April 15th, 2017
Why are we dressed for mourning?
An interview with Paddy Johnson, Joseph Keckler, Michael Anthony Farley, and Jaimie Warren
These are dark days for professional critics. The final nail in their coffins are just a few strikes away from being hammered in, both online and in print. Critic Christian Viveros Faune has rung his last bell at artnet news after the publication redirected its focus to news and just two months earlier Jen Graves, resigned from her role as art critic at the Stranger, destined to crawl into retirement.
If the sun seems to be setting for these truth tellers, we are the creatures of the night ready to rise from the shadows.
From the worldwide-cobweb, a new model of hybrid, arachnid-like publications have emerged. Agile and quick, the non-profit Art F City presents a unique programming model. We use our daily blog to track news and review shows that are of interest to artists. We then curate IRL and URL projects that respond to those concerns. Our upcoming Goth benefit this Tuesday night, is an example of that process.
We realized so many of our favorite artists were working with macabre subject matter or goth aesthetics, and decided to turn our annual benefit into a curated evening of goth experiences. Below, we chat with Joseph Keckler, who will be performing his goth arias, Jaimie Warren, who designed the set and conceived and shot our promo photographs, and AFC editor Michael Anthony Farley, whose drag alter ego Ellen Degenerate will be the evening’s encyclopedic goth DJ.
Paddy: I’ve had a long-time fascination with goth, but always from the perspective of an observer. It does seem to be trending though. Joseph, I was introduced to your work through Creative Capital last summer, and around that time Michael and Corinna wrote a blog post about all the upcoming goth art that fall. What do you make of this latest gothic revival?
Jaimie: I feel like it’s all related to what people connect to. I don’t know why goth seems a bit more visible—I can only speak to my own process and collaborations—but I remember that post! Every image looked like a really fantastic show to go and see. And the ranking system was hilarious (each show was given a rating from one to four black lipstick tubes for its gothnesss).
Paddy- like you, I was also introduced to Joseph’s work by being completely knocked off my chair by his unbelievable “Teen Goth” video. [Goth Song, 2014, casts Keckler as a bored and disgruntled office worker who becomes obsessed with and ultimately transformed by goth culture.] Then I saw him perform at Abrons years ago at the Antifreeze show with Colin Self, Zackary Drucker and Dynasty Handbag. The show had a very dark feel but also such incredible wit and humor. However, Joseph’s skills as a performer, paired with the hilarity of this video, were completely unreal. It was so inspirational. I think my love for this video has to do with the nostalgia of these dated goth clothes he puts on display, and the surreal nature of this performance happening in the East Village, all with his unbelievable voice.
Paddy: That’s the thing that really floors me. You almost can’t believe what you’re hearing when you listen to Joseph, because his voice is so rich and beautiful. And I’m used to connecting unearthly voices to narratives that seem similarly foreign. It’s not just that his video and song pair opera with contemporary narratives, but that his use of the medium itself is so inventive. (The operatic laughing while on shrooms for example in Shroom Trip Opera, 2013.) And that came out in the photo shoot for the benefit too, when he took a flying pose as Bela Lugosi!
Jaimie: It was really great to have the challenge of using this theme in the photo-shoot and be inspired by Joseph’s his work, as well as such wonderful visual characters like Siouxsie Sioux and Bela Lugosi. I’m no goth culture expert, but I have an incredible amount of respect for those two. And I always love when I can pull in visual references from my youth to be inspired by. I am always sampling from ‘80s/’90s horror culture: old late-night tv hosts, haunted houses, drag theater, hand-made sets, etc. It’s all connected in a way, at least in terms of what I’m inspired by and what resonates in my work, and most of all what people connect to.
Michael: Whoa, I just remembered that Jaimie and I met for the first time when she DJed a (not particularly very goth) weirdo art-school-kid night at a goth dive bar in Baltimore at least a decade ago. It feels like our lives have come full-circle.
Joseph: Jaimie, you and your work are my favorite things. And you have some old school gothic connections! You are always reconstructing actual fifteenth century Gothic altarpieces, but filling them, of course with horror movie villains, Michael Jackson, ET—your own extended Holy Family.
Paddy: I think it’s worth mentioning, that we’re basically goth appreciation amateurs as well. We’re not experts and don’t claim to be.
Michael: But, Paddy, you know my graduate thesis was titled “GOTHBRUNCH,” right?
Paddy: OMG. No, I did not! (Laughs) Why?
Michael: You could say it was a way of working through a feeling being misunderstood, by using tropes of a “misunderstood” teen. Basically, I staged two exhibitions. One with hyper-specific goth performances and design objects (forcing my parents to watch me get a tattoo, a Virgin Mary statue that cried bloody Marys, etc) and one with very obtuse documentation (screen captures of visitors’ social media posts, surveillance footage from the gallery, etc…) at UMBC.
The whole idea came from this accidental ritual of “#GOTHBRUNCH” wherein my friends and I embraced our tendency to face walks-of-shame in nightlife looks the next morning. We basically turned it into a drinking game with rules, like no removing makeup (only adding) and no covering-up an inappropriate outfit—except with black mesh. Photos from these brunches were frequently mistaken as performance art in art world/academia circles. So I figured I might as well turn this into a piece.
Paddy: That seems so specific to your life. But does goth culture run back to the art world in any way? It seems like you’re saying “goth” is separate from “art” but it gets mistaken as such?
Michael: Well the art world always sort of cannibalizes subculture, right? And the art world is obsessed with “otherness”. Goth is a subculture that’s entirely based around self-constructed otherness. And it’s already a wholly aestheticized version of otherness.
Paddy: Joseph, How did the goth song come about?
Joseph: It’s part of a body of work where I take episodes from life and render them as operatic episodes. I was working at a day job, coming off of a trip, and suddenly became confused about time, and thought I was a goth teen again. I wandered down to St. Marks to buy some bondage pants and all these goth accoutrements. So, I made this into something that evokes a Schubert song—who is sort of proto goth. You know, all those German songs about wandering, it’s a romantic trope. Wandering is a theme actually of goth, too. Gothic fiction what with Melmoth and Maldoror. Anyway, this music seemed apropos.
In that song I say I was “nostalgic for someone else’s youth.” Because by the time I was a teenager, there was already a sense that all these subcultures felt available to kind of try on, but nothing was authentic. We were late to the party, too late for grunge. All of the aesthetic strategies of rebellion, to me, had the sense of belonging to a previous generation. In the song I’m describing this feeling-- of trying to reclaim a lost goth teenager self, which already felt borrowed.
But someone like M. Lamar, another performer who uses opera, claims the aesthetic in a different way.
Paddy: His approach, I always thought, was maybe a little more punk? But now goth can be so many different things. Cyber goth, Victorian goth, punk goth, even health goth. Health goth is my favorite, because it’s the complete opposite of what anyone would imagine goth is. I would more quickly imagine an out-of-shape goth than someone who’s at the gym all the time.
Joseph: And when I was a teenager, even though I thought Goth was a thing that was exhausted in some ways, it was a place where you could be fat! There was a different standard of beauty. It was a place where you could be considered attractive within that scene.
Jaimie: Yes!!! This is such an important tidbit here.
Michael: I’m also really interested in how goth transcends so many different cultural boundaries and mutates in different contexts. In this world, with increasingly xenophobic politicians like Trump and an increasingly demographic-based-identity-balkanized Left, that has an undeniable appeal. I think part of why I love subcultures so much is that they can jump the borders the mainstream sets up for us.
I just went to a Siouxsie Sioux drag tribute night at a goth club in Mexico last week! It’s called “Centro de Salud” (Health Center) and is across from a gym, but it’s not a super health goth vibe. The first time I brought my boyfriend there, last year, I overheard him and this other guy struggling through the language barrier: “Welcome to Mexico City! You will love it here because nobody gives you any problems. For example, I am a vampire. And when I am riding the subway, nobody bothers me.”
In general, to me, the goth scene in the Spanish-speaking world is friendlier and more fun. You know, goth arose at a time when so much of the English-speaking world was swinging to a right-wing dystopia—I guess we can thank Margaret Thatcher for goth! Yet some of the best music came out of La Movida Madrileña, after Franco died and Spain was in this optimistic time of left-wing liberties and economic growth. Despite this, Spanish youth imported angsty punk and goth aesthetics and put their own spin on them. I love the ultra-campy video for goth icon Alaska y los Pegamoides’ “Horror en el Hipermercado,” where punks are haunted by mannequins in this giant, American-style supermarket. It’s like this perfect artifact from a time of huge sociopolitical and economic change.
Paddy: But it’s not just goth that’s an international phenomenon. Tthere’s are international universal cultures of cosplay, bros, and douchebags just to name a few.
Michael: Oh yeah, I mean douchebaggery is homogenizing and becoming more pervasive thanks to late capitalism and globalization. Maybe goth is so enduringly popular worldwide because it’s like a readymade toolkit of signs to communicate, “I am so pissed off at the douchebag mainstream world”?
Paddy: As a subculture goth seems like something that might be easier to try on. For example, you don’t have to give up a rib to put on a black dress and some crazy lipstick and show up at a club.
Joseph: Right. Well goth has always been a bit about celebrating artifice.
Michael: “Everyday is Halloween”. Goth is all about the drag of it all.
Paddy: Joseph, can you talk about what you’re doing for the benefit?
Joseph: I’m going to do a few of my aria pieces, some of my hits and some newer ones too.
Paddy: Joseph, in what world do you see your work living? I’ve seen your worth through Creative Capital and the Abrons, but beyond that, where does it live? I think you told Lisa Levy that you wanted your work to reach a lot of people.
Joseph: This year I’m publishing a book, putting together something for TV, recording music. I see myself existing fluidly in different realms. Of course it can be tricky moving through different economies, frames of reference, systems of interpretation, but it some way this movement drives me. I’m allergic to belonging. I always want to be outside of things.
I try to situate myself in my own practice, build my own context, and make myself readable.
Jaimie: You’re so good at this! And it’s so central to your practice and so important for your work. I’ve seen you in churches, theaters, old Manhattan supper clubs, art shows, online, it’s all so great for so many different reasons.
Joseph: I’m glad you think so! I feel that my public identity has been somewhat fragmented, but maybe that’s changing now. And certain performances do read differently in different worlds, worlds which don’t talk to each other that much, or haven’t in the past.
Paddy: How are they read differently?
Joseph: If I perform the “Shroom Aria” in the art world people react to some element of humor, but it’s not a laugh riot. They might say something like, “Your work is really about language.” I think this was a remark Clifford Owens actually made to me once. In the comedy world, for instance, someone will say, “great bit, man.”
Michael: I think we all (maybe especially Jaimie?) straddle what often get classified as different worlds. I’m wondering if this is what drew us to criticism—the ability to add some more deliberate legibility to those connections.
Joseph: There are times, though, that I feel I’ve been misdescribed or mis-contextualized, and then that’s something I have to negotiate. For instance, no fiber of my being wants me to be understood as a cabaret singer, though I have sometimes been described as such.
Paddy: Managing press can be a full time job for artists, particularly as they become more visible.
Joseph: Holly Hughes, one of my mentors, often talks about the stifling effects of being one of the “NEA Four.” Her work was misrepresented and at the same time other artists were jealous of the attention she was getting. She was visible and discussed, but at the same time couldn’t get a word in edgewise. I think there are these times when an artist may be provided “provocateur cred” but is also somehow reduced or erased in the process.
Michael: Joseph, I think this gets to the root of why I love small press and artist-run initiatives. Huge publications with hyper-specialization aren’t as nimble, in some ways. What does it mean to have a digital art curator or critic who is separate from your performance art critic, which is different than the theater or music or dance critic? Now that so many of those divisions are becoming blurred or obsolete who handles what? In ten years, painters might be making performances with smart garments that react to projection mapping in an collaborative installation about urban planning. Someone with a background exclusively in fashion or film might not have the vocabulary to talk about this, but that’s the kind of thing we’ve been training for our whole careers. We like to seek out the weird—the things that don’t fit tidily into existing language.
Paddy: You know, for me Michael, what you’ve described above is a pretty good road map to understanding the qualities of artist-centered programming. It’s being nimble. It’s being reactive. And it’s about being curious enough to find delight amongst a set of artists who are trying to find solutions to questions that haven’t yet been solved or sometimes even asked. Certainly, that’s a quality we hope to bring to Art F City and part of that is seeking out artists with a similar approach. Jaimie’s own non-profit Whoop Dee Doo is a great example of this multidisciplinary artist/curator/organizer thinking that invented its own niche and in doing so found its own audience.
Jaimie: I feel super lucky to have a project like Whoop Dee Doo , a non-profit where we work with kids and community groups to make whirlwind variety shows. We introduce an intense artistic collaborative process to a truly cross-generational and cross-cultural group of people in a very short amount of time, and the experience is so wholly communal and important, especially to the kids we work with. I feel like where I can make the greatest difference right now is helping people who don’t usually expose themselves to art, or have access to it, see how important art and collaboration can be— especially when they would least expect it. I would easily give up on my personal work to just do this project, as it gets more and more fulfilling each time we do it.
My parents live in Wisconsin, and out of our entire extended family I am the only non-Trump supporter. I feel like they’re intimidated, but also almost grossed-out, by art and artists. I truly believe that making these projects and experiences accessible and welcoming can really change the minds of people who might be very much against engaging with and supporting art.
I know that AFC has been really vocal in that struggle. I want to thank you guys, because you have years of supporting artists in a multitude of ways. It’s a really important resource, it feels like a friend you can count on. A friend who’s loud, opinionated and reliable. We need publications and initiatives like this now more than ever.
I know this sounds dorky but I mean it: I fear for the future but I feel like I can count on AFC as one of the resources that will tell the truth, fight for artists’ rights, and be on top of the things we need to know aware of. If you want to help support, AFC’s goth benefit takes place at The Collapsable Hole this Tuesday. We’re all going to be there.
Paddy Johnson is the founding Editor of Art F City. In addition to her work on the blog, she has been published in magazines such as New York Magazine, The New York Times and The Economist. Paddy lectures widely about art and the Internet at venues including Yale University, Parsons, Rutgers, South by Southwest, and the Whitney Independent Study Program. In 2008, she became the first blogger to earn a Creative Capital Arts Writers grant from the Creative Capital Foundation. Paddy was nominated for best art critic at The Rob Pruitt Art Awards in 2010 and 2013. In 2014, she was the subject of a VICE profile for her work as an independent art blogger. Paddy also maintains an active presence as a curator.
Jaimie Warren is a multidisciplinary artist and Co-Creator/Co-Director of the community arts project and fake public access tv show “Whoop Dee Doo”. Warren is a NYFA Fellow in Interdisciplinary Arts, and has been awarded artist residencies with BRIC (Brooklyn), Abrons Arts Center (NYC), American Medium (NYC), and Helmuth Projects (CA), among others. Warren is the recipient of the Baum Award for An Emerging American Photographer, and is a featured artist in ART21's documentary series "New York Close Up".
Whoop Dee Doo (est. 2006) and is a featured artist project on the PBS Art21 series “New York Close Up”. Whoop Dee Doo has created over 30 large-scale commissioned projects for organizations including the Smart Museum (Chicago), Loyal Gallery (Sweden), POP Montreal & DHC/ART (Montreal, QC), The Contemporary (Baltimore, MD), and others. Whoop Dee Doo is the recipient of a 2016 Franklin Furnace Grant (NYC), a 2015 Abrons Arts Center Artist Fellowship, and was a 2016 artist-in-residence at the High Line (NYC).
Joseph Keckler is a singer, writer, and artist. His work often combines autobiography, humor, and classical images and themes. Recent performances have taken place in conjunction with Miami Art Basel, Third Man Records, PEN American Center, Centre Pompidou with Cabinet Magazine, BAM, among others. His work has been featured on WNYC Soundcheck and BBC America. He received a Creative Capital Performing Arts grant, a NYFA Fellowship in Interdiscipinary Work, a Franklin Furnace, Village Voice Award for "Best Downtown Performance Artist," and has been in residence at Yaddo, MacDowell, Times Square Arts, and University of Michigan Stamps School of Art & Design. He appeared at Lincoln Center in Preludes. A collection of his writing is forthcoming from Turtle Point Press in November.
Michael Anthony Farley is a senior editor at Art F City, a curator, and artist from Baltimore, MD. He holds a BFA in Interdisciplinary Sculptural Studies from Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) and an MFA in Imaging Media and Digital Arts from University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC). Although he went to digital art school, he doesn't have a website. He did, however, switch to electronic cigarettes. Farley's drag alter ego Ellen Degenerate's curates and hosts the pop-up gay bar performance series Rough Trade and has been voted Baltimore's Best Drag Performer two years in a row. In addition to his duties at AFC, he writes the architecture/urban planning column "Degenerate City" for City Paper.