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

Saturday, June 01, 2013

“We have met the zombies and they is us.”
A book review of M.T. Anderson's FEED

The following text is from pages 202 and 203 of MT Anderson's Feed.

Violet was screaming, “Look at us! You don’t have the feed! You are the feed! You’re feed. You’re being eaten! You’re raised for food! Look at what you’ve made yourselves” She pointed at Quendy, and went, “She’s a monster! A monster! Covered with cuts! She’s a creature!”
And now I was going, “Violet—Don’t. Violet! She’s not a—she’s not a goddamn monster. She’s—” but Violet screeched, “You too! Fuck you too!” —and she tried to slap me—I grabbed her by the arm—and she tried to scratch at my face, but her hand wasn’t working.
She had broken somehow, and she was broken, and, oh fuck, she was sagging and I grabbed her to help her, and she was shaking, and her eyes were all white and rolling around, and she couldn’t talk anymore—
—she was choking—
I grabbed her and tried to wrap my arms around her. There was a long line of spit coming out of her mouth. Her legs were pumping up and down. She was broken. She was completely broken.
…and the feed whispered to me about sales, and made all these suggestions about medical lawyers and malpractice, and something happened, and I was sitting beside her in an ambulance, and suddenly I realized, The party is over. The fucking party is over. (202, 203)

“We have met the zombies and they is us.”

Feed is a sophisticated cross-genre (zombie/vampire/horror) novel, which subverts the conventions of science fiction to create a post-apocalyptic narrative told from the zombie point of view. Popular culture memes pose zombies as a metaphor for the destructive results of our consumer society, especially affluent, western consumers. M.T. Anderson flips the implicit metaphoric relationship, creating a tale featuring popular consumer culture as an inescapable, all-powerful character; simultaneously forcing the reader to recognize the novel’s teenage, human characters, including Titus, the narrating voice, his family and friends and Violet, his love interest, are either zombies or undergoing zombification as their dead end society drifts, inextricably, toward its inevitable destruction. Anderson creates a zombie narrative without identifying any characters as zombies, or giving his characters the classic post-George Romero trope of cannibalistic flesh-eater. Instead, by naturalizing and glorifying their deadened, aggressively consumerist behaviors, and afflicting them with a flesh eating disease called “lesions,” the reader realizes the novel’s characters are the unspoken embodiment of zombies.

Introducing the process of naturalizing lesions, Quendy complains to her friends that hers has spread, making her comparatively unattractive. “‘If they don’t know you,’ Marty said, ‘they’re not going to know what you normally look like’” (21). Marty doesn’t compare Quendy with idealized beauty, but with her former self. Marty’s response is reasonable, as all the main characters have lesions. The self-consuming feed-culture has turned its fleshing eating disease into an aesthetic attribute: “The girl’s lesion was beautiful. It was like a necklace. A red choker” (22). Thus, on Violet, the flesh-eating disease becomes a desirable signifier of belonging to the zombie community. Necessarily the cause of the disease is mysterious (otherwise their status as zombies would be self-evident), progressively debilitating, and without a cure (they’re zombies!). Through constant propaganda projected directly into their “virtual reality” the zombie culture comes to see the flesh-eating disease as natural and desirable. Taking the corporate-controlled messaging to its “natural” extreme, Quendy inflicts expensive prosthetic lesions upon her body to gain attention, not unlike adolescent self-cutting. Her prosthesis create an interesting response from her main rival when Calista us sarcasm to draw attention to the hideous and frightening results, undermining the corporate/cultural message: “‘That’s right, Quendy,’ said Calista, ‘because seeing what’s inside you, all your guts, is just so sexy” (200). Calista’s comments are not hyperbole, “You can see her like muscles and tendons and ligaments and stuff,” (199) mind-chats Titus to his friends. Their corporal deterioration is exemplified in the extreme as Titus describes his mother: “… you could see her teeth even when her mouth was closed” (284). This only makes sense if they are zombies, not humans.

Another stereotype of the post-apocalyptic/zombie/vampire/horror genre which Anderson perverts is the “final girl theory.” Of the novel’s characters, Violet is the most empathetic, most chaste, and most concerned about the direction her culture is going. She even has the “abject terror” response when she screams at her friends: “Look at us! You don’t have the feed! You are the feed! …She’s a monster! A monster! Covered with cuts.! She’s a creature” (202). Against the horror and post-apocalyptic genre stereotype, Violet succumbs to the zombification process. She’s not dead. She’s non-responsive due to profoundly reduced feed input. Similarly, zombies are non-responsive to human concerns due to profoundly reduced empathy. In Feed, human concerns have been supplanted by corporate, profit-based concerns, resulting in a death-like state. “She was completely calm. She didn’t move” (289). Violet has completed her journey, she is the living dead.

Importantly, Violet’s “death” informs the reader there will be no savior, no survivors, no happy ending. Violet’s death is antithetical to the genera if Feed is to be read as traditional post-apocalyptic tale. Alternatively, as Feed is told from the zombie’s perspective, total destruction is inevitable. The human race must survive and “everything (zombie) must go” (299-300). Repeated five times, “everything must go” are the novel’s final words, and that statement is definitive: The fucking [zombie] party is over.

Works Cited
Anderson, Matthew T. Feed. Cambridge: Candlewick Press. 2002
Clover, Carol. Men Women and Chainsaws, actually from conversations with Joann Conrad, Ph’d Anthropology and Kendra Dodsworth, MFA, discussing Clover’s final girl theory in popular culture, horror, in conjunction with the concept of the “monstrous feminine.”

©Dec. 12, 2012