Karen Finley’s Reality Show

By: Grace Moon | March 17, 2011

Prof C:  Hi Grace, we’ve been wanting to talk about Karen Finley’s book launch, which we attended at Dixon Place last week.

Prof C:  Hi Grace, we’ve been wanting to talk about Karen Finley’s book launch, which we attended at Dixon Place last week. She’s touring to promote her latest book, The Reality Shows (Feminist Press).

Grace Moon: Confession, I had never seen her live before, although I’ve known about her for years. I was enraptured.




Prof C: She’s incredibly captivating, isn’t she? What drew you in?

Moon: Well first off, the selection of her new book that she read from was about death… a taboo topic no one talks about. It takes real skill to take a subject like that make it meaningful and funny! I think death is even more difficult to talk about than sex. We are so used to the “proper” cliches when discussing that subject, and she really just dug in and turned it inside out.

Prof C: Exactly. I have to say I just love women performing hysteria in public. Her performance/reading was really layered: commentary on femininity (and its mass commodofication for feelings), death, hysteria all in service to what I thought was a profound and hilarious/biting cultural critique.

Moon: I think the other thing I really am just now understanding about performance art is there are two basic genres: the esoteric (ie Marina Abromovic) and the literary (Karen Finley and to an extent Holly Hughes).

Prof C:  Hmmm, well you’re discussing female performance artists who all have different styles. But I wanted to remark on how, as an event (organized by old Vper Elizabeth Koke), I thought it was also unpretentiously multi-faceted… a book launch that was also a performance, an introduction by Justin Bond, a dialogue about performance art set at Dixon Place, a show where a book is your ticket, and um also…

Moon: Yes! I agree! It also reflects her work, which I think represents the beginnings of interdisciplinary art!

Prof C:  Hahaha. You LOVE Karen Finley! She isn’t the beginnings of interdisciplinary or even performance art, but I think what Justin Bond and Kathleen Hanna (who writes the introduction and introduced her last night reading at Barnes and Noble Union Square, NYC) argue is that Finley (along with Wow Cafe people & others) is a central figure in a really meaningful and pioneering line of feminist performance.

She has been a really inspirational figure to riot grrls, outsider artists, and edgy punks… and obviously tons and tons of queers.

Moon: Yes, I agree. Not to step on your academic toes… I’m just trying to contextualize the history a bit. Modern performance art is traced back to Yves Klein and Joseph Beuys in the 60’s. When women enter the art world en force in the 70’s (and moreso in the 80’s), they moved into new media (performance art, installation, photography) areas of art men didn’t dominate and I think they were able defined those genres in a way that gave them and the femisnit perspective a very powerful platform.

Prof C: Oh, I think we’re going to get into a swordfight about women’s art history! Where’s Patricia when we need her??

Moon: She’ll pipe in the comments to correct us both I’m sure.

Prof C: Oh good, I hope so!

Moon: Anyway, not to derail your point on the influence of Finley on the 90s movements (our generation)… but performance art does begin with Beuys.

Prof C:  GRACE, WHY DOESN’T PERFORMANCE ART BEGIN WITH ANCIENT MATRIARCHAL RITUAL?

Moon:  Well it does if you take the anthropological approach.

Prof C: THANK YOU.

Moon: Everything begins with the matriarchs. It’s just the modern movement starts in the 20th Century. But listen all that to say the women totally take the genre over! The most significant performance artist alive are these women we are speaking about.

Prof C: Well, performance art offers an ideal platform to create and comment on the body—such a huge concern in feminist work.

Moon: Honestly, I think Karen advanced the discourse on Feminism, performance art and the culture wars! I’m going to mention to our readers she was a part of the NEA four, one of the early battles the political right waged against the arts and won! PS that case before the Supreme Court was named National Endowment for the Arts v. Finley.

Prof C: Of course she did. She is a feminist icon, and I about shit myself when she asked me about my life as she was signing my book. You and I were like last in a long, long line, and she was so gracious and cool.

Moon: I imagine she must also have made many feminists uncomfortable.

Prof C:  I love making feminists uncomfortable. THANK YOU KAREN FINLEY!

Moon: Karen made me kind of uncomfortable during “The Passion of Terri Shiavo.” It was sexual, and religious, and disturbing and hilarious.

Prof C: It was intense. I kept comparing it to seeing some super-diva deliver a pitch-perfect aria without breaking a sweat. Very challenging in form and content, but also very, very funny in moments.

Moon: I also really appreciate her ability to take current events and completely infuse her imagination in them and create dialogue. For instance, the chapter in her book on Elliot and Silda Spitzer is also torturous and hilarious.

Prof C: I also appreciated how she spent her first five minutes on stage thanking people in the audience for their work and influence on her. I thought that was special.

Moon: Seriously, very humble. I’d love to be her student at NYU—I bet they adore her.

Prof C:  I hope people get a chance to go see her (we’ll post the rest of her readings below) but if she isn’t coming to your town, check out her book. It’s chock full of smart little dialogues, monologues, and stories and also contains beautiful pictures of some of her recent political multi-media installations.

Karen Finley Book Tour, “The Reality Shows”

3.16.11: Barnes and Noble Union Square, NYC with Kathleen Hanna, 7pm
3.23.11: Outwrite Bookstore, Atlanta, 7:30-8:30pm
3.30.11: Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, 7pm, YBCA Screening Room
3.31.11: City Lights Books, San Francisco, 7pm
4.6.11: New York University, NYC with Ann Pellegrini, 7:00-9:00pm
4.11.11: Princeton University, Princeton NJ
4.21.11: Brookline Booksmith, Brookline MA with Jessica Hagedorn

Grace Moon

Founder and Editor for Velvetpark Media