Interview with Holly Hughes (2007)
Holly Hughes is an internationally acclaimed performance artist with a flair for telling outrageous stories of everyday lesbian life, touching off controversy, and challenging complacency at every turn. Her combination of poetic imagery and political satire has earned her wide attention and placed her work at the center of America's culture wars. Hughes is Associate Professor of the School of Art & Design and the Department of Theatre and Drama at the University of Michigan and an activist for lesbian issues. In fall 2008, she was Visiting Associate Professor of Performance Studies and Gender Studies at Northwestern University. Professor Hughes is the recipient of two Village Voice Obie awards, a Lambda Book Award, a GLAAD media award, and a Distinguished Alumni Award. Hughes has performed at venues across North America, Great Britain, and Australia. She has published two books: Clit Notes: A Sapphic Sampler (Grove Press 1996) and O Solo Homo: The New Queer Performance (Grove Press 1998), co-edited with Dr. David Roman. In addition, her work has been widely anthologized and has served as foundational material for performance studies, queer studies, and feminist performance studies. In addition to teaching at the University of Michigan, Hughes is co-editing Memories of the Revolution: The First Ten Years of the WOW Café with Alina Troyano for the University of Michigan Press, and is performing a new solo piece entitled “The Dog and Pony Show (Bring Your Own Pony)”.X
Diana Taylor: So, Holly, thank you so much for agreeing to talk to us about performance and performance studies. Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
WOW café. And if I hadn’t found that particular collective of people who had been kicked out of other feminist collectives, I don’t think I would have started—it was peer pressure that drew me into performance. If they’d been doing skeet shooting or soccer league, I’d be doing that as well because I wanted to hang out with this group of really smart bad girls, who were really good, but good at being bad. And it was a great time to be in the East Village, and so I lived in New York and did different kinds of work: work that was inspired more by a lot of drag and camp theater than by feminist theater. And my background was as an artist, a visual artist, but less informed by sort of performance art of that time than I was by theater. And in the last few years I have taken a job as an Associate Professor of Art & Design and Theatre & Drama at the University of Michigan.
Diana: So how would you think about terms like performance, performance art, performance studies? Is there a continuum of practice or thinking do you think, or are they just completely different things?
in her book
Goldberg, RoseLee. 1988. Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present. London: Thames and Hudson.Xand I’m looking at the European avant-garde and the way performance functions as a laboratory there. But I think performance is distinguished in some ways from theatrical production, even though it borrows a lot of those vocabularies and ways of making, in some cases, because theatre has become, perhaps, the most codified art form. There’s ways of making; there’s rules. Performance becomes this kind of giant garage band set where you get to be, you get to call yourself a performance studies scholar, or a performance artist, or someone doing performance and opposed to performance art, but you are doing performance because you say so. And I think that that sort of indeterminate space which has... where the walls, where the doors are wide open, anyone can come in, where things flow in and out more easily than in other sort of cultural practices is what makes performance both exciting and... Who wouldn’t want to be a performer? Or do performance? Because you're doing it already! [Laughs] And you might as well just say it. But you can go into, you have the keys to all of these different closets, where in other practices you’re gonna spend a lot of time saying, “Well, you know, this isn’t really an issue of painting,” or, “How is this theater?” So I think it’s in some ways, and I think performance studies people are the same way in that they’re on the move, you know. They use their passport a lot, and they might not have any... Yeah, they’re on the road in terms of dropping into other’s disciplines and finding out what they can to talk about a wide range of cultural practices.
Diana: So how have some of the ideas from performance studies been useful to you in your own practice?
Holly: Well, I think that, first of all, I wouldn’t have a career and a job if I had just done my work at the WOW café and no one had said, “Even though she’s a lowly lesbian working with a bunch of other perverts, you should care about it for these reasons.” And I think that, part of the location of this Performance Studies program [at New York University], so close to the East Village, it allowed, just because of location, a kind of... Dialogue is too formal a word: I mean you were partying with the same people that were, you know, talking about theory. So I think that in a lot of my... I was conscious in my first solo work of thinking about some of the issues that some feminist performance scholars were writing about in terms of the gaze and also about who’s the audience, about performing lesbian eroticism and who gets to see that and how it gets... is it possible to resist cooptation, et cetera. I very consciously in that piece was responding to some of the... and rather than creating theory, the response was in the work. So it was my way of entering the dialogue that was incredibly important. And I return not just as a teacher and someone who teaches performance, so then teaches performance studies, but as a practitioner. And I think that there’s ways that we’re still working, artists and scholars working in dialogue, where there’s a sort of “call and response” going back and forth… [tape jumps] But also it leads into the question about, related to the legal issue, that there are no standards. And it’s true, there’s no standards of what is a good performance artist. And I think that feeds into the sense that it’s crap, which then of course, why would the tax money be paid, you know, on and on and on... They’re related.
Diana: So how does this indeterminacy of performance, performance studies, something that we value so much because it allows us to be transgressive, because it allows us not to be fenced in... So how does that then become such a problem in the legal system when it’s all about codification and evaluation and all these different systems of social value that get enacted?
American Theatre talking about it or Art Forum? And this idea: if it’s indeterminate then there's no standard of who’s on top; who’s the number one performance artist in America right now—or how do you, what metric do you use—which all feeds a sort of a notion that it's garbage. And that allows it to be a big cultural target.
“The term 'performance' has sort of carved out an area of cultural expression, artistic expression that is uncodified... And I think that that sort of indeterminate space... is what makes performance both exciting and... Who wouldn’t want to be a performer? Or do performance? Because you’re doing it already!”
when you went before the Supreme Court? What was that like?
Holly: Well, it was a very strange piece of performance. And it really was a performance, because you have to get a ticket. You have to know somebody to get a ticket. It’s a big long running hit, it’s sold out weeks in advance. It kind of feels like... I did actually go see Tony & Tina’s Wedding one time in Chicago—I had a former student that was in it—and it sort of reminded me of the Supreme Court, like the performance starts before you get into the space, and the whole rigmarole about getting in there. And you’re led to these seats, which are pews—I mean, you know, actual pews—which are very interesting, and I feel like they’re constructed... sort of the same person who designed Lily Tomlin’s Edith Ann set made the Supreme Court, like it infantilizes everyone, everyone’s feet are dangling in these pews, and at the end of these pews are Secret Service who are there to make sure that you don’t talk. You’re there for a good hour at least before the hearing starts. So it’s all about... you’re completely worthless as an audience member. Except the VIP section, which is members of Congress and lawyers that have presented before at the Supreme Court. They’re gabbing, they’re carrying on; but you, the mere citizen, you know, you sit in your uncomfortable seat, you can’t bring a book and newspaper, and you can’t talk. You just sort of sit there and meditate on your worthlessness. [Laughs] And the whole architecture of the space—the attorneys are at this lectern where the microphone is fixed, it can’t be adjusted, so if you’re tall, you’re bent over, if you’re short, you’re on your toes for the whole time. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court, the Justices are way, way above you in these big, black leather chairs that swivel and rock, and there’s this one lonely lawyer there for 30 minutes making their case to the Supreme Court. And it’s, they don’t ask questions, they heckle the lawyers. And some of the questions didn’t seem very well prepared, other than prepared by their sense of entitlement, I mean. And they threw at the lawyer that was defending the NEA Four, I felt like, every sort of objection to... whether it was an objection to public funding for art in general, to questions of who decides what community standards of decency are, to whether performance is a viable art form. And you’d get about two sentences out before someone else would interrupt with another question. And I just was like: this is the worst gig in the world! I mean, who would want to perform under these conditions? So, it was an illuminating, disturbing spectacle, and I made a piece about it, Preaching to the Perverted, about going to the Supreme Court. I mean it was illuminating in that it didn’t feel like this was something that was an expression of a democratic republic. This felt more futile, almost, in its kind of set up. And using the tools of performance studies to analyze the space, analyze the kinds of interactions. And I think partially because of our subject position, and also being performance artists, which is, I think, seen as a euphemism for just being bad artists, we weren’t real, we weren’t real. In the end, the court ruled that standards of decency, the NEA could take them into consideration, but there couldn’t be some compulsion to take them into consideration. And the other aspect, that was about damages to us as artists, wasn’t upheld. And I think that was because of this, like, “who are these people, what is their art form? I don’t understand what it is. How could they be... They seem damaged already, they seem like they came to us made out of missing parts, sort of glued together”. You know, “damage would possibly improve them.” [Laughs] You know, it’s like, how can you decide whether a martian has been damaged or not, a different life form that might not be air-breathing?
Diana: So do you think that decision changed the way that people think about performance and performance art? Did it have a lasting impact, or was it just more of the same?
Holly: I think that... I don’t know that the decision had necessarily any sort of lasting impact, but the sort of, the domino effect that started with the right wing attacks on public funding for the arts definitely had an impact on the death of public funding for this kind of work and public funding for all sorts of other community-based art forms and experimental art forms, for so many of the places. It didn’t happen immediately, but the way that the government responded to the First Amendment arguments around this was, "Okay, we don’t have any compulsion to fund this stuff, so rather than get mired down in questions about whether we’re infringing on somebody’s free speech right, we’re just going to take the money away; and we’re going to sort of focus whatever little tiny amount of money we have on dead artists and people who’ve been certified by the USDAA—or whoever certifies us—as, you know, good art and art that we understand." Again, it’s helpful if the artist is actually dead. [Laughs]
So this whole ecology of alternative art spaces and community-based art spaces around the country that had started flourishing in the 60s and in the 70s, even under Nixon, who funded this stuff, started to dry up. It just started to dry up. And the loss of funding didn’t just have an impact on artists suddenly not being able to, you know, pay people to work with them, or be able to get rehearsal space; it had an impact on the ticket prices at a lot of places. So you’re eroding the public support for, say, PS 122, which I think for a couple of years was without any kind of NEA funding at all, and the ticket prices are going up. Then there’s a level of exclusion, a different level of expectation. Certain places, like I noticed that The Kitchen has a 10 dollar ticket price, which is fantastic. I don’t know how they afford to do that, so it’s the same price as a movie. And that allows people to see more things, it allows different people who have to think about paying, think differently about paying when it’s 25, 30 dollars to go to a show. And it influences the kind of work that gets... you know, are you gonna pay 30 dollars to see this? So it has a huge effect. I mean, I was just talking to Cindy Carr, who covered this work at The Village Voice, and she talked about how so many mid-career performance artists in New York don’t have a place to do their work. I mean, Karen Finley is performing in a basement one night a week at Culture Project. PS 122 has really changed their focus and really doesn’t present a lot of this work anymore. I mean they’re bringing in some interesting theater from Europe, which is great, but there isn’t...
Diana: Right, they’re changing the landscape.
Holly: Right, it changes the landscape. There’s not a place for the work to be seen.
Diana: Okay, well thank you so much.
Holly: Wasn't that upbeat? [Laughs]
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