EPISODE 6: IF IT’S GOT NAKED PEOPLE, RUPAUL IS IN
Name one performance artist. Maybe you’re thinking of Marina Abramovic, the artist who sat at MoMA, eight hours a day for almost three months, totally still, and anyone could sit in the chair facing her and gaze into her eyes. Good. That’s a really good first one. Now name another one. Kanye West does not count. Sorry. Neither does your eighth grade talent show performance, as much as you’d like to pretend that performing that song from “The Music Man” was an ironic commentary on consumerism. And, kudos, very advanced 8th grade experience.
A lot of people think of performance art as kind of a joke.
Visitor: I’m not a fan of performance art, personally, so...
Visitor: It’s not even that I’m appalled by it. Just… curious.
I’m Abbi Jacobson and this is A Piece of Work, and today I’m trying to wrap my head around performance art. And to get beyond the feeling of What. The. Heck. Is. Going. On. Here? So, I thought, who better to talk to than a person who’s made his entire life into a piece of performance art ... RuPaul.
RuPaul: Kids write to me and say, what am I going to do with my life? My parents don’t understand me. I write back and say, find what makes you unique and special and cultivate that. And then bring that to the party.
RuPaul is unapologetically himself. He refuses to compromise or to let others define him. And on “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” he helps other people express themselves too.
RuPaul clip: Now remember, if you can’t love yourself, how the hell are you going to love somebody else? Can I get an amen up in here? Ok, now let the music play! Yes!”
RuPaul: Hello, Abs?
RuPaul: Hey, kiddo.
Abbi: Hey, how are you?
RuPaul: You know, hos and bros.
I got to know RuPaul when he guest-starred on the new season my show, Broad City.
When we talked for this podcast, I was in the middle of post-production.
Abbi: I get to look at your face everyday now.
RuPaul: How’s that? Oh you're editing.
Abbi: We're editing.
I wanted to start us off easy, so I asked RuPaul what he thought about performance art in general.
RuPaul: Well I've got to tell you, you know I moved to New York in the early 80s and performance artists were everywhere. Especially with art you know there are people who are authoritarians who tell you, Well this is important. And I grew up thinking, you know, I don't need somebody to tell me what's important. I grew up thinking, I can use my senses well enough to know if it actually moves me. And then as I grew older and really understood what was going on, I resented the people from earlier who told me all this is important. That wasn't important, that was bull. That was crap. I thought it was crap then I think it's crap now. So I resented all of the people who were saying, oh this is a very very important piece of artwork. You know, I think the most important information you should know about should be told with laughter and hoo-hoo-hoo! You know.
Abbi: Yeah. I hear you...
RuPaul: I feel the same way about performance art and video art. If it’s got naked people and big, fat asses, I’m in.
Abbi: Well that's a great segue into our first video we're going to watch -- so are you familiar with --
RuPaul: Sir Mix-a-Lot?
Abbi: Yeah, Sir Mix-a-Lot. We're going to be serving Sir Mix-a-Lot’s greatest hits. Or Hit. Greatest hit. Because I literally do not know any other thing that Sir Mix-a-Lot has created.
RuPaul: Oh no I've got to send you -- he does have another really really good song. It may be better than the other one. It’s called “Put ‘em on the Glass.”
RuPaul: Yeah. And you can imagine what he means by putting them on the glass.
Abbi: No, I don't know what you're referring to.
RuPaul: I'll tell you he’s talking about them two tig ol’ biddies, baby, them two tig ol’ biddies, honey.
Abbi: I gotta say Sir Mix-a-Lot was very like the lyrics of that song are wonderful, I think.
RuPaul: They're amazing amazing. I think I may quote them every day. I think I've quoted them every day since the song came out.
So I asked RuPaul to watch a couple of videos with me -- films that document performance art pieces.
The first one is from 1964, when performance art and “happenings” were really getting going. It’s by an artist named Carolee Schneemann [SHNEE-mon] and it’s called… “Meat Joy.”
RuPaul: Oh, wait wait-- ‘Squeeze me?
Abbi: It's called "Meat Joy."
RuPaul: Oh "Meat Joy." Mhm. How long is it?
Abbi: It’s like 10 minutes. But we can talk over it.
["Meat Joy" sound starts]
RuPaul: I am and I see these people they are they've got panties on panties and bras.
So to paint you a picture of what we’re looking at, there’s a half-dozen or so dancers, men and women, wearing speedos and bikinis, sort of dancing and smiling and laughing, falling on the floor ground, writhing around.
RuPaul: It's almost like a dance piece.
Abbi: Yeah it's definitely choreographed.
RuPaul: OK. Well they're out there in like little bathing suits which I love. You know anything that's got nudity in it or bodies, I like that.
Abbi: Yeah. There's actually a really hairy leg coming up. This guy is really hairy.
RuPaul: I like that. Actually. Are you -- do you like hairiness?
Abbi: Do I like hairiness? I guess so. I don't dislike it. I guess it really depends.
RuPaul: Oh OK so is she wearing a meat bikini?
Abbi: Oh, I never noticed this. They look like kind of furry bikinis. Oh my gosh maybe they are meat bikinis.
RuPaul: You know it's like the Lady Gaga thing. I bet that's where Lady Ga Ga-- Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga got the idea.
Abbi: And you know what. No one would ever know that. Because it seems like it's like a new fresh idea.
Abbi: See, look at that leg. You see how hairy that one leg is?
RuPaul: Yes. Yes.
Abbi: Now that's a that's a hairy leg.
RuPaul: It's one of the hairiest legs I've ever seen.
Abbi: This is all I've been talking about when I watch this video with people. Oh wait. Here now these animals are getting like served up.
So then this is where things start getting weird. Somebody brings out some whole, raw chickens and fish, and sausages like you could get at the grocery store. And the dancers start dancing with the chickens and biting them.
RuPaul: OK. They’re throwing fish and meat meat products on top of the dancers who are lying on their back.
Abbi: Yes and they're sort of like rubbing around with them.
RuPaul: Yeah. I'm not sure what the message is yet other than meat is sexy in groups of people in bikinis.
RuPaul: Oh she's got a fish between her legs there. And chickens...
Abbi: It’s Interesting. Yeah. I try to be of the mindset of like, because often when I watch stuff like this I'm like I don't know if I'm getting exactly what they were putting down but I'm sort of like, maybe I'm just supposed to interpret it however I'm interpreting it.
RuPaul: Yeah, no, you're absolutely right. So I'm thinking what I'm getting from this is that it's decadence. It's humans being free enough to explore themselves.
Abbi: And now they're like ripping the chicken apart.
RuPaul:Yeah. That I'm I'm not so crazy about.
Abbi: Me neither. I’m not so crazy about that either.
RuPaul: It's hard for me to equate sexuality with ripping a chicken apart.
Abbi: You know it is interesting all these people are in their underwear and I don't really find it sexy.
Abbi: Because of all the food or not even food really they're like just animals.
RuPaul: Yeah, it’s carcasses.
It seemed like the people in "Meat Joy" were having fun, but … what were we supposed to feel? Watching people writhe around with dead chickens and fish looked kind of gross. Was there a joke involved, a deeper meaning or message that we’re supposed to understand? What’s going on? So I went to MoMA to talk with one of their curators, Thomas Lax.
Thomas Lax: That the leg you're talking about.
Abbi: Yes. Right.
Thomas Lax: I kind of like it.
Abbi: I don’t like it either.
Thomas Lax: I do like it.
Abbi: Oh you do. I don’t like it.
Thomas Lax: I just, you know, it's just very bodily.
Abbi: Yeah but, I feel like I don't know why I feel like now they would just be naked.
Thomas Lax: Yeah.
Abbi: That’s like the only thing, maybe. Right?
Thomas Lax: Well there's a few years later another performer Anna Halperin made a work where she was naked 1967 at Hunter and the police came in then you know stopped the performance and brought the performers to jail. So I think there is a way that nudity meant something slightly different then than it does now.
Abbi: But I wonder now. It's so interesting it's like. She was arrested and taken away and it's like for doing for just being --
Thomas Lax: Naked.
Abbi: Was it on the street?
Thomas Lax: No, it was in a theater.
Abbi: Yeah that's. It's like now. They couldn’t do that now.
Thomas Lax: No. It's also like now it's it's almost like because of people like Carolee Schneemann, it's almost cliche to do that because it feels like oh just take off your clothes and you'll like be in this you know legacy and so to do the more radical thing is maybe to like cover yourself up in specific kinds of ways.
Abbi: Wearing tons of layers.
Thomas Lax: Exactly. Radical.
Abbi: It is interesting that like a cliche of performance art is just to be naked.
Thomas Lax: Yeah. One other thing I just wanted to mention about her is that she before she made this work she was also she had made you know some self portraits of herself where she was naked and she was at Bard College at the time and was asked to take a leave of absence for making naked self-portraits. Even though there were men who were painters at the time who were portraying her naked. So there is you know in terms of the moment in which she was making this obviously misogyny is real alive and well today but maybe works in slightly different ways. So I think part of what prompted her to make this was just the reality of patriarchy at the time for women artists.
Abbi: Yeah it's like if you would just have the painting on the wall and she would just say that a man did it of her be fine.
Thomas Lax: Right.
Abbi: But it's just. No I did it. You’re out of here.
Thomas Lax: Exactly. Exactly.
Abbi: That’s fucking bullshit.
Thomas Lax: Yeah.
Meat Joy was revolutionary in the 1960s -- and actually, it still feels that way now. It’s a female artist making this statement about female bodies and how they were allowed to be portrayed. That’s what I see. But I wanted to find out more from the artist…
Carolee Schneemann: Hello?
Carolee Schneemann: Abbi?
Abbi: Hi, it’s so nice to meet you and talk to you.
Carolee Schneemann: I know, we have a virtual meeting here.
It’s been more than than 50 years since Carolee Schneemann made “Meat Joy.” She lives in upstate New York, and she’s still making ground-breaking work. She recently had a show in London of photos and videos about war, disaster, and suffering.
Carolee Schneemann: It just is an anguish for me. I think we need to look at it, but where does it take us?
Carolee is one of the icons of feminist and performance art. But it turns out even she isn’t the biggest performance art fan.
Carolee Schneemann: There's some very interesting feminist work but most of all it's not so great. Yeah.
She did a bunch of really bold work in the 1960s and 70s -- there’s this video of Carolee and her husband having sex, from the perspective of their cat; and there’s a performance in which she read from a scroll as she pulled it from her vagina. It was all about being a woman in charge of your own body and your own sexuality.
So I asked her: what was it like to stage Meat Joy in 1964?
Abbi: I feel like this could have been -- I feel like this is so relevant right now. I don’t know if relevant is the right word. But it just feels -- I can’t even imagine what that must have been like in 1964.
Carolee Schneemann: Well I'm so thrilled that it still has relevance and presence because in 1964 it was so radicalizing for sort of attending to so many normal taboos taboos about tourch about smell. It comes from a very special moment when there was a sense of pervasive erotic suppression and certainly there was no dynamic of young women depicting their own pleasure or in activating it.
Abbi: Right. So I’m 33. And I know that over just my adult life or not even my adult life, my body is changing and I notice the changes in my body and I don’t know, over the course of your life and your work because that is sort of like one of your main mediums is your own body, how do you feel -- like it’s almost like it becomes a new thing as you get older as well.
Carolee Schneemann: As you get older the new thing becomes an old thing. [Abbi laughs] It's not reliable or offering the same dynamic. But I haven't worked with the explicit body since 1975 and so my culture is obsessed and insistent that I don't grow up. They want me running around naked even though I'm 76.
Abbi: That’s all anyone wants in any medium. Is naked bodies.
Carolee Schneemann: Let's see the old people running around. I just had a choreographer from Sweden ask could we recreate “Meat Joy.” And would any of the original participants participate. And that was so adorable. Since most of them have died or are on dialysis or kidney failure or.
Abbi: Oh my gosh it would be a very different -- a very different piece.
So Carolee isn’t going to re-stage Meat Joy anytime soon. But the problems, the misogyny and repression she was criticising in that piece, are still around.
Carolee Schneemann: The taboos have shifted but they're still there. There are more prohibitions than I’ve ever felt before.
Abbi: And we’re also like going back in time in terms of civil liberties and respect and things are just feeling very out of control and then I often wonder, oh well, is this what it felt like 30 years ago but I just wasn’t around?
Carolee Schneemann: No it's different. This feels like a slow dark Tsunami rising over everything that we've made that had an aspect of civility, humanity.
Abbi: Carolee, no, you’re supposed to say, no it was always fucked up and it’s just like that, it’s just happening again.
Carolee Schneemann: Well it was always fucked up. This is more grotesques and in deforming the things that we already struggled to put in place for a more just culture.
Abbi: Yeah. I do comedy for a living and I often get asked what it’s like to be writing comedy right now. And with it being so dire it’s actually, there’s more the need to talk about things and there’s almost more of a need for art right now as well. People to be expressing what’s happening.
Carolee Schneemann: I’ll tell you Key and Peele have made me feel some hope for America.
Abbi: Right? They’re incredible.
Carolee Schneemann: Yes. They’re so incredible.
[CLIP FROM "KEY AND PEELE"]
Jordan Peele: Good evening my fellow Americans. The country has voted for a new president.
Keegan Michael Key: How did this happen man??! Don’t you understand? This is how the Hunger Games starts!
Coming up, an artist casts herself as the star of her performance piece. Then invites the audience to cut off her clothes.
Yoko Ono: There was a long silence between one person coming up and the next person coming up. I said that’s fantastic beautiful music: ba ba ba ba CUT, ba ba ba ba CUT. Beautiful poetry, actually.
That’s Yoko Ono and she’s coming up next This is A Piece of Work.
This episode is all about the most intimidating and... sometimes... annoying form of contemporary art, performance art. In “Meat Joy,” we saw people dancing around, seeming pretty happy about their bodies. But in this next piece, the artist sits perfectly still and lets other people do things to her.
Yoko Ono: Don’t fight. Let it happen. By not fighting, we show them that there’s a whole world that could exist by being peaceful.
That’s the voice of Yoko Ono. She’s talking about a performance art work she debuted in 1964 called “Cut Piece.” You can find a video of it online.
RuPaul: Yoko Ono of course the wife of John Lennon. The one who is accused of breaking up the Beatles.
Abbi: I know. And now I have a piece of paper here that says that she's best known for that. And I'm like OK that sucks.
RuPaul: That does suck.
This is me with RuPaul again.
RuPaul: Are you a Beatles fan?
Abbi: I am a Beatles fan
RuPaul: I like the Beatles songs when other people do them. I think they do a fine job. But when other people do them and interpret them I go oh my god that's that's deep. Like when Tinta Tina Turner does “Help.”
Abbi: Tinta Turner.
RuPaul: Yes. She turns it out.
Abbi: She can do anything.
RuPaul: Yeah. She does it she does it as a ballad, that's like a gospel ballad. That's just brilliant. You know because and when they do it they go “help me if you can I’m feeling down.” like a teeny bopper.
Abbi: More poppy
RuPaul: Yes but she goes “help me if you can I’m feeling down.” She goes there.
Abbi: She belts it. I gotta listen to this.
Wait, how did we get to talking about Tina Turner? Back to Yoko Ono -- So I should say that this performance was made before she married John Lennon by the way. We’re watching a video documenting "Cut Piece." The video starts out innocently enough. She’s sitting on the floor in a long-sleeved black dress. Then, one by one, people start coming up from the audience, taking a big pair of scissors and… cutting off pieces of her dress. The audience members are women and men, all dressed nicely -- because this is happening in a performance space at Carnegie Hall.
RuPaul: Are they taking the garment? No they're just cutting it.
Abbi: They're cutting it. And the scissors are put back on the floor. And it looks like it's different people every time coming in and cutting like sort of a what seems to be a random piece of her dress off.
Abbi: It's a long sleeve sort of conservative looking dress.
RuPaul: Yes. Now I think mean immediately I'm getting what the message of this is which is people are taking pieces of her and she is unmoved. That's what I'm getting from it.
Abbi: Yeah. And they're also cutting very like I mean I would as well if someone if this was like the prompt I would cut like a very small piece that wasn't revealing much.
RuPaul: Right. To be polite.
Abbi: Yes be polite when cutting off other people's clothes.
RuPaul: Yeah, exactly.
It goes along like this for a while.
RuPaul: Yoko is still just sitting here in a very contemplative stance sitting on the floor.
Abbi: And her slip is now exposed. Let me get I'm going to get deep with this because I'm thinking you know you know I'm I'm not as public of a person as you are. But I'm getting like the sense of when you put yourself on stage and in front of people and sort of like out to the public they take pieces of you. I mean that's like what this is saying right what you are saying and saying do you feel like just to talk more about that personally like do you feel that way?
RuPaul: I do, I do. I mean I sure do. I do. You know I'm I'm I'm literally I am an introvert who's masquerading as an extrovert. I know how to do it. But I afterwards I have to go and recharge my battery by myself like the cat who goes on under the house to have babies.
Abbi: And you know what. Yes. You said something to me when we were shooting and it like threw me kind of. You were like I didn't know you were an introvert. And I was like it made me -- I thought about all night.
RuPaul: You know part of that --
So RuPaul and I are chatting, watching the video and this guy comes up to Yoko and then...
RuPaul: Oh my God he just cut her bra straps.
Abbi: He fucking cuts her bra straps!
RuPaul: She's covering herself. Who is this guy?
Abbi: She’s covering herself now. With her hands. Which is --
RuPaul: Yeah he cut a lot of her clothes off. And she's actually she's affected by it she's trying to act like she's not affected by it. But she is affected by it.
Abbi: Yes her eyes are moving around a lot and won't make eye contact with the audience anymore.
RuPaul: I actually I think this piece is very effective. Was that the end? Oh that was the end of it. That was very effective actually. I did feel something. I felt very moved by it, especially when she put her hands up to keep her her bra straps which he cut from falling down exposing herself.
Abbi: Because he -- no one needed to cut her bra off yet.
RuPaul: No no there was plenty of --
Abbi: More dress.
RuPaul: Yes. And did you see the way he did it. He approached. He was kind of aggressive with it.
Abbi: Yeah it was like a dick move.
RuPaul: It was a dick move. And he did it in a way because he first. He cut away most of her slip that was under her garment. And then as his his sort of grand finale he cut the bra straps It's like saying you know put em on the glass, Yoko. Put em on the glass.
Abbi: Yes Sir Mix-a-Lot.
Abbi: He Sir Mix-a-Lotted her.
RuPaul: Full circle.
Abbi: But it is like I mean my thought on that is sort of like when you put yourself out there you're going to get that shit too.
RuPaul: You're going to get that.
Abbi: You're going to get that dick as well.
Thomas Lax: It's a very vulnerable gesture.
I talked with the curator Thomas Lax about “Cut Piece.” And about this guy at the end.
Abbi: This fucker. I hate that.
Thomas Lax: Yeah. It's like we all know this guy. You know I mean it's like, we went to school with him.
Abbi: And I think she knew this would happen. I think she’s like, I want you to see what this what could happen. It is an experiment. And I think even though she's uncomfortable I think she's like...
Thomas Lax: It takes how people act in their everyday lives and puts it up on a stage. So in some ways it kind of reveals his you know his terror that I'm sure he just brings them wherever he goes with him.
Abbi: Yeah. This is seems like a very hard thing. To do just someone I'm like I would be very nervous to like participate. And then part of it is like well, they're going up they’re doing it. Like I guess I'll do it. It's like this weird like peer pressure, too.
Thomas Lax: Or like psychological experiment. What are you going to do?
Abbi: I know. But then, it’s also, she asked, like she’s told them, so it’s like. Go ahead, what were you going to say?
Thomas Lax: No exactly that yeah the line of like consent, coercion is really thin. The thing I was going to say is that there's like two versions of her instructions for this one of which says that she gets to decide where the performer gets to decide when it's over. The other one says that the audience gets to decide when it's over. Which feel like. Very different in terms of what you’re saying.
Abbi: Yeah that I would almost be scared about the audience getting like it almost feels like if this went on too long the audience would like lose control. Like. Inviting. Like it feels like inviting this kind of thing is like so terrifying. In a way like you do not know what can happen.
I’ve gotta say, “Cut Piece” gets under my skin. There’s something beautiful about it, but also incredibly painful. Even though it was made more than fifty years ago, it hits me in the gut everytime I see it. And to me, that's the definition of great art.
That’s it for this episode of A Piece of Work. I’m Abbi Jacobson.
Special thanks to Thomas Lax, RuPaul, and Carolee Schneemann.
You can see images from this show on our website, A Piece of Work dot org. The show is a co-production of WNYC Studios and MoMA.
Thanks for listening.