Michael Langan talks to performance artist Matt Fennemore in a wide-ranging interview about the queer arts pioneer David Wojnarowicz, whose work has inspired his new piece, You Killed Me First!
This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the death of New York artist and writer David Wojnarowicz. He would have turned 58 on September 14. Film-maker, performer, photographer, iconoclast, AIDS campaigner and all-round agent provocateur, Wojnarowicz belonged to an age when to be gay, queer, or whatever you want to call it, was to be fighting a constant battle against prejudice, bigotry and, as a matter of life and death, striving for human rights. Not that this has changed – it’s just that our focus has shifted, even though many of the issues remain.
His work is visceral and on-the-edge, marginal in the best sense of the word, and often distinctly low-tech. His 1991 ‘memoir of disintegration,’ Close to the Knives, is an absolute classic of queer literature; brutally beautiful and poetically raw, it is unknown to many and deserves a much wider readership. Wojnarowicz died from AIDS-related complications and as recently as 2010 his work was still making waves. The Smithsonian Institute in Washington had planned to include an edited version of his film, A Fire in My Belly, in an exhibition of queer portraiture. The Catholic League objected to a short sequence in which ants crawl over a crucifix and various politicians waded in, threatening the Smithsonian’s federal funding. Afraid the entire exhibition would be jeopardized the curators caved in and withdrew the work, much to the consternation of many other artists and institutions. 30 years after Robert Mapplethorpe’s work was demonized by Jesse Helms and used as a weapon to bash public funding of the arts in the U.S., it’s obvious queer transgression is still unpalatable to many.
The London-based performance artist Matt Fennemore has been making work for many years. He and the writer Jonathan Kemp ran Planet Martha Theatre Company in the ’90s and it was Kemp who introduced him to Wojnarowicz’s work. Together they adapted and dramatized some of the writing from Close to the Knives to form part of a show called Got Aids Yet? Fennemore is currently collaborathing with various artists to devise You Killed Me First!, a multi-media performance work inspired by the life and work of David Wojnarowicz. Here, we talk about Wojnarowicz’s importance, influences and legacy.
What is it that particularly fascinates you about David Wojnarowicz?
I was originally interested in a person who had an extremely difficult childhood and was the proverbial outsider (he suffered physical and sexual abuse, neglect, alcoholism – you name it). He was pretty much self-taught, using himself to create his art. For me, as a person who is engaged in making multi-disciplinary theatre, I was excited that he used mixed media and forms; writing, painting, music and film. I felt like I connected with him and I’m now weaving my own personal stories around his writings.
I feel it’s important to bring him to the attention of a contemporary audience so he’s not forgotten. He was a contemporary of Keith Haring and Derek Jarman but his work has never been re-visited or re-assessed in any great depth. There was a film released in the mid-’90s called Postcards from America based on his life, but this was flawed. The producers would only fund the film if any reference to AIDS was omitted, which defeats the object. In 2008 I saw a show at the PPOW gallery in New York that included some original works of his as well as work inspired by him, and as a result I wanted to embark on my own project and put him back on the map.
The censorship of A Fire in My Belly became a cause célèbre. How do you assess it now, as an artwork?
The first thing to say is that A Fire in My Belly is an unfinished work. Wojnarowicz only showed it to a few friends and used it to explore ideas that came to fruition later, themes that are still pertinent today; violence, poverty, intolerance and a world completely out of control. The eleven seconds that caused the furore were taken out of context by the Catholic League and called ‘hate speech by them’. Subsequently. MOMA have bought the film to go with the other 12 pieces of his work they own.
Reflecting on it now it’s clear that the film is not the best of his oeuvre. It didn’t create a flow or establish a thread or have layers of meaning when a collage of images until he inserted studio shots, adding and titling sections based on the elements. It was never about religion or AIDS but about the loss of spirituality, and it explores structures of power and control. The ants on the crucifix represent humanity rushing along heedlessly, indifferent to the structures that surround it.
What I find personally inspiring about Wojnarowicz’s work is how blisteringly political he can be – especially about the function of art in society. What’s your view on that?
For me all art is political – art must change us and move us in some way, otherwise there’s no point. I certainly don’t want to witness a live performance without being made to think, or changed in some way. I believe, like Wojnarowicz, in using one’s self-expression and experience to create art, something that takes us from the mundane to a world of possibilities. One of his goals was to record an “alternative history” of lives made invisible in what he perceived as a mass mediated “Other World”. Homophobia and Transphobia remain among the last permissible bigotries, as seen by increased violence directed towards us. He wanted the authorities to stop editing us out and trying to make us invisible. He had empathy for the human condition and anger at human actions and a pre-occupation with social justice. He saw art as a way to speak his truth, a way to challenge what many accept as given.
Watching and reading Wojnarowicz’s work today really shines a light on how apolitical the gay community has become generally – how ‘lifestyle’ and an emphasis on materialism dominates, even in the rights debate. How do you think he would feel about all this?
I think he would be extremely angry, especially about the political climate in the U.S., which is still engaged in a fierce culture war, and which has not changed significantly since his death. Also, the homogeneity in gay culture is at best shameful, at worst criminal. I was in New York recently, for the first time in four years, and it has been gentrified to within an inch of its life. The Lower East side is barely recognizable with its restaurants and bars and alfresco dining, which is exactly what has been happening with globalization.
In a climate where institutionalized political gay-bashing, homophobic bullying, gay marriage wars and gay teen suicides are all at the forefront of the news, both in the UK and the USA, there has never been a more important time to look at the genuine civil rights of the gay community and to question the role of society in making decisions about how gay people are allowed to live their lives. Wojnarowicz made art about the right of humans to be different from each other and about what it feels like to be unlike the dominant hetero-norm.
In the UK, fortunately, there is a sizeable minority of people carrying on the tradition of questioning these structures and limitations; people such as David Hoyle, who has a strong following, Penny Arcade, and more recently Alp Haydar, all make politicized, subversive and entertaining work. There are people who are humanist and wish to celebrate difference, which manifests itself in clubs like Duckie and Bar Wotever. There was also a chink of light in the floatless Gay Pride event in London this year that focused less on sponsored beer tents and more on raising awareness of human rights issues in other countries.
If he were alive today I think he would be saddened that there is still no cure for AIDS, and that most, if not all STIs, are becoming drug resistant. I don’t deal directly in my piece with his diagnosis but it is alluded to throughout, and I do look at HIV from a modern perspective of unsafe practices and barebacking, and the rising number of new infections.
I think of Wojnarowicz as being the heir to Rimbaud, Genet and Burroughs – writers on the very edge of the margins, who push boundaries and change our ideas of what the margins are. I love how he finds poetry in the underbelly. Would you place him and his work in this queer tradition?
Wojnarowicz is part of a queer tradition if you mean self-destructing queers who are questioning structures through political, subversive and erotic means, using their self-expression to create art and to subvert the moral political and economic systems of modern society, wallowing in self-abnegation like Genet. Like him, Wojnarowicz never had a settled home. He ran away from sexual, physical and emotional violence and was essentially homeless for several years in his late teens, developing a lifelong fascination with social outcasts, with whom he identified. Then he discovered the work of Genet and Rimbaud. About their influence, and about casual gay sex, he wrote: “It’s this lawlessness and anonymity simultaneously that I desire, living among thugs, but men who live under no degree of law or demand, just continual motion and robbery and light roguishness and motion.”
Like Burroughs, Wojnarowicz balances violence with a transgressive, life-affirming vitality. Burroughs’ idea that “language is a virus” was a great influence on him. Burroughs claimed that language is infectious and exerts limitations and controls over people’s minds by its very existence and utility. This deals with mass mind manipulation by governments and corporations whereby people are brutalized into fitting into the structures of a hetero-normative and patriarchal society. Burroughs believed that the ability to think and create was limited by the conventions of grammar and language usage, and in Close to the Knives Wojnarowicz uses grammar and punctuation to effectively go against the grain.
There’s an incredible energy and spontaneity to the writing in Close to the Knives. Is that something you can capture in your devised work?
That energy will be in the staging and the performer’s craft in voice and movement. It’s written as stream of consciousness with little or no punctuation and requires more breath control and clarity of diction than Shakespeare! It’s an actor’s job to use those techniques to deliver it fresh every time. Visuals and soundscapes will support and underpin the text and further assault the senses. The witnessing by a live audience also gives it another dimension.
So what form is the work taking?
We wanted to stay as true as possible to Wojnarowicz’s DIY ethic and create an homage to that explosive time in the arts that existed in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s before gentrification. We are using Super 8 projections in the show, and old synthesizers that give the show a raw energy and vitality.
I approached Martin Watkins, who works closely with Marc Almond, and recently re-arranged ‘Torment and Torreros’ for the Marc and the Mambas show at Meltdown and asked him to write some original music. I am also working with Ceven Knowles, a filmmaker and photographer based in Berlin who is working with Billie Ray Martin, and the artist Matthew Stradling. We are channeling some of Wojnarowicz’s iconic imagery, and adding our take on the work.
And what’s the collaborative creative process like?
We basically lock ourselves away to spend time exploring, making visual and aural collages and finding at which point we connect and start making work. For me this is paramount, as I want my collaborators to own the work as well as me. After this intense experimental we start pulling focus on certain aspects of his life and work, where the meat of the story is, and begin shaping the work into a narrative or anti- narrative or dramatic arc, if that’s what the work needs to tell the story.
Through online production meetings we begin to reflect and reshape the work. When I first started I wasn’t going to include much about his childhood, but as I’ve been working on it that has been quite an important part of the process, and whilst it is not a biopic in any shape or form, it has now emerged as an integral part of the narrative.
Normally when I approach work it is more about what I don’t want to do. I sometimes get tired of work that is experimental but lacks heart and with no regard to audience reception. By the same token I can love the well-made play and appreciate a performer’s craft and technical ability. In that sense, I don’t think entertainment is a dirty word.
Photographs of Matt Fennemore by Marco Cerrone