Monday, January 4, 2010

Karen Finley: A Constant State of Becoming: An Interview by Richard Schechner

Sun Mar 23 11:40:19 2008
Karen Finley
A Constant State of Becoming
An interview by Richard Schechnev

SCHECHNER: You say bookers are canceling The Constant State of Desire
and your other pieces. What's going on?
FINLEY: People are scared of my information. They really don't know
what I'm going to do, they don't like me dealing with sexual issues or
political issues.
SCHECHNER: Or the combination.
FINLEY: Yes, the combination.
SCHECHNER: You're a woman in control of yourself. It's not the sexual
material in itself. You can go anywhere in this country and rent videos of
hardcore porn.
FINLEY: If I was doing porn they'd be very happy. When they book me
they think they're going to get some kinky chick from New York going
out there shoving my tits in their face. When they find out I'm more than
that-well, in London I was canceled out this summer, I was banned by
the Westminster Council and Scotland Yard.
SCHECHNER: Did they send you a letter or anything?
FINLEY: I don't have a letter, I can't really prove it, but sponsors are really
scared that their funding is going to be taken away from them. The first
place [in London] I was asked to stop was at the ICA [Institute of Contem-
porary Art] and next was AIR [Artists in Residence], a gallery. People say,
"Oh, we can't really put you on here, but maybe we could set something
up in a loft, not announce it publicly." I could go on performing under-
ground, but I don't want that. I don't do anything that's illegal.
SCHECHNER: Has the same thing happened in the USA?
FINLEY: Yes. At Scream, a club in Los Angeles, they canceled me a week
before I was to go on in August. Lydia Lunch performed there, and they
were scared of what I was going to do. They told me the vice squad
threatened to take their license if they put on someone like me. I lost out at
Club New in Miami where they told me I would upset their yuppie clien-
Karen Finley I 53
tele. And in Atlanta the owners of a club there all of a sudden chickened
SCHECHNER: What scares people so much?
FINLEY: I've gotten letters from institutions-whose names I won't men-
tion-telling me that I just could not perform there, that their city is just
not ready for me. In Philadelphia I really want to perform at Painted Bride,
but I was told they said, "Oh, Karen Finley, there's no way that she's
going to perform here."
SCHECHNER: It reminds me of the 1969 midwest tour of Dionysus in 69.
Members of The Performance Group were arrested in Ann Arbor at the
University of Michigan, there was a near riot in Colorado Springs at
Colorado College, and in Minneapolis we weren't allowed to perform on
the University of Minnesota campus although we were booked. The
Firehouse Theatre gave us a space downtown. It was a tumultuous time.
We were using nakedness and the play combined sex and politics. But a
whole lot has happened in 20 years-what is it in your situation that
arouses such fear?
FINLEY: I think I stir people to be responsible for what's going on in their
own personal lives, in their one-to-one relationships, interweaving this
into the whole society's corruption. That's very disturbing. I destroy the
games people live on, a very yuppie world where security is having a
,000 a year job, or 0,000. People really don't want that questioned.
What happened to the motivations of 20 years ago of having a much more
socialist-humanist society? We're supposed to have more time on our
hands because of technology. But I don't see it going towards culture or
helping people.
SCHECHNER: What do you see?
FINLEY: I see people with a lot of anger towards anyone who can't make
it, anger towards the homeless, or if you're 18 years old and can't afford to
go to college, well it's your own problem. No one wants to help anyone at
all. You can see how our social programs are deteriorating. That attitude
goes on even in the arts.
SCHECHNER: But how does this relate to, say, in The Constant State of
Desire, turning men's balls into candy.
FINLEY: I'm talking about abuse. I talk about how old people are disre-
garded-that if they've only got ten bucks to their name they're lucky to
have ten. Also we're really scared of our own sexuality which is no longer
a sexuality of love but a sexuality of violence.
SCHECHNER: It's not only the ideas behind what you're saying, but the
very words themselves that scare people-because "sexual women" are
often constructed by males as being visible, physical, and literally dumb,
without words. Men, and many women too, obviously continue to see
women as objects. Women are subjects only in selected fields where they
must act according to definite rules that have been set down by men:
women are corporate executives, police"men," politicians, etc. But what
you are presenting is a woman who is a subject expressing the sexual
violence and humor that women are still supposed to be the objects of, or
ignorant of, or excluded from. You don't just show it, you talk about it-
the shock is in the words you use, more than the gestures.
154 Karen Finley
I. Karen Finley performing
The Constant State of
Desire at P.S. 122, New
York City, March 1987.
(Photo by Dona Ann
FINLEY: I think my gestures too. Because if you're not a mother and
you're not a whore in this society you're considered unproductive. Wom-
an's value is still based on her biology. If a woman becomes a bank presi-
dent she still conforms to a male image of what that is. Women executives
have not been able to establish their own imagery. The only two things
that a woman does that is not compared to a man is giving birth and
spreading her legs. I bring that to light, and that's very threatening. Female
oppression is everyday, it's the anchor I have to society. If I would choose
to have a child right now there are basically no childcare facilities-it's a
catch-zz situation. They want us to do our biology's job, but at the same
time they really want to put that down. That's what The Constant State of
Desire's about, womb envy. Not penis envy, but womb envy.
SCHECHNER: Go into that a little more.
FINLEY: The reason why the feminine way or the maternal way has been
oppressed is because the male energy is so scared of it. And so the only way
males can deal with it is to knock it down, to not allow it to come up. In
The Constant State of Desire I wanted to show vignettes of capitalist, con-
sumer society where people go far out, stretch the boundaries-but still
they never can be satisfied. So they take things into themselves, and this is
what incest or abuse are about.
SCHECHNER: What about the style of your performances? You're not
like Spalding Gray-I also admire him very much-who's laid back, cool,
a person who only occasionally shows how much he's involved in the
autobiographical stories he tells. Your stuff is obviously about you but not
literally true, a kind of surrealistic, automatic talking. And the way you
present yourself is to very often go into a trancelike state, a blank look on
your face, a sing-song delivery of lines.
FINLEY: Umm-hmm.
SCHECHNER: How did that style come about, and now, at this moment,
could you reflect on that state of being?
FINLEY: That state of being is very natural, so I'm surprised when people
call it a trance state. It's something really lacking in our culture-any kind
of religion, or any kind of spiritual mask, or any way of breaking the usual
routine of day-to-day acting. When one is emotional, when an event takes
someone by surprise, whether it's a death, a birth, or anything, it breaks
that nine-to-five type of behavior. That's what I want to be showing. I do
go into somewhat of a trance because when I perform I want it to be
different than acting. I hope this doesn't sound too dorky or trite-I'm
really interested in being a medium, and I have done a lot of psychic type of
work. I put myself into a state, for some reason it's important, so that
things come in and out of me, I'm almost like a vehicle. And so when I'm
talking it's just coming through me. And it's very exhausting. After I
perform I have to vomit, my whole body shakes, I have to be picked up
and sat down. It takes me about an hour before I stop shaking. When
performing I pick up the energies from the people, I got to completely
psych into them because I want them to feel that I am really feeling it.
Maybe not even my words, but just that energy. I'm giving everything I
have to make it an experience. You can't pick that up on film or on disks.
It's the live experience, and that's really important.
SCHECHNER: How do you get yourself into that?
Karen Finley I 5 5
FINLEY: Usually a few days before-if I'm working or something-I'm
not really there, I'm always thinking what's happening at this moment, so
all the information of this moment, any experience that happens to me, I
really believe this experience is important to me, everything is a story,
everything that I come on is cause and effect. I look on everyone who
comes to me as being precious about three days before. I have to be alone; I
go into a room and do associative writing. I just open up and start writing.
Like I don't rewrite my performances, they're like trance writing, like lots
of time I just wake up and it just comes to me. And sometimes I really
believe I have other voices coming to me. So I open up to the voices.
SCHECHNER: So this would be a couple of days before?
FINLEY: Yeah. And then the day of it I do not eat from the night before.
And what makes the strongest performance is if I completely seclude my-
self, fast, and not take baths and stay in this certain state I get myself into.
SCHECHNER: And then just before, when the audience is assembling
and you're off stage?
FINLEY: I get such horrible stage fright. The day of it I can't remember
anything at all. I jitter, horrible smells come out of me, I smoke and I
usually don't. And I never see the audience, I never know if they're there. I
never perform for the audience-I mean, sometimes I do, sometimes I
break it, sometimes it's too much so I break it-but usually I stay within
this energy. I can have things happen to me up there, like pain. You see I
never rehearse a performance, that's the scariest thing-that I'm going to
go out there and I don't know what I'm doing. That to me is the perfor-
mance part.
SCHECHNER: But you do the same thing night after night.
FINLEY: Well I have to do that for runs. But I don't consider that per-
formance then. I consider The Constant State of Desire a "performance
procedure" because I change it, I change the act-but it's getting to be
experimental theatre.
SCHECHNER: So The Constant State of Desire is a theatre piece not a
performance piece?
FINLEY: Yeah. I just did something recently at the Cat Club [New York]
that's a performance; it's site-specific.
SCHECHNER: A one time only thing.
FINLEY: I can start doing it again, but once you start preparing it and
doing it, it changes. I mean I still go into the trance-
SCHECHNER: But then it's something you enter that's familiar to you,
rather than something you're hoping will come to you.
FINLEY: Yeah. So that's why I still like to perform in clubs because art
spaces-at least in New York, except for Franklin Furnace-have com-
pletely removed themselves from spectacle or happenings or any kind of
performance event. Nowadays, you have to know, you have to have a
proposal. That's really completely destroyed the whole idea of ritual.
Ritual is not celebrated at any performance spaces except Franklin Furnace
and maybe some other little spaces. I think ritual's something that needs to
be celebrated in our culture. You see, I went to school in the late '60s and
'70s SO-
156 Karen Finley
FINLEY: The San Francisco Art Institute. We established the idea of com-
munity there. That's also why I like New York a lot, there's a community
of artists. I don't think that what I do is anything strange or bizarre. It
peeves me off when people act like, "Oh, wow, this is something new,"
but it's not new at all.
SCHECHNER: Each piece may be new but it's also always in a tradition.
Art is like great cooking-food is never new, it's the way things are
recombined and displayed.
FINLEY: I feel I'm part of a tradition.
SCHECHNER: Who do you admire in your tradition?
FINLEY: Actually I like writers a lot, and musicians: Truman Capote,
Tennessee Williams, Gene Ammons, and Ornette Coleman.
SCHECHNER: You're kind of old-fashioned.
FINLEY: I like old-fashioned stuff, I like Uta Hagen a lot.
SCHECHNER: You don't like punk and new wave or whatever's trendy
FINLEY: Yeah, I love the Butthole Surfers, and I like Frank Moore's work
a lot, and Survival Research Laboratory.
SCHECHNER: Where is Survival Research?
FINLEY: In San Francisco. And I like Johanna Went. I like people who
perform one night and that's it. I like people who take risks.
SCHECHNER: What does it mean to you then that The Constant State of
Desire's getting printed in TDR with this interview and some pictures?
FINLEY: Well I'm just really, really happy about it because I got some
horrible reviews on the piece, and I felt extremely depressed. I felt com-
pletely misunderstood, that I had no place to take my work. I wanted to
get a legitimacy so I could be doing runs somewhere. I hope that a lot of
people who have theatre spaces or who are in organizations that sponsor
theatre will say, "Oh, wow, it's in TDR, maybe it is OK."
SCHECHNER: You want it to be rebellious, subversive, and OK.
FINLEY: I don't think I ever wanted it to be rebellious.
FINLEY: I wanted to destroy certain people, but I thought that was part of
my tradition. I consider good art that which destroys the last generation's
SCHECHNER: You just wrote The Constant State of Desire straight out?
FINLEY: I didn't do a lot of rewrites. It took a lot of time, I write little
sections, and then I sort of associate to them, and it just comes. A lot of the
writing happens after I speak it, and then it's written.
SCHECHNER: Is it you-? Your dreams, your fantasies, or what? Who
do these words belong to?
FINLEY: When I write, a lot of it I have actually seen. And a lot of it is
from me. They are my words. But I don't write the way some people do-
Karen Finley 157
they go out, they look, and they write from a situation. I write more from
SCHECHNER: Are you the characters then?
FINLEY: No, no. It's not-no. It's really larger. They're transparent,
they're pale pink, and pale blue, and silver-
SCHECHNER: Who are "they"-?
FINLEY: And a lot of chiffon. I feel they come from here [gestures to her
chest and stomach]. It is me, but when you do automatic writing, it's a
different way of writing. I just go and sit down and I say, "Now is the
time," and I start doing it. I have lots of notes, I have eight or ten boxes,
and I do a lot of writing, and I keep notebooks. I write down sentences like
all of a sudden I'll write down, "She should not be made to feel ashamed."
And I'll go off on that, feel ashamed, or I might know of people's lives that
have been shattered, and that it's important for something of their lives to
come out. I don't like the writing to sound too calculated. I don't want my
pieces to sound like theatre. The chanting, I don't know where that came
SCHECHNER: Where did some of the imagery come from? Breaking the
eggs in a plastic bag and then rubbing yourself with it?
FINLEY: I wanted to do a celebration and it came to me in 30 seconds.
SCHECHNER: That whole image?
SCHECHNER: It fits so well: womb envy, eggs and women, and the
violence against women, the breaking of all those eggs.
FINLEY: At the same time it was beautiful, and afterwards it was a cele-
bration. We don't seem to party with naivete anymore. Except when I'm
playing before people who just don't have any idea about performance art.
This past weekend I played in a Chicago club, Metro, and my brothers
were in the audience saying, "Wow, this isn't bad, this performance art
stuff is pretty good!" They allow themselves to enjoy. Whenever I go to a
performance I stand at the back so I can walk out. I always expect the
worst. Whenever somebody starts doing really well, people put them
SCHECHNER: How old are you? And where have you performed?
FINLEY: Thirty-one. I've played in Chicago, where I was brought up,
and San Francisco, and New York. I went to school in San Francisco from
1978 to 1981, then I went back to Chicago. And I came to New York in
SCHECHNER: Anything else biographical I should know?
FINLEY: One thing that's come up in a lot of articles is that my father
committed suicide. That put an effect on me that reality is stronger than
art. And it makes me interested in real time. When I'm performing, real
time is stronger for me than theatre pretend-time, or the-show-must-go-
on attitude, I really don't like that attitude.
SCHECHNER: How old were you when your father killed himself?
FINLEY: I was twenty-one, I was just starting to perform. I was home on
158 Karen Finley
Christmas break. I didn't expect him to do it. He went into the garage and
shot himself.
SCHECHNER: It was very violent.
FINLEY: Yeah, it was a violent-but I think that-right, it was a violent
SCHECHNER: Every suicide is violent, but sleeping pills are a different
kind of violence.
FINLEY: In terms of statistics men usually use guns, women use pills.
SCHECHNER: Talk a little more about how this affected you.
FINLEY: Nothing else matters. When something like that happens it
doesn't make any difference if at that day I had a million dollars or if I
had-or if I had anything materially or careerwise, anything, it would not
have made any difference in terms of that act happening. That really put
me in such a reality state, of realizing that nothing really ever matters. In
some ways, it actually freed me: whatever you have won't matter. Some-
how that energy I really put into and show in my work. So even in terms
of my content, still even if I'm up here, if five minutes beforehand some-
thing happens that's always going to take-, is much more important.
Someone suffering is always more important than this work.
SCHECHNER: Does that mean if something were to happen you would
stop your work and attend to the person in pain?
FINLEY: Definitely.
SCHECHNER: That puts your work in question, makes it fragile, how-
ever strong you may seem, however assured and safe in that trance. Your
work is a kind of shimmering that may at any moment get blown away by
something that is solid and destructive. The art which you said is destruc-
tive is itself susceptible to being destroyed.
FINLEY: My generation, except now with AIDS, has never before had
any similar situation-it's always had a sense of immortality.
SCHECHNER: Right. Even nuclear obliteration feels far away, not per-
sonal. AIDS is imminent: "Is this person I'm kissing killing me?"
FINLEY: For me it's: "Am I going to see this person in two years? Will
this person be gone?" I think it's good to question your mortality. That
sense of preciousness is a good respect to have.
September 1987

Above copied from: TDR (1988-), Vol. 32, No. 1. (Spring, 1988), pp. 152-158