Program Cover Carnivalof Sleaze 1988

From the Archives: Carnival of Sleaze

By Christine Gwillim

Mar 19, 2015

Carnival of Sleaze is a title that grabs attention. A simple Google search brings up Guns ‘n Roses, GWAR and some touchy political accusations. The 1988 press release from The Kitchen’s Carnival of Sleaze promises much more than rock music and political satire. It claims “Carnival of Sleaze tests the outer limits of artistic subject matter while offering a response to ‘the new propriety’ in performance.” More specifically, the carnival dealt with what many considered to be “sleazy” art. Though the term has fallen out of favor, it evokes the abject imagery that many late twentieth–century artists were using to make larger political statements about American taboos. The AIDS epidemic was creeping into popular culture, and along with it a renewed paranoia around body fluids and sexual difference. From the late seventies through the early nineties many modern thinkers published seminal works around the taboos addressed in Carnival of Sleaze. Julia Kristeva and Mary Douglas’ works on abjection and dirt, Michael Foucault’s History of Sexuality and Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble are just a few of the now iconic texts that reaffirm the importance of “sleazy” art. 

Paranoia around the body manifested itself in a conservative effort to stop funding artwork that dealt with base subject matter, graphic nudity and leftist politics. The late eighties in New York were charged with issues of censorship and threatening funding cuts for the arts. Many of the Carnival of Sleaze artists and The Kitchen as an institution came under scrutiny for lewd performances in the early nineties. Pornography, performance art, video and comedy aggravated the binary of high and low art that would come to a head a few years later in the 1990 National Endowment for the Arts legal battles. Public funding for experimentation in the arts has radically decreased since the verdict of the NEA trials. Academia has attempted to pick up the pieces of a fractured movement with the proliferation of university departments dedicated to thinking about gender, performance, feminism and queer studies. 

The Kitchen was at the forefront of presenting controversial artists and Carnival of Sleaze was an evening dedicated to presenting edgy work by some of the most notorious names in New York. Carnival of Sleaze was guest curated by Kitchen regular Carlo McCormick and featured performances by Emilio Cubeiro, Karen Finley, Kembra Pfahler, Andy Soma, Annie Sprinkle and Veronica Vera as well as films by Tessa Hughes-Freeland and Richard Kern of the No Wave Cinema movement. The evening was a rare chance to see back-to-back performances and films that were pushing the envelope on sex, violence, activism and gender identity in a performative context. The program from the event features a found image of a 1950s style girl band playing topless, foreshadowing the promotional materials for Annie Sprinkle and Emilio Cubeiro’s controversial 1990 collaboration, Post- Porn Modernist. Karen Finley, on the heels of a Bessie for her groundbreaking show at The Kitchen, The Constant State of Desire, opened the carnival with a seemingly improvised monologue about sleaziness. Finley was quickly making a name for herself as a provocateur, but her “Sleaze” performance was surprisingly subdued. She took the mic and asserted that the sleaziest act she could perform was a non–performance, —she claimed that she planned to not show up, but needed to be paid. She simply asked for her check and left the stage. Finley's tongue and cheek reaction to the prompt underlined the sincerity with which she approached her work and the complicated ways that provocative work was beginning to come up against funding blocks. 

Emilio Cubeiro’s graphic staging of suicide and an imagined eulogy evoked humor, fear, and the grotesque; it may have touched on the term “sleaze” most poignantly. The following year he would be diagnosed with AIDS, complicating the performance in a way that can only be done when looking back through an archival lens. 

The screenings from Hughes-Freeland and Kern provoked questions of gender identity and sexuality. Keen’s Submit to Me, Now, re-mastered and available on Vimeo as Submit to Me (with a new soundtrack by the Butthole Surfers) pushes the limits of BDSM with its graphic sexual imagery and bloody bodies while Hughes-Freeland’s Playboy uses found footage to exploit violence and voyeurism from a feminist point of view. Andy Soma performed as “Randy Roma” the godfather of the avant-garde, and Kembra Pfahler performed a bloodletting ritual with the help of artist Samoa. 

The show ended with a slideshow created by Annie Sprinkle and Veronica Vera. The slides showed Sprinkle, Vera and other women in a series of poses ranging from the domestic and familial to erotic and pornographic. The performance was recounted in dramatic criticism scholar Elinor Fuchs’ The Death of Character: Perspectives on Theater After Modernism and similar images were used in Sprinkle and Cubeiro’s 1990 show, Post-Porn Modernist

It is impossible to revisit this event without noticing the many ways it foreshadowed some of these artists’ most controversial moments. McCormick notes in the program “I still don’t know what sleaze is, it’s been so diluted in the general corruption of our culture. I just know when I smell it on the phone, or when it touches me from behind, or when I taste it on someone’s breath. Maybe we’ll all know what sleaze is tomorrow...” Though grappling with the ontology of the word, McCormick managed to curate an evening that represents the fractured and dissipated ways that our culture deals with terminology. Each performance represented a vastly different interpretation of the word, some silly, some tragic, all a little unsettling and uncannily foretelling of the group’s future interrelations.

About The Kitchen