Penny Arcade has been living the bohemian life in New York City, and making art about it, on and off for more than four decades. She says she is “fundamentally a poet,” but also sings, dances, acts, and claims a hand in defining performance art in the 1980s (for which she apologizes in one of her shows). The woman and her work are imbued with humor, and in person she charms with a beneficent smile.
Arcade — a.k.a. Susana Ventura — is a contributor to GVSHP’s new book, Greenwich Village Stories, which collects both written remembrances and artwork from dozens of accomplished local figures including writer Calvin Trillin, actor Patricia Clarkson, and painter Jane Freilicher.
Arcade’s body of work is truly where political and personal meet, whether she’s reflecting or raging about AIDS, female experience, gay identity, or the city itself. The city’s ongoing gentrification/homogenization/suburbanization is a major theme — and while Penny Arcade, 63, is as upset as anyone about that, she doesn’t let it get her down. Instead, she takes action. And she has an interesting analysis: blame [in part] television shows “Friends” and “Seinfeld” for giving the impression that New York City is tame and affordable, thus encouraging suburbanites to move here and expect the city to accommodate them, rather than the other way around.
“Yet in important ways,” she writes in Greenwich Village Stories, “metaphysical ways, perhaps, it is not really so different now, in its essence or in the people who are drawn here. …The Village is populated by amazing spirits.” Here she answers more of our questions about herself and our neighborhoods.
In your story, you mention having a link to Greenwich Village through your Uncle John and Uncle Nick, who lived there. What was it like to have a family and ethnic connection to the Village?
I grew up in a working-class factory town, New Britain, Connecticut in the first generation of my family born in the U.S.A. Many of the kids in my neighborhood were the children of immigrants too: Italian, Ukrainian, Polish, Greek, Lebanese, Armenian, French Canadian, Lithuanian, Spanish, etc. We heard each other’s native languages spoken in the backyards as we played and we ate each other’s food.
Coming to New York and going to the Village where the largest ethnic group was Italian was a kind of homecoming in a very real sense. But I think it is not a coincidence that I settled in the East Village whose population was dominated by Poles and Ukrainians, just like my home town. Although in 1967 through 1990, there was still a thriving Italian presence in the East Village.
I met my father’s brothers late in life, by most standards, at 17. They were real New Yorkers. My father’s brothers had emigrated from Savona in Northern Italy, but they were both married to second- and third-generation Italian women with long roots in Greenwich Village. Through them I experienced a different kind of Italian: the New Yorker, the Villager. They were worldly in a way my mother was not. They swore and smoked cigarettes, and their long association with the Village’s eccentrics — artists, homosexuals, weirdoes, who they stood apart from but also fiercely defended from outsiders — affected them in peculiar ways. They were both open-minded and terribly closed-minded depending on their personal nature.
In your work, you protest the phenomenon that is eating at so many of us now: the homogenization of the city. Are you able to prevent this from depressing you?
I control my sorrow and my anger through the work I do to make these ideas clearer to the public. I do this through theater, through writing and speaking out, and through my video project, The Lower East Side Biography Project (Stemming the Tide of Cultural Amnesia).
There is a gentrification that happens to cities, buildings and neighborhoods but there is also gentrification that happens to ideas. For instance, the idea of being an artist has been gentrified. Once being an artist denoted a kind of activity that people pursued because it was their vocation or their livelihood. One was a painter, a sculptor, a writer, a photographer, a musician, a poet, or a filmmaker. Some did this full time, some as a hobby or in conjunction with another trade which paid the bills. Over the past 25-30 years, the word artist has become an identity, often non-specific. And as the arts have become professionalized, it is presented as something people think can be purchased by studying it. Imagine: it costs as much to study poetry or installation art — or, shudder to think, performance art — as it costs to become a lawyer or a dentist! It is only long after graduation that people begin to realize that earning money as an artist is difficult. …Since they were told that art is a profession, they expect it to pay off like any other profession that is skilled, that one has a degree in.
There is no point in feeling defeated by these things or being so angry that you become dysfunctional. All of this must be funneled into passion and coalition with like-minded people and organizations like GVSHP and The Lower East Side History Project, Save Chelsea, et cetera. There is power in coalition. My early work in the 1980s was about gentrification and the erasure of history, and it still is. Returning to New York in 1981 after living in Europe and rural Maine for ten years, I clearly saw the gentrification of New York’s neighborhoods, but also of ideas. When I spoke about gentrification in the 80s, many people thought I was overreacting. This was also the case when my work targeted the suburbanization and homogenization of New York between 1996 and 2002. Now people who had been annoyed by my stand on this started to relate to my point of view. I began participating in housing activism in the mid-1990s, fighting against the city’s illegal closing of East Village squats. I saw from observation that it would and indeed did start to affect private real estate, because large, powerful real estate forces lobbied government officials. Today the suburbanization and gentrification of New York is on almost everyone’s minds if not on their lips.
What advice would you give others on how not to be depressed?
Lots of great people, experiences and events are still here in New York and happening all the time under the constant jarring cacophony of corporate consumer culture. Read. ASK. Go to my page on Facebook — I promote so many artists and events — or follow me on Twitter. Learn the history of the movements, the people who participated in those movements, and the history that is everyone’s legacy. Participate! Support the causes you believe in. Join up with other like-minded people. Support the idea of coalitions between different organizations with the same goals. Support culture. Go to poetry readings, lectures, theater, dance, music and films that are not corporate shenanigans. Expand your taste and your experience. Life is lived in the world, not in your computer, iPhone or iPad. Nothing is so uplifting as joining and sharing. Like Jesus said, “Wherever three or more of you are gathered…”
Where should a freedom-seeking teenager go today … still New York City?
Well, the thing is that life has always been difficult for young, or even older, people without independent means. We live in an era of entitlement where everyone expects life to be far easier than it is. I say: Go for your dream! Go where your heart sings, and fight and work for what you really want. In one’s teens into one’s 20’s, you have the most time and the most freedom anyone gets in this lifetime, as well as the time period when you have the least needs. Build your capacity for endurance!
Restaurants are filled with young people! They are packed with people under 40! I ate felafel, pizza and Polish diner food ‘til I was 40. Yet today young people act like 50-year-olds! I say do not buy in to the financial enslavement of Lifestyle Culture! It is as dangerous as heroin and as addictive.
Are you entirely self-taught (in writing, performing and dance), or do you have any formal training?
I have formally completed ninth grade, and two of those years from 14-16 I was in a reform school run by the Sisters of the Good Shepherd. I didn’t learn much in the way of academics there besides Spanish, but I learned a great many other things and I was introduced to great books and spiritual independence. I wrote my first play there at 14. From 17 on I learned by doing [after moving to NYC], and by now I have been doing for a very long time.
I apprenticed. First with John Vaccaro and The Playhouse of the Ridiculous from 18-21, and also with a wide variety of artists during that period: Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey as a Warhol Superstar, Larry Rivers, Jack Smith, Harry Smith, Taylor Mead, HM Koutoukas, Jackie Curtis, Charles Ludlam, Kusama, Wavy Gravy and The Hog Farm. Politically with the Yippies, Up Against the Wall M*therf*ckers, The Diggers, Provo. … I was influenced by independent artists who were older than I and took me under their wings for a time: Patti Smith in the history of art and in the freedom to live an artistic life, Loudon Wainwright III in writing from a personal point of view, John Giorno the performance poet, non-academic critical thinking from Donald Lyons, Danny Fields, Henry Edwards, Rene Ricard, the poet, Doc Pomus, the songwriter…more influence in personal point of view, in trusting what one perceives.
…I wouldn’t say I began to be self-taught til my late 40’s after I had created a performance vocabulary over a 20-year period, a laboratory for my ideas on performance, a company of like-minded performers who participated in my work and the integration of all I had learned everywhere else. I continue to study, to read, to research whatever attracts me and to be influenced by people in passing or with whom I have long artistic friendships.
Do you have any workout/rehearsal routines, whether physical, mental, spiritual or otherwise?
I am fundamentally a poet and like many poets I am a very erratic being, that is to say, I go where the day takes me and can only focus where my passion lies. My main routine is to be kind to those who need kindness and to be honest with those who need honesty and to help anyone who comes to me for help. This is my spiritual practice and it is my mental practice because it hones and develops intuition which is my greatest tool.
I try to tell the truth no matter how much it pains me and the ones I tell it to, and I try to hear others’ truth about me, especially the good which is so much harder to accept. I know that I am inherently a happy person and that is the very best thing to know about oneself. I don’t need anyone to make me happy. I need other people to share my happiness with. Happiness and joy reside in me as they do in everyone, our natural birthright.
I am an improvisational performer. That is to say, all my work is generated in improvisation and later refined and written down. I do not rehearse as such. I do learn the structure of the performance and some of the lines in my work mostly to aid my collaborator, Steve Zehentner, for sound, light and video cues, and he too uses such cues to cue me. He and I, over the past 23 years have created and built a symbiotic artistic relationship. Steve became a dramaturge for me and he brought a lot to my work by asking powerful questions and insisting on greater clarity from me.
You’ve toured around the world with your shows. What are some of the insights you’ve gleaned from your travels?
I love to travel. It is my favorite thing to do. I make friends with other cities the way other people make friends with people. I am always walking backwards in history while remaining rooted in the present. I never think about the future. As a displaced person raised by displaced people, immigrants who were thought of as outsiders, as less than human, even in the country of their birth, everywhere I go is home.
The marvelous thing that my travels and interactions with foreign places and people have taught me is that as different as we are because of tradition, culture and history, we are more similar than we are different. There are not 30 things that make us different from one another, there are about four — and those differences are miniscule in the face of our shared humanity.
These days you are offering coaching and mentoring services. What’s that like?
I studied coaching at NYU a few years ago because I wanted to know the best tools and strategies for helping people to achieve their goals. Coaching has been an element in my theater for a long time. It is one of the reasons I have such a loyal and passionate audience. It was either study coaching or create a religion because people come to me as an oracle for help and advice constantly.
Coaching is about asking powerful questions and it is a very good use of my very strong intuition and my ability to read people’s subliminal language. So for me coaching and mentoring is a joy. I have a need to contribute to people and people sense that I do not lie and that is sadly a rare trait. I have a natural tendency to partner with people and I have a natural ability to be very committed to other people’s goals. I have stored up a lot of knowledge and as a mentor it is good to share that. …Coaching can be applied to anyone from any field, it doesn’t change because of what one does for work. I have worked with many people who do corporate work. I coach for personal authenticity.
Do you plan ahead with your hair colors, or do they just happen?
I started coloring my hair at 53. Before that I was always my natural color, dark brown. First I was blonde, then platinum, then pink, then apricot, and now red. I don’t plan colors, but they do appear out of the ether and call me! I will be apricot again soon, I think. Apricot with pink. My hair colors make other people very happy. People continually tell me that everywhere I go! They stop me on the street, they shout it from cars, children are mesmerized. That is a nice bonus.
Read stories by Penny Arcade, Lou Reed, Donna Karan, Ed Koch, Hettie Jones and many more in a new book published to benefit GVSHP, Greenwich Village Stories.