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Fake, Foul, and Funny: The 14Karat Cabaret Gets Its Day in the Sun

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It’s challenging to talk about the 14Karat Cabaret without coming off like some Woodstock hippie or Danceteria club kid. It was amazing; you should have been there. This is perhaps the curse of performance art, that presence and temporality are everything—and in the end, who remains to share the history can be anyone’s guess.

The first thing that strikes me about walking into the 14Karat Cabaret retrospective, Baltimore…Paris…The Gutter, is that it’s above ground. After years of walking through the unassuming front doors of Maryland Art Place (MAP) and heading directly to the basement, this showcase of the weird and wonderful underground art of Baltimore and beyond is celebrated on the ground floor, during daylight hours.  

For those familiar with the basement theater that has churned out avant-garde and performance work off and on for more than 30 years, all the elements are there: the giant clock that goes to 14, the stage, the swing, the AIDS/HIV altar celebrating the cultural figures taken away during another pandemic. Everything is moved around a bit though: The altar no longer welcomes you as you enter the space and order a beverage to take to your table in the cavernous dark. In this exhibit, the altar occupies its own room towards the back, a sort of holy-of-holies where you can make your offerings to the likes of Cookie Mueller, Carlos Alonzo, Sylvester, David Wojnarowicz, and Tseng Kwong Chi—a reminiscence of a disease that once devastated a generation of artists and activists that echoes in prescient ways amidst today’s ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Around the corner, the legendary 14Karat Cabaret stage has been reconstructed to accommodate performances that have graced this first-floor exhibition, a cross-section of veterans of the 14Karat stage like Joe Meduza, Bashi Rose, and Liz Downing combined with younger artists like Sarah Jacklin, Elliott Swain, and Jake Bee.

When Kathy O’Dell wrote about the 14Karat Cabaret for the first issue of Link: A Critical Journal on the Arts in 1996, it was only seven years old, but already situated as an anchor of Baltimore’s avant garde and performance art worlds, bringing together a diverse collection of communities in one basement—queers, feminists, sex radicals, HIV/AIDS activists, intersectional political activists—with the goal of sharing work and passion and revelry.

At the center of it all is 14Karat director and organizer Laure Drogoul, aka La Hostess, whose artistic influence is felt throughout the city of Baltimore. BmoreArt walked through the exhibit with Drogoul.

 

Rahne Alexander: I’m so interested in how this all came together. How did you name the 14Karat Cabaret?  

Laure Drogoul: It was 1989, Bush was in office, and the economy was not good. Everybody was sort of banking in gold, and all these shops [on Saratoga Street] were gold shops. There’s still one, King Tut Gold Shop, and there’s still actually a lot of gold. So it was sort of site-specific, named for the shops in the area, and it’s not even 24 carats, it’s only 14. I also had a keen interest in vaudevillian culture and early burlesque and all that stuff. When I came to Baltimore, I went to a bunch of clubs and one of them was Blaze Starr’s Two O’Clock Club, after the time they closed, so 14 o’clock is sort of riffing off that. And when it’s 14 o’clock, of course, the minute you get here, we’re probably running late.

I’ve always loved the taglines on the posters: “fake foul funny and rotten to the core.”

I always loved getting a pocketbook or a dress and the tag would say something like, “Rome, Paris, Vienna,” so it’s a play on that: “Baltimore…Paris…The Gutter!” I spent a lot of time in France, of course in Paris but also [studying] the surrealist experiments, these little transgressive places where people could crossdress and screech poetry and do whatever they pleased. I wanted to sweeten the pot in a way, make it sort of like a wolf in sheep’s clothes, like a cake that might be good for you, or might not be—a meat cake and icing [laughs], and hence, “rotten to the core,” “fake foul funny,” this idea of “fakeness.”

It’s really impressive that you were able to operate in the same space for so many years.

When we first started, we had no heat, no air. The building was still being rehabbed. I was basically doing an art window, and I rented the third or fourth floor. I was really interested in having a space that was ongoing, like a workspace or a laboratory, so people [would] imagine what they might do in that space, and then come and do it, and then it had to be transformed into a gallery during the day.

I consider myself very lucky; I am so delighted about this show. MAP has really been terrific, they have allowed the Cabaret to be down there for a long time. It’s been a really interesting collaboration and relationship, and I was sort of a constant—the old lump on the tree! And now that it’s MAP’s 40th birthday, it seemed like a good time to do it. It gives me pause to think about archiving and how important it is, especially for those of us who live in smaller cities like Baltimore, which is gritty and wonderful.

You’ve got more than 200 posters on display here, which is obviously not every poster you’ve ever made for the 14Karat Cabaret. How did you narrow your selections for this exhibition?

I had a show in 2009 of my own work, and part of that showed the Cabaret. So I had a bunch of posters already; it just ended up being the best quality that I had and things that I could find. I’m a bit of a hoarder, which in this case is sort of good. I put out a call for photos too. 

I think of all of the other small shoestring operations in town. They might not be as long-lived, but they have a rich history and interesting and unique groups of people and artists coming together, and I think a lot of that tends to get lost in the city because, especially now, we don’t have a really robust way of getting documented.

 

Laure Drogoul photographed by Justin Tsucalas in her studio for Issue 03
Laure Drogoul photographed by Justin Tsucalas in her studio for Issue 03

I get a little dizzy looking at all the names. I didn’t start coming to the Cabaret until around 2003, and I feel like I would have been here every time. So many stars and artists who went on to be stars: Tim Miller, Annie Sprinkle, Martha Colburn, Susan Alcorn, Of Montreal, Chet Pancake. I feel like this one really speaks to Baltimore’s history as a centerpiece for performance.

Yeah, look [pointing at a flyer]—Tony Conrad and Dan Conrad and Bradford Reed, same night. I mean, that was a stellar night, for five dollars. We did ACT UP benefits, and we did AIDS Action. We were active, providing a place for people to talk about this situation and raise money and help, as best as we could. Notice, it was like $3 to get in.

Another thing that was really great, we did a torch night with Ruby Glover, Aleta Green, Joyce Scott, John Dean, Anne Watts, Howard Markman, Craig Considine, Tom DiVenti, Ruth Pettus… four dollars, can you believe that?

Sheila Gaskins performed a couple of times. Lenora Champagne, an amazing performer from New York, and this composer Franz Kamin, who died in an automobile accident, it was very tragic. Bashi Rose, who just performed in High Zero. The Tinklers, and sometimes I wonder whatever happened to David Greenberger. I have a whole shelf with all his publications. He’s so brilliant. He worked in nursing homes and he would interview people that lived in them and then he would [read] little snippets. He really brought that situation to life and with words.

Beat Happening—and Magnetic Fields! Wait, Lambs Eat Ivy and Mecca Normal played on the same night?

There’s a good four-dollar admission. For some shows, if I was to bring someone from out of town like Mecca Normal, you really needed to have a hard hitter because sometimes nobody would know who the hell they were and there was like three people there. Even this show ended up being okay, but here we had Pat Oleszko, which was a great show, and it was not as full as I felt it should be.

Gary Corbin was really an interesting performer from Baltimore. This was a really tricky mix because Visions was an amazing gospel group, and Gary is also a queer, disabled, Black performer, he’s missing a leg. The group was so amazing, their voices were so beautiful, and Gary did what Gary does, his one-person show about the situation of being not just gay but also handicapped and Black and how all those are the worst things and, you know…

Kind of a collision of worlds?

Yeah, unfortunately. But look, this is Dawn Culbertson.

I miss Dawn. I got to share the stage with her once at the Charm City Kitty Club. She played heavy metal and punk songs with a lute.

Before Dawn died I made a number of videotapes of her. I wanted to do a little film on her because she was a fascinating, fascinating person.

And this is Keri Burneston, who wasn’t going by “Trixie Little” yet. This was the opera that Fluid Movement did, the Hot Dog Opera—and they didn’t go by “Fluid Movement” yet.

There’s so much Baltimore art history here! The Cabaret launched so many things.

I would love to do an entire history of performance. I actually started it with David Crandall, just amassing stuff of people before I was here. But it’s just such a hard ball of wax.

I was so happy to see the return of the altar, because it was always such a presence walking into this space. It was always right there in the entranceway, I could spend a little time while I’m waiting for the show to start and looking at my favorites and at names that I’d never encountered for whatever reason. It’s so interesting that this show is happening now, during this pandemic, at a time when I don’t really feel like people are being memorialized at all.

The AIDS altar was a sort of shrine. I made the votive cards, and almost all of these people are artists, from culture makers or thinkers like Foucault or theatermakers like Ludlam. Cookie Mueller, who was a brilliant writer. I had to put Roy Cohn in because he’s, of course, our Joker in the day. Like, the back of his card is the Joker. He’s not an artist. 

Before I moved [to Baltimore], I lived in Philadelphia, and I spent a lot of time in New York, working with different people, performing, doing costumes for performances, and people were just fucking dying; there was no drug cocktail yet. It was just horrendous. So the idea was to have a little remembrance, this connection between biology, and our humaneness and culture, the things that we make, and then this virus, which is also biological and organic like we are. That collision has always interested me and it was just horrifying at the time. Obviously, there’s a few exceptions, some of whom I know, but for the most part, if you got AIDS, you were in for a really hard death. A lot of people being afflicted were younger and at the cusp of doing the best of what they were doing, but of course they were [dismissed] because they were gay.

I see some of that echoed in the ways some have talked about people who have died of Covid.

Oh yeah, and now people go, “oh well, the people that are old or fat,” that also sort of rings similarly to me [to the homophobia], and the anti-immigration sentiment, there’s a lot of echo.

It just brings out the worst in people.

 

One of the things that I’ve always loved about the 14Karat Cabaret is its merger of the feminist and the queer and the freaky and unclassifiable, and it seems to have helped create this fertile ground for Baltimore that has carried on in so many ways, through the Charm City Kitty Club and the burlesque scene and Transmodern…

Well, there’s two things about that. One, are my own interests—I really want to hear a poet, so how do you mix that with somebody that comes and does a Steve Reich rock composition, and somebody like Annie Sprinkle? I love mixing the highbrow and lowbrow, with the hopes that somebody might not know this artist, and then if they like it, cool, and if they don’t like it, come back in 15 minutes, and you’ll see the next one.

The other thing is I really like to skew towards just performance because there really wasn’t performance. There’s little pockets of it now, but certainly in ‘89 my interest was exploring action as a medium. There were a lot of really good bands, and they had places they could play, Ottobar and Hammerjacks and all the clubs, but there wasn’t really a place that would just say, “Okay, this is the frame for my weirdo act”—a poem, or some sort of dissonant sound, or The Smile Machine, a conceptual work.

Do you think performance art has shifted a lot since this started? I sometimes think it’s harder to do a new performance.

I think that performance is a fairly young discipline in the arts. You could say, oh, there’s been all sorts of performances throughout time—saints would live in trees and all that stuff—but to frame it as a thing, this was relatively new and I think, in many ways, credited to a lot of women artists. Carolee Schneemann comes to mind, and also the California scene, [Allan] Kaprow, where they said, guess what? Action is a medium, just going over there and sniffing the crack in the floor. It’s a very Dadaist concept, but Dada seemed to stop with objects or paintings. But I shouldn’t say that, because I think that there were a lot of experiments, which is why it’s called a cabaret especially. And if you read Kathy [O’Dell]’s article, some of the early things that I love are the parlor games of the surrealists.

Exquisite corpses!

Yes, exquisite corpses. You could say that the Cabaret was sort of an Exquisite Corpse manifest. That’s sort of the spirit of this place—but you can also say, “Oh, it’s just a good old-fashioned variety show.”

 

Header Image: Laure Drogoul photographed by Justin Tsucalas in her studio for Issue 03, all gallery images courtesy of Maryland Art Place

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