The performance artist Penny Arcade called us back after getting out of a show that ran late. So, even in the midst of her own show Longing Lasts Longer (Nov. 2, 3, 9, 10 at Joe’s Pub), she’s making time to support the work of other artists. The legendary downtown icon is, wonderfully, still underground and still outraged. The new show and her preoccupations are deeply intertwined, as her work is primarily autobiographical, and our conversation ranged from why New York is now “the Big Cupcake,” to what makes Lena Dunham so special, to the young “creative soul” in the Times paying $3,700 rent.
I loved the piece you did at the Enclave this summer about gentrification. Longing Lasts Longer is about this, and the loss of New York’s cultural identity.
Longing Lasts longer is a combination of personal longing and cultural longing. Gentrification is over. Hyper-gentrification is over. We’ve been colonized. It’s a big subject in the press, but as per usual, it’s after the fact. I’ve dealt with gentrification in my work since 1985.
Being an artist no longer means what it once meant. Being an artist was a particular way for a particular segment of the population to try to make a living. Now being an artist is an identity. People can say they’re an artist and they don’t actually do anything. People call themselves activists now. The truth is that an activist is what your community calls you after several decades of service. You can be a Buddhist without meditating, and you can be a communist without going to communist meetings, but you can’t be an activist without acting. We’re living in a period where’s there’s been a gentrification of ideas. The whole Hipster thing is the gentrification of an idea. All these people have the same tattoo because they all want to be different like everybody else.
The thing is that everything is in the cracks now. New York was a place of cultural resistance. It was also a place of Connoisseurship. For decades and decades… a couple of hudred years, New York was the most sophisticated place on earth. America has always resented the freedom that people in New York had compared to the rest of the country. Because New York was anonymous. You came here to reinvent yourself. You came here to get away from a small town where everybody knew your business. And New York has been suburbanized. This has been an ongoing process over the past 20 years. People used to come to New York because they wanted to be like New York, they wanted to reinvent themselves in the face of the magnetic energy and the freedom of the streets of New York. Now people come to New York and they want New York to be like where they’re from.
If you came to New York before, 1995, let’s say, there was an intact bohemia… one third artists with two thirds people who live an artistic life but do not make art, but for whom art is very important. That’s what made New York so dynamic. You had these amazing audiences that were connoisseurs f writing, painting, theater… And that became devalued.
The problem is that cultural resistance has been forced into the cracks.
At SXSW this year Chris Stein (of Blondie) said, “When we were starting out, if you were in a band you were totally on the fringe. You were completely on the outside of culture. Now the whole mass of culture is all on the inside.
It is a political reality of the spectacle, we’re living in a spectacle. It started in the ‘30s with Edward Bernays, the father of modern advertising, where they turned Americans into consumers. Bernays did this by using the ideas of his uncle Sigmund Freud, about the collective unconscious and how to manipulate people’s desire nature.
In the ’60s there was a rebellion against all that consumerism. People wanted real values, the youth of the country had a tremendous reaction against the conditioning that was going on. There was an explosion of counter-culturism. That didn’t come out of nowhere, that was all being planned in the ’40s by people like Judith Molina and Julian Beck of the Living Theatre.
In the late ’60s, Guy Debord—who was a situationalist—he looked again at the work of Edward Bernays, and saw that now what we called the media was starting to be joined by governments and by financial banking systems. And he called it the “integrated spectacle.” So we’re all living in this completely false reality that doesn’t really exist. The thing that’s so funny is that we’ve become the mouthpiece of this consumersism. Fran Lebowitz said, “How did Americans agree to go from being called citizens to being called consumers?”
The banking establishment, the government, the church, all of these big powerful groups think alike. They have the same agenda.
And you know that article in The New York Times real estate section – that actually portrayed a 22-year-old person who is spending $3,700 a month for his apartment as a struggling artist. I mean—you’d think the editors at The Times have to be more intelligent than this, but it’s all the projection that we can get away with saying that and almost nobody says, “That sounds ridiculous.
Exactly. And in Longing Lasts Longer I’m trying to point them out in an entertaining way. To talk about where we are now. Because people are very isolated. There’s this big mythology that the internet has brought us together, but the truth is that the internet has separated us more than ever.
People think that it’s just them, that they have financial problems, emotional problems… but I say, “I don’t trust people who aren’t depressed and confused.” How can you possibly not be depressed and confused in the world that we’re living? If you’re depressed and confused, you’re on the right track.
But we live in this Oprah-esque nightmare now. And the thing is that Americans—we’re hypnotized by the spectacle. Is anybody really interested in Kim Kardashian? Nobody I know is, but the way the media presents it you’d think this is a really important story in America.
One of the things that we’ve lost is the idealism of youth, because it’s always been youth who have created social change in this country, because they had the idealism. But youth is disappearing. At the same time as it’s being really highlighted, the truth is that “young” has never been older, and “old” has never been younger. I say that I squandered my youth and had a good time doing it. Now kids give their youth away. Your twenties are the last time you’ll really be able to experiment with your life, but you have all these people in their twenties who are looking to get a mortgage—really loading themselves down, and getting right on the assembly line of the culture. And not only that, but they come out of university with this enormous debt. And America’s greatness came from the fact that we had virtually free education, and now education is a privilege.
How did New York go from being the Big Apple—the apple, throughout antiquity, has been the symbol of knowledge, Adam and Eve ate from the apple and understood what sin was, New York was the Big Apple, i.e., sin city—How did New York go from people coming to New York because they wanted sex, they wanted glamor, they wanted experience, they wanted to expand their horizons, they wanted to reinvent themselves— How did it go from that to people who want to come to New York because they watch Sex In The City and they want a cupcake? New York’s gone from being the Big Apple to being The Big Cupcake. It’s an infantilized population.
Absolutely there’s a backlash. In 1990 the perceived cultural value was indie music, indie art, blah blah blah. Those people weren’t all seeker personalities who were really interested in art, it’s just that the cultural cachet was to be interested in art. That’s not existing now. So what you have is—which generally is always true—one to ten percent of the population is really really interested in evolution. Their own personal evolution. You’re always gonna find people from every class who are seekers—but it’s a much smaller group now.
People say to me, “Well, you’re preaching to the converted.” Really? Converted to what? I don’t see any mass movement of cultural resistance going on, because it can’t happen now. With real estate being the dominant force in this city, do you want to tell me that there’s urban planning in this city? You want to tell me that anybody’s aware of the history of architecture—when you look at these boxes that they’re putting up?
There is no ethical overview anymore. The events that happened with the banking crisis—the corruption at the highest level of commerce and government has trickled down into everyday behavior. There’s no cache in a company being known for its integrity or its honor. It’s affecting they way people treat other people. I think we’re 25 years from people biting each other on the street.
Every single great idea is immediately co-opped by the spectacle. Whoopi Goldberg does not need to do crowdsourcing. Because it has some kind of indie cachet, huge companies who don’t need that [pursue it.] Crowdsourcing is phenomenal for individuals. People who have no access to funding. But it’s been taken over by people who don’t need it.
What I’m trying to show you here is that the problem is whatever is really independent and alternative immediately gets copied.
This is the problem because everything is so controlled. There was an article in the Times about the TV show Girls, and how they were “really special.” And only really special people can make it now. Well, there’s nothing really special about Lena Dunham except that she comes from a privileged background. So she had the connections to do what she did. I know that there’ve gotta be another 1,000 people who are equally talented as her who can never get that opportunity.
Look, I use Facebook, but I also know that I can post something that’s very intelligent and get 5 or 10 likes on it, or I can post a picture and suddenly 250 people respond to it. The attention span of people is super dumbed down. People are over-stimulated.
Into this culture of resistance that New York has always personified has come this incredible middle class thinking. Which is all about consensus. It isn’t diversity. The individual is not empowered anymore in our culture. The overriding value is to fit in—not make waves. You can’t network if you’re too individual, and there is an incredible taste for mediocrity in the world.
We all feel superior to bad work. Makes us feel good. But the truth is, that doesn’t give you anything. When you see really good work, when you experience excellence, it makes you question yourself in very harsh ways. But you’re uplifted by the excellence of good work. But we’re living in a time where mediocrity is the new black.
Through my curiosity. I’m an incredibly curious person and I also don’t like to be told what to do. I don’t like to be told what to wear, what color is in. I’m driven by my curiosity, I talk to everybody I meet. And I get my vitality from human contact with real people.
Bradley Spinelli (@13_Spinelli) is the author of “Killing Williamsburg.”