For more than a decade, artist Karen Finley has been on the front lines of freedom of speech issues combined with a cutting-edge position in the performing arena. Her solo performance pieces made her the bane of political conservatives a decade ago, when she was a lightning rod in the battle over funding for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Her work at the time, in which the finale found her nude and covered in chocolate syrup, was too much for some ... and not enough for others! When the NEA—under pressure from a Republican Congress—withdrew a grant to her, Finley brought suit over the issue of freedom of expression, artistic or otherwise. She eventually lost the convoluted case, but certainly raised her profile in the process, as well as adding substantially to the political dialogue about the arts.
The Chicago-born Finley returns to town for appearances in her newest work, Shut Up and Love Me!, at the Apollo Theater as part of Estrogen Fest, co-produced by the City of Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, and the Prop Thtr Group.
Windy City Times: Tell me about Shut Up and Love Me! Is it a single piece? Or a series of stand-alone pieces? Is it possible to summarize the theme or themes easily?
Karen Finley: I created this as a response after I lost my Supreme Court case. In this work, without apology, I purposely make a work that deals with erotic dysfunction and the female volunteering for the exploits of—rather than rhetorical victim positioning—feminism. The work is mischievous and fun with a nude ballet in honey as the finale.
WCT: Is your creative process a fast one or a slow one?
KF: Sometimes the idea just comes automatically, and then I create the work while performing it as well. But usually, the work takes a balance of chance and conscious choice.
CT: So you work on your feet, physically? Or do your works emerge as written pieces first?
KF: Yes, I like to have the creative process like being in love. Many times it is an image, or a feeling—an emotion that needs to be called out from under.
WCT: Do you consider yourself prolific?
KF: Yes, I would like to be able to produce more—but because of the current times—funding issues, censorship issues—it is difficult.
WCT: So does that force you to utilize some material for a long time? Or perhaps it's like a rock band, where fans want to see your old hits?
KF: Hmmmmm. I will work on a piece until it feels finished. For example, I have been trying to bring Shut Up and Love Me! to Chicago for two or three years. So sometimes the life of a piece depends on its bookings. My current work I have been working on for one and a half years, and it's just finished. My current piece is about the emotional.
WCT: As a solo artist, how do you edit and judge the effectiveness of your work? Do you work with a director, or another artist whose taste and opinion you trust with regard to feedback?
KF: I did work with Jim Simpson. He runs the Flea Theatre in New York City. I loved working with him. He directed me in The return of the Chocolate Smeared Woman in New York. And I perform in other people's works occasionally. Also, I'm starting a theater troupe myself called Unicorn Treats, and we will work collaboratively like the Ridiculous Theatrical Company used to do, or the Wooster Group still does.
(EDITOR'S NOTE: the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, now disbanded, was founded by the late Charles Ludlam, author of The Mystery of Irma Vep and many other shows.)
WCT: Does your work evolve as you perform it more and more in public? If so, how has Shut Up and Love Me! changed? Do you modify your work in response to changing world news, either social or geo-political?
KF: Yes and yes and yes! I continue to edit the work as I perform, and I always allow for chance and mood.
WCT: Do you do your work for your audience, or for yourself?
KF: I consider myself to be a visual artist first, and that is how I approach my audience. I don't have much interest in traditional theatrical conventions such as memorization, character, staying in character, suspension of disbelief—I am interested in subtext, being distracted, neurotic split selves.
WCT: You're also a visual artist, I mean working the so-called plastic arts. What media you work in?
KF: I work in installation, video, drawing, painting. I was just in a group show at Elga Wimmer Gallery in New York City.
WCT: Do you feel the arts are healthier today then they were during the NEA wars?
KF: I feel it is worse.
WCT: But was it a question about the health of the arts, or about the environment within which the arts existed then, and exist today? Do people still have issues with your work, based on form rather than content? It seems to me that that was the crux of the NEA wars.
KF: No, it is based on content, the culture wars. And my politics and views. Speaking of which, I would like to say that I very much look forward to performing in my hometown Chicago. I am a fan of the Prop Thtr ... please come and see me dance in honey!
Prop Thtr Group is bringing two legendary female performance art figures back to Chicago to open and close Estrogen Fest 2003. Karen Finley performing Shut Up and Love Me! Friday, April 4 & 11 at 10:30 p.m. and Saturday, April 5 & 12 at 11:30 p.m. at the Apollo Theatre, 2540 N. Lincoln; $29.50, (773) 935-6100.
Annie Sprinkle will be in town to celebrate Estrogen Fest on Friday, May 9 & Saturday May 10; (773) 348-PROP (7767).
Also: Special meet and greet, Q & A with Karen Finley, discussing her life in art, at the Prop Thtr April 6 at 7 p.m., $25, (773) 348-PROP.