Karen Finley, Catch 23 Broken Negative, Carpenter Performing Arts Center, Long Beach, September 28, 2012

Karen Finley, We Keep Our Victims Ready, 1989

This is going to be short because there is no way I can do this justice. I don’t have the time right now to properly meditate on the arc of Karen Finley’s career, which is what this review would require, and due to a very long day, I even fell asleep for part of this riveting performance. It wasn’t at all due to Finley, who struck an amazingly perfect balance between visceral access and commanding poise—the mark of a mature and accomplished artist at the top of her game.

The occasion was the final, culminating event of The B-Word Project, a yearlong symposium on censorship organized by the Carpenter Performing Arts Center at California State University, Long Beach. Incredibly, the organizers had secured all of the original NEA 4 artists (Finley, John Fleck, Holly Hughes, and Tim Miller) for a panel discussion and newly commissioned performances. Finley’s was the last performance and probably the most powerful (I did not see Hughes or Miller’s performances).

What she did could essentially be described as a performative slide lecture with live musical accompaniment in which she reflected at length on We Keep Our Victims Ready, the notorious work that got her into hot water with conservative politicians and helped to launch the culture wars of the 1990s. Finley began with the iconic image of the chocolate-smeared woman, and talked about how it was a response to Tawana Brawley and the wreaking of violence upon the female body. She extended this theme to other instances throughout recent history where violence has been visited upon racially marked bodies, lingering notably on a Japanese photographer who documented Chicago’s St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.

St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, Chicago, 1929

About 15 minutes into the lecture, Finley retired behind a scrim to take off her clothes and apply chocolate all over her body. The scrim acted as a tasteful veil between artist and audience, allowing us to see what she was doing but putting it into soft focus. She applied the chocolate in the most matter-of-fact way possible—there was even slow, soothing live music playing as she did so. When she was covered in chocolate, she returned to the podium and calmly resumed her lecture. It was a studied re-enactment of what was originally a raucous performance, embedded in a larger consideration of history. At other intervals, Finley added Red Hot candies and then silver tinsel to the sticky chocolate on her body.

The wide-ranging lecture came to a resounding finish when Finley revealed her childhood memories of the day that her father was found dead in their home, having committed suicide. She called it her own St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, as it had occurred on a Friday, February 13. With this, she brought everything back to its origin, masterfully closing a long and harrowing loop.

The point of this inadequate post is just to tell you that this happened, and recommend that if you have the chance to see this piece performed, do it. It’s incredible and will restore your faith in the possibilities of performance art, and the value of re-performance.

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