Karen Finley Story/Interview

by Vittorio Carli

Karen Finley interview - performances and visual art.

Karen Finley is an innovative and controversial New York based performance artist/literary figure/visual artist. She has created countless installations, drawings, performances, and public sculptures all over the world. Many of her works deal with the issues of violence against women, emotional despair, a sense of loss, and abuse.

Some of her pieces deal with her upbringing and dysfunctional family situation. According to her book, "A Different Kind of Intimacy," her father used to put Karen in a refrigerator, and he committed suicide while she was still a little girl.

She has been featured on many television shows. She was a semi-regular face on Bill Maher’s “ Politically Incorrect” and one of her performances was famously edited out of Dennis Miller’s cable show. She also posed for Playboy magazine and became a poster child for arts censorship.

During her performances she often goes into a trancelike voice and verbally juggles different characters and voices. At the end of her shows, she often takes off her clothes and smears herself with chocolate or other substances.

In "A Different Kind of Intimacy," Finely said that she smeared herself in chocolate to commemorate Tawana Brawley, a young woman who alleged that some police officers raped her and smeared her with feces. In her current show, she rolls around in honey. She has said that this is both a parody of mud wrestling and homage to Winnie the Poo.

She caused a big controversy when she made the cover of The Village Voice and she ignited a stampede with “POO POO AND PEE PEE,” her parody of Hitler and Eva Braun. She has collaborated with many other artists including Sinead O’ Conner and Tales of Taboo.

Finely gained much notoriety for her show,”We Keep Our Victims Ready." “The show made her run afoul of Senator Jessie Helms who used her performances as a focal point for a movement to eliminate the NEA. When her NEA grant application was rejected for inappropriate content she challenged the ruling. She took the case all the way to the Supreme Court along with fellow artists, Holly Hughes, John Fleck, and Tim Miller. The artists lost the case.

She rebutted Helms in her performance, "The Return of the Chocolate Smeared Woman” during the Supreme Court proceedings.

In addition, she has also seen her share of international controversy. She was nearly deported from England and public officials charged that she could not talk and take off her clothes at the same time.

Finely recently returned to Chicago, the town she was born in. She ended a triumphant show at the Apollo Theater in early April called” Shut Up and Love Me.” In her own words, the show is a “post feminist illustrative performance of a woman’s journey, of dysfunctional companionship, and psycho social lust without apology.”

When she rants at the audience in different voices during the show it seems more like spirit channeling or possession than acting. The show features a series of gritty, sardonic dialogues about people trying to find sex. It features disco dancing, altered scenes from Winnie the Poo, a deconstructed lap dance and a nude dance in honey. She took the time to answer the following questions from me via e-mail. The answers are presented unexpurgated—exactly how they were sent to me, to preserve the prose poem like look of the responses.


Where did the characters in Shut Up and Love Me come from?


the show is a post feminist nod to the chanteuse -josephine baker -mae west- and after my supreme court case i used the persona of the chanteuse- for the woman emotionally erratic is allowed within the society- here i become the vamp and then i have no detractors for i admit it- in some ways it is merely a joke to character studeis- i have little interest or rather less interst in character- acting, memoriazation - thant all gets in the way - theatre still is interested in suspension of disbelief - a reality - i like to deconstruct the history, and the structure while presenting content

How has being a mother influenced your work?


well everyone has a mother -and now i am a mother-


Why do you feel that women's bodies are seen as loaded guns?

i had a good reason when i said it- it is dificult to broing up the past comments and then have to qualify of explain something said in the past.
I think it is rather clear- maybe women would understand it, without needing to explain

becuase womens' bodies are looked at as dangerus, taboo, and that the feelings of looking at a female body -sexul- desiring - sex-


Why did you roll around in honey in "Shut Up and Love Me?"
because i wanted to


I was working on a book for smart art press - called pooh unplugged -it is a parody of aamilne and i draw all of the animals with new texts from the originals and i had a reading and decided to do a honey spin in relationship to winnie the pooh.- pretending i was the animals in 100 acre wood. and the honey spin in luxurious a parody on mud- oil wrestling and i spin in the honey for no reason as opposed to earlier rhetoical work.


Where do you see your own work going in the future?


like to continue making perfromances and visual art.

Postscript: Karen Finely sent me the following correction/addition/feedback to the article on December 28, 2004.

my father committed suicedbut when i was 21 and he never put me in a refrigerator- why does soemthing need to be factual to be valid? someone saw your article on the web and pointed it out to me.

Karen Finley

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Photography by Richard Wilson