Legendary queer performance artist Penny Arcade is back in the UK with a new show that dissects the issue of ‘gentrification’, and how its ominous march through our neighbourhoods is slowly threatening our LGBT identity.
Born Susana Ventura, Penny Arcade is 65 this year. Where most people will be making plans to retire, Arcade continues her mission to challenge the increasingly constrictive grip of an unequal world. Having spent nearly fifty years in the company of some of the most influential queer minds – from Andy Warhol to Quentin Crisp – she views the world from the perspective of a rebellious outsider, eschewing the pressures of social conformity.
To criminally oversimplify her artistry, Arcade’s shtick is telling it like it is – with an added healthy dose of humour and maybe a song or two. But that description really doesn’t do her justice. Her compelling mind pulls apart the pervading issues that you don’t even realise permeate under the skin of our daily lives. Arcade’s observations offer an antidote, inviting us to liberate our thoughts from the weight of a system that thrives on keeping any sense of individuality contained, categorised and commodotised.
It all sounds rather dramatic, doesn’t it?
But after my long conversation with Arcade it becomes apparent that there really is all to lose when it comes to how we have become blindly accustomed to following a daily routine of living, working, shopping and (socially acceptable) fucking in order to maintain a status quo that makes the rich richer and keeps the hoi polloi firmly in its place.
This time Arcade has moved her lens over the urban buzzword of the moment: gentrification. From housing to high street homogenisation it is not just the gentrification of physical spaces that concerns her, but the encroaching gentrification of our minds. It’s probably too late to save the buildings that are currently being transformed into luxury flats for wealthy investors, she acknowledges. “We’ve actually been colonised. There’s not much we can do, that’s the problem. I’ve been talking about gentrification in my work since the 80s. Even though gentrification is in the media right now, they’re always twenty years late.”
Arcade has been involved in housing activism since 1996, but nobody was listening then. “We couldn’t get people interested. People only get involved when it affects them directly,” she sighs. She warns that what people need to wake up to is the real threat that it’s not just neighbourhoods that are being erased by non-descript carbon copies of deluxe apartments, but our very identity that is under threat. “It’s about gentrification of the streets, but also about the gentrification of ideas,” she warns.
Arcade believes that London is going through “hyper-gentrification”, something New York City experienced in 1999. This process isn’t new. Arcade identifies these cycles as far back as the 1400s and 1700s. “What’s different now is the wholesale erasure of culture, of places that represent something to people. Before, yes things changed, but we brought our history forward. It wasn’t this wholesale erasure of the complete authenticity of a neighbourhood, like what’s happening in Soho.”
She mourns a Soho slowly rendered insipid by the influx of charcuteries and bijou coffee bars that are dulling its once beating unapologetically sexualised spirit. “Soho represented the libidinal heart of the UK, not just of London. People came from all over the UK to live in a freer way socially than they could in their small villages or country towns. It doesn’t just affect London, it affects the whole of the UK. The closing of the gay bars and the strip clubs and the ultra-louche venues affects everybody,” Arcade states.
History has shown that the world’s more innovative talents have preferred to find their artistic inspiration from the more ‘undesirable’ edges of society, providing a vital energy to the city’s humdrum routine. It’s little wonder the frequently ostracised LGBT community found its home alongside these elements. Arcade points out that the more closed-minded sections of society often prefer to distance themselves from these more unconventional ways of living. “Not everybody wants real authenticity, plenty of people don’t want the instability of a real journey of life. They would prefer to be on internet life support. But other people, including me, want to know what can we do if everything around us is being homogenised.”
Normally, we’re happy to be homo-anything’d but in this case Arcade is concerned that our determined march to ‘fit in’ to the mainstream world will only lull our once more progressive LGBT community into a safe, assimilated comfort zone. So, what can we do to stop ourselves from impending homogenisation? “That’s the issue. We’re not going to be able to fight the corporate fascism that’s behind all these things, which started with Thatcher in the 70s. There was a real resistance in the UK that was stronger than the USA, because the British realised there was a class system. The American’s don’t realise there’s a class system. They still don’t believe it exists!”
She believes the best thing we can do to avoid being suckered into the all-consuming arms of societal blandness is to be proud of our outsider status. New laws may deliver equal rights, but Arcade says our identity in what makes us uniquely LGBT must be valued and held onto. That identity includes our ability to see the world from the outside in, from its fringes, aware of the conformist agenda that the world places on everyone’s shoulders – and increasingly our own community places on itself.
“The gay world was a place that understood the human condition and was a very empathetic, welcoming place for outsiders. Gay bars in towns across the world were the place where outsiders felt at home every night of the week. And that’s one of the sad things that we’ve lost with this identity politic that was high-jacked by a certain class of people.”
That ‘class of people’ has become strengthened by divisions that have appeared in the gay community over the years. The basic message of her 1990 show Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! was about the ‘need for coalition among all free thinking people’.
“One of the lines in it was that hate mongers have no trouble forming alliances with any other hate monger. But those of us who consider ourselves so open minded and bound to freedom are very picky who we form coalitions with, and in the past 12-15 years it’s gotten so broken down in the LGBT community,” Arcade sighs.
“We don’t have any power any more because we don’t have any coalition. We have people who are only interested in trans issues, or gay male issues. Lesbians are left out because almost nobody wants to be a lesbian any more because they’ve always been on the low rung of the totem pole of the gay world.”
Is that down to sexism, I ask?
PENNY ARCADE: LONGING LASTS LONGER SOHO THEATRE 2 - 21 NOV
from Steve Zehentner
“Yes. Sexism, misogyny and the fact that everybody had a mother,” she smiles wryly. But she means it with all seriousness.
For Arcade the world’s problems are everybody’s concern. “We’re barreling towards totalitarianism, permanent war, economic inequality, GMO foods, climate change. All of these huge issues. In NY we’ve had huge demonstrations for ‘black lives matter’, with 100,000 people in the streets. How do you get the same 100,000 people to turn out for rent stabilisation for poor blacks and whites? They keep telling us we’re in communication with everybody but we’re not. The internet did not live up to its promise.”
Far from being the tool that delivers instant access to the world, Arcade points out that the concept of this wonderful free internet should be approached with caution, stating how it has simply been capitalised, packaged and sold back to us by the likes of Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Twitter. “People don’t realise that the internet is not free, it’s owned. The algorithms are deciding what we see. There’s only three or four people that own the internet. I did a big consultation with a professor of robotics and it was so frightening talking to her.”
The role of her current show, Longing Lasts Longer, aims to highlight the importance of creating community and what we can do “to maintain our authenticity in the face of this onslaught that is happening to us.”
As gay venues close all over the UK, Arcade says the most ideal way we can possibly maintain any sense of identity is to create our own spaces to express ourselves in. Created by four friends with a shared vision, she cites the opening of Jonny Woo’s The Glory in East London as an example. “That’s the only way there are going to be spaces for us. There used to be hundreds of spaces for us, but now everything is being taken over and homogenised. It’s really distressing. For younger people, once it starts to dawn on you what’s happening and you’ve got another thirty years going forward, it’s going to be even more distressing.
“And that’s what my show is about, supporting individuality and authenticity and getting down to the real nitty-gritty of what it means to be alive in the world right now, and to be human, right now. With a lot of really big laughing! It’s about the anxiety or the reality of the shit that we’re in.”
Has the gay community given up on its ability to think as outsiders? Are we too far down the road of societal assimilation to save our more liberal attitudes?
“The world has assimilated,” she states, boldly emphasising how gentrification’s progress has already absorbed those lured into its big glistening glass and steel super-structures. “Except the ones it doesn’t want, which are always the same ones: the poofters, the screaming queens, the drag queens. Not the drag queens that host bingo on Friday nights and go to their office jobs, but the ones that live a louche, libidinal life. The transgendered men and women that don’t fit in.”
She continues, “Queers are always going to be 10% of the population. Out of that 10%, only 1% are going to be the outsiders. It was that 1% that created the gay liberation movement because it’s only people that have nothing to lose that rebel. In 1967, two years before the Stonewall riots in New York, if you were gay and you were arrested your name was published in all three newspapers with your address and where you were employed. The next day you were fired out of your job and possibly thrown our of your lodging.”
It’s a situation not unlike what’s happening in parts of Africa, and even Eastern Europe with certain countries reintroducing anti-LGBT laws. “People act like it can’t happen again, but it can. People are deluded because they have no sense of history. And that’s the problem with the contemporary world. They hate history, but they love vintage.”
Equality laws come and go, but social acceptance and the battle to maintain one’s identity will endure. As the legendary Quentin Crisp once said to her, ‘you and I cannot hide what we are. We have to work hard to be accepted by other people.’
“There are people who are like that. We don’t fit in. People notice right away that there’s something different,” she says. “Being gay was one of those cultures. Being gay was a way to be oppositional to the dominant culture. When I was young I realised, ‘Oh, there’s other people like me, I’m not the only person who is like this’. The truth is I never wanted to be middle class, or to have that kind of approval or life. I prefer to be in the margins and lead a libidinal life that’s rooted in culture, and sex. Pleasure is a radical action.”
I raise the question of whether the original struggle for LGBT freedom that has been epitomised by the Pride movement for the past 45 years has seen queer liberation sacrificed at the expense of acceptance by the moralising, dominant system that she strides ardently against. “Since the beginning of the gay liberation movement the people who were in charge of gay committees wanted to distance themselves more and more from fringe elements. They wanted to especially distance themselves from sex. There wouldn’t have even been a gay liberation movement without the fringe elements.”
Arcade underscores the fact how during the AIDS crisis there was ‘a certain kind of middle class gay person that didn’t want to be associated with the people who got sick because of sex’.
“As middle class morals continue to come into the gay world, we’re swamped by this middle class way of being and people are grasping after that. They want to be accepted by the white middle class culture. Nothing is more frightening to me than to have to be into that,” Arcade states.
She’s less forgiving of those from within the LGBT community that seek to condemn their own. “There are larger issues here and one of the big ones is the co-optation of the gay liberation movement by people who had a greater financial and economic and educational privilege who are still going to leave the undesirables behind. But it was the undesirables that created the possibility for this movement for freedom.”
As such her new show is a “vindication for people who are over 50, and an inspiration for people who are under 50,” Arcade declares.
“Let’s get real, let’s talk about the possibilities of what’s really going on because we’re in a critical position right now. Because I’m that Sixties kind of creature, that radical queer that took LSD for five years. OK, I’m exaggerating,” she grins. “Sometimes we took mescaline.”
Arcade concludes, “The only way I see us having a political commentary is for it to be a party, because why would you want to be there if it wasn’t fun? That’s what we specialized in, not this politically correct boring stuff that high-jacks the conversation, but something that opens it way up so that you leave the theatre with your own thoughts, taking responsibility for your own life. Because your life belongs to you, it cannot be downloaded and it cannot be purchased.”
info: Penny Arcade - Longing Lasts Longer plays at the Soho Theatre from November 2 - 21. Special Attitude reader offer: £10 tickets to all performances for the first two weeks (subject to availability):
GET £10 TICKETS 2-14 NOV
WITH OFFER CODE 'ATTITUDE10'.
/ 020 7478 0100
This interview first appeared in issue 260 of Attitude Magazine - you can download the issue from Attitudedigital.co.uk.