Karen Finley: My whiteness allowed me to even be in a space where there was a certain amount of safety that I could even get angry, where there is still some type of a protection within society that I could do that.
Helga Davis: To be seen and to be censored means at the very least your voice is being heard. I'm Helga Davis. Artist, author, and performer Karen Finley spoke with me about the foundation of her early work, how she's grown and changed in the time that has passed, and what she hopes to give her audience now. This is my conversation with Karen Finley.
Karen: Nice to see you. Nice to meet you.
Helga: Nice to see you and nice to meet you too. Sometimes I'm a little bit like a racehorse that's been held in a pen. I'm ready. I have a lot of that energy and sometimes I think I need to just slow down a little bit so I don't miss anything about meeting you, about being able to see you, about looking at you, about taking you in. I'm just very excited more than anything else. When you said hello in the microphone, the first thing that popped into my mind was, "Wow, what record could we make?"
Helga: I have no idea.
Karen: Well, that would be fun to do and I would look forward to trying to think what that project would be. Maybe it would be building on that about the idea of being present, being in this moment, and just feeling the energy of this day and just us being here together. Maybe that is what we've all been trying to come in contact with this year that we've been through.
Helga: Even beyond the year, Karen, what would you say that you've been trying to be in contact with?
Karen: Well, first that is such a beautiful question to be asked. I don't know if I've ever been asked that question. I'm in that delight of being asked that question [laughs] so I'm going to indulge myself in that. [laughs] That is lovely to have that sense of what am I trying to be in contact with or to get to.
I think that I'm looking above, and I think that I am trying to be in contact of something larger than myself to have that sense of wonderment or whether it's on a spiritual level or this sense of creativity or contact or connection between people and places and being in time and that energy that is beyond us but yet within us. When I'm being in my day is to have this sense of wonderment or joy within, but also to take the energy if we can to change what we can change and to have that sense of purpose.
Helga: That's now, how about back then when you first started making things? When I was sitting down just now waiting to come and speak with you, the thing that I wrote on my little journal book, it says resistance culture. Maybe that's not a place that you put yourself in historically, but if we go back to this question of what it is that you were trying to make contact with in your early work, in your early self, what was that? What were those things that you were trying to be in contact with?
Karen: I don't think I've ever been asked that question before. I need a little time being the introvert and the Pisces that I am to be thinking about that. I think that the contact is to be in communication to connect. That can be with soul within heart. It can be also in looking out in a political reason. It can be in an emotional reason. It can be in dealing with speaking out in terms of whether it's trauma or also protection.
Helga: What were the political things that you were looking to make contact with?
Karen: Well, I think that with politics is human rights whether it's going to be war, whether it's going to be women's rights, gender rights, civil rights, dealing with gender, dealing with violence, injustice. It doesn't have to be far away. That is also what is important to have a sense of directness, but kindness within the work even when I am saying things and being very specific in what I'm doing, but to have it where I'm centered with what I'm saying.
I think the other work in terms of trauma can be personal trauma. Then being able to use that as a way to connect with others, that the emotional state of being able to express emotions, express pain or rage, but then also to have a space for joy and creativity and celebration, not to deny the human experience of celebration. I like to mix that up.
Helga: That balance. I think that part of the reason that I asked you the question too is because it's easy to look at some of the work you've done and say that you were only trying to provoke or that you were only angry or that you were only interested in exorcising rage and trauma.
That's a very, very superficial reading of not only what you were doing, but what it meant to do it when you were doing it so that we not also lose a sense of its historical context and what it meant for you to be in those states of trauma and rage and artistic expression at the time that you were, and that you still are.
I'm wondering if you could give some context around how you got on that path. How it came to be not because of what happened, but because of who you are and because of the time that you grew up in that you became the person to say the things that you did in the way that you did.
Karen: I'm interdisciplinary. I work in the visual arts and I work in the performance art, but I was the name plaintiff in a case that went to the Supreme Court in terms of indecency and in terms of funding my work where I would use my body and language, that means that I would sometimes use some nudity, but my words were about rape, about sexual violence, about racism, about AIDS, it would be about reproductive rights.
I would tell stories or scenarios about individuals, but I think that when I was doing my work at this certain time in history, and since we're bringing a historicalness to my work is that I would also use the voice of the perpetrator. That was at that time unusual that I would be taking on that voice as a woman taking on the male voice. I would take on that power, the patriarchy, and I would really go against the type.
At my age at that time, and within my whiteness or the expected ingenue terms of the appearance, I actually went out to destroy that, to have myself be messy or to use abjection within my own self because that's what I was doing. The female was to be expected to be hysterical so I would become more hysterical and I would use that anger as a platform. I think that I wasn't alone in terms of using anger. I was influenced by radical feminists that were creating work before I was in terms of with their writing and talking about anger, whether that's going to be Andrea Dworkin or Audre Lorde who wrote about anger. At the time when I started creating work in late '70s when I was at school, there were really very, very few women professors or women represented in the museum context. You were not given that opportunity to be the artist.
Things have changed but at that time, that would've been considered more radical. I don't think that what I was doing then, it was about its time and what I was doing there at that time for speaking for people, I would do that now, but at that time, I also had my advantage, my privilege. My whiteness allowed me to even be in a space where there was a certain amount of safety that I could even strip or to even get angry, where there was still some type of a protection within society that I could do that.
I took it for all that I could. I think I have more awareness of that now, but I also feel that coming into New York or being an artist and claiming that space in terms of my class and also the way my body and the representation of my body. I feel that I was part of colonialism occupation of going into neighborhoods such as the East Village. I think that also I am part of this blame of a certain gentrification of neighborhoods where I realize now that there was a sense of putting art market work above cultural, creative capital that was already present within neighborhoods and that my white generation took advantage of in this idea for art.
That is part of my history as well. In terms of the lawsuit with three other artists who were gay and lesbian and I was the named plaintiff and the other grants were denied based on decency. It was an eight-year case, but sometimes you win by losing. We really did, if you want to say, suffer, I think the other artists suffered more than I did because them being gay and lesbian and that I, in some way that the press heralded me to look at me at this certain way as this exception, but something that I really realized is that I was very privileged to be able to be in a position to even be censored. In this particular situation, my voice actually seemed to have some matter or credence to want to silence.
Helga: It was that important.
Karen: There are many other voices that would never even have that opportunity or platform. I think that that really is based on racism and it is a way to use me, but at the same time that I was be giving this recognition.
Helga: You became dangerous.
Karen: [laughs] Yes, I did.
Helga: Because we might all start getting ideas about what we could talk about or the ways in which we would not be controlled. Where did you come from?
Karen: I went to school in San Francisco. I grew up in Chicago and in Evanston. Music was very important to me. My father was in music. I did start going to clubs very, very early. I think that I still think of creating work in a musical way.
Helga: You have brothers and sisters?
Karen: Yes, I do. I'm the eldest of six.
Karen: I was allowed to be artistic. That was encouraged. I think also at that time too is children were left more on their own and their own devices so I could have my imagination. There wasn't that helicopter kind of a sense about things for children and young people. You could be out and you could have your privacy and that was respected. I don't think that that is respected as much now. You had to find your own sense of privacy when you're living with many people. That's why you have an imagined life. You can have a creative life within oneself. I was able to have that.
Helga: Where did you go in that imagined life?
Karen: It could be just going past a window and just imagining a little imagined secret garden somewhere, or that you look at a tree or you just look going through the alley and you see one weed growing in the crack of a sidewalk, the sky, all those things, and also the sound of human activity just gives me so much glee. I love to hear humans just gathering and talking and being and making lots of noise. I love hearing cars when people are having their music real loud. I like to do that too and just being and making yourself known and present.
Helga: You have these five other humans who are depending on you and looking up to you. When you started to make your work, what did they feel about what you were doing?
Karen: I started very young performing and being with people that were older than myself. Actually, one of my earliest performances, I think my father was a drummer and he was drumming, but I don't think I was ever questioned or ever made to feel embarrassed for what I was doing. When I was going to the San Francisco Art Institute, the way that I supported myself to get through college, I worked at a burlesque house. I really loved the respect or the performance of the body, primarily the female form and each part of the female body, instead of it being a perfection, certain attributes of the body would be expressed.
It could just be the hands. It would be the neck. It would just be the leg. It could be the cleavage, but it wasn't this sense of this hourglass image of the female form. I really, really, really learned a lot from that. To have this environment where there is also the respect for the body, desire the body, it's always looked at in this binary in terms of desire and femininity, mother, whore, and things like that. That's something that I wanted to put in my work too.
Helga: You were using what you've identified as your privilege to challenge assumptions about what you, what women, what citizens can say, how they can say it was art. What is freedom? What about pleasure? How did Karen Finley cultivate her own pleasure?
Karen: Oh, that's so beautiful. No, I just was responding because I've never been asked that question before and you've asked me now several questions that I've never been asked before. Right now I'm feeling pleasure because I'm being asked that and it's delighting me. I think that I'd like to remove the shame. Helga, in our conversation when you first asked me about the contact, I really didn't completely know. I almost feel teary, but I'm feeling a real energy in the top part from my elbows up. You help me because I think that that's what I want for my audience. That's the contact I want is to remove the shame or to release the shame.
Helga: Are there things that you do every day that every person can do to get in touch, to settle down, to go in before going out?
Karen: I have to sit, I have to stop. The transition space is as important as the place of being there, and that's where the ideas actually come. The other one is to have space where you're doing nothing. You're not wasting time. You're just being there to have this sense where it's like nothing. I just listen to music. The other is to allow the communication of enchantment and symbolism not to have to wait to go to sleep for your dreams.
Helga: That was my conversation with Karen Finley. If you want more of these conversations, subscribe for free wherever you get your podcasts, give us a rating, and share with a friend. Don't forget to follow me @hel.gadavis on Instagram. Helga: The Armory Conversations is a co-production of WNYC Studios and Park Avenue Armory. The show is produced by Krystal Hawes-Dressler with help from Darian Suggs and myself. Our technical producer is Sapir Rosenblatt. Original music by Meshell Ndegeocello and Jason Moran. Special thanks to Alex Ambrose. Avery Willis Hoffman is our executive producer. City and Bloomberg Philanthropies are the Armory's 2021 season sponsors. Now the coda, which includes some explicit language and isn't suited for young listeners from Grabbing Pussy by Karen Finley.
Karen: Pussy speak out.
Men, pay attention
When we say No
We mean No
Do not push your body on any of us
Rape, violations, assaults
Hotel sex crimes
Hidden kept secret harassment
Assault disguised as job interview
30 years of abuse?
Over 90 accusations with just one Harvey
Every woman doesn’t expect this to happen in her lifetime
but it happens to every single woman
Spoken between women
Mothers to daughters to granddaughters
We are taught how to use your body at times
To feign interest till you get to safety, a pause in his release
How to disembody, dissociate as you are raped
Taught to forget yet remember and hold the pain and fear
Hating your body
yet the desire is abjection
Held as object
Trained and groomed
Grab ’em by the pussy
A president’s war cry
Whether Bill or some other friendly neoliberal
Or some conservative cock
It is like eating a chicken sandwich
Power of pussy
Harvey Handlers & Enablers:
To keep your jobs
For another slobbering box of popcorn
For some other film
Probably made and directed by a man
Where man gets girl
Turning down the sheets
To get to the script
Coaxing young women
To overpower intimate
Massage explicit messages
with oil and motion
It never stops with a backrub
Keep me safe
manipulation fearing retaliation embarrassment pain rape sob
sobbing distraught locked in a van a room a job on a desk an office,
a car, get the pillow to his room, bathroom disturbed
angry take me out of here let me go no no no no pausing
passing out here you are here help me
Together we stand
Band together in solidarity
Oh, hello young beauty
Here is your predator
One powerful male producer
Known as the Hollywood system
A systemic industry thin and full of botox
To force his hairy self
You are perfect for the upcoming role
a rag doll
No one stopped him
No one from the company
No one from the board
No one no one
Too much money
To much power to be made
Not too bad
Put up with it
Sign a Nondisclosure clause
While he’s giving money to a liberal cause.
Mr. Weinstein, known for outbursts tirades explosions
Private and public pounding
But it was the particular female
that he enjoyed the most
and gave of his most personal self
Hurting the most vulnerable young woman
a female who wanted, who had ambition
Who desired to work, had talent
He was brutal in shaming and punishing this woman
for her desire to be an actress, to work in the field
Written off as just another form of toxicity
Coercive bargaining to keep quiet and maybe a chance
at a script
For the hopeful actress, meeting with the god as devil
Might generate a deal, an opportunity, a chance
to be part of what you had trained for
but first, you had to do him
penetrated, sucked, licked, or eaten
It was never your choice
The pain is so bad
to keep your soul from slipping
as you clutch to whatever dream you
can salvage in this nightmare
As he enters as you cry out
feeling her fear that then transforms his power to prove he
is a man
He is in charge and takes her power
He has the plan
I will force myself
Eat you and you eat me
For it is a dog eat dog world
I am so ugly—so ugly but you will eat this ugly
Ram it down your throat, you won’t have anything like me
There is no way out
There is only a way in
I despise women
I hate women for I want them and I am so ugly that I can only force myself on them for fear of rejection
They only want one thing
They are actress whores
And all of this to make a moving image
Where we can all sit in the darkened theater
together in the dark
Left in the dark
Oh, that’s entertainment!
It is not just the ravishing actress
On stage or screen
For it is in all walks of life and career
A woman poses a risk to herself
Her body is dangerous
A potential target of attack
She presents by her presence
At all times, everywhere and anywhere
The male has the dominion to punish and beat and violate and touch
A passionate uncontrollable rage
Her body pushes him to the edge
He is built that way
He can’t help himself
That is how men are
We know your life your body has value, women
You speak truth
You aren’t lying
You aren’t bringing this on
You didn’t dress this way
You weren’t expecting this
Wherever you work and live
Whatever you do
Whoever you are
Women unite we won’t stand to be raped, groped, abused,
mocked, and violated.
Women, girls, females, identified trans people
deserve to be treated with dignity
Your body is yours
Respect our body
This body is mine
It is not here for you
The time has come for female empowerment
We won’t be ridiculed and our bodies occupied for your benefit
No more codes of silence
No more silence
Pussy speak out