penny arcade: performance artist, public speaker, activist, and fighter for gay liberation
The icon of the counter-culture's new performance work takes aim at the gentrification of New York, and the lost world it replaced.
Describing Penny Arcade by her relationship to famous men is tedious. She was a Warhol Superstar, and her long term intellectual kinship with the unmatchably erudite Quentin Crisp has brought her a great many admirers. But Penny Arcade is a queer revolutionary in her own right.
"People can't stand me, they liked the way I looked, they liked that I was good at sex… but they wanted to me to shut up. Nothing is gonna stop me from saying what I think, because I have a personal mandate to be brave. It has cost me a lot of popularity." She's right — promised a quick chat, we ended up sitting for two hours — she harbours an articulate, valorous tongue and a physical power that is spellbinding to see.
Penny Arcade (born Susana Carmen Ventura - she changed her name after a LSD trip) is wonderfully quotable, jumping from Germaine Greer to the rapid ageing of today's youth, via the difficulty of maintaining her fuchsia coloured bob "I put some crap on my roots, and the whole thing's not red anymore!" But Penny is in London working on her next performance piece Longing Lasts Longer. It is an hour long tour de force monologue that navigates life as a queer person in a hyper-gentrified world. "The show is fundamentally about supporting people's individuality. To be really individual with an opinion, to be encouraged to own your own life, your personal aesthetic… your personal thought."
It's undeniable that the role of cities has been altered by the unrelenting grip of hyper-capitalism, and naturally this has pulled a new type of non-individual to the world's once creative metropoles, seeking homogeneity. "People used to come to the city to reinvent themselves, but not anymore." The whole of Penny's show opens with the testament that pleasure is a radical value, "because pleasure is sin, people have this intimidation to a point where they can't free themselves. In my lifetime queers were all about pleasure: sexual, aesthetic, ideological pleasure. But there's the reason New York used to be called Sin City." Her gripe is with the "pasty normals" — those who choose cupcakes (which Penny claims are an ultimate tool of oppression) or get in a fluster about being old at 23. She condemns these systems which seem to numb people's critical brains.
Perhaps there lies the reason that the whole of the bohemian youth of today obsessively romanticise Penny's New York — the one of Patti Smith, Studio 54, and Warhol's Superstars — because one can't help feel like back then it seemed like something was actually happening. "I am the thinker that I am because I came up in the gay world of the 60s and 70s — people kicked your ass, you weren't allowed to have sloppy opinions… your value was your intellect."
Although romantic and nostalgic, it's comforting to be reminded that that world was hard, and Penny is quick to eschew any ideas that everyone just rolled around dropping acid and making earth shatteringly good art. People also lived through the AIDS crisis of the 1980s - Penny herself losing over two hundred friends through those years. "My audience died - imagine every other person you know dying."
Her tone flits between nostalgia and excitement. The point of her performance work is not to waltz about in front of a packed audience moaning about a time when people were free, and squats were plentiful. Indeed she is using the critical faculties that living through this bygone time have given her, but she wants to ask what we can do now. "How can I help?" she queries, "we all feel hopeless in the face of this gentrification that is erasing our way of life." Essentially, Penny is performing a very articulate call to arms. She is looking for people to wake up and be critical, she wants us to honour our heritage and the lost multiculturalism that defines urbanity, rather than settling for our suburbanised cities.
Penny wouldn't call herself an "activist", but she is incredibly active. "I no longer think one person can change the world, but you can certainly change the world around you. So show up!"
Penny's is a voice that existed before, through, and after a process of hyper-gentrification. These are not people of the past — we cannot box the Penny's of the world into the perfect Instagram #TBT, which is how so many of the artists and anarchists of that time are remembered - now is the time to listen to the icons of this generation. Our understanding of the past is being erased. We can only save our cities if our minds remain un-gentrified.
Penny Arcade, Longing Lasts Longer is on until 21 November at Soho Theatre. Book tickets here.
Text Tom Rasmussen
Photography Thurstan Redding