10. Daniel Kopel: An Afternoon with Penny Arcade

I scheduled an interview with Penny Arcade for noon. Two and a half hours later, the tape still recording, I still hadn’t asked a single question I’d prepared. I was in Penny’s apartment, this was Penny’s world. She greeted me, asked me if I’d like anything to drink, I said water, she’d have tea, and right then and there she began her monologue, an off-the-cuff performance I wish I’d brought the resources to properly document. We had begun without warning. Several minutes later, when I realized this and pressed record, I’d already lost quite a bit, but managed to catch this as the first statement on tape:

“I’m the kind of artist that people really know about and understand after I’m dead.”

She continued: “…because I’m not careerist. And what does that mean? It means that my career doesn’t come first, the promotion of who I am doesn’t come first. It actually comes eighth. I’m that person who lives the life, makes the work, dies, and then gets famous and stays famous.”

The work, in Penny’s case, consists of (mostly) one-woman performances, seemingly improvisational evenings where she examines society in relation to her unique perspective on the mainstream, bearing the distinction of having worked and partied with the creative cast of New York’s underbelly since the 1960s. “I’m speaking for my world, for the disenfranchised, for the people’s whose point of view doesn’t have a voice. I’m speaking from the edge of society.”

She interrupted herself more than once to say: “We should probably have a few sessions,” but I’d already gathered from her hit-the-ground-running welcome monologue that Penny had seen a lot and had a lot to say. And it pours out of her when she performs — she develops her work in front of an audience — and when she’s at home, where she appears also to be developing work extemporaneously. Penny’s life and work are so intertwined that the two are barely distinguishable. This is immediately apparent when you enter her space, which was, on this day, chaotic. As she spoke, she’d often get up from her seat, go across the room and return with something to show me, a poster for her last performance with Quentin Crisp, for instance, a lost thing she’d unearthed just minutes before I arrived.

Penny is notorious for the company she has kept (and keeps). Jack Smith, Andy Warhol, Jackie Curtis, John Vaccaro, Danny Fields, to name — unfairly — very few of the major movers that Penny has attracted. Perhaps they were drawn by her fierce intuitive intelligence, her acid tongue or her unapologetic demeanor. Whatever quality ensnared and endeared them, Penny is, as a result, a living archive and true resource for nearly every moment of (sub)cultural importance since the early 1960s. “My entire life was about meeting people who were highly individuated and wildly intelligent, and that’s what the gay scene in the sixties in New York, the downtown gay scene — these outrageous, larger-than-life people who never were educated. Like the poet René Ricard. He never went to college. He was writing reviews for Artforum as a crackhead living on the F train. These are the kind of people– this is the kind of intellect I’m interested in.” I asked her to clarify if the gay world that she “grew up in” and that “saved” her was, to some extent, the same as the downtown art scene: “They’re not interchangeable but they’re intertwined. Not everybody was gay, but everybody was an outsider.”

It was now 2:15 and she was late for a lunch appointment. She gestured for me to follow her into the next room, she sat on the edge of her bed, and as she put on her tennis shoes, explained her new project: an expanded version of the workshop production of Old Queen I saw at Dixon Place last summer, an elegy for the queer intelligentsia that nurtured her. The new project, retitled When No One Was Famous, she’ll premiere at Abrons Art Center in April. “When I worked with Andy Warhol, even Andy Warhol wasn’t famous. That’s the whole point. None of the — nobody — Patti Smith wasn’t famous. None of these people were famous.”

I asked Penny if her association with Andy — she appeared in the 1971 film, Women in Revolt — overshadowed her own work in any way. To which she replied, “That was like a second kind of community. That was a little bit different. There were kind-of freaks there, not social climbers, but people who were there because they knew what was available. I didn’t know what was available. Never occurred to me that there was something to get out of that. It was just one more thing to do.” And later: “Because people don’t understand what the Warhol scene was about, then they can’t understand any of the people who participated in it.” Many of those misunderstood people formed the core of her inner circle of misfits. “I was very protective of my family, my community [which] centered on Jackie [Curtis], Candy [Darling], everybody at the Playhouse of the Ridiculous, everybody downtown.”

Penny would play clips from Bad Reputation or Bitch!Dyke!Faghag!Whore!, but we never discussed the work directly. An hour and a half in, I started to worry. I had close to nothing on tape about her projects, her process: in effect, the information I’d come for. She would pause the clip and recount an anecdote — an acid trip with Jackie, “it was all about Ondine” — and we’d fall right back into talking about her life, politics — “we’re living in a spectacle.” Then I understood that we’d been talking about her work all along. This was it. Her life.

At this point, Penny’s voice is hard to hear on the recording. She’s moving around, looking for a sweater, searching for her keys, digging for her wallet, but then suddenly, boldly, unequivocally: “The whole point is that my work is for smart people. Not educated people. Just smart. Anybody. I was walking down the street, I was walking down 9th street between B and C one day, and there was a guy, homeless guy pushing a carriage, like a grocery shopping cart, full of stuff, and I walked across him. He said ‘Hi’ to me and I said ‘Hi to you’ and I went across the street and he goes: ‘I LOVE YOUR WORK,’ and I turned around and I said ‘WHAT?’ He goes: ‘I LOVE YOUR WORK, PENNY ARCADE.'”