"What does gentrification mean? It means the erasure of history, it means cultural amnesia, it means that younger people who come along will not be able to see the places where things happened – or places where things are still happening – that are alternative to the totalitarian, capitalistic drool that's going on out there. It's hard enough to be a young person trying to find your way in the world and in culture, without having any landmarks – because if everything is going to be a Starbucks, if everything is going to be a high street brand like Topshop, then, where is the alternative?"
I'm on the phone to Penny Arcade, real name Susana Ventura – a relic of New York's avant–garde performance scene. An actress, playwright and comedienne, Penny's work is driven by the need to document and catalogue her own unusual existence, the landscape of underground New York and the lives of the queer artistic community of which she was and is a part. At 65, she's been performing for five decades, and has worked with the likes of Andy Warhol, Jack Smith and Quentin Crisp. She's currently touring a show called Longing Lasts Longer at Edinburgh Fringe.
Penny is arrogant and unapologetic – something she's built a career out of. She claims that she never knew she wanted to be a performer, because – coming from a working class, Italian-American family – there "just wasn't a format for that". Still, it was her witty one-liners and social commentary that got her noticed when she was a teenager on the streets of Downtown New York – "In the 60s lots of life took place on the street, people were milling around. People actually talked to one another."
The story goes that a guy named Jamie Andrews would follow her around and ask her, "Who writes your material?" She tells me about it: "I saw him one rainy night when I was quite homeless, I was just sort of crashing around at places, and he ran into me and said, 'You don't look that good, I think you need to come and live at my house.'" She coughs down the phone. "He was a 27-year-old gay man and he took me in! Show me the 27-year-old gay guy who's taking a 16-year-old girl off the street now – not gonna happen, right?"
Andrews introduced her to John Vacarro, who ran The Play-House of the Ridiculous. Penny describes it as "the glitter, glam, rock and roll political theatre of 60s New York that created the downtown punk movement". It was a genre of itself, made up of parody takes on pop culture performed by drag queens and brash outsiders. Culturally, it bridged the gap between Warhol's Factory and what would later be CBGB. This was where Warhol first saw her perform and, as she puts it, "decided to make her a superstar".
Warhol asked her to be in his film, Women in Revolt, and she obliged, but later turned down a role in one of his plays, PORK. When asked why, she said she found Women in Revolt kind of boring. "No one will ever say it but it really wasn't that interesting. What it was really about was… Andy Warhol had a tremendous fascination for the very wealthy. You can say a lot of things about very wealthy people but that they're interesting is not one of them." Instead, she went to Europe with The Theatre of the Ridiculous.
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Penny's solo performances kicked off in the 80s with While You Were Out, but it was Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! of the early 90s that came to be her most famous one-woman show. The performance – which I saw a couple of years ago in London – features autobiographical monologues soundtracked to music, erotic strip teases from the backing dancers and Penny undressing down to nothing on stage. The whole thing is a "fuck you" to censorship in the arts, and brings in Penny's personal stories of the AIDS crisis that started in the late 1970s and is ongoing today.
Penny toured Bitch!… again in 2012, which is when I saw it. I wonder it was received differently 20 years after it was written and first showed, given that it was largely penned as a response to Senator Jesse Helms' banning of government arts grants for work deemed too obscene. "No," she barks. "There's as much censorship going on now as there was then. The thing is, when you're 20 years ahead of the world, which I am – anything that I talked about 20 years ago, is going to be relevant now." I can't help but laugh nervously – a little bit scared of Penny and a little bit in awe of her. She carries on, undeterred:
"We're living now in a time when people are very afraid to say their opinion, a time of great consensus, of crowd-think; you can't talk about anything without people getting upset with you. The censorship is actually in the culture now. It's not coming just from the government, or from the Church, or from some group of maniac right-wing Tories, it's in the drinking water! It's college students themselves who are calling for trigger warnings for anything that contains violence, or racism, or rape, or colonialism. So please don't tell me that censorship is over, there's more censorship now than there was 20 years ago."
The Jewish, Lesbian author Sarah Schulman writes in her book The Gentrification of the Mind about how ideas can become gentrified, about how people psychologically assimilate to the mainstream, about how an alternative way of thinking was erased when a whole generation of artists died of AIDS in the 1980s. She quotes Penny's 1990 play Invitation to the Beginning of the End of the World, in which the mother of Rita Redd, a fictional drag queen, cries out on the streets of New York to all the yuppies who don't know who her son was, even though they occupied the same spaces. They're ignorant.
This tableaux is at the crux of what Penny Arcade does. In the 1980s, when the gay experimental filmmaker and artist Jack Smith was dying of AIDS-related illness, he asked Penny to burn all of his belongings. "He was very angry with the world and he wanted me to destroy all of his work," she remembers. But Penny convinced him otherwise, before salvaging his films from his apartment. She got what she describes as "a lot of shit for it for the first ten years". Does she regret it? "No!" she barks again."Now you can see all those people in their young teens, early twenties and thirties that adore Jack Smith. Without me that wouldn't have happened."
Another example of Penny's commitment to preserving alternative culture is her oral history project, Lower East Side Biography Project: Stemming the Tide of Cultural Amnesia, which she runs with long-time collaborator Steve Zehentner. "I interview highly self-individuated people, and then we edit me out of it," she explains with pride. "The public get a one-on-one interaction with an amazing person. And like Jack Smith once said: 'To be in the presence of a genius even for an hour is enough.'"
Penny's own Lower East Side Biography interview
Penny believes we're living in an era where different age groups just don't communicate with one another. "I do this project because, for the 60s and 70s, and until the mid-80s, you could meet amazing people every week. Now you don't because you live in a mono-generational era. You don't have that inter-generational experience which makes life exciting. Life is exciting when all ages are participating. Who would ever believe that everybody who's doing one particular thing is the same age – that sounds stupid, doesn't it? "
As part of the project Penny has interviewed artists like the French photographer Michael Auder – Cindy Sherman's husband; Jayne County – one of the first transgender rock stars; and Bina Sharif – an incredible Pakistani playwright and artist. Penny posts the films on Facebook – "I'm not some kind of luddite!" – so that young people have access to the people that she interviews. If gentrification is the erasure of history, and ignorance is gentrification, Penny is doing everything in her power to stave it off.
"You need to be able to see the alternative in order to live the alternative," she tells me. "For me as a young person, I locked into the alternative. But we don't come with software when we're young, we don't know what we're looking for, we have to bump into it. And what's being done now in all of the cities – all over the world – is removing the alternative, removing the bohemian, taking the rock and roll, the funk, the poetry right out of it. So, that's why I do the work that I do, for the young people that are coming up: I want to offer an alternative."
Check out the Lower East Side Biographies Project on Facebook here.