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Gay News Sponsor Windy City Times 2023-02-22



Performance artist Karen Finley talks AIDS, pope, Planned Parenthood
by Sarah Toce

This article shared 4926 times since Wed Sep 30, 2015
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Provocative, authentic, engaging, masterful—these are four descriptors that have come to mind when the mere mention of performance artist Karen Finley is presented. From her famous pieces, "We Keep Our Victims Ready" and "Written in Sand," to a brand-new project that hasn't even seen the light of day yet called "Sext Me If You Can," Finley's emotionally raw endeavors into fine art and the human experience transcends generations.

Finley will appear at Women & Children First Bookstore on Friday, Oct. 2, to support the re-release of Shock Treatment: Expanded 25th Anniversary Edition.

"At first, I was thinking that the 25th anniversary of this book wouldn't have any significance because of thinking the issues that I was writing about—how would that be responded to today?" Finley reflected. "The book was written in the late '80s and came out in 1990, and at that time it was the AIDS crisis. There was extraordinary political indifference to the AIDS crisis and the impact on marginalized people—genderqueer, bi, gay, lesbian—it was at a time when it was being imposed in Congress that there should be camps for people who had HIV. It's difficult for younger people to imagine the stigmatization at this time. If you died, your death wouldn't even be announced. It was the family's right to take the bodies of their loved ones. Death wasn't announced, just like their lives weren't announced. We were in war like we were in war now."

Finley further elaborated, "Women's rights were under siege; right now Planned Parenthood's rights are under siege. At the same time we're supposed to be looking at progress in some areas, but it's still not enough—like #BlackLivesMatter. I felt that it was important to put the writing out there again because there is a relationship about voicing the political issues for today. I wouldn't say I'm excited about the re-release because I'm not excited about the political issues—human issues—we're facing today."

In her repertoire, Finley famously performs a piece she calls "Written in Sand," about her friends who died from AIDS during the height of the epidemic.

"At that particular time the loss was compounded by the lack of dignity and the lack of announcements and acceptance," Finley said. "That compounded the pain and the loss—that I and my friends—were not allowed to mourn our friends. Everyone was so excited about the Pope, well, where is the Pope? I don't need the Pope's forgiveness. I don't need the Pope's acceptance. Who is the Church to judge? It concerns me that the Church would curtail the dignity of the right to be buried. The right to be handled with the dignity of mourning … and that I'm still angry about, and I think it still exists. It's a paler shade of pain, but it still exists."

Asked if she had any advice to give the younger generation not alive during the AIDS reaping of the '80s and '90s who may think they will eventually get the disease, Finley once again stated the best option is non-judgment.

"People are still dying now from sex and HIV," Finley said. "In terms of political cruelty and policing, people of color are dying—#BlackLivesMatter, for instance. I would never propose for me, as a white, heterosexual woman, to ever tell a person who feels that something is in their future, to ever make a correction about their lives. With that said, a friend of mine decided to commit suicide, and I was always trying to give him hope. I wish I could have been a better friend to let my friend cry a million tears. I cannot be in that person's space. It's important to take that anger and that despair and fight for the next generation. Instead of thinking you can walk up the entire staircase, you take one step."

Finley is currently mulling over a concept she feels more people should explore—acceptance and living in a non-binary way.

"How is a person able to voice their despair in a way that is positive so that they are allowed to have a space like that?" she asked. "Too many times we have the 'queer character' and archetype that we allow within our culture and society—within families—and that is very painful to have to live within the narrow spaces where you're allowed to exist. I want to ask individuals—instead of thinking in black and white because that is binary, too—what are ways of expression that we can all be supporting our bodies and resist against stereotypes?"

Performance art has always held a prominent space in Finley's heart and she's circling back around to a couple of concepts she's been itching to try for quite some time.

"What I've been working on in these past two years is finally compiling my writing with music [with Chicago musician Paul Nebenzahl]. We're going to be performing in London," she said.

She is also working on addressing shame and stigma that comes with the subject of sexuality.

"I have a project called 'Sext Me If You Can.' In this project, I am in a gallery or in a museum and people send me sexts," she explained. "They actually purchase a time and go to a green room or an area in the museum and have 10 minutes and then they sext me and I create art based on that image that's sent to me."

What happens next walks the line of "healthy" voyeurism.

"The audience can then watch me create the artwork during the compilation," she said. "It's a way to show that sexting can be a creative outlet and that creative activities can also be sexual and erotic. We shouldn't be shaming people to the point where they're committing suicide or losing their livelihood from the humiliation of it. It's just sophomoric and wrong—and cruel."

Finley quickly added, "There's still this hidden desire about sexuality—having it and owning it. If you send an image or receive an image, the whole world comes down. It's really disproportionate. I'm an artist, I can't address all the different—people always like to bring up the pathology of desire—children—but that's not what I'm talking about here."

The lifelong artist also spearheads a group called Artists Anonymous.

"I created an artist support group that is based on 13 steps for artists who are addicted to art," she said. "I am powerless over art so I create meetings. I also create participatory walks that I do at certain locations. It's very small—like 15-20 people—that walk with me."

Finley will perform readings from her book and offer discussions.

"There will be dramatic readings from some of the texts," she said. "Some of these texts were deemed obscene or indecent and were part of the culture wars. In 1990 when I was performing and I applied for a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, myself and three other artists' grants were denied. We had a suit that went to the Supreme Court [Finley vs. the NEA] and my work was considered indecent. I will be performing some of those selections, and then I will be talking about the culture wars."

Chicago is home to Finley.

"Chicago is my home. It's where I started creating my work," she said. "When I go there I feel—to me, it's my memory of home."

Find out more about Karen Finley and her upcoming appearance at Women & Children First at .

This article shared 4926 times since Wed Sep 30, 2015
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