Cynthia Carr


    I’VE BEEN TRYING TO FIND a couple of lines written by David Wojnarowicz, lines I came across while researching my biography of him, Fire in the Belly (2012). I remember them being scrawled in one of his small notebooks, yet somehow they aren’t in my “Notebooks” file—or in “Journals.” But the gist is burned into my brain. What he described more poetically than I’m able to was the sight of a homeless man lying in a refrigerator box. Only the man’s feet and lower legs were visible. David photographed the scene, and, as I recall it, he wrote in the elusive notebook: “That was once someone’s

  • the October 1999 issue of Artforum

    IN OCTOBER 1999, Artforum devoted a special issue to East Village art—its confounding rise and precipitous fall. I’ve had a copy on my shelf ever since, and regard it as one of the essential postmortems of the scene.

    On the cover is a photo of the artists David Wojnarowicz and Mike Bidlo at Pier 34, an abandoned warehouse extending into the Hudson River off Canal Street. At first I wondered why the editors had selected an image from outside the neighborhood, but the pier—and the unauthorized and uncurated “show” that popped up there in 1983—definitely functioned as an East Village

  • performance February 14, 2013

    East of Eden

    Critic and writer Claudia La Rocco recently caught up with the pioneering performance art journalist Cynthia Carr in SoHo. They talked about her latest book, Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz (Bloomsbury, 2012), and her time spent writing for the Village Voice during a period that spanned the culture wars, the AIDS crisis, and the fabled East Village art scene.

    Claudia La Rocco: So many things changed for me as a writer when I found you and Jill Johnston; your books were incredible guides to me. Was there anyone like that for you?

    Cynthia Carr: Well, Jill Johnston definitely.

  • the Poets' Slam

    BACK WHEN TRISTAN TZARA picked words from a hat, back when Allen Ginsberg created beatnikery with the Howl heard round the world, life still prospered on the book-reading plane, and verse could shake things up. Today, in the age of hype and image, only the hype-and-image hymn that is rap can make any waves. Otherwise, poetry leads with certainty to the state of no-fame no-money, making it possible for it to seem like the last incorruptible art. Making it the logical focus for the last trace of any bohemian energy in Manhattan, from the long-established Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church, to

  • Replicants

    IF MARY SHELLEY INVENTED the monster-making genre (her Frankenstein appeared in 1818), filmmakers invented its now-beloved visual clichés—the bubbling, smoking beakers, the obsessed egomaniac at the controls, the dungeonlike lab in a gloomy Gothic-style home. These disappeared with the advent of outer-space mythologies, all cyborg and android. But from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, 1926, to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, 1982, they were narratives about trying to control what we’d unleashed. Any walking, talking bucket o’ bolts had better be a servant like R2D2. Or as the high-tech axiom goes, we could

  • Trying Times

    LAST APRIL IN Tupelo, Mississippi, the Reverend Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association got his hands on a copy of David Wojnarowicz’s exhibition catalogue Tongues of Flame. Here was something the preacher could use: raw material to further the Lord’s work of killing the National Endowment for the Arts. He would testify later that the catalogue made him “kind of sick at [his] stomach.” Still, Wildmon doggedly went on looking for the naughty bits. These assorted homo- and heterosexual images were fragments of much larger pieces, but the heck with the larger pieces; the heck with what

  • Sandra Bernhard

    I GOTTA BE ME? Some persona said that. We’re ruled by personas, addicted to images, obsessed with celebrities. And Sandra Bernhard presents herself as a pure product of this performance culture. She travels in hyperreality, and she loves it—almost as much as she hates it.

    Without You I’m Nothing is the film of a performance about performance, written by Bernhard and John Boskovich, directed by Boskovich. Bernhard plays every side of the media-made equation: spectator and spectacle, fan and star, consumer and commodity. We first meet her in her dressing room, where she looks into our eyes and

  • Laurie Carlos

    White Chocolate travels the vicissitudes of memory, through stories handed down for generations and old songs that bring back a childhood. Writer/director Laurie Carlos structures the piece like a song, with recurring refrains instead of a story line. The subtext that emerges is one of racism imprinted on personal mythology. The title may refer to the way some white people appropriate what’s black or to the way some blacks try passing for white. Carlos always writes ambiguity, mutability, possibility into her work, as if mere facts just can’t evoke the ghosts.

    Carlos plays the central character

  • Ping Chong, Brightness

    Ping Chong’s forte is the creation of ambience, but there’s always a message behind his beautiful, staged pictures. Though his social consciousness sometimes seems at odds with his rather whimsical sensibility, Ping Chong’s Brightness, described in the program as “a theater work for the fin de siècle,” uses that very tension to generate pathos. This is vaudeville drenched in melancholy.

    A ringmaster dressed in bright white, her peaked witch’s hat lit from within, welcomes us cheerfully to “the circus maximus of the millenium,” alluding to a world of war and plague just outside. As she promises

  • Dream Bardo

    From the apocalyptic imagery of its sets and costumes to its eccentric hillbilly music, Lambs Eat Ivy seems to embody southern-style outsider art, as if it were the performance counterpart of the Reverend Howard Finster. And, like Finster, this trio has definitely found a universe in its particular grain of sand. The group’s subject is mythology, from kundalini to Christ. The show at Franklin Furnace, Dream Bardo, 1989, documented a librarian’s journey through the Bardo state (the period between death and rebirth described in the Tibetan Book of the Dead). The trio (Nancy Andrews, Emma Elizabeth

  • Imperceptible Mutabilities In The Third Kingdom

    Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks calls Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom “an African-American experience in the shadow of the photographic image.” In four scenes connected by a dreamlike logic rather than a developing narrative, characters struggle to find themselves in that shadow—the representations and definitions made by white folks. A white male scientist in the first scene, called “Snails,” studies three black women (Mona, Jonah, and Verona) through a camera planted in a cockroach. The roach sits in the living room; at two feet long, it’s too big to kill. They refer to it as their

  • Annie Sprinkle

    Annie Sprinkle, the self-described “feminist porn activist” and ex-porn star, seems to embrace a role many feminists have fought to undermine. With her coquettish manner, pretty smile, and very large breasts, Sprinkle presents herself as the complete sex object and clearly finds that role more empowering than demeaning. However, her performance of Post-Porn Modernist, 1989, at a lower-Manhattan burlesque theater made it clear that it was never simply the role that empowered her, but her own sexuality.

    Sprinkle evaluated her years of work in the sex industry with some detachment and wit. She first


    THE IMAGE MOST EMBLEMATIC of ’70s body art has the rough panicky blur of a news photo. Faces are unrecognizable. So is the rifle. And the artist’s description of the action is a simple dispassionate observation: “At 7:45 P.M., I was shot in the left arm by a friend. . . . ” Chris Burden took his risks in the manner of a scientist—one who decides that he must test a new serum on himself alone, who later declares that he always knew it would work. When he stopped performing, Burden began to exhibit machines and war toys and installations. The project, however, had remained the same: to demythologize

  • Leo Bassi, Nero's Last Folly

    Leo Bassi began by complaining about the description of him as “Italy’s favorite clown-terrorist,” maintaining that if such a title belonged to anyone, it was Mussolini. Behind the vaudevillian veneer, however, Bassi’s show examined the power dynamic in a performer/audience relationship, revealing it to be much like that between dictator and silent majority. We, the spectators, were soon implicated in our willingness to remain passive, to be dominated. After all, we’d come to the theater knowing that in every performance, Bassi hits one spectator in the face with a cream pie and threatens to

  • Constance DeJong and Tony Oursler, Relatives

    This collaboration between writer Constance DeJong and video artist Tony Oursler tells the story of the fictional McCloud family. The clan springs full-grown from the image bank, where each has contributed in some small way to the history of representation: great-grandmother modeled for Albert Pinkham Ryder; grandmother worked as a Hollywood extra; an older sister dubs kung fu movies into English, and so on. DeJong stands next to a television monitor, talking to or about these “relatives” on the screen. What we see is not them, but the images they have generated. The subtexts to their life

  • Doug Elkins Dance Company

    There’s little subtlety in a hopped-up hormone, so appropriately Doug Elkins’ The Testosterone Diversions, 1988, began with a knockdown drag-out duet. Two burly male dancers in coonskin caps and biker pants caromed around the stage after fixing “I dare you” smirks on the audience. They slammed into each other or thudded to the floor, as if expecting to hit a trampoline. Movements that could have passed for “dancerly” they neutralized by wiping noses with the backs of their hands. They ran the short gamut of movement possibilities between samurai and linebacker, and the sequence ended with one

  • LAPD Inspects America

    Beyond the big orange sign where the word “NOT” had been inserted between the words “MEN“ and “WORKING,” a few traffic safety cones dotted the stage. Indeed, the audience would witness a few wrecks and some de- (not re-) constructions during this performance. LAPD Inspects America shattered boundaries with the grace of a runaway garbage truck, making it difficult, first of all, to know even when the show had begun. A prerecorded voice described the act we were about to see as “a delicate balance between a volatile street lifestyle and the actors’ tender hearts,” while a couple of those actors

  • Guillermo Gomez-Pena

    In his performances and manifestos, “border artist” Guillermo Gómez-Peña describes the fissure between two worlds that he inhabits. Geographically, that means Tijuana/San Diego, but to this artist interested in “alternative cartographies,” the more important space is metaphoric, one closer to Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s “thousand plateaus” than to a landscape with mesas. In Border Brujo, 1988, Gómez-Peña wore a border-guard jacket covered with signifying buttons (political slogans, Michael Jackson’s face, toy sheriffs badges), a necklace of plastic bananas, a straw hat, and a pigtail.

  • AIDS Alive

    To watch the People With AIDS Theater Workshop is to see two dramas unfolding, because AIDS Alive is all pretend and yet it isn’t. Each actor is a Person With AIDS (PWA) who signifies a Person With AIDS, who’s really caught in the circumstance he’s pretending to be caught in. For these performers we don’t suspend our disbelief; they are not Hamlets who walk away once the curtain falls. Knowing this creates the show’s drama and meaning.

    This relentlessly upbeat revue skates along with the energy of Andy Hardy announcing,“Have we got a show for you.” AIDS Alive is old-fashioned story theater—breezy,

  • Karen Finley

    Karen Finley’s monologues represent obscenity in its purest form—an attempt to explore feelings for which there are perhaps no words, and certainly no polite ones. Whatever the identity she assumes onstage—as gender, persona, and narrative slip and slide—she’s talking transgression.

    At a late-night show she’d ironically labeled her “Greatest Hits,” Finley performed her most (in)famous acts of the last several years. Each piece involved the creation of a distinct persona—in I’m an Ass Man, 1985, she becomes a man, a rapist, disgusted that his victim is having her period; in The Neighbor’s Cock,