I went to a quasi-burlesque event last night that included, unexpectedly, a genuinely disturbing piece. In the middle of a fairly erotic show, a dance piece with abuse overtones jolted me off the smooth rails of enjoyment. It was awful, but it was also several women’s studies papers’ worth of thought. And it had me remembering women’s 1990s performance art.
Just as with the burlesque scene now, you had international stars and local luminaries. Well known performers at the time included Lydia Lunch, Linda Montsano, Karen Finley, bell hooks and Sapphire, Laurie Anderson and Annie Sprinkle. I’m going to count Tribe 8, too. You learned about them from your friends, and going to their gigs was a huge deal. I remember going to a Diamanda Galas performance where she mourned for her dead brother with her voice, and I came down with an earache for the next three days, from the pain channeled by the sound.
Trying to track down some video of that time, it’s all incredibly raw and jagged and angry. Video was crude and expensive compared to today – besides, you were supposed to be there. In retrospect, some of it was sheer pretension. Some of it was channeling the anger linked to punk and the awkward second stage of feminism. Some of it, the part I saw with local performance artists, was women looking to be heard and have meaning in their lives. If you want to learn more about the voices of that time, I recommend the book Angry Women.
One of the more enduring and widely relevant artists at that time, brought to my attention by someone who is still a dear friend of mine today (hi Rachel!) is Laurie Anderson. Her ’80s songs and spoken word pieces about America gain more eerie resonance as time goes on, and she can be both sexy and incisive about gender. Here she is, performing “Smoke Rings” – a piece about gender and desire, Frank Sinatra and a place where “all the girls in this town were named…BETTY”.