You Are Your Own Director: A Conversation with Karen Finley

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Karen Finley is as bold as they come. While her work varies in mediums—poetry, prose, and, performance art—it is always controversial. She fuses together anger and humor to help dismember American politics and the public sexual innuendoes that go hand-in-hand with it. But Finley’s boldness has cost her in the past. Take the 1990 National Education Association (NEA) grant, for example. If you know of Finely’s work, you’ve probably heard about the grant that was revoked because of her performance piece, “We Keep Our Victims Ready.” As part of this particular performance, she rubbed food on her near-naked body, which was deemed too suggestive for the NEA. That didn’t stop her—nothing does.

As an Art and Public Policy professor at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Finley is eager to teach her students the power of creative expression. Finley’s creative work has won the Guggenheim Fellowship and was awarded two Obies (Off-Broadway Theater Awards). She and her art have been seen all over the globe, performing everywhere from New York City to London, and lining the walls of major institutions, including the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Finley is also an author of several books, including Shock Treatment, A Different Kind of Intimacy, and her latest, Grabbing Pussy, which mocks Donald Trump’s infamous “locker talk banter.”

In this book, Finley focuses on the nation’s most powerful public figures, their violent sexual impulses, and the impact these desires have on society. This book also proves big things come in small packages. At just one hundred and sixty-two pages, this bright pink book is packed with a mix of poetry, prose, word searches, and everything in between. Part anger-filled, part comedic relief, Finley lures us down an addictive rabbit hole of political canter while poking fun at the powerful men that can’t seem to control their psychosexual impulses.

I spoke with the author recently about Grabbing Pussy, politics and feminism, and why humor is important to her.

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The Rumpus: Your latest book, Grabbing Pussy, is packed with letters, poetry, prose, and word games, all circling around politics. Can you talk about your thought process behind the book and its experimental format?

Karen Finley: I started writing before the election in 2015. I began investigating neoliberalism and was very upset with what what happening with police brutality and Black Lives Matter, and within society’s response to whiteness. And then I was thinking about feminism and the apologies of the female in general. We always have to apologize for our existence.

When Trump announced his candidacy, I started responding to him and the world, America at large, and the intersections with sex, and the abuse of language. I felt disempowered during the election process with the assault of language that was going on.

That’s when I decided to respond as an artist and historical reporter. As an educator and an artist, I look at cultural movements. I look at history as spaces to build and reflect on. I started looking at poetry as a space to begin and to the writers who have made an impact on a poem. That’s when I decided to make that my mission and to build on discourse of writers before me.

Rumpus: How do you feel now with Trump in office?

Finley: With Trump in office and the events that were happening, my work was expanding. That’s why one of the pieces I wrote is called “Grabbing Pussy.” My publisher thought that would be a good title for the book. The idea behind it was deconstruction or taking ownership toward language that’s being used. Trump’s actual term was “grab her by the pussy,” but here I say “grabbing pussy” because it’s the state-of-mind of doing the action.

Rumpus: Surely, these past few years have provided you with tons of new ideas for others projects. Are you working on anything at the moment?

Finley: I’m getting ready to start writing again. Many people, especially young people, feel that this is such a horrible time. They don’t understand there have been horrible times before. And horrible presidents. Sexism and racism have been happening in our system—it’s institutional. It’s happening all the time because it’s systemic. That’s what I’m speaking about now. But I’m also speaking about spaces of sexuality and celebration. People still have spaces of celebration and agency. Disco and dancing, going out, or being fucked up can be a space of resistance.

Rumpus: What about humor? That seems to be a good space of resistance, too. You use it a lot, especially in Grabbing Pussy. What about on a personal level? Do you think humor can be used as a coping mechanism?

Finley: I learned not to lose my humor. I started to lose it but realized that having humor is the joy, in a discerning way. Humor gets me through the day. It’s a way of coping with events. Humor is an imagination. It’s a space of justice. When you have humor, you’re able to navigate, or change things around. It is a disruption. I do it in the private moments of my own life and in the most traumatic moments. Humor is a way of keeping a distance from the horror. It is a way of keeping events at bay so they’re not completely taking over your soul.

Rumpus: Speaking of spaces of justice, what’s your take on the #MeToo movement?

Finley: I think it’s very powerful. I wish it had been around when I was younger. Of course with anything, it can be overused. It doesn’t operate within a binary. But I think it’s fantastic for women and men, and trans people, to have a voice in this space where they don’t have to be silent. And that’s what we need to be changing. As a feminist, I think I’ve been guilty of being silent when I shouldn’t have been, and that’s where the culture shift has been changing.

There are still spaces in my life where I’m silent. What I speak about isn’t always autobiographical. My work is either creative fiction or creative nonfiction. I start on an event or a place and then its collaged into another revealing of a truth.

Rumpus: Can you talk about how you see performance art as a medium of resistance?

Finley: Performance art is a response to capitalism. It is a space about going against the audition process, going against the space of acceptance and rejection. You are your own director. You are creating a performance and ritual. I’ve operated on two ways: with content responding to historical social events and places of change, but with the actual structure being disturbing.

Rumpus: Funny you use the word “disturbing.” Many have called your work something similar, if not downright offensive. What’s your response to those types of comments?

Finley: Free speech and the First Amendment allows for it to be offensive. It is supposed to be offensive. It is offensive. Offensive language has been used on all of us. I use it to deconstruct the assaulted and oppressive trauma of language. But it’s also about action. Grabbing Pussy is about action, about physical assault. And I have to use it. I have to be offensive or emotional, and use my body as a canvas. But I probably use my body less now. At that time when I was using my body more, it was the body that was desired sexually.

Rumpus: Using your body as a canvas can be considered risqué but also pretty damn courageous. You’re definitely a risk-taker in your artwork. Any advice you can give fellow women on taking risks?

Finley: I don’t think I can tell a woman to take a risk. We have to ask, “What is a risk?” When I think about risk, it’s within physical space. Does it mean going into an elevator alone? Getting into the wrong car you think is a cab? Having a relationship with the wrong person? What is the risk? There are some things about being a woman that is a risk in itself. You don’t have to take a risk: your existence and presence is already a risk. You navigate the best you can. Each person has different decisions they make, and sometimes they have to be made within seconds.

But when one has a community or backup, that’s when one feels capable of speaking out about injustice. Artwork is a great place to start. We’re also seeing women standing up in office. But there are women you wish had spoken out before. For example, why didn’t Hillary turn around when Trump was hovering over her at the debate and say, “Get out of my space asshole!” You wanted her to do that but she was never going to do it. It’s so ingrained in her; it’s painful to see. Women either have to be defensive or on attack. It’s always a reaction.

Yes, there have been changes. I remember when there wasn’t a woman on the Supreme Court. But I don’t think that’s the way to be thinking. That’s this capitalist system of making change, assessing it, and then understanding the progress that’s been made. I don’t think it always works that way. I’m not always focusing on that; I think about making one step on a staircase rather than thinking of getting up the entire staircase.

Rumpus: That seems like a good way of looking at it.

Finley: But it is disheartening to see how women are treated. We saw how Hillary was treated—and all the women in office, how they’re looked at. But I think there is an awareness and the awareness is a beginning. We are seeing women speak up and stand up. We have to work more as a collective. Women should work together rather than individually. We have to work in communities and build an alliance.

Rumpus: Did you have that sense of female camaraderie when you first started out?

Finley: When I first began, I didn’t have any full-time women teachers. In the book History of Art, there are no women. I was excluded in what I was reading. I was only represented in nudes or portraits, and maybe there were a few women like Georgia O’Keeffe that were exceptions. But I was aware that I had this anger about it. I knew there wouldn’t be a space for me. And I used the hysteria that was attributed to my gender in my art.

Rumpus: What about today? Is it still hard to be a woman in the creative arts?

Finley: Yes, I think so. It’s affected my work going in collections and relationships with collectors. I was involved in a suit with the Supreme Court, with three other artists that were gay and lesbian. After that happened, I had many shifts. For example, I had a show that was at the Whitney Museum of American Art that got cancelled. Certain spaces of growth and development were denied for me.

I had to do a lot of soul searching. I also had to understand my whiteness and my privileges as a white, educated woman. My censorship was actually a space of recognition and I had to struggle with that. Many artists are not even given any recognition. Many people of color are not even given the opportunity to be censored. I’m part of that footprint. I’m part of that institution.

In that respect, I am grateful because it started to erode a form of neoliberalism that I participated in. In the art world, there are different strata to be part of and I think I was looking at things in a much more binary way. I was operating more as a victim. Since that experience, I’m more aware, and I hope to be more sensitive and understanding.

Rumpus: Throughout your career, you’ve worked with a wide variety of art mediums, everything from performance art to poetry. What’s your medium of choice?

Finley: Writing. But I do think visually. In terms of the way I am in the world, I am always thinking visually. I’m a conceptual artist. I need spaces of solitude and reflection. A transition space. I’m a thinker and a feeler. You have to have a transition space where you’re not really doing anything. A space that allows for a kind of mulling. With my busy schedule, I need to have what some people call “wasting time,” where I can be daydreaming. I’m an introvert but I have to have an internal world. So that taking in the external world, I’m also having an internality with it.

Rumpus: When you’re not writing, performing, or reflecting, what else do you enjoy doing?

Finley: I love to cook and see people. I like to be domestic. I love to go see art, see what new books are being read. I live in New York so I like to try to see a couple of shows. I like to keep up with politics. I have a group at the Jefferson Market Library on Sixth Avenue called Artists Anonymous. We meet every other week and it’s a bit tongue-in-cheek and humorous; it’s for artists who are addicted to art. That’s sort of my service work that I run with a collective of people. But I also love teaching art and public policy at Tisch. I’m so inspired by my students and colleagues. There’s a lot of passion there. Change happens with ideas; it’s very inspiring.

Rumpus: A lot of your creative work is centered around politics. What’s the relationship to creating art with an ever-changing society?

Finley: It’s an environment that I grew up in: art in response to social movement. It can be seen coming out of different societal events, whether it’s war, oppression, or trauma. Once you’re able to see that, and are surrounded by art, you become part of that. Being an artist is also being a historical reporter. You want to respond with creativity and you want to have a sense of empowerment to do so. The medium itself can be a resistance to establishment.

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Photograph of Karen Finley by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders. Book cover courtesy of OR Books.


Carissa Chesanek has worked as a journalist for many years, writing for publications that include Food Network, The Village Voice, Miami Herald, Forbes Travel Guide, and Zagat where she was the Miami editor for two years. She is a current MFA Creative Writing (fiction) student at The New School and working on her debut novel. Her creative writing was nominated for the Freddie Award for Writing Excellence with the Mystery Writers of America and shortlisted for Frith Books’s anthology, Restless. She is a fiction reader for Carve Magazine and a volunteer writing mentor for PEN America's prison writing program, and does work with The Center for Fiction. More from this author →