, no ACLU to protect me - I got the next flight out."
This was the last time, however, that Karen Finley backed away from a fight. Her state of mind might best be summed up by this description of her trademark piece, We Keep our Victims Ready (1989):
I smeared my body with chocolate, because I said in the piece, I'm a woman, and women are usually treated like shit. Then I covered myself with red candy hearts 'because, after a woman is treated like shit, she becomes more lovable.' After the hearts, I covered myself with bean sprouts, which smelled like semen and looked like semen 'because, after a woman is treated like shit, and loved for it, she is jacked off on.' Then I spread tinsel all over my body, like a Cher dress 'because, no matter how badly a woman has been treated, she'll still get it together to dress for dinner.'
The NEA 4
Thus Finley entered the 1990s, when, she writes, "It was hard to remember sometimes that I was supposed to be an artist, not an activist." In 1990, she was one of four artists whose funding from the National Endowment for the Arts was withdrawn and whose work was labeled "obscene." Along with Holly Hughes, John Fleck and Tim Miller, she became one of the "NEA 4."
"They say that thereŐs no such thing as bad publicity, but this publicity was having a negative affect on my livelihood," she writes. "What I discovered is that public support is difficult to escape. All around us, there is government support in some form. Whether it is the US Post Office, liquor licenses, the FCC, city-owned buildings - you find public support everywhere, and everywhere you find it, the government can try to use it to control people."
The court battle ensued for eight years, incorporating a win at the 9th circuit in Los Angeles and ultimate defeat at the Supreme Court. During this period, what she terms the "psychic toll" of the ordeal cost her her marriage. At the same time, however, she was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship and created An American Chestnut. Rather than defeating her, a death threat during the show's Cambridge premier prompted her to reexamine her work once more. "I started to focus on the idea of embracing collapse," she says. " I no longer felt that my shows had to be cleanly directed, in perfect working order. Instead, I wanted to present work that was anti-finished, anti-polished. I wanted to show the performance as a living process."
Emerging from the NEA and death threat experiences, Finley decided to confront the issues raised by her naysayers directly, and create a piece that was unabashedly about sex. Not only did she create Shut Up and Love Me, (which will soon be adapted for film), but she took the controversial step of posing nude for Playboy. For anyone else, these latest turns in her career would seem hypocritical. But when seen as part of Karen Finley's life and work, they make absolute sense.
Karen Finley was born in Chicago where she attended the Art Institute and received her masters in fine art. Her work has been shown in America, Europe, South America, Asia and Australia - not without incident. Death threats, censorship, audits, government snooping, city council bans, interrogations by Scotland Yard, attacks from Jesse Helms, and threats of deportation have dogged her appearances. Her installation at the Whitney Museum was cancelled five days after the Supreme Court decision against her.