Karen Finley Interview by Kathy Brew
Monday, January 18, 2021
Karen Finley in performance and portrait
Photo by Midge Wattles
Kathy Brew: Karen, thank you for taking the time to talk to us. I was flashing back to when I first met you in the late 80s—I was living in San Francisco and you were living here in New York. I went east for the holidays and saw [your performance], A Suggestion of Madness at PS 122. I interviewed you for Shift Magazine, published out of San Francisco.
Later, when I was managing director of Life on the Water, I got to play a small role as your daughter in the work. We brought the production to San Francisco, but since the travel budget was small, you suggested that I play the daughter. It was a memorable time.
Part of the reason that it’s great to talk to you now is to highlight the work that you've continued doing over all these years since you came out of SFAI.
Karen Finley: It’s so good to be here and to have this opportunity to speak about anything related with SFAI. I just hope that there’s a way that SFAI can be saved.
KB: Let’s start with something you’ve done recently—recording your book, Grabbing Pussy, for Audible.
It’s interesting that the book came out in 2018, half-way through Trump’s presidency. It seems even more relevant now. Tell us about this book.
KF: Grabbing Pussy has different iterations. It started as a performance, then as a text I did in response—you know, artist as historical recorder. I was documenting and processing the language of what was going on—and the assault of the language. I wanted to process it with language, and see my take, as an artist, in uncovering and unraveling and exposing that: the assault of the language.
Cover of Grabbing Pussy. OR Books, 2018
Bruce Yonemoto and I collaborated on this project at Montalvo Artist Residency, close by to San Francisco in Silicon Valley. We were both artists-in-residence and decided to work together on a project that would show the [Montalvo program’s] relationship to Senator Phelan, a senator from California 100 years ago. The Montalvo residency is actually where Senator Phelan had lived. Phelan was very racist and had initiated anti-Asian legislation. He even wrote a book called The Japanese Evil in California. He was supposed to have been a great supporter of artists, but yet he was such a racist. Through our working together, I learned that Bruce had grown up near by to Montalvo and that his Japanese-American family members were incarcerated during the Second World War. So, it really seemed like an urgent subject that we had to respond to and create a work around. I first compared the speeches of Senator Phelan to Trump’s, and saw that it was the same rhetoric—not much had changed.
“This is our land not their land.”
The Politician (Karen Finley) in the garden of Villa Montalvo, former home of Senator James Duval Phelan in Saratoga, California
Production still from Far East of Eden, cinematography by Judy Phu, directed by Bruce Yonemoto
The film, Far East of Eden, was the result of our collaboration. I performed as a Trump-Phelan composite and Bruce directed the short film—which you screened. But then I decided to expand it into performances and other writings. I first published it as a book with Or Books, and then—now—an audio-book version has been published with Audible Books.
KB: Have you recorded some of your past books on Audible?
KF: This is the first time. I had [previously] recorded some of my writings and performances for CD, but they weren’t considered audio books. For example, I did A Certain Level of Denial with Rykodisc. But Grabbing Pussy is my first audio book.
KB: Your interdisciplinary practice is so interesting—being a writer, a performer, and a visual artist—to see the translation from the printed page—that even has some visual aspects in the way that you present the text—and then to hear it performatively. Maybe you can talk a little about the shifts in working with the material in those two ways.
© Karen Finley
KF: Yes, interdisciplinary. Each way offers a different perspective into the material. In one way, there are the words themselves, and the unraveling of the words—trying to unpack the assault of the language.
And then there’s the visual element—visually interpreting the words. And I’m exhausting the font choices, because words [on the page] are a visual language—a visual interpretation. Words are a representation, whether I’m speaking about something or I’ve created artworks… like the different fonts for all the different versions of the word penis, or prick. There are so many metaphors, and words, for that. It’s interesting that there are so few words in the English language for love, but my God, there are so many ways to say dick, prick and pussy—and that’s what I show in the work.
And so, it has a tension between the humorous, the colorful, and the illustrative.
© Karen Finley
But then the assault—how these words are also used to violate and shame people. And within the words I’m dealing with, there’s the proximity of what’s been happening during Trump’s presidency. But it isn’t only within Trump’s presidency, it’s about systemic racism, and the “me too” movement. So, the specific politicians are kind of like stand-ins. If I’m talking about other political figures, like Hillary, it’s not really about Hillary per se, but just about the archetype, or a projection within gender.
KB: Here we are two days before the Inauguration. We’re finally getting rid of Donald, who you’ve skewered in Grabbing Pussy, rightfully so. And again, it’s interesting that the book came out two years ago, now almost three, and now here’s the Audible book. It’s so timely to be reminded of what a monster he’s been all along.
KF: Well, I think that even when he’s gone, we still have elements that we saw on January 6th so we have to be ever present and to be aware of this in our society.
© Karen Finley
KB: Let’s flash back to your time at SFAI. What department were you in and who did you study with? How do you feel that your time there impacted your whole trajectory?
KF: I first started at SFAI in the fall of 1977. I visited the school first, and just fell in love with it. [The students] were mostly people who were returning after having been out of school for a while. I liked that level of maturity. I didn’t know many 18-year-olds there.
I started in the painting department, but I just didn’t connect there. I really felt the lack of women teachers. And I realized that that was embodied in me, and in the approach towards painting in the painting department—the style, the critique was I think abusive. Some of what was said to me then, just wouldn’t be allowed now. I think that as a female student, you had to make decisions: Were you going to be one of the boys? Or were you going to just find your own way? Although I have to say, I think that [attitude] was across the board in probably every art school and university at the time. So SFAI wouldn't have been any different from the Chicago Art Institute or Berkeley or Harvard. There were very few women.
So, I went to what they now call the New Genres department. I immediately found my people. I felt completely accepted, encouraged, and supported by the faculty and students. My approach in experimentation with the body, the content… from the first five minutes there, I had a wonderful experience.
What I liked about that time, is that we really had nothing. And by that, I mean that we made something with the content of our work. We had a room with high ceilings. There was no such thing, like now, that you (a student) had a studio. There was just no such thing as you [being given] your own place to work. There was no expectation of meeting with your teacher. It was really a different kind of time and energy in terms of expectations. It could also have been that my generation felt just so privileged to even be in a place where we could be making art! For many of us, the idea of being an artist… we would have been the first in our family. To be an artist was radical. And there were radical politics at that time—we were just post-Vietnam War. And so, the energy was to go against the object—to create work that subverted the art market. And then also to challenge people with money—who could make art and who could buy art. Many of the people that were attracted to the New Genres department were political in terms of subverting American commerce—or the art market and what that stood for.
KB: You subsequently received an Honorary Doctorate from SFAI, didn’t you?
KF: Yes, I did. And I’d like to talk about some of my other San Francisco alliances and connections. Susie Bright was the producer on my Audible book project—she brought it to Audible. I like that she’s in the Bay Area. Another connection to SFAI and to San Francisco is my editor, Amy Scholder, who used to be at City Lights. I was introduced to Amy by an SFAI alumnus who’s no longer with us, Rex Ray. Amy edited most of my books and we worked together at City Lights.
Karen Finley. Don't Hang the Angels, 1985
Performance documentation, St Mark’s Church, New York, Photo by Dona Ann McAdams
KB: Speaking of art and politics, let’s flash way forward to now. One of the other hats you wear is as an educator at NYU in the Department of Art and Politics. Can you talk a bit about that and what you’re seeing with students today? Compare then and now?
KF: In some ways it is 360º. It’s opposite in terms of the formality of an institution such as NYU, where there’s a world of 40,000 people, as opposed to SFAI where I’m sure it was more like 800 people. That in itself is different. But it’s also the expectations, and the level of resources.
But I feel that what’s very similar is the energy from the students—especially now with what is and has been happening for the past two years in the world and politics. It resonates with the idea of disruption— this idea, you could say, of revolution. And that art can be part of the revolution—art can be in the conversation with politics. And there’s a similar passion now, [especially compared to my generation of] the New Genres department. We had the belief that within video you could really communicate; we were actually doing some very early Skype-like interventions. This is probably going back to 1978 or 1979, with Sharon Grace and Nam June Paik. We would be with artists here, sending an image to artists in London or other places. You would have to wait a minute or two for a little blip to appear on the screen through the phone line. And the belief was that we wanted this media to have an access to the public. That was the idea. And I think that has happened—that there is access—people now have video and the Internet. This public access was crucial; those kinds of beliefs were part of the cultural politics, with artists and the public being the media providers. We didn’t know the word Internet at that time, but that was the idea of the Portapack [early, portable video camera—heavy enough to be on wheels], the idea of having the video access the public, to making your images and having access to share them. This Mission was part of our contribution to the field of New Genres. And I feel that this is part of our generation’s participation in- and contribution to- new media. We really see it now, every day, in our changed world.
KB: You’ve also been teaching a writing workshop. Can you talk about that?
KF: I love giving workshops—writing workshops. I love the sanctuary of the classroom. I just love it! I love art-making and I love my students and I’ve loved other students and I love that feeling of being in that energy. That’s a lot of LOVE!!! Hahahha! I just conducted a workshop this past weekend. I create prompts and guide people with their writing. And I’ll be doing that every month. It’s a way for me to give. It’s through the Hudson Valley Writers Center. Every month I’m going to be doing a workshop—in February, March, April and May. There will be a theme for each month. February will be on love. It’s basically a one-day, three-to-four-hour session.
Photo by Dona Ann McAdams
KB: Can you sneak preview or tease us with any of your art that’s coming up, either performance or visual art? I know you have many exhibitions in the works.
KF: Right now I’m in an online exhibition at the Park Avenue Armory, 100 Years/100 Women, which is about women’s right to vote. It includes a lot of interesting women.
I’m in a show at the Shiva Gallery at John Jay College of Criminal Justice called The Right to Silence? It’s about abolition, and it’s up through the spring.
I’m also in a show, Heroine-ity, which is up at Eastern Connecticut State University. Martha Wilson is also in that show, along with a few others. It’s about femininity.
And I was recently in a show for the Miami Art Fair in December.
I just got invited to go to Dusseldorf to do a show in response to Diane di Prima. I bring that up since she was based in San Francisco. She published at City Lights, as well. [Diane di Prima 1934–2020]
KB: Will you go to Dusseldorf?
KF: I don’t know how that’s going to work with Covid, we’ll have to see. I just got the invitation so it’s in the beginning stages.
KB: Are some of these exhibits virtual, and some physical that you can actually visit?
KF: Yes, but all of them have a virtual presence. I’ve been trying as much as possible to have both a virtual and a [physical] presence.
KB: In a sense, the upside of the downside of the pandemic is that you and your work can be more global without having to travel. It gives you a global audience for the work—larger than the number of people who can attend an exhibit in a physical space.
KF: Exactly. I think so. But I can’t wait for Covid to be over. I’ve been posting on Instagram a lot too. I try to create works that are a moment of interruption or slowing down of time, of perspective and focus. I use my Instagram account for that, too.
KB: I’ve also seen your posts on Facebook.
KF: Yes, I do Facebook, too, but I think Instagram is probably more public. I try to contribute and to be part of some artistic presence. I think we’re all tired of being virtual.
Karen Finley at MoMA/PS1
Karen Finley in Saturn Conjunct Pluto And Nightmares of Ivanka at MoMA/PS1, March 1, 2020
Photo by Ellie Burck, courtesy of MoMA/PS1
KB: Yes, we’re craving the physical presence. The visual can happen virtually, and I guess even so can performance. But theaters are shut still, there’s no music, no concerts. We can all watch things on Zoom, but for you who have done so many amazing performances—do you have hopes for future live performance?
KF: One thing I didn’t mention here is that I’m starting a sound piece, Covid Anxiety Opera. I’ve just begun thinking about it and working on it. I’m going to be submitting a short section, just a short glimpse/sketch, for a sound exhibition in Belgrade. For the first iteration I am collaborating with Violet Overn (my daughter) and Casey Wyman.
It opens at the end of the month. That’s what I’m thinking of—creating some kind of a Covid soundscape. What are the sounds of our quarantine? What are the sounds of what we’re feeling that’s endless? It just never stops during this time. Even the sounds of the trauma here. I think we’re all having these experiences.
KB: I’m trying to reflect on the last live performance of yours that I saw, The Expanded Unicorn Gratitude Mystery. I saw it at La Mama and you caught sight of me in the audience and pulled me up to do a little dance with you.
KF: But didn’t you come to my performance at MoMA/PS1 last March? That was right before the lockdown. I still have my props and everything. And what is so strange is what I say at the end of that performance. I’m speaking about taking to the streets, I’m talking about other times in history. We didn’t know what was going to happen, but it feels very remarkable how it gave us a glimpse into what was to come.
It’s called Saturn Transit Pluto And Nightmares of Ivanka. It was on March 1st, 2020—almost a year ago now. A lot of people came out to see the show. (read more about Saturn Transit Pluto And Nightmares of Ivanka NYU Tisch).
And starting that week—the next day—people were starting to close things down.
KB: You’ve always had an intuitive, almost psychic/seer kind of reading. You had the hand sanitizer.
KF: Hahaha! I still have that! It was called Tropical Splash. I kept it because it’s from the performance. I usually keep my performance props, costumes, and sets around because I’m touring. And how do we remember that work? How is it archived? I think all artists have this question with their work.
KB: Well you certainly have a lot of work to archive. Is there anything else you’d like to say?
KF: I just hope that there’s a way that SFAI can be saved and that it can return to being a working college—because I had the most wonderful times there.
by Karen Finley
published by OR Books, 2018
published by Audible Studios, 2020
published by Audible Studios on Brilliance Audio, 2020
Kathy Brew is an award-winning filmmaker and artist/writer/curator/educator who spent 14 years in the Bay Area but returned to her hometown, NYC, in 1994. She worked at SFAI on two separate occasions – as Director of Public Relations and Publications from
1984-85 and then as Humanities Department Manager in 1990-91. She currently teaches in the MFA Art Practice department at the School of Visual Arts and most recently served as Guest Curator in MoMA’s film department from 2016-2020. Her documentary, DESIGN IS ONE, has been screened and broadcast internationally, and her very first video, MIXED MESSAGES, created while living in San Francisco, is available on Kanopy and was featured in the 2020 International Film Festival Rotterdam. Her newest film, FOLLOWING THE THREAD, just recently completed, will have a “sneak preview” in an online event on February 9th.
Karen Finley graduated from SFAI with a BFA, MFA and PhD.