“To me, it's just a privilege to even still be walking, because I saw everyone die of AIDS in the ‘80s.”
Kembra Pfahler is a downtown legend: a punk rocker, screen goddess, curator, and performance artist who moved from Los Angeles to the East Village in the early 1980s. Over the course of her time in New York, she’s modeled for Calvin Klein, sings lead in the death punk metal band The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black, and founded a performance art movement known as “Availabilism,” the tenet of which is to use whatever’s around at any given time to create performance—as an expression of some ineffable part of oneself. In Kembra’s case, she’s strapped bowling balls found on the street to her feet, cracked eggs from an otherwise empty fridge on her vulva, and used Grindr to post close-up pictures of her face in blue body paint and a bouffant black wig—which is probably how you recognize her, horny gay men of the East Village. In her most famous performance, which she did for Richard Kern’s Sewing Circle in 1992, she had her vagina sewn shut by an Asian woman—performance artist Lisa Resurreccion—while wearing nothing but a “Young Republicans” t-shirt. When asked why she did it, she told DisinfoTV: “I just told my mother I was very upset.” There’s a deep rage in Kembra’s work at the way the female body is treated by society.
Meeting at her apartment—the interior of which is painted entirely in red—she told me to arrive on time for our interview because she had a packed schedule, so I arrived twenty minutes early. As I was parking my bike outside of her apartment building, I noticed a slight, high cheek-boned woman in sweatpants taking out her keys to enter. I paused. Missing were the characteristic drawn-in eyebrows Kembra sports in public, but the woman had the unmistakable aura of someone very special. We talked for nearly two hours.
Kembra Pfahler I've been out all day, so I have to change the cat litter. You could do a whole Bomb issue on Changing Cat Litter in Your Art Studio 101.
Brienne Walsh (laughter) That’s probably something they’ve never done before. [Editor’s note: good idea!]
KP Do you have any animals?
BW Yeah, I have a cat, Butters, and she’s morbidly obese.
BW Yeah, we tried to make her skinny, but she loves to eat. It’s like her true joy in life.
KP That’s okay. Would you like some coffee? We can make the traditional coffee of the Lower East Side.
BW Would you say that you’re from the Lower East Side now, not Los Angeles?
KP When you’re from Los Angeles, you are never not from Los Angeles. It’s in my DNA, it’s something that’s indescribable. I think I know more about ocean tides, night tides, and California-style music than I do anything else.
BW What did you look like when you were a teenager in Santa Monica?
KP I had black hair, but before that I had blonde hair and awesome eyebrows. And to this day, my mom, Judy Ball, will still say—like to the entire room—in her grand, beautiful mom way, “My daughter used to have the most beautiful eyebrows, ladies and gentlemen. Look here at this person, her eyebrows were like caterpillars, her hair was as blonde as the….” You know, no matter how old I’ll be, I’ll always say, “Mom, can you please stop talking about the eyebrows.” I chose to be out of the closet with my performance work since I was very young, and I never hid what I did from my mother. Her courage to endure extreme, transgressive imagery before it was popular is admirable. She came to all my shows in the ‘80s, in this neighborhood.
BW Why did you shave your eyebrows? Did you just like it better?
KP It gave me a larger palate to work with, and I like extreme transformation. That, and I met and married Samoa Muriki [her ex-husband] when I was a teenager. I was so young. He was buying food at Key Food on Avenue A, and I saw him through the window. He was wearing a Mickey Mouse t-shirt and it was love at first sight. He’s from Hiroshima, Japan, and it was from him that I learned a lot about Japanese Noe Theater and extreme street theater, and Butoh. One of Butoh’s characteristics is black teeth and smudged eyebrows. At the time, I just felt that I wanted to. I came to New York in 1979, when people like Lydia Lunch ruled these streets, and The Plasmatics.
BW Why did you come to New York?
KP Why does anyone come to New York? I don't know, the same reason you did. Why did you come?
BW It was easy. I got a job here.
KP It was hard for me.
BW How old were you when you got here?
BW And did you come here for school?
KP I came to go to the School of Visual Arts. I studied under Mary Heilmann and Lorraine O’Grady. They were the most inspirational. Recently, I featured them in a show I was a part of called “Future Feminism,” at the Hole. We were able to invite Lorraine to do a night of performance. That was last year—last September—and I’m still recovering from that. It took me a year to physically and mentally recover from that show.
BW Was it a lot of work?
KP It was like stepping onto a battlefield. I lost half my friends for doing work about feminism, and using a kind of language that came to us out of consensus discussions during retreats that Antony [of Antony and the Johnsons], Coco Rosie, Johanna Constantine, and I had. We talked in a circle and had discussions that lasted weeks and days and hours. And we decided that through these discussions, we wanted to have an art exhibit showing stones with thirteen tenets on them, and the thirteenth tenet was “The Future is Female.” That caused the most controversy because it was gender specific. It was a decision we made because the scales had been so tilted towards just the male gender. But a lot of our friends are so advanced that they don’t want to speak about gender at all, they want to go to the other category, to stage 3, stage 4, stage 5, stage 6, stage 7. Recently, in the medical profession, the little boxes you could check for gender—there used to be four categories—will next year have ten: male, female, trans, LGBT, bisexual, asexual… so there’s going to be a lot of development in other sexualities. To me it goes back as far as Rilke’s Letters to A Young Poet, when he says in the first letter that sexuality is personal, and everyone’s entitled to their own expression of love and sexuality, whatever that may be, and you can’t compare or generalize. I’m not an academic feminist. I’ve been in a death rock band. I wasn’t in the art world from 1989-2000, I was on tour across the country doing Karen Black shows where no one wanted them.
KP I chose to go across the US rather than Europe because I was appalled by this cliché that “they will like you more in Europe, they like artists more in Europe,” so we said, “Let’s go to Minnesota, let’s go to Oregon, let’s go to where we aren’t going to be teaching to the already-converted.” And we did cross-country Winnebago tours with The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black for over a decade. And before that I made films from ’79 to about ’89—I made films and did performance in this neighborhood, and grew up with Jonas Mekas, Millennium, Mike Kuchar. Jack Smith lived up the street, and we had The Living Theater on 4th Street. It’s like different decades have been different aspects of my life, as I’ve gotten to have different kinds of educations. To me, it’s just a privilege to even still be walking, because I saw everyone die of AIDS in the ’80s, as you did, even as a little girl.
BW Yeah, I remember a little bit, but not so much. I actually have a cousin who survived, and he’s still alive, which is interesting. I just went to his wedding. I’ve never gotten the story from him, what happened, how he survived. But I talked to him while I was down there; he lives in Arizona now.
KP Good news! People don’t like to talk about it.
BW I like to talk about it.
KP It’s not dinner conversation.
BW It must’ve been traumatic in the East Village, because I assume so many people were sick here.
KP It was a holocaust. So when people are having art problems now, and they wake up in the morning and they’re worried that they don’t have a gallery to support them, or no one recognizes them, I think to myself, we are not living through an AIDS crisis right now, even though we’re still living with AIDS. This isn’t Auschwitz. It’s a privilege and a luxury to even have the freedom to worry about being in a gallery.
BW Do you feel like artists in New York have less to say than when you first moved here? I was in South Africa last week, and the gallery director was from the Netherlands. He said, “You know what a twenty-year-old artist in Amsterdam has to say? That everything is so easy for them. But a South African artist has so much to say.” I don’t know if you feel like maybe New York artists have less to talk about—maybe not people who’ve been here a long time, but younger ones who are just moving here.
KP Well that would be ageist, to presume something lacking in years would have less to say. And ageism is the same as sexism and racism, and we don’t know who’s going to save the world. It could be a sixteen-year-old computer-game player. Until laws are created to protect women from harm and until misogyny is eradicated, we will have something to say, every day.
BW That’s interesting.
KP It’s not interesting, it’s a shame. Lorraine O’Grady came to “Future Feminism” and said, “Hey everybody, there‘s enough room for all kinds of feminists”—you can have your Bull Dagger Feminists, your Academic Criticism Feminists, your Vagina Power Feminists, your Death Metal Feminists, your Feminine Feminists, your Men Feminists, your Grandma Feminists. There’s room for all Feminists. Feminisms. A lot of people didn’t want to work with “Future Feminism” because they thought the name itself was specifically addressing feminism, like we were trying to mess with the future of feminism. But we were just talking about the future of the world being thought of through a feminist lens.
BW Why do you think the name “Future Feminism” offended so may people? I mean, for me obviously, that doesn’t offend me in any way or wouldn’t make me angry, but I’m not personally involved.
KP It’s not fascism, we weren’t inflicting our opinions on others. We were saying we need to create a circle because we love it here, and the other systems don’t seem to be working, meaning why is it 85 degrees during Christmas, and 104 degrees in Stromboli, Italy, for the first time in history? Let’s figure out a way to think how indigenous people think, generationally, like six or seven generations ahead. Is what we’re doing now going to harm or help the proliferation of our peoples in seven or eight generations? And now because of imminent domain in this neighborhood, money comes first, and commerce comes before we think about what harm may come. Just think about this block, 2nd St. We’re living on a landfill, which is one of the reasons the buildings are so low. During Sandy, we got flooded all the way up to Avenue C, like literally cars underwater. The Lower East Side isn’t high because it can’t endure the weight. And legally, those laws were implemented to protect this part of the terrain of the city, correct me if I’m wrong. But now they’re building high and hard instead of slow and low.
Anyway, it’s a new day. Like Claudia Cardinale in that movie Once Upon a Time in the West, you know she moves to the West and beats up everyone and gets raped, then what does she do?
BW I love her, she’s the most beautiful! (laughter) I don’t know, what does she do?
KP She takes a bath, she changes her clothes, and she gets out and goes fighting.
BW That’s a good strategy, I like that. (laughter)
KP She goes fighting and she continues to fight. And that is the difference between— It’s almost nine.
BW Oh yeah, do you have to leave?
KP No, I don’t have to leave, but I don’t want to get too off-track. But let me just end by saying that having a tenants group in the Lower East Side has been the happiest, best accomplishment in my life—or one of them. We’ve been in a tenants group for over twenty-five years. I fought my whole life to be in the Lower East Side. And I’m proud of my friends for just fighting so hard and not giving up. It’s been a great adventure and I’m happy about that. I’m sorry I’m talking so much.
BW No! You’re supposed to. You can ask me questions now.
KP Oh, let’s get some candy. I have frozen M&Ms!
BW I guess one thing I’m interested in, as a writer, is how you survive financially, just because you make so little money, and it seems like one makes less and less money doing creative things. And I was wondering how much that has ever been a concern of yours, or if you’ve always been able to support yourself with your art.
KP Here’s what do you when you need money: go get a job.
BW Yeah, that’s true. What kinds of jobs have you had?
KP Lots of jobs. I mean Georges Bataille was a librarian. I don’t believe in old art systems where you’re not an artist if you also have to work. You know, Bukowski worked in a post office.
BW I love Bukowski.
KP Me too. As women, as artists, you just do what is estimable. You want some M&Ms?
BW Yeah, I love sugar.
KP As an artist in New York City, it’s so tenuous the way we live. When I first moved here all the punk rockers worked at the Strand bookstore. It was hard, but I got a lot of books and read all the time.
BW What do you like about teaching?
KP I’m not really teaching. I’m just sort of sharing my Availabilism, making the best use of what’s available.
BW What does that entail? Where do you look for Availability?
KP You don’t look for Availabilism, it finds you. Do you know French at all?
BW Not really.
KP I know one word, which is poubelle. It means “to find,” which came from Edgar Oliver originally. When an artist is paying attention, they can find discarded or found stuff to use and those things find them. And I remember when I first moved here I found bowling balls in the street, and I later ended up tying them to my feet and using them in my performance.
BW Oh, you found them on the street? That’s funny.
KP One time someone asked me about the first performance I ever did, which was when I came home and looked around and there was nothing in the house except an egg. There wasn’t anything to use, I didn’t have a guitar, I had an egg. (laughter) So I stood on my head and cracked an egg over it. (laughter) I started doing live performance when I was a teenager in the ‘80s, and for ten years I did super-8 films and performance work. I liked doing things in nightclubs, like the Pyramid and Danceteria and Palladium, and all those cool places of the Lower East Side… ABC No Rio as well. But I didn’t love the art world. I decided in 1989 to start a classic rock band. Not an art band sound-wise, but a classic rock band, so I could slide the imagery into the consciousness of the viewer a little easier. This was The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black, which I founded with Samoa, who’s also a painter.
The band allowed me to squeeze in all the strange images I’d been working on for all these years, what I now call my “manual of action," my own vocabulary of images: the sewn vagina; the egg piece; all of the costumes, like Abra Kedavour; the flowing anal bead shirt; the shark piece; the upside down Crucifix piece, where I hang upside down on the cross; the wall of vagina; the bowling ball piece. For the most part, the performances happened during the guitar solo, and were over before you knew what happened. I didn’t participate in the art world again until American Fine Arts asked me to work with them. And after Colin de Land passed away sadly, then with Jeffrey Deitch.
BW Do you still play with the band?
KP Actually, the band is still very busy. I now have a dream [team]: Samoa on guitar, Michael Wildwood on drums, and Gyda Gash on bass. We have traveled to many places together, and Michael and I have done some really extreme performances together, like Michael playing drums while I did live butt printing, for example.
KP Anyhow… I’m having a show on November 20th in Los Angeles for all the Bomb readers who are looking at this. It’s at a special little space on the backside of Melrose, [called] the Lisa Bowman Gallery. Anyways, can I listen to you some more? I feel like I’m so blabbery.
BW No, you’re so amazing!
KP I’m not amazing. When you do artwork for a long time, sometimes you have moments where people think you’re okay, and you’re liked. And then other times people don’t give a shit if you’re breathing. It ebbs and flows like the tides. I’m just psyched that people are interested in Performance Art 101, the class I’m teaching at Pioneer Works. I’m psyched that people are still interested in looking up and finding out about tenants’ rights. I’m psyched that people are coming back to classic rock, bass, drums, live music. This battle is not over, it’s just starting. And I’m not saying that in a mystical way, I’m saying that in the most practical way.
BW What battle do you mean?
KP The battle of trying to save the world, one show, one performance, one movie, one conversation at a time. It’s beautiful here and we are lucky to be here.
BW In New York, you mean?
KP In the world. You’re married, you must get to go places.
BW I was just in South Africa. I went on safari, it was so fun.
KP What were you doing in South Africa?
BW I was on a press trip. I wrote an article on the art scene in Cape Town for Art in America.
KP Cape Town with the white people or the black people?
BW Both. It was interesting talking about race there because they were so open about it, and acknowledged that they had a very dark history. It’s a country in the beginning stages of coming to terms with what it’s done, and trying to change.
KP It’s an atrocity for someone to think that racism has gotten better. It has not gotten better. You haven’t come out of the house if you think racism has changed at all. Shame on you, it’s gotten worse. In New York it’s gotten worse.
BW It’s gotten way worse in New York. We live in totally segregated communities.
KP Look at prisons, and how many black people are in there, how many Chinese people, how many Korean, Hispanic people. For white people to talk about white privilege, that’s a discussion they don’t like to have. That’s something we talked about in “Future Feminism,” because we were all from a specific scene, and we were like, “Gosh, we’re all used to wearing body paint and extreme transformation,” so we wanted to include in the performances—the thirteen nights—all different ages and races. We wanted to mix it up. It’s something that should always be thought of constantly, because if you aren’t thinking about it, you’re probably racist.
BW I think people think you don’t have to think about it consciously, but that ends up allowing people to ignore difference.
KP Kind of like denial.
BW In South Africa there was a black female artist who I went to see. She had cast herself in a bronze cast as Ophelia. And I asked if she was trying, as a black woman, to speak about the exclusion of black women from traditional narratives. And the gallery director told me she doesn’t want to deal with race, her race or her being a woman, and that she wants to transcend that. But I thought, you know, you can’t really transcend it in some ways.
KP People should be allowed to have their thinking patterns. Inflicting your own behavioral systems on someone is fascism, but I do, and am inspired by, people willing to sacrifice their art careers, or their commerce, to speak out about the truth. So I think a lot of times people don’t take sides, and travel in the middle road because they think it will affect how people perceive them and their careers, and their financials will be damaged. Some people are so destitute they don’t want to jeopardize that…
BW They’re so afraid of poverty.
KP Which is totally understandable. But if we don’t speak out truthfully, then we aren’t going to have an art show and cast ourselves as Ophelia, because our freedoms will be gone and we will be in jail, and you won’t have an art world to be glamorous in. So I think that’s what the thinking is. It’s just askew.
Kembra Pfahler’s sold-out class Performance Art 101 runs from October 14-November 18, 2015 at Pioneer Works. She will also be performing November 20th at Lisa Bowman Gallery, Los Angeles. Check her Instagram @kembrapfahler_ for details.
Brienne Walsh is a writer, critic, and photographer who has contributed to The New York Times, The Village Voice, Art in America, ArtReview, Interview, Paper, Architectural Digest, Departures, PDN, and Forbes, among other publications. She is also the author of the blog "A Brie Grows In Brooklyn." She just finished So This Is Love, a collection of essays about getting married.