Penny Arcade, aka Susana Ventura, is an international cultural icon, revered as a performer, poet, writer, and actress who speaks truth to power.Innovative, charismatic and magnetic, she has brought experimental theatre to mainstream audiences and influenced generations of artistsaround the world. She occupies a rare position in the American avant-garde, though her long association with the architects of the counter culturefromAndy WarholtoJohn Vaccaro,Jack Smith,Judith Malina, Jonas Mekas, Charles Henri Ford,H.M. Koutoukas,Charles Ludlam and Tom O’Horgan. At 18, she debuted in John Vaccaro's explosive Playhouse of the Ridiculous, New York's legendary glitter/glam, rock'n'roll, seminal queer political theatre. At 19 she was a superstar for Andy Warhol's Factory featured in the Warhol/Morrissey comedy Women in Revolt. An independent artist for almost 50 years, she preserves the ethos of 1960's experimental theatre. She is the author of over ten full-length performance plays and hundreds of solo performance art pieces on racism and homophobia, feminism, the death of bohemia, the commodification of rebellion, the erasure of history, the loss of empathy and cultural amnesia. Boy Scout talked to Arcade about libraries, lineage and limelight.
Boy Scout: If you arrived in New York City in 2019 filled with great ambition, how might you ascend to your artistic summit?
Penny Arcade: Well, let's say this question is really about reaching one's artistic summit and not about reaching some kind of social and financial success, because the answer to reaching ones artistic summit has not changed in one thousand years and it will never change. Not in 2019, not in 2050. The way to reach ones artistic summit is the same now as it was in 1419. Or in 1969. Or now. And that is to have the courage to follow your inner voice against whatever is passing as the trends of the day because people do not create trends, they follow trends. As soon as something is a identified as a ‘trend’ it has already been ‘deactivaitated” of whatever made it stand out in the first place.
Boy Scout: In a time of faltering news platforms, transient facts and generations who opt for digital currency over great literature, how will the stories of those that came before us survive?
Penny Arcade: I think it is quite possible between the erasure of history, the dumbing down of the general public on a social level. Remember, up until the 1970’s we had public intellectuals and people aspired to be smart, sophisticated, to have conniseurship and these are no longer prevailing goals. The fragmentation (lack of attention span) that cuts down on the free passage of ideas will itself insure that those stories will not be told. I believe we have already entered what could be a 30 year, or 50, or 100 year period of darkness, where only after a long time has passed will people go digging into the past to retrieve those stories from histories midden, the way we search for knowledge of the Etriscans or Babylonians.
Boy Scout: With the eradication of many of New York City’s cultural landmarks through hyper-gentrification, an act that seems to be eroding the soul of many cultural capitals, will our artistic heritages henceforth be confined to yellowing newsprint and the libraries of the past?
Penny Arcade: It would be heartening, at this point, if I could believe that artistic heritage and history will be preserved as it was in the past couple of hundred years in newsprint and libraries. But from what I have seen recently in library’s, the state of preserving newsprint is not a priority at all. Just recently, in researching my home town’s newspaper, one could find 1850 to 1950. But after 1950, the copies were very sporadic. Even the internet as a holding place, which was quite the fantasy till we recently came to understand that the internet has pretty much failed its initial promise, is not a definite when it comes to preserving the past.
Boy Scout: As a seminal figure in downtown performance, where do you find your motivating heartbeat? Is there still a living, breathing downtown culture?
Penny Arcade: I presume you are questioning what has always made me tick and that is my curiosity and my investigation into my own sentient being. This has not changed since I was a small child, investigating myself and life around me. Curiosity is my hallmark character feature. As for ‘downtown’ culture or underground culture … yes, of course it exists because it is a lineage. This is how lineage works. Someone is interested in artistic lineage, and in the history of art or in the history of all things, and they become a student of this history. Usually, at the same time, this person becomes a devotee of an art form or some métier (trade, profession, occupation) and as their knowledge grows, their ability also grows. At first, they are a student, then a journeyman, then finally a master. They take their place in this history that they love. Where lineage is broken today is where people no longer want to make that journey, which is a lifelong journey, and which actually gives MEANING to one's life. To be part of something that is bigger than you are. To find a place in something. To be able to bring your individuality and originality to a history. This is why people worked and were involved despite poverty, or near poverty, in the arts. That is how powerful MEANING is in our lives. Meaning is the TRUE RICHNESS, far beyond money, or fame, and people who have money and fame often are without meaning in their lives. They borrow meaning through having children, through couture, through material objects, etc, but lack inner meaning which is the greatest and most abject poverty.
So, to your question… yes, there is still a living breathing downtown culture, but with so many younger people needing instant gratification they are not part of that lineage. And whereas up till 2000, that underground was super rich, we have lost many, many people. They who were younger have, like me, become older, and they who were older ... well, many have died. Many are on the point of dying. But there are still a lot of people left who are at various stages and who hold the history because you see that history is a living history, passed down always by word of mouth.
Boy Scout: The late Harry Dean Stanton believed “Everything is predestined. Nothing is important. Life is an illusion. It’s all a movie. Nobody’s in charge” which is lovingly referred to as his Appreciation of Nothing. Do you have a guiding life philosophy that keeps you on the path?
Recently, I was quoted in the Miami Herald as saying “I am my own media” (this in response to how many bells and whistles are in my show Longing Lasts Longer.
So, I will answer your question by saying "I am my own philosophy," which is to say, I carry my philosophy in my body. I say “My life is my path” in the old bad days of the EV/LES. The famous junkies of what was known as the A Set (which operated in the meanest streets and shooting galleries all the way to Andy Warhol’s Factory) used to say: They were writing the book” which meant their very lives every day were creating history. And I suppose if I ascribe to anything it is to that, and to “Wanting to see how the movie Ends.”
Boy Scout: Was there a moment in your artistic life where you took an out-of-character risk and it transformed you?
Penny Arcade: Well, I think in the course of my life I have taken several out of character risks which is why I have had a presence, impact and contribution in each of the decades between the 1960’s and now. In my rather quiet way, unsupported and un-promoted (which also are not simple feats). I have stayed contemporary and relevant, which are also not simple accomplishments, and the risk that was out of character was to always follow my intuition and to strike out further than I felt comfortable doing. This was out of character because my natural character is basically timid, anxious for security and approval, and I have repeatedly in my life unmoored myself from my own need for emotional comfort.
Boy Scout: The last couple of years has seen a country divided. Has the current political climate inhibited or infused your work?
Penny Arcade: The political and social realities of the past few years which have made other people feel frightened, angry, and anxious have had little effect on me because our society and culture always made me feel that way! So now people feel unsettled in the same way that I have ALWAYS felt unsettled -- and by the same things: hatred, corruption, greed, racism, classism, and ageism. This is the way I have felt for years! Bill Burroughs once said “Paranoia is knowing all the facts.” Really nothing has changed in this country. Not the corruption, classism, racism, or ageism, It is now simply overt. All on the surface. And someone like me feels comfortable when all the cards are on the table. I had no illusions, so I lost none. My work is the process of an organic integration between myself and the world -- a synergy that is not independent of either the world or me. But, I will say that with the fakeness of a lot of artistic inquiry today, the supposedly "social practice" that is always done in a hermetically-sealed academic environment, or the endless bullshit "speaking truth to power," (Also always done where it will create the least damage to power because one simply cannot speak truth to power without losing status for oneself), the endless identity politics which seeks nothing but self-aggrandizement (if one earns a living talking about how hard it is to be a woman, to be queer, to be a minority…how much of a hurry are those people who profit from talking about it, actually want those situations to change?) The pseudo feminist, the boring concept of “badass’ or ‘awesome’, The constant need for consensus that passes for inquiry? .... yes, all of these suburban, middle class versions of what I have been engaged in my whole life, makes me tired, makes me want to retreat… but that is the effect it has on me personally, it doesn’t directly affect whether I make work or not because whether I make work or not is generated deep within myself. It is my way of making myself visible and integrated to myself.
Boy Scout: You have flown the world for work, what have your recent travels taught you?
Penny Arcade: My constant traveling teaches me only that I love the world, that I am a part of the world, and that I actually do not belong to myself or anyone else. I belong to the world.
Boy Scout: Does a world of hyper social media intrude on your ability to be your artistic self?
Penny Arcade: I love (to) social media (lets use this as a verb). I love to express myself and to reach people. The use of it does not intrude on me ... because to me, it is not a place. It is a tool.
Boy Scout: Has your bravery grown through the ages?
Penny Arcade: Yes, I have become much braver but I am such a huge person interiorly, that there are unexplored continents inside myself, places where I am still undiscovered and aboriginal, places where the outside world has never touched me. I have defended headlands and steep gorges that hold streams of tears and places I may never get to in this lifetime.
Boy Scout: In a media mad world, can sincerity still be a virtue?
Penny Arcade: Sincerity as a virtue? I am afraid I do not care about virtues. Sincerity is a rare characteristic and it has always been rare, far before media had a place. As a very sincere person, over the years, I have come to feel it is overrated because after all, sincerity is something that is bestowed on others and very few people are up to dealing with sincerity.
Boy Scout: What is your greatest fear?
Penny Arcade: Physical Immobility.
Boy Scout: What is your most marked characteristic?
Penny Arcade: Curiosity. A tie with kindness. I am a very compassionate person … perhaps they go together?
Boy Scout: What do you most value in friendships?
Honesty, humor, their insight into me.
Boy Scout: Who are your real life heroes?
Penny Arcade: I have so many: Carmen Pabon (Madrina of the Lower East Side). Dorothy Day, Colette, Frida Kahlo, Jean Genet, Jean Rhys, contemporary artists-like singer/composer Chris Rael, writer/playwright Bina Sharif, and my collaborator Steve Zehentner who makes amazing work day-in-and-day-out, far from grants and the limelight they deserve.
Boy Scout: Abraham Lincoln said: “To summon up our better angels.” What are the words you live by?
Penny Arcade: “No retreat, no surrender”
Boy Scout: What is your greatest regret?
Penny Arcade: That I copied the world around me in having no sympathy for myself till my I was in my 50’s. I didn’t realize how smart or how talented I was earlier in my life. I had no confidence of any kind, except intellectually, but I didn’t know how to use that to improve my life. I let sorrow and PTSD, and other people's feelings of intimidation of me, shroud my true self. I never gave up and I never stopped, but I was the wounded warrioress with no compassion for myself. Once I had compassion for myself, for the hand that was dealt to me, for the difficulty of my life, I became incandescent. That could have occurred much, much earlier.
Boy Scout: How would you like to be remembered?
Penny Arcade: For my kindness, compassion and for my willingness to take responsibility for what I saw in front of me and to act on it, personally and artistically.
Boy Scout: There is no shortage today of hands and mouths in need and you are incredibly active in Aids-related charities. How else do you give back? Are there other issues near and dear that you support? Are you currently aligned with an organization of charity?
II have been an artist advocate since I was 27, advocating for under-recognized artists. I also do a huge amount of charity work. I have a self-defined ministry to help people that no one else will or can help. Currently, I have a GoFundMeI run for photographer Laura Rubin, an exceptional 1960-1980’s photographer who is very ill and fallen on very hard times. I am about to launch a new GoFundme for Jeremiah Newton, Stonewall survivor, friend of Candy Darling, narrator and producer of The Candy Darling Documentary Beautiful Darling. I am part of Visual Aids, the artist/art worker coalition that created the Red Ribbon, Day without Art, etc. and I am on the board of #ShoutCureAids
Boy Scout: You are incredibly active on social media and much like your work, unabashedly political. Your point of view alone makes you a national treasure. However, one post in particular I cannot seem to remove from my mind. Can you describe what the commitment of artistic endurance means to you?
Penny Arcade: Have I spoken of anything else than artistic endurance in this interview? We are meant to endure. Please watch this videoby Jasmine Hirst of Chris Rael’s song Endure. Art is one of the few things you get better with age … ability grows. Perseverance and endurance is the threshing ground of artistic accomplishment.