Karen Finley

Karen Finley discusses the twenty-fifth anniversary of Shock Treatment

Left: Cover of Karen Finley's Shock Treatment (2015). Right: Karen Finley, Don't Hang the Angel, 1985. Performance view, Poetry Project at St. Mark's Church, New York, 1985. Karen Finley. Photo: Dona Ann McAdams.

Karen Finley is a performance artist based in New York who has long charted the political underpinnings and trauma of stigma and notoriety through her performances and writings. To mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of its initial publication, City Lights is reissuing Shock Treatment, her provocative collection of monologues and poetry this September. Additionally, from October 28–31, 2015, Finley will perform several of the monologues at the Barbican Centre in London. Here, Finley reflects back on this work and its significance.

IN THE TWENTY-FIVE YEARS since Shock Treatment appeared, the one thing that’s changed for me is that I’ve come to appreciate abstraction. By abstraction I mean expressions that are ambiguous and confusing but nonetheless express something important. These days I’m listening and looking to the deeper meanings behind symbols, whether through liberal sacred spaces, such as yoga studios and Whole Foods, as sites for conflict, or through tragic world events, including communal rituals in loss and melancholia.

Shock Treatment wasn’t written as a performance or a play—even though I loved performing some of those pieces. It was deliberately written in a poetic language to be read in an intimate setting. There was a purity and economy to that language that enabled me to speak out and express rage in ways I couldn’t accomplish through my performances. The work was experimental, particularly in the genesis, the structuring, and formatting of the book. Using hysteria and emotions as a source of strength was definitely important for me, particularly as a female voice. It wasn’t how people spoke on the street. My characters’ speech was imbued with a poetic language that was as elevated as it was conscious and aware. I’m interested in the electricity of being present in the moment. What’s remained precious to me in this is physicality—the sweat of bodies having all the senses activated simultaneously—whether that’s activated in paint, music, or the concept.

I spoke out because I was able to. Making that space and having that voice became a form of activism, of claiming my voice and speaking for others as well, whether it was my friends who were suffering from AIDS or victims of sexual violence. Also, as a female artist, there was inevitably a politics of identity operating within my work. It’s about repression, speaking up, and the emotions that go along and are allowed when speaking about trauma. My writing addresses the free-floating anxiety of existence, history, legacy, policy, country, and nation. It’s very difficult to find the words for such trauma. This book is about how one finds those words.