Penny Arcade’s Bad Reputation and a Stage Called Journalism
By Al Giordano
“The political climate that we live under says that diverse people from different strata of society, from different cultural orientations, would not all be together in the same room at the same time sharing a similar experience together. The political climate that we live under is divisive. It’s designed that way. It only reinforces the extremes in difference between us. And yes, while we are all very different from each other, we are overwhelmingly similar.
“There are lesbians in this room; there are gay men in this room; there are heterosexuals in this room; there are bisexual people in this room, are there not? There are transsexual people, asexual people. There are Catholics, Protestants, atheists, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, agnostics in this room. There are Asians in this room. There are Blacks in this room. There are Hispanics in this room. There are Middle Easterners in this room. There are WASPs in this room. There is every kind of ethnic group in this room. There are trendy people in this room. There are people over fifty in this room. There are people over sixty, over seventy in this room. There are people under twenty-five in this room. There are at least five kinds of gay men in this room, and they don’t agree with each other about anything! There are people in this room who don’t identify with any particular group in this room.”
- Penny Arcade, early 1990s
During an April visit to New York I had the chance to see The Penny Arcade Experience at a club called the Poisson Rouge, which now fills the hallowed space of the old Village Gate. The original Gate marquee still stands, an historic landmark, on the corner of the beige brick building at Bleecker and Thompson Streets. It eternally announces the last two shows that appeared at that legendary forum when Art d’Lugoff had to close its doors in 1993: one by Jacques Brel and the other was Arcade’s long-running (more than 1,500 performances) Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore!
Everything I have always loved about Penny Arcade’s performances was as vibrant and alive as ever on that April 2010 night in New York, starting with Penny – nee Susana Ventura, the girl from the Italian immigrant family in the mill town of New Britain, Connecticut who ran away to New York as a teen and soon landed as Andy Warhol’s youngest superstar – a tornado of truth-telling, humor, timing and authenticity. The male and female erotic dancers, actors and performers, video camerapersons and the lighting-sound-production-dramaturgy team on and off stage included a core group of the same talents that were collaborating with Penny on her works back in 1996 and 1997, when I last attended a Penny Arcade show: dramaturge Steve Zehentner, stage manager Lorie E. Said, dancer Kenny Angel Davis, videographers Dean Lance and Rick Jurgens. Hanging on to a team for 14 years and more (most go farther back than that) for a project of independent anything is itself a rare accomplishment, especially in the ego-heavy world of show biz, whether a project is economically flush or it is underground and often struggling.
There was also something new in the Arcade arsenal in 2010: Merchandise. For decades, Penny and her collaborators have videotaped most of her public performances. Like a sports team, they watch the videos after each “game” both to evaluate the play and to capture the considerable improvised and ad-libbed moments, the best of which get worked into future performances in an ever-evolving show. Back then, the video was about developing and improving the work (“In the 80s I was antiproduct,” Arcade has said, “that was my stance.”) Now, entering or leaving Penny’s shows, the audience can take home DVDs of a 1991 performance of La Miseria, the 1995 An Evening with Penny Arcade & Quentin Crisp, a 1999 on stage filming of Bad Reputation and a 2009 revival of Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore!
Also new, a book: Bad Reputation: Performances, Essays, Interviews (2009, Semiotext(e)/The MIT Press), based on transcripts of Arcade’s shows, an interview with Penny by editor Chris Kraus, and essays about her work by Stephen Bottoms, Ken Bernard, Sarah Schulman and Steve Zehentner.
I took those DVDs and the book south of the border where in recent weeks some of us – students and professors of the Narco News School of Authentic Journalism, along with friendly artists, performers, singers, photographers, designers, troublemakers and such - have gathered weekly to watch, read and discuss together what we see in those and other works of varied indole.
My j-school colleagues have repeatedly remarked things like, “Al! Now I know where the School of Authentic Journalism came from!” I had much the same thought seeing these works 13 years after the year I was immersed in and around Arcade’s laboratory (we lived under the same Lower East Side roof from about May ’96 to May ’97, but not having enough gray hair yet for memoirs, that’s really all the disclosure required for now; April was the first time in a dozen years we had spoken). Penny was then busy developing, rehearsing and performing Bad Reputation, a powerful show about “bad girls,” violence, rape, and resistance, among other things. It was, for me, the year of my big inquiry (what others probably called an early mid-life crisis) in which, having left commercial journalism, I worked at a local anarchist bookstore (largely out of motive to read everything on the shelves for free), and co-hosted, with Arcade, Radio Free New York on a pirate radio station every Friday evening. There, we held long on-air conversations with the likes of Judith Malina and Hanon Reznikov of The Living Theater, Semiotext(e) publisher Sylvere Lotringer, writers Peter Lamborne Wilson a.k.a. Hakim Bey and the late Robert Beers (also an actor and film curator at MOMA), musicians Jayne County, Tuli Kupferberg, Bebe Buell and Coyote Shivers, the poet Ira Cohen, former New York School Board president Sister Elizabeth Kelliher, and others who had lived and helped form the secret history of radical New York over previous decades.
I confess that, during that heady year on the Lower East Side, I thought my inquiry – an attempt to study and figure out where I really do stand in society and its politics; to unlearn myself of years of presumptions conditioned by staffing commercial media and “go back to the drawing board” anew – was “out there” on the bookshelves and in the pirate radio studio. In retrospect, the more highly advanced revolutionary project was happening right under my nose, in what Penny and her collaborators were building. I was sloganeering politically about “refusing mediation” and trying to understand Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of “the war machine outside the state.” Arcade was doing it. Full circle, that experience turns out to have been a defining influence on all that I’ve done since.
“I talk directly to the audience,” Arcade said in the book’s 2008 interview by Chris Kraus. “I started doing it because I was so ignored by the press and the art scene. I understood that my relationship was with the audience, that it wasn’t with arts administrators, that it wasn’t with the press, and that the audience and I were actually treated the same way by the press and by the arts administrators. They thought we were stupid and didn’t know anything, and so I developed that talking to the audience, and just got braver and braver and braver.”
Narco News’ decade-long adversarial relationship with the commercial media and our greater priority of building and sustaining a direct, unmediated, relationship with our readers pretty much copies the Arcade Doctrine of theater and applies it to journalism. And you know what? A decade later the jury is in: it works, and is sustainable, across the borders of art forms.
“A lot of younger people who’d work with me would see me talk directly to the audience, and they’d go, ‘Oh, I can do that.’ But they didn’t understand the level of integrity you have to bring to talking directly to the audience. Because …it doesn’t work unless you’re really at risk… When I break out, it’s because I’ve realized something. Either something that I’m hiding from the audience, something that will embarrass me…”
And those are the moments that – whether it happens on a stage or via an online newspaper – the work breaks through the Fourth Wall and, according to Penny, “We’re all in it together.”
“It’s a complete accident that I have a career,” she says. “It’s really because of the public’s commitment to my work.”
“So when I say it’s an accident, I mean obviously I understand that I made a demand on the audience in the ‘80s, very early on, and that demand was, if you need to see like a big article about me in The New York Times or the Village Voice, stop coming, because they’re probably not gonna write about me. But if you think this work is important, if you like this work, if you want me to continue doing this work, I need you to replace yourself.”
Thirteen and fourteen years ago I attended thirty or forty of Arcade’s shows in a row and although she got very little press from the gatekeepers of the media, every single hall was sold out and filled to the brim. Overflow audiences often sat on stairwells and floors. And every single one had a transformative impact on those who attended it. Since no two shows were exactly alike – like jazz, they improvised around structured sections – it never got boring. The same dynamic continued at the April 2010 show, which borrowed from her entire body of work over the decades.
Arcade’s continued drawing power is testimony to the fact that you don’t need to kiss the critics’ asses, or suck up to the media, to build and expand the attention of the public on one’s work. Being authentic alone might not be enough, but if one is authentically entertaining, funny and observant, one can win the night again and again and again. Freed from the constraints of worrying about whether the critics or the media will approve of one’s work, an artist or communicator achieves a much wider field upon which to play. There is simply more one is allowed to talk about, to show and to tell; a wider well of materia prima, available to the anti-careerist. The boss ceases to be someone in a hierarchy of power outside of a project, and instead becomes the audience, the readers, the listeners. The only thing that then matters is whether they find it worthwhile, and also importantly, whether the work provokes them to participate, because that’s how all work is constantly improved, through that interaction or relationship with the public.
From the 2008 interview:
“I’m against the professionalization of the arts, where people actually think that by going to school for four years, they are an artist. Jack Smith said it best, ‘You have to be willing to be bad for twenty years in order to be great. And then there’s no guarantee…’
“Artists will talk about the politics of politics every fucking second, but they will never say anything about the politics of art. They know what side their bread is buttered on, and they’re not going to get themselves 86’d, as I have.”
The same is true in all fields. So many journalists (including many bloggers) express lots of political opinions but never about the politics and economics of the media industry. Not even “media critics” are allowed to do that! Every ethical lapse must be treated as an isolated act, and never a systemic consequence. It was when the late Jeff Buckley (another whom Penny introduced me to back in the day) started to talk about the politics of the music business that he began to have problems with SONY. Communications – whether media or the arts or some combo of the two – are the industries most protected from authentic communication about how they operate, because the threat is always looming over the heads of communicators; the blacklist, what Arcade calls the 86.
Some didn’t understand at all, for example, my comments yesterday about the talents of the 538 blog moving over to the New York Times. Some asked me, "how can you say that? Isn’t that guy your friend?” First, yes, and that friend will be fine. He can smile all the way to the bank. He’s just going to have to live with the ticket he bought that brings with it the few pockets of sustained criticism of the New York Times that have achieved this unique space (a stage, in a way) from which we’ve long made the Times our foil, a Mrs. Teasdale to our Groucho Marx. 538 can continue to do good things, but can’t during its partnership say anything “bad” about the Times itself, one of the incarnate media problems of our era. Nor can any blogger or reporter that aspires to work at official media, where the Times is considered king. And that has long been the achilles heel of so much "alternative" journalism, art, blogging, or whatever: the playing of the role of "the outsider" as merely an audition to become an insider, when the rare authentic artist or revolutionary is up to a different game altogether: tearing down the prison wall between inside and out. Democracy is not a lottery ticket!
Self-censorship is the guillotine over the heads of so much media, including those who inhabit the “alternative” press. Mark Liebovich and David Carr were enormously important writers in their alterna-media salad days. Since they’ve been swallowed up the Times, can you cite or even remember anything of real import they’ve been allowed to write since?
True, the official media try to ignore, or mock, or discredit any voice raised up against any of its members from the critique of the everyday life of how the sausage is really made in those media. Take this 2002 “review” of Penny Arcade’s show, New York Values, in 2002, by Alexis Soloski in the Village Voice:
“Like the amusement of her adopted name, Penny Arcade offers a reasonable amount of low-rent razzle-dazzle and whisbang for the buck. In New York Values (P.S. 122), she delivers her rants and raps ringed by a chorus of go-go boys and girls, illuminated by spots, magnified by live video, and backed by a rock ‘n’ roll soundscape… Of course, discussing Arcade’s material is almost beside the point. She’s attracted a following not for what she says… but for who she is: a dizzy autodidact with big boobs and a mean streak. Even at 51, she still looks devastatingly cute in décolletage and mouse ears… It’s a pity her repetitive material isn’t aging as well as her rack.”
As Stephen Bottoms notes in Bad Reputation, “The poisonous blend of sexism and snobbery in these comments hardly needs underlining.” I would add: except to mandate the observation that such cat calls have failed at their motive of turning the public off from Arcade’s work (Swift’s concept of a confederacy of dunces increasingly is recognized by the public as pointing toward genius, and the official media's minions are more frequently receiving the dunce hat), more in popular demand than ever before, built one member of the public at a time, and than by the word-of-mouth that public generated.
What has lost credibility and attraction over these same years is the professional gatekeeper of media and other institutions. It was the generic reporter and critic’s repetitive and formulaic material that didn’t “age well” and the public stopped looking to them for guidance; many were simply laid off. The media market-niched its audience by “identity” categories and demographics, in accord with advertiser "targeting" strategies, which makes Arcade’s early 1990s observation atop this review about “the political climate” and the diverse kinds of people that “are not supposed to be all in one room” prophetic. When Barack Obama began saying something similar a decade and more later, many people thought it was a new idea!
Now, here’s a little word-of-mouth, YouTube style - from that same New York Values show in the same year - so you can now replace the obsolete Voice critic, too:
A lot of the strange official hostility toward self-sufficient projects is class generated ("low rent... autodidact... mean streak...", these are descriptions that are only considered epithets by the comfortable, for whom the most classless act is desiring a classless society aloud): Big media tends to hire its troops from oversocialized university graduates. Autodidacts are generally less reliable as contented servants. (“There is nothing so depressing,” said the Mexican anarchist and independent journalist Ricardo Flores Magón, “as a happy slave.”) And likewise nothing is so threatening to the managing classes than the evidence that the rest of us can manage ourselves just fine, thank you very much. Everyone who is working class or poor (and that is the majority of everyone, after all) knows how this works, as it is drummed into our heads from every direction from a very early age.
In Arcade’s earliest full-length stage work, La Miseria, an actor portraying her brother, Mario, yells at Penny on stage:
“You are working class! That’s what you are… You’re living in a fuckin’ fantasy world. You know that? You – what – you wanna be an artist? … Let me clue you into something. Art – art – art is for rich people… Besides that, nobody wants to fuckin’ hear from you. Huh? So just shut your mouth!”
And then there are those, like Arcade, for whom shutting up is an impossibility.
Steve Zehentner, Penny’s longtime dramaturge, writes in Bad Reputation:
“I used to describe Penny as an angry mob in just one person. I would complain to her after witnessing another round of her surly public behavior – breaking the routine of calm of the neighborhood café with a tirade against the ‘pseudo-hip’ gentrifiers, swinging the microphone stand perilously close to the heads of the audience – that she was never socialized. I’m truly sorry about that. Now I recognize it as a little miracle.”
“She marched around her loft as if on the verge of a great discovery. She talked and walked and had things she wanted to hip me to – things I needed to know: ‘You don’t know the ground you’re standing on,’ she said. ‘The whole Lower East Side used to be a landing pad for aliens; the illegal, the immoral, the born losers, it was a Mecca for the Misfit. It had everything except control freaks. Have you seen the avant-garde lately? Who are those young Republicans with purple hair?”
“She doesn’t sit. Working with Penny is to engage in the continual development of a never-ending performance… She’s up, stomping about, trying things out, thinking out loud. She turns up the music and now she’s dancing: Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, Dylan, The Rolling Stones. People drop in, hang out. She likes an audience. There’s always commotion, something stirring in the air.”
Every word Steve writes is true, 24 hours a day. Penny is the same person on or off stage, which means, take your pick, she is either never off stage, or perhaps never on it in the sense of a pedestaled stage that places the performer as elite and above the plebes in the audience.
Another thing I learned from Penny is the power of long term patience. Also from the Bad Reputation interview:
“As Quentin Crisp said when I complained to him about my career, ‘Not to worry, Ms. Arcade. Time is kind to the nonconformist.’ You know, so eventually… they wouldn’t give me anything in my 40s, you know, they wouldn’t give me anything in my 50s, but no doubt if I live into my 80s, I will have the full thing, do you know what I mean? Because that’s how it works. They wait ‘till you can absolutely do nothing with it.”
After attending Pete Seeger’s ninetieth birthday celebration at Madison Square Garden last year, I made similar observations. Ten years ago Pete was largely out of sight and out of mind, and certainly in the media. I remember when singer-songwriter Stephan Said pulled Pete out of his Beacon farmhouse to collaborate on a song against the Iraq war, The Bell, and how little attention that got. But by 2009, suddenly Pete, the former blacklisted communist, was playing before hundreds of thousands on the National Mall at the President’s inauguration, and filling The Garden for his birthday. Time is kind to the nonconformist who marches to his and her own beat, if he and she live long enough to harvest it. And posthumous history is even kinder.
There’s a lot more to say about Penny Arcade and her extensive body of work, much of it said well in Bad Reputation. This may be the first review of her work that didn’t focus much on her being raised “by a tawdry band of drag queens,” among them Jackie Curtis and Candy Darling, Penny’s history from Stonewall through “gay rights,” and the AIDs crisis, to a more public hetero and market acceptance of gays with her singular front row faghag seat, or the matter of fact that she is widely and fairly considered heiress to movements and moments like Warhol’s Factory, The Living Theater and the Playhouse of the Ridiculous, among others. The first musical project that Patti Smith ever formed was with Penny, and all those historic events are of course important, but I chose to focus on what I think is most relevant to our work as communicators and artists in the present day.
Projects that really are free of any worry over offending the gatekeepers and that succeed at building an authentic relationship with the public without dependence on the media are immensely important to the freedom of society. They become more important every day as the warden caste of the mass media prison solidifies its techno-grasp on the dwindling control panel: the press is entering a new era of fewer and fewer reporters and more and more middlemen, editors and outsourced “content providers.”
Penny Arcade’s project in theater and performance began doing it, year in, year out, before any of us attempted anything similar in journalism or media. With more experience, it is of course more highly evolved and advanced, a continual engine of innovation that can be applied not just to journalism, but to all art and forms of communication.
The School of Authentic Journalism today makes Penny Arcade’s Bad Reputation: Performances, Essays, Interviews a recommended textbook of our curriculum. As one of our recent graduates, Sebastian Kolendo, the young Wikipedia overlord now working as a video editor on the Narco News team, recently commented while watching the video of Penny’s 1995 stage interview of the late Quentin Crisp in Austria, “Who is that doing the interview? That’s the best journalistic interview I’ve ever seen!” Bad Reputation is of course a must-read for anybody who ever steps or hopes to step upon a stage, but – think about it - that means journalists, too. And all artists in any field. Its transcripts, essays and interviews open the curtain on an important part, surprise, surprise, of our own secret history.
Penny Arcade official website.
The book, Bad Reputation, can be mail ordered via The MIT Press.