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.
Cynthia Carr: Well, Jill Johnston definitely. But there weren’t many books available then. I did have The Art of Performance, edited by Gregory Battcock and Robert Nickas, and I had Queer Theatre by Stefan Brecht. I loved reading his descriptions of Jack Smith and The Ridiculous Theater, Hot Peaches. I felt that those people were big influences on East Village performance. But I was very much self-educated in terms of writing about performance art. I never took an art history class. And at that point, of course, performance was not even taught in colleges.
CLR: What did you study?
CC: I started in journalism at the University of Iowa, until they redid the whole program so it was sort of based on what I later realized was semiotics. I didn’t want to have a journalism program based on semiotics! It just seemed so foolish. I wanted to write stories. I switched my major to English and got into the Iowa Writer’s workshop as an undergraduate in fiction. I saw performance art for the first time in Iowa City, Iowa of all places. I remember sitting around in a circle while some performer came in and ran at such high speed that he was running up on the walls. I can’t remember anything else that happened in the show but I remember that.
CLR: What year was this?
CC: That would have been around 1970. Then when I moved to Chicago after college I started subscribing to the Village Voice so I could read about artists like Meredith Monk, Mabou Mines, and Richard Foreman. Jill Johnston had moved into her Lesbian Nation phase but I loved that too. When I started writing about performance myself, I was going to WOW in the East Village about every week. I had just started at the Voice as an art director.
I used to go to, say, the Pyramid Club or 8BC or Chandelier. I would take my cassette tape recorder in my purse and attach the microphone to the strap. I would take profuse notes, and then I would go home and transcribe the entire tape; I have a notebook filled with these transcriptions and drawings of the costumes and everything. It’s about an inch thick, typed single-spaced on both sides. I was trying to teach myself how to really observe. A lot of the performances were absolutely terrible. But there they all are in my notebook. It was a way get to know the club scene as well, which is what I was going to cover in my column. (It was actually at the end of the scene, which was so short.) The first thing I covered was in 1985, this Ethyl Eichelberger piece at 8BC. I just thought this stuff ought to be covered and no one was going. The theater critics didn’t want to go.
Karen Finley performing “I'm an Ass Man” at the Limelight in New York City.
Someone had reviewed a Karen Finley piece and really ripped it, I remember. I have to say that when I started watching performers like Karen Finley and Dancenoise and so on, it was like nothing I’d ever seen or heard of and I really questioned myself. “Why do I like this?” But I knew there was something there that was just so gripping to me. When I saw those early Karen Finley shows, I would get goosebumps. I think with performance, you have to pay attention to that, about how your body is reacting. Are you revolted? Are you ecstatic? Are you bored? Then the hard question—why? I watched this stuff for a long time before I started writing about it. I remember seeing a really great Dancenoise piece at Franklin Furnace, which was one of the only places in the art world that would allow this sort of thing—I mean a show that ends with a floor covered in slime and fake blood on the walls. I thought, “Am I wrong to love this?” There was no context for it. I tried to watch more and more of it and then develop an idea about it and when I did a cover story on Karen Finley in 1986, I got such a reactionary response. I had never seen anything like it. I don’t think anyone on the Voice staff had either. The Men’s Room was covered with graffiti about Karen. People had brought in cans of yams that were sitting on desks. I went in that day just thinking I was going to get some copies of the paper. As I was walking in the door, a senior editor was walking out. He said to me, “I just want you to know that I like the piece but I can’t say so publicly.” And I thought, “What?” I walk in and there’s this electric current of people arguing.
CLR: You shook up the old boy’s club.
CC: I remember Nat Hentoff saying it was unfortunate I didn’t make it clear that Karen was crazy, and other writers saying they were never going to be taken seriously again because they were in the paper with this piece. After I started writing about these women in particular, artists like Lydia Lunch, Holly Hughes, Kembra Pfahler, and Diamanda Galas, I tried mightily to write an article that I see now was an attempt to establish my credentials, and to say that these performances were valid. I would refer to all the French thinkers everyone was reading then: Kristeva, Cixous, Bataille. That was another part of how I was educating myself. At this point in postmodernism, people were talking about the critique of representation’’ and challenging master narratives.’’ Modernism was about figuring out what art is. Can you really make an all black painting? Can you just throw drips on a canvas? Is that art? Modernism was about pushing and questioning those boundaries. In the postmodern era, it was about boundaries in the wider world, like, What’s a man? What’s a woman? What is race? The master narratives. So I made a real attempt to try to write about that as it related to these transgressive performers, and I just couldn’t do it. I realize now that critical theory and the kind of writing I want to do don’t really mesh. Still, to me it was fascinating. I know that Lydia Lunch wasn’t reading Kristeva. It was just what was coming up then.
CLR: So why did you decide to write about David?
CC: I knew that there would be an interesting life story there—a mysterious one. He talked a lot about his childhood for example, but a lot of people, even his friends, didn’t believe his stories. He wrote a lot of it into the timeline that went with his catalog for “Tongues of Flame,” his retrospective, and people were going, “My God, can this be true?” So I thought that was something I could investigate. But also writing about him would take me back into that East Village scene I had lived through, and the AIDS crisis and the culture war, which I had lived through and written about.
CLR: Your descriptions of the AIDS crisis are so painful. And I’m speaking as somebody who was a kid in Maine when this was happening. I can only imagine.
CC: I know a lot of younger people don’t realize what happened, what people were dealing with emotionally during that period. I wanted to make sure that people knew.
CLR: In New York now there is such a mythology around the East Village in the 1980s: “The good old days when it was magical.” But you really don’t romanticize it.
CC: Good. I’d hoped to get the real story.
CLR: One of the really powerful things about the book structurally is that you’re building the momentum of David finding his voice while AIDS tightens its grip around his world. As you write, they didn’t know they were going over that cliff. For you, was it the same?
CC: I have a clear memory of reading that first article about “gay cancer” in the Times. I can still see the single column of type down the page. Gay cancer? What the hell was that? No one thought that it was going to turn into this epidemic. I think that’s one thing that wasn’t clear to me when I started writing this book, the fact that AIDS was the shadow behind the East Village scene right from the start. Two early cases of KS, Kaposi’s sarcoma, had been reported already in 1979.
I wanted to be able to track the fact that no one knew what it was, that no one knew how it was transmitted. So there was all this ignorance going on for years while it just spread like crazy. I write about the death of Nicolas Moufarrege: People were stunned by that. How could this happen? Or Klaus Nomi. People didn’t know how even to talk about it at that point. The East Village scene ended just as people were becoming more aware of that presence. It’s really true as I say in the book; you would start every day by reading the obituaries. You would see people in the street that you knew were sick with AIDS. They had KS on their face or they were as skinny as a couple of toothpicks. You would know they were going to die. You would see them all the time, walking around.
CLR: Sometimes with biographers, you sense at a certain point they’ve begun to dislike their subjects or have contempt for them. I never got that from your book.
CC: Actually, that sort of happened very early while I was reading the journals and I felt David was making all of these bad choices. I would think, “Oh David, how could you do that?” But we all make mistakes when we’re young. I came to admire him and like him more and more as it went on. The way he dealt with his impending death was so courageous. I felt lucky that I had access to his inner life through the journals.
CLR: They’re incredible.
CC: That’s what I’ve always wanted as a journalist, to get inside. That’s why I don’t much enjoy interviewing people who are really famous: They have to guard that part of themselves. I would rather write about people who can show their vulnerability and what’s going on inside. I felt I was able to get to that with David through his writing. For example, there was that one journal entry: “Will my death be easy? Will it be like slipping into water? Will I be loved before I go? Will I know it?” That’s the important question, “Will I know it?” Of course, Tom [Rauffenbart; David’s partner] loved him. David had a hard time with the word love’’ as he told me near the end of his life. I understand that; he grew up with people who said they loved him and then hit him or let him go live on the street. So that was the big question. Not just, “Will I be loved before I go?’’ but, Will I know it?”
CLR: Do you have any sense of the answer?
CC: I think he knew that Tom loved him. I think he started to get easier with it. I was there a lot in those last months and I know it made such a difference when Tom would walk into the room. David would just brighten. He was struggling with, “Who will I make the executor of the estate?” He had various ideas but then he settled on giving it to Tom, who is not an art-world person but who wanted whatever was best for David, and I think David finally knew it.
CLR: You write about these intense relationships he developed with women. Would you say that you two had a relationship like that?
CC: I think it would have turned into that if he hadn’t been so sick. He did start calling me, and then I was out in LA and he said, “I’ll come out and visit you as soon as I can.”
CLR: You knew he was too sick.
CC: Yes. But I didn’t argue with him about any of that.
CLR: Did you connect to his art right away?
CC: His work had this arc of development where he’s dealing with what I think is a central question in his life: “How much can I reveal about myself?” All of his work is really political but at first it’s not personal. It starts with the stencil images in ’81, ’82, ’83; Hujar lying down but most everything else is military—airplanes, soldiers, burning houses. And then there’s this piece from 1984, Fuck You Faggot Fucker. That name came from a little scrap of paper he found on the street. It had those homophobic words and then an obscene drawing. He pasted that into the center of the piece and surrounded it with his reaction—a large stencil of two men kissing, photos of two naked men, a photo of a friend posing as Saint Sebastian. The work gets more personal still in 1985, when he spends a whole year reacting to his childhood—making installations with skeletons, about dead families or imperiled children. The year of rage, as I think of it. Then he starts painting again and he’s really developing his iconography. David could have told you what every single image in a painting meant to him. But the things that I started to really gravitate toward were the pieces he then did about AIDS where it gets very personal, like Untitled (Peter Hujar). Also, I love the four elements paintings, especially Wind (for Peter Hujar) and Water. They’re amazing in their detail. So much is going on and yet it all coheres. Then David started doing work that was directly about AIDS and about mortality. He didn’t really work for the whole last year of his life, but up to age thirty-six or so he was still making work. The last pieces bring together his verbal and visual abilities—text layered over paintings or photos. I think that’s the direction he would have continued to take if he’d had a longer life.
CLR: It’s so easy for overtly political or explicit work to date itself. The best of his work doesn’t.
CC: It doesn’t seem to. I would say that certainly in New York there’s less homophobia, but not necessarily in the rest of the country. Untitled (Hujar Dead), it’s of its moment, talking about the government neglect and contempt for what people with AIDS were going through. It’s not so apparent anymore, but there’s still some of that out there. If a piece is political in a very specific way, it can get dated, but I think those pieces transcend their time.
CLR: You reveal so much about him. But you also let him keep his mysteries. Some biographies have this really heavy psychological overlay. One of the things I really love about Fire in the Belly and On Edge is what a light touch you have.
CC: I’m always reluctant to make pronouncements about psychological issues. I feel it’s too presumptuous. How do I really know? I try to set things up so people can form an opinion on what he was like as a person and maybe reach some of those conclusions on their own if they want to.
CLR: I know you’re writing about such a particular thing, a world—New York, performance and visual artists. But of course you’ve written about wildly different subjects. For you are they all connected?
CC: I’ve been thinking about this a lot because I really have to figure out what to do next. I really need to earn some money. The book that’s in between On Edge and Fire in the Belly, Our Town, is about a lynching that occurred in my father’s hometown in Indiana. It’s completely not the art world anymore but—I think what I’m always interested in is dealing with things that aren’t supposed to be talked about. That lynching, no one wanted to talk about that. Race is difficult and gets into these taboo areas, having to confront things inside yourself and other people. I think I talked in On Edge about how a lot of the work I covered in the ’80s was this so-called transgressive work that dealt with sexuality. But it’s sort of been done now. It seemed to me race was the next area, especially for white people. I’ve had plenty of experience with white people not being able to discuss it honestly because it’s just too shameful.
CLR: Do you think you stopped covering performance because you felt it wasn’t dealing with transgressive issues anymore? Or had you already spent enough time writing about the people who were?
CC: What happened with performance—this is going to sound really strange—but I fell out of love. I just fell out of love.
CLR: It doesn’t sound strange at all.
CC: I really was in love with performance and performance art and the people who were doing it. And I’m not sure what changed for me. The fact that I went away for an entire year to research my book in Marion, Indiana, really disconnected me from everything going on in the art world. When I returned, it was very hard to get myself back into it. Certainly the East Village community was gone and I was all over the city: the Bronx, Queens, Coney Island. And, I had new restrictions at the Voice; I couldn’t cover shows that had happened for just one night in a club. I had to cover shows that our readers could still see. Which meant preview pieces. So I started writing more about visual art. The scene became really hard to cover. And it’s true I wasn’t finding as much that interested me anymore. I don’t want to come off as saying that there isn’t good work anymore because I don’t believe that. But I did fall out of love.
CLR: I think critics often have a pretty short shelf life.
CC: It’s good for a younger person to write about the zeitgeist of now. I can’t go out at two in the morning anymore and sit in a club for an hour and wait for someone to come out at four in the morning. Sometimes I look back at that life and think, “God, how did I get the energy to do all that stuff?” There were so many nights when I was sitting there thinking things like, “Oh my God, the door is on the stage. I can’t leave!” I’m just not willing to slog through all the bad shows anymore.
CLR: But also, there’s a lot of slogging in researching a book.
CC: That’s true. I hope I’m getting better at not overdoing it. Fire in the Belly was a five-year process. I thought, “At least I know how this one ends.” All of David’s papers are at Fales Library at NYU, so I went there and started reading the journals first and going through all the papers. That took a couple of years actually. As I mention in the book, he told Tom, “Don’t throw anything out.” So, for example, there are file folders over there filled with wads of ATM slips.
CLR: Did you feel that weight of how certain people would receive the book?
CC: I did worry about—well, just about everybody who was still living; there were quite a few of them. But I’ve been very happy to get messages from many of those people saying that they loved the book. I think that some of them might have been afraid of what I would say about them, but I went into this feeling I had no axes to grind here.
CLR: During the years when you were working as a journalist did you feel like an insider/outsider?
CC: I felt like such an outsider when I started covering the clubs. I felt like I wasn’t a cool person, that people were looking down on me. In fact, I would never ask for a comp. All the clubs usually charged five dollars. I would always just pay so that they wouldn’t even notice I was there, and then I would stand along the wall. This was right in the beginning when I thought maybe I had no right to be doing this. I didn’t have my bearings yet. I remember one night somebody came up to me and kicked me and I felt it was on purpose and that people had contempt. That started to change after I wrote the cover story on Karen Finley. Then people were at least willing to accept me as part of that scene.
CLR: It’s quite a brave thing. It must have been lonely.
CC: Yes. And a lot of it was that I usually would leave my house at midnight to head for the clubs and usually went alone because I didn’t know what I would be encountering.
CLR: So really you fell in love with what was on stage, not the scene or the personalities. I mean, if you were getting kicked!
CC: Yes, with what was on stage. The energy of it: “Let’s try this,” the constant experiment, the joie de vivre in the air. The great thing about that scene was that if you were an artist you could perform a lot. You could be at WOW one week and Chandelier the next then you could maybe get a gig at 8BC. There were some nights that I went to three or four clubs. I really felt, especially in the beginning, that it was people performing for their friends and just trying things and they weren’t expecting a critic to even be there. The Pyramid Club would put out a schedule that they would leave in front of the bar. They didn’t advertise it anywhere, usually. 8BC put out schedules. Of course, individual artists would do their wheat-pasting. The wheat-pasted flyer was the main form of communication back then.
CLR: No Facebook.
CC: No Facebook. But once I got rolling, I started getting flyers at the Voice. And I’d read what was pasted on the East Village walls.
CLR: Back to the romanticization of the East Village—this is what people focus on, I think, this energy; it sounds so beautiful compared to how conservative and bureaucratic things can be now.
CC: It’s become very institutionalized now, or codified. There are so few places even to perform anymore. The culture has changed so much—that’s why I feel younger people should write about it, because I don’t get it.
CLR: With Fire in the Belly do you have particular hopes for what kind of story it will tell or who will hear it?
CC: I think there are still a lot of people who don’t know who David is. I first started talking about him right after he died. I remember thinking then that it was so important for young gay men to know about him and I still think that’s true. But I have a broader idea. I think I want people to know what happened during the AIDS crisis and I wanted to establish what really happened in the East Village and just talk about the outrageousness of the culture war and the attack, for example, on that show at Artists Space that was just so disgusting. What is wrong with you right wing maniacs? What is wrong with you? I wanted to be able to put that out there in a coherent story. David gave me a way to talk about all those things. And I do think people should know about him for his visual work and for his writing. Close to the Knives I think has never been out of print. I was just in Chicago speaking at the School of the Art Institute and a young woman came up to me, a student, and said that she had gone to City Lights in San Francisco and read my book in two days by just sitting there, because I guess she couldn’t afford to buy it. Then she read Close to the Knives and now she felt like her work had changed because of knowing about David. She wanted to be more direct in what she said in her work the way he was, be more courageous. And I thought, well that’s great. For me, that’s a good outcome. The book exists in the world now. It will be there for people to discover him.