Thursday, June 06, 2013

Karen Finley Looks for Love

Jesse Helms' notorious dream girl looks for love: For more than 30 years Karen Finley has used her naked body like a knife, cutting away at our sense of propriety in performances somewhere between burlesque and group therapy.

Fred Dodsworth: How would you categorize your work?
Karen Finley: My work I think is emotional. My work was really about emotional issues, about grieving, pain, oppression, things that weren't normally talked about. So it was very painful for me when my work was eroticized by Senator Jesse Helms. I wasn't able to handle that at that time because I, as a female, wanted so much to be kind of a heroine for gay rights and sexual rights, pain and oppression.
Now I have a perspective on what was going on. Now I am purposely having my work be erotic, using the erotic as a device.

Q: Sexual or erotic?
KF: It's not pornography. I don't know really what's with pornography. I think the idea of looking at something … that the idea is separate from the physical rush, that kind of sense of the arousing wasn't my issue then. Now I play off of that. I remove the idea of the enemy so I don't have to occupy the territory of the heroine any more.
It's not about the victim. It isn't having to voice what the pain is, or even talking about that. Now what I feel is the politics of joy. Now the left and the right can be similar in terms of their needs to ridicule or use people for their own political gain, which I've experienced.
I feel that's what's political -- joy, right now. So many people are concerned about a moral sensibility. I'm going back to a '70s sensibility. Even with the idea of Queer Theater, when that was starting, or even if you want to look at the idea of the "Party."
I have laughter and I have a sensibility in this work, although there's a sensuality in this work, I'm appropriating the chanteuse. Which also has the sensibility of just having a Gay Olde Tyme, within that pain, within the childhood trauma, of not being understood.
So I use that. So I'm having a very good time, I'm dancing, while I've deconstructed the strip. I'm a participant. I'm not being victimized. I'm a participant. I'm complicit. The joy is just in the living.
Any people that are oppressed, humor is a way to disarm. I think that feminism hasn't had a good sense of humor. I don't think that politically correct liberals have a good sense of humor.

Q: So you're trying to bring humor back to…?
KF: Joy. Party. The joy life.

Q: You look uncomfortable.
KF: I was thinking about instances where I would try to bring in humor and where I would be turned down. When New York Now had asked me to do a tee-shirt for them and I had the Virgin Mary as Pro-Choice. I think that's funny. I like it. There's no anger. It's an irony -the irony of it all.

Q: Do you like your body image?
KF: My body image, what I think of myself, is different than what I am, what I look at. I don't really feel that I am this body. I'm much more ethereal. I usually don't… many times I don't feel like I'm in my body. (Quietly.)That's so funny. I feel uncomfortable in using my body as a female. When I was young, I resented that my body, my femaleness, would come before my talent. Because I knew that I was talented and I had something special. I had original material to do. I resented that, that couldn't be looked at. Just being a female. I think it's kind of funny now.
I worked at the Condor Club and El Cid. I was the hostess at the Top of the Mark. So I've worked at many San Francisco institutions. I was an intern at the art museum cataloging art catalogs…

Q: We were talking about your body-mind conflict.
KF: I think it's really about a generation at that time - a collective unconscious. I don't think that mine was a unique voice. I started to make art, expecting that I would be able to be a "body" artist like other artists, like men were. It became complicated and there were lots of different levels … the female being objectified. I became the artist. It becomes different when you're participating, or drawing the nude, or having the feminine form as the content of art. Coming as a female into that it becomes confusing.
I think that younger artists, women, don't have to do the same work that I had to do. I really had no choice. When I went to the San Francisco Art Institute there weren't many female faculty. I think that there are certain powers that worked collectively to keep women's voices down. It was a different time.

Q: Is the world better now?
KF: There are steps that have been made. I see some change even in the student body. I see different situations in terms of power and the idea of certain experiences and expectations. I feel there have been changes for the better for women. You know we still need to continue on but I really feel there has been good change.

Q: Let's go back to the difference between men and women.
KF: I think you have to go to the idea of knowing physical power. There is a certain sense or assumption of power. I think that's culturally put into perspective. I think that there is a new "masculine" happening and has been happening for a while. Just looking at abstract expressionism as an emotional cry from the second world war.
I feel the whole anxiety of men having to fight, the burden put on men, that men are basically worthless. From the moment they are born they are trained to be a soldier. They are there to protect the mother, the country, the flag. I feel that burden. The idea of not being able to show emotion -- that's a weakness. That's a cultural norm, an idea that goes back thousands, perhaps millions of years.
It goes back to the same thing with woman, having to be protected so they would be safe with their babies. Many of these structures are very primitive. Men have that fear. They can be called at any moment. Their body is worthless. I think we ought to be thinking about that and the violence. Is it random that boys are doing this? What's their rage? What needs are been met and what needs aren't being met? What is this a manifestation of? What is this telling us about the need these children are feeling? This is a collective experience and obviously we're not responding to it.
I think what's happening is they are "lost boys." I think that we are in a crisis. I think that there has been an over femininization. There's double messages about their masculinity, and aggressiveness. There is such pressure for boys to be quiet. They are not allowed to be boys. That energy, of the masculine, gets a double message. It's good but we're also afraid of it. Their emotions, acting out. I think it's important to look at it, but I haven't figured it out.

Q: You use your body to communicate complicated messages.
KF: I think I do that unconsciously. I'm showing my body and I'm comfortable with that, I'm enjoying it. It isn't a good girl. It isn't a prostitute. It's knowing one's self and being there, centered. There's no other reason.
I think there is a fear of female sexuality. What is that? What is the primal fear of that? Does the male feel not strong enough, or potent enough to satisfy a real, sexual woman? I'm certainly having fun doing it and doing it in San Francisco has an importance to me. It brings it home.

Q: Is it intimate or is not intimate?
KF: I make my audience feel very comfortable with me. This is an intimate journey. They are seeing it. They go through what I go through. This is definitely different than going to the Condor. This is definitely different than that.

Q: How?
KF: Well, actually I thought Carol Doda was great and I think that I actually owe a lot to watching Carol Doda. It's just talking to the audience the way she would talk to the audience. Making people feel comfortable. I think I went through so much pain. I've been through a lot. Now I know where the joys are and I like giving those to the audience. I love giving that to the audience. I love having that group endorphin experience. There's some good laughter in it.
What makes it good for me is after the different losses that I've had in my life, and everyone's got their own journey, but I didn't want to be like Lenny Bruce or Mae West. I didn't want to become a tragedy. I thought my way out of it. Going beyond the tragedy. This is the kind of career where you can re-invent yourself.

Karen Finley appeared at Theater Artaud in her one woman performace, "Shut Up and Love Me," March 15th-24th, 2001

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