Entering Enchantment: An Interview with Karen Finley 

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Iconic performance artist Karen Finley visited UMBC for a week-long residency in the first week of September. The provocative performer, who rose to national prominence during the culture wars of the 1980s and ‘90s, concluded her residency with a new performance, Venus In Retrograde, a blistering indictment of American politics current and past that builds on themes addressed in her 2018 book Grabbing Pussy

During the residency, Finley—a professor at NYU’s Tisch School for the Arts—also visited classes, providing instruction and critique to undergraduate and graduate art students. Under her instruction, one class developed “Entering Enchantment,” a pop-up exhibition of site-specific artworks in UMBC’s Joseph Beuys Sculpture Park, a serene space on the campus perimeter created in 2000 as part of Beuys’ 7000 Oaks social sculpture project. 

Finley also installed a collection of Baltimore Psychic Portraits—intuitive portraits of notable individuals with Baltimore connections whose lives have had a cultural impact, ranging from Billie Holiday and Gertrude Stein to Lucille Clifton and Freddie Gray. The Baltimore Psychic Portraits remain on display in the Hallway Gallery in the Fine Arts Building at UMBC through September 27. 

BmoreArt was fortunate enough to interview Finley, an artist as generous with her time as with her insight, over lunch at the end of the residency’s run. 

A visitor views Karen Finley’s Baltimore Psychic Portraits. Photo by Marlayna Demond

Rahne Alexander: What drew you to create the Baltimore Psychic Portraits

Karen Finley: I had an impulse to do work that would be site-specific for Baltimore, and I did a site visit. I just wanted to do something that was more site-specific, thinking about the location, rather than just coming and taking my work and just dumping it in another space. So I started to think about portraiture and people from Baltimore. These portraits are for people who are no longer with us physically but that had either been born here or had spent some significant time here. 

I was doing some research and I was so impressed with the names, people from the past who have made such extraordinary contributions. So I decided to do some portraits, thinking about them, meditating and channeling them, being a medium and seeing what would happen. I was doing it every day, thinking about it, spending time, getting to know the energy. I work with automatic writing and images. Sometimes it took longer with the energy or the spirits but it all seemed to come together. It became uncanny when we came to do the exhibition that everything just fit in that space. 

While I was doing it Trump was so disparaging Baltimore, with no respect for the people, the importance, its contributions, and I was just so upset about that. So the portraits take on this other [level of importance], as an homage, as an honor. 

A friend mentioned to me that they were struck by the drawings of the shoes in the portrait of Harriet Tubman, and how those drawings reminded them of early Warhol sketches. 

Isn’t that funny! I don’t know how that image came up, but I found it, like a dream. Warhol’s early drawings are just beautiful. That’s a great compliment. I love his drawings. The Harriet Tubman portrait actually took me several days to do. For that one I was just seeing this older shoe, and I was hearing these [words] that in some way were being said to me. 

What is your process in creating a psychic portrait? 

I am an intuitive, a medium, a clairvoyant. In some ways it can be taboo, or counterintuitive from this other way of working which is to look from the outside. This work is about empathy. I wait; I go into meditative spaces and I will either have automatic writing or I’ll have an image. It’s a process, and there has to be a gentleness. It was part of my growing up, because I’ve learned many forms of divination within my mother and my grandmother. It’s a cultural practice. There’s a relationship: your feeling with the spirits of an expectation or a demand. You can’t just be making a demand on a spiritual entity. So it isn’t as if I just go, “OK, I’m doing this, let’s get this in, nine to five.” 

Karen Finley mirrors the movements of a student in performance devised for “Entering Enchantment” in the Joseph Beuys Sculpture Park on the UMBC campus. Photo by Faith Carter-Nottage

I feel like we could talk at length about each one. Did you find that you had to focus on one at a time or would you set one aside for a minute and then go to the next one?

No, I was doing one at a time, but there was one where I felt it was a blending of two [the Cone Sisters] with Adrienne Rich. It was a strange thing. In this dimension, there are energies and it’s not just one person. It’s not linear in that way. 

I spent some time with Cab Calloway. I was seeing “Remember Me.” So then I started finding out about him more. It turned out that he lived very close to where I lived, and so I actually then went to visit where his home is. I’m a little haunted by that, so I feel that I might still have some more with Cab Calloway, and maybe revisit the conversation.

Right now in Baltimore, there is an effort to save Cab Calloway’s house from demolition. 

That’s fascinating. 

I’m not up to date with the latest developments but it seems very pertinent. 

Yes it is. I mean I don’t know—is it empathetic, is it meditative, is it from my own unconscious? At my age I’m not looking for the scientific proof of things but I’ve just had too many things in my life where I feel that there is another dimension, and I feel that with students or young artists it’s important to trust your intuition. I always tell my students this is Tisch School of the Arts, not Tisch School of Accounting. It’s not a checkbook. This isn’t taxes. That isn’t what that process is. 

[Ed. note: According to the Baltimore Brew, as of late July 2019, preserving Calloway’s home from demolition is no longer an option.]

Student artists in “Entering Enchantment” devised an audience engagement piece involving acorns gathered from the Joseph Beuys Sculpture Park on the UMBC campus. Photo by Faith Carter-Nottage

I really enjoyed witnessing you teach this week. The undergrad class you taught, which you titled “Entering Enchantment,” was made up of mostly non-art majors, creating site-specific artwork at Beuys Park, which is this gorgeous and serene environment. They had just a few days to dream up and install these artworks, and every piece was fascinating and good. And this was their first week of class! 

Some of the students were working and said, “Oh, I had this idea with that but now, I don’t know.” And I said, “Yeah, it’s your work. You can change it.” Those small spaces of agency that so many of us don’t even take when it’s just using a different size of a stick, or putting more leaves in a space. I mean those gestures [that occur] just because you said something…

It’s a kind of pathology, “You said you’re going to do that! So why didn’t you do that? Why did you do something different?”

Yes! What I liked about my performance at UMBC was that the lights didn’t come on for this light cue. But I actually loved it, because then I actually had to pick up the music stand with my score and be looking through the disco light trying to read it and I thought, “This is a fantastic gesture, I love this.” And it would have never happened without this mistake, and I just loved it—going through the disco light, moving around. It was the feeling of people in a club being together. 

That is a difference between my generation and millennials. I don’t feel that there is that same level of intensity of togetherness. I mean I’m telling the students, “Hey, have sex, go out, have fun, celebrate.” That can be a revolutionary act. Just being in a room together is a form of activism.

Karen Finley performs Venus In Retrograde at the UMBC Fine Arts Recital Hall, September 5, 2019. Photo by Faith Carter-Nottage

A thing I really liked in Venus In Retrograde was its overall sense of history, that as bad as things are now, things have always been bad for some people. And that you listed so many iconic names, names of people that are slowly being forgotten. I see a real connection between those litanies and the Baltimore Psychic Portraits. 

How do I communicate this relationship of looking at the past and this sense of what’s going on right now? To give people a perspective, people in this panic as if this has never ever happened before. That’s why I wanted to put these names there, because I think it is lovely to know names of people that have done things, because you have a connection within history. I have been inspired by looking at other artists and knowing about people and their work. Looking at the portraits, I love knowing about Harriet Tubman. I love reading everything about Frederick Douglass. Divine, Cookie Mueller, so many people that have contributed. It’s moving. It’s inspiring. It really is.

I remember fondly reading your interview in the early ‘90s in Angry Women, the RE/Search book that introduced me to so many artists and thinkers. That book changed my life. 

You don’t feel alone. You know the library and these spaces, you feel a connection. I wanted to be instructing and not to be talking over the students. Not everyone knows who everyone is. That’s one thing I don’t necessarily like in the art world sometimes, where you have to be so educated about something it’s one strata to understand it. So what the hell is wrong with just saying this is what that point of entry is, and I felt that the audience completely got that.

A student artist installs an interactive environmental art piece as part of “Entering Enchantment” in the Joseph Beuys Sculpture Park on the UMBC campus. Photo by Faith Carter-Nottage

Generally speaking, do you think there are similarities or differences in the ways performance art is engaging the culture now?  

I think that there is a similar element of rebellion within the culture. When I was starting, post-Vietnam War, there were crises in terms of the economy, with some of the worst recessions. In terms of the art market, to support the practice of art and value in terms of product and the economy and collecting, the art was primarily made by those who inherited means, and then it was collected by those of a certain economic status. I feel that those kind of questions are really in the culture right now, so I think performance is very vital and I think there’s a lot of interesting work going on.

I struggle with those questions all the time. I’m a performer more than I am anything else, and I’m like “How do I translate this into something that’s marketable? How do I actually make a living doing this?” 

I think the way to do it is to not think about doing it. I think that everyone has a different answer for where they are. But one part is just feeling connected with that authenticity, and that is what I have always gone back to. Even if the idea is what you’re doing is about voicing [a position] on a political level, you can start in small ways. It can become very overwhelming when you’re thinking about what the platform is. I think that is another set-up in terms of capitalism. You’re always going to get disappointed in terms of the public and the numbers. When I’m centered with what I’m doing and feeling it, then I go from there. And I feel that my life is an artwork, that it’s not separate from the actual time when I’m making it. 

Karen Finley performing Venus In Retrograde. Photo by Marlayna Demond

I’ve always thought it so interesting that you’ve often been categorized as a scary, shock-value performer, when you’re so often just telling bald truths. I mean, it’s shocking that sick children are in cages; it was shocking that the President of the United States wouldn’t even say the word “AIDS” for so many years.  

And that they were good friends with Rock Hudson, and they wouldn’t get him in an American hospital in Paris, or get him his flight, because that wouldn’t look good. Even when you can do something, no, because it wouldn’t look right. Like I said, you want to look at an evil leader. I don’t know if people understood so much in the audience when I was talking about George W. Bush and Laura Bush, looking at the past presidents and things like that. I hope it resonated for people. 

Something that struck me during the Q&A after your performance was when you said that in your training, which really wasn’t very long ago, you didn’t have women instructors. I’ve had so many in my time, and I feel so fortunate in that regard. 

I had Linda Montano, but she was a guest teacher for like six weeks, as a visiting artist. I did have a woman painting teacher—I mean, this is out of the entire faculty. She told me that she didn’t understand my work. So you have one person—who didn’t understand you. Now what? And then I had Kathy Acker for a short time too. But they weren’t full-time teachers. They came in like I’m coming in [to UMBC]. So that’s where I’m operating. That’s one reason why I am in education as well. 

Another answer I really enjoyed from your Q&A was in talking about the spirituality in your work, and you identified it as being rooted in the idea of transforming pain into compassion. 

Those are from direct situations in my life. I had so much pain when my father died from committing suicide, and where do you put this pain? You’re feeling this pain, you’re feeling these feelings, and then what do you with that? So I was talking with spiritual guides but also in speaking with Linda Montano, who I’m still friends with. I saw a video [“Mitchell’s Death”] that she did when her husband Mitchell died, putting acupuncture needles in her face. And so I spoke to her, I said, “Look, you’re a teacher, what do you do with this pain?” And she was thinking about transforming into compassion, so I started thinking about that and, in some ways, what is the mystery of life, these events that go on, these events that we are all here on this planet dealing with? Would I be able to take these experiences that I’ve had and have empathy or compassion? Empathy is different than compassion. The pain can become very addictive too. You know, as they say, “misery loves company.” 

Karen Finley, Baltimore Psychic Portraits (detail) on view at UMBC. Photo by Marlayna Demond

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

Karen Finley’s Baltimore Psychic Portraits are on display in the Hallway Gallery in the Fine Arts Building at UMBC through September 27. 

Featured image: Karen Finley performs Venus In Retrograde at the UMBC Fine Arts Recital Hall, September 5, 2019. Photo by Faith Carter-Nottage.

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