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Penny Arcade: Art Creator, and Conservator

The wonderful and daring performance artist Penny Arcade (b. July 15, 1950, New Britain, CT.) is well known for the great works she has created and shared on stages large and small across New York and the world. A dear friend of Village Preservation’s, she’s also (perhaps less well known) someone who has made incredibly important contributions to the preservation and conservation of the lives, stories, and legacies of others, particularly those in the creative milieu of downtown New York like here.

Penny welcoming small business owner Danilo Romero as he accepts the 2022 Village Award for Bonsignour.

Village Preservation was honored to have Penny emcee our recent 2022 Village Awards at The Cooper Union’s historic Great Hall. In 2018, she sat down for a wonderful oral history she did with us. Through that, we are lucky to have Penny’s own words to describe her life and work:

“Hi, my name is Susana Ventura, but most people call me, or many people call me Penny Arcade. I am a poet, a writer, meaning an essayist and a theater writer, and I’m also an archivist and oral history maker, videographer…I’m from an oral tradition of southern Italian storytelling, where every problem is described by [laughs] being told about another problem that was similar to it that had happened once before. And that’s how I made my work… the work just––it’s not about me, it’s about the work coming through me.”

Penny, an East Village icon, helped define performance art in the 1980s. All artists have multiple levels and evolve over time. Penny’s approach to her work is one of the reasons she resonates so much with the audience at the Village Awards and various audiences in our neighborhoods over the decades.

“The thing is that people always call me a provocateur, but I’m not a provocateur. I don’t set out to provoke. That’s not what I’m doing. I am in a dialogue with my audience, which is like me. I assume that my audience is as intelligent if not more intelligent than I am, and that I’m the researcher. That’s what my relationship is to the audience. I’m not there to talk down to the audience, I don’t think I have something to tell you. I would not be successful if that was true.” (Village Preservation’s Oral History of Penny Arcade p. 45–46)

As you can see, Penny’s oral history offers a unique perspective on who she is and her work that no other format can. Fortunately, Penny is not the only significant figure of our neighborhoods to offer the public this sort of special insight.

Village Preservation’s Oral History Project includes interviews with some of the great artists, activists, business owners, community leaders, and preservation pioneers of Greenwich Village, the East Village, and NoHo. It captures and preserves their first-person perspective on the important histories they witnessed or of which they were a part. 

Our oral history with Penny was launched with the Village Preservation program “Penny Arcade Herself, Celebrating Her Village Preservation Oral History.”

Penny Arcade, also known as “Queen of the Underground,” can offer particular perspectives on the downtown creative scene, from having been drawn to it and then influencing it: 

“So, it used to be that you came to New York and you might end up in the underground, like people are always saying, ‘Oh, I wish I could be in the underground, but I’m not cool enough.’ Like, the underground’s not about being cool. It’s about being willing, it’s about having that interest. You know, it’s not a cool thing. It’s not like: you, yes, you, no. It’s not like that at all! You know? It’s the opposite of that. It has to do more with endurance and persistence and interest. So it’s very eclectic. You find your way into the underground because of your own eclecticism. You’re interested in certain music, certain film, certain painting, certain theater. You go to see those things. You’re reading certain books. You meet people at these events who are like you who are interested in more or less the same kinds of things, and that’s the underground. And that’s always been the underground, and that’s the way it is…There’s some kind of outsiderness, some kind of opposition to the status quo, some kind of opposition to the dominant culture. And––but what happened in the ‘70s was people started knowing these things existed, and specifically coming for that.” (Arcade p. 25)

Penny’s contributions to telling the story of the downtown creative scene extends far beyond her contribution to Village Preservation’s oral history project. In our program celebrating the launch of her oral history, Penny also mentions the award-winning documentary series she helped found in 1999 on Manhattan Neighborhood Network, The Lower East Side Biography Project Presents.

In the above video, you hear Penny state the goal of “stemming the tide of cultural amnesia” as a key part of this program. This project continues to help preserve the past while building a strong future for community artists. 

The Lower East Side Biography Project combines the community impact of collecting and sharing oral histories with an opportunity to train others in skills necessary for production and post production. From the project’s fiscal sponsor ABC No Rio:

“The Lower East Side Biography Project is a community based media program training individuals in all aspects of dv video production. Participants attend workshops and then apply their new skills by working within small production teams to shoot, edit and direct their own biography segment on one of the long-term residents of the Lower East Side. This project attempts to stem the cultural amnesia in the rapidly changing Lower East Side by creating a dialogue between the project’s biography subjects and newcomers to the city and the neighborhood. The Project hopes to give neophyte videographers the opportunity to work with quality documentary material as well as the satisfaction of preserving precious oral histories for future generations. In addition to creating biographies, the LES Bio Project routinely documents live events.”

In the program’s 1000th episode, we hear from Jayne County. Jayne Rogers (born July 13, 1947), better known by her stage name Jayne County, has developed a career over six decades as an American singer, songwriter, actress and record producer. After watching the oral history, you can continue to learn about Jayne’s life and career in her autobiography “Man Enough to Be A Woman” 

Jayne County, The Lower East Side Biography Project, excerpt from 28 minute biography from Steve Zehentner on Vimeo.

This is just one example of how the Lower East Side Biography Project has created an incredible archive of Lower East Side history through the words and stories of the people who lived it. 

With Patti Smith and Jackie Curtis

Beyond our gratitude for Penny’s long term support for Village Preservation and all that her visionary art has done for the East Village and beyond, we can also be grateful for her leadership in founding and stewarding The Lower East Side Biography Project. There you’ll find a treasure trove of the very human and personal history of the Lower East Side that resonates with anyone who is interested in (what Penny called in her Village Preservation oral history) “some kind of opposition to the status quo, some kind of opposition to the dominant culture.”

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