Office Hours : John Kelly and Ann Pellegrini on "Underneath the Skin"
October 14, 2019: Ann Pellegrini interviews John Kelly about "Underneath the Skin"

John Kelly is a performance and visual artist whose multifaceted career spans more than three decades. His innovative performance works stem from autobiographical, cultural, gender, and identity issues, realized through the theatrical, visual, movement-based, and vocal delineation of character. 

Ann Pellegrini is Professor of Performance Studies and Social and Cultural Analysis at NYU. Her books and articles traverse several disciplines and interdisciplines, but one through-line is an abiding interest in exploring how feelings are lived, experienced, and communicated between and across bodies—and with what risks and possibilities for self and others.  Another is the value of the aesthetic for repairing democratic social life.

Transcript

Ann Pellegrini: So according to form, introductions are needed, so I’m Ann Pellegrini. I’m a Professor of Performance Studies and Social and Cultural Analysis at NYU.

John Kelly: And I’m John Kelly. I am a performance and visual artist. 

AP: Alright we’re here to talk about your most recent performance, Underneath the Skin, but also I’m sure we’ll range to talk about some other topics as well. And we have these in case we get bored and we can start playing “Punch and Judy” as we said earlier… so but I- this is an extraordinary sort of performance, that’s also deep historical research and you sort of make the archive live for the audience. 

JK: Yeah… Jay Wegman, who runs this great organization, talked me into doing this piece and I had read Justin Spring’s book about five years ago and I found it incredibly compelling. I was like, “Well so how can I tackle this very rich varied multifaceted life which- I covered the years 1909 to 1993 and I abandoned Mr. Spring’s book because I had to and I really focus entirely on Samuel Steward’s writings, visual art, and tattoo designs. And I said, “Yes I can do this!” I can not only aim to get my soul under his skin, but also to literally portray him from the age of 16 to 84 and it’s always a leap of faith but it’s such a rich story that there were so many compelling aspects that it felt like it- it was totally possible and I had to hit on certain of those points because every kind of cultural icon has the fan base or the you know, the- the guardians and I had to be mindful of “Okay, now I’ve got to make sure I hit that point- and that point and that point” …and I think I did! 

AP: How did you find out about Steward?

JK: Um, yeah funny- there was a show at the Museum of Sex- which I did not see, about maybe ten years ago? I had been tangentially aware of him as an entity, you know, as a tattoo artist and as a highly prolific horny man in a time when it was all illegal, but the thing that makes him utterly unique is the fact that his extensive archive comes down to us- it didn’t wind up in a dumpster, the family didn’t destroy it, it wasn’t confiscated by the police- it’s available! You know, and that’s in a way proof- not that we needed proof of his existence but it’s a rich- maybe an endorsement isn’t the right word- but a rich treasure chest of the real goods, you know, the stud file that he kept, you know, on index cards in a metal cabinet, you know- index card file thing- long thing like this, but green and square. 

AP and JK: *laughs*

JK: But he typed on index cards going back to the late 20s, you know, including, you know, Rock Hudson when he was Roy something- at Marshall Fields department store. And the other thing I felt like I needed to circumvent is people call him a pornography- and he wound up writing erotic literature as Phil Andros later in his life, but that’s exactly what it is- it’s erotic literature! It’s not pornography I mean it, sure, technically it might be, but it’s so beautifully and strangely written. So I didn’t want to do the obvious with him. I try to make his- my telling of his life on the fence between irony and pathos, poetic and graphic.

AP: I mean one of the things this extraordinary- from 1909-93- it’s just, it’s the 20th century of gay letters and arts! Not just in the States, but also, given his friendship with you know, Alice B Toklas and Gertrude Stein… also expatriate life in France… and you sort of- you- by delving so deeply into his life, you take us into a much- you’ve brought this sort of more expansive, you know, history. It’s- I mean it’s- it’s amazing the people who he knew! 

JK: Yeah I mean, he did in a way- not that he collected celebrities, but he- he wanted to be- he was a novelist, he was a writer, but he couldn’t really write authentically about his life, he wrote a book- a novel in the in 36? “Angels on the Bough”… and he got fired from a university position because he portrayed a female prostitute in a positive manner, you know? So that to some degree is indicative of how he was unable to write about his life, you know, fully. One couldn’t- either you had, if you did write a fiction, one of the people had to die or get in prison to you know, be murdered. And even like- there’s a book- there was a gay bar in Los Angeles that this lovely older woman ran. There’s a book called Gay Bar that she wrote, but even that book when she published it the 50s had to be prefaced by a psychologist kind of framing this whole reality in, “Well these… not they’re that they’re sick people per se, but we are regarding them under the purview of you know…” what’s the word- “that science and you know psychiatry and-” 

AP: The flashing light of pathology! That’s always- 

JK: Yeah exactly.. that’s a good word. 

AP: I mean I think one of the things that you demonstrate so pointedly, but this is all- these are his words also that you give us- so he’s sort of speaking through you, it’s almost a kind of seance you’re conducting for the audience, but you give us a sense of how the closet is extremely cramping! I mean it squeezes possibility, but it also enables possibility- it also there was something that the kind of life that he fashioned and with other men, there are different coordinates that he’s working with. 

JK: Yeah I mean the closet sucks and sucked. That said, he did prevail and gay men- they called themselves homosexuals or “inverts” in those days and I used the word “gay”, not “queer” because “queer” was a denigrating word and I’m- it’s important to witness his life in context and to view it from this vantage point, but to understand when it was occurring in context, so he was able to live his life just to a large degree privately behind closed doors, but somewhat fully and ironically and he wrote about this- that when Kinsey’s book came out- “The Sexuality in the Human Male” in 1949, that in a way put gay people on the radar screen of the mass public, so the public then became less ignorant and more suspect and more probing in terms of looking for any semblance of a voice or you know limp wrists or pinky or anything like that show of emotion. So in a way up until 1950, gay lives were – they could be lived maybe a bit more freely.

AP: And so the closet allowed for certain kinds of freedom because people didn’t know that- even that homosexuals existed or didn’t believe they existed in quite the numbers that- 

JK: Yeah exactly and then you know the 49-50, then it was the McCarthy era the communist era and when they couldn’t find of commies, they invented the lavender scare, and then fired all these gay people from posts in government in Washington DC and then some… so it’s just endless. And in the preset video, which I will post on Vimeo- it’s a half hour of images of same-sex couples through history, even medieval etchings embracing in different ways, interspersed with images of persecution. And my goal there was to remind, especially younger audiences that the ground that we’re standing on wasn’t always there, and it wasn’t that long ago… and I think it’s crucial for people to remember that because we’re not there yet, we’re not really on the list yet.

AP: I mean I think it’s that kind of deep history you’re offering is so needed in this moment also because as we’re watching some gains actually be eroded, it’s also an important reminder that that history might move in one direction, but progress doesn’t move only in one direction- that these things are not synched up in the ways in which perhaps we might fantasize they are. I was struck by- it’s astonishing the people whom Samuel Steward knew so… like the appearance of Kinsey in the story. And there’s that marvelous fact- the fact Kinsey was recruiting Steward when he was doing his tattoo work to be a kind of unofficial you know, additional interviewer with tattoo artists as a tattoo artist… Could you say something about that? That was fascinating to me. 

JK: Yeah, the reason he became an unofficial collaborator was because Kinsey was not hiring gay men to be official collaborators. He wanted a neutrality, so he was hiring, I guess exclusively heterosexual men to be the researchers… He made a couple of S&M films with Kinsey and Kinsey’s wife was there changing the sheets which nobody can see. They were the Institute- you cannot see them. They had a very close relationship and… what else about Kinsey… it made so much sense because Steward himself was a maybe more of an anal retentive chronicler, you know? 

AP: As his index files would suggest! 

JK: Yeah! And everything else you know and that’s a blessing because we have that and it’s so funny because I had this huge desk of research I’ve you know not only collecting those images from the internet, but just all this research I’ve been doing, the books I’ve been reading- novels from the 20s, one called “The Pansy”… you know just trying to get a sense of where we were at different points in history and what was possible and what wasn’t possible… And you’re right at that the Kinsey moment, that was a blessing and in a way…not a curse, but it made lives more challenging in that year… 

AP: There’s so many moments in the piece that just- I found myself just both struck by the beauty of what you were doing, but just thinking… I was so moved by Steward’s sense of history and historical contact across time- that quite early on as a young man and turn over- there was a lecturer whom he heard who had known Whitman and he wanted a kind of benediction from this man who had physically been touched by Walt Whitman to have the contact passed on to him. And he repeats a version of it in a different form when he has sex with Lord Alfred Douglas, so a way of making contact with Oscar Wilde! But I was just thinking about this. He really had a strong sense of sex as being a kind of trans-temporal contact. 

JK: Absolutely the professor was having Hamlin Garland the writer and at the lecture- he went up to Hamlin Garland and said, “Did you really know Whitman?” “Well, yes you know Whitman put his hands on my head.” “Well Mr. Garland, can I put my hand on your head so I can be linked in with Whitman?” So this became a light motif in the piece- this hand going up like with Hamlin Garland’s head and then with Lord Alfred Douglas, although he- you know had sex with Lord Alfred Douglas, but then Lord Alfred Douglass… “Well really all Oscar and I ever did was jerk off each other, you know, and kiss…” So then he’s like, “Oh… didn’t have to do that…” But with Valentino, when he met Valentino in Columbus at a hotel after Valentino would go to challenge the writer of an insulting editorial to a duel… and he showed up to the hotel, wound up getting his autograph, and he gave Valentino a blowjob and kept a reliquary of Valentino’s pubic hair in this reliquary next to his bed. But also when I’m giving Valentino the blowjob on stage, which is rendered in it, I think a poetic manner- its graphic, but it’s not- but he is running his hand up at Valentino’s torso, not also because we had another moment of that, and at the end of the piece when Walt Whitman, Oscar Wilde, who he’s been linked in with, and then this boy in a hospital gown because Sam Steward died New Year’s Eve 1993 at the height of the AIDS epidemic and I had to include that because that’s affected my life, you know drastically… and they come in- he’s sitting in this chair kind of basically dying. They come and witness him and and even at that point- I only did it on the second night, but I did put my hand up while I’m singing that song, so I could once again wield that light motif of connection. And I think the connection, the connectivity, the imperative to find one’s tribe and to connect is human nature. But also in gay queer lives, it was crucial to find a sense of some community and some connection… no wonder there were so many gay men that were complete alcoholics. I mean it was just a drastic you know edict that was you know thrust down upon us… but people generally did tend to find their tribe although when you were in a gay bar- a Mafia run gay bar- you’d order your drink, you couldn’t try to talk to the person next to you. 

AP: We’ll do it. 

JK: Exactly yeah! You order your drink and you’re like you know- and maybe you could play footsie or maybe you could take your little thing- 

AP: Let the videographer know we are playing footsie!

JK: And waiting outside were cops to arrest you and unless you had payola to give them- and if you didn’t have the money to give them, they would arrest you and your name and address would be in the newspaper. So your life was basically  destroyed- names and addresses in newspapers! It’s insane, you know, why do people have such a hard time with gay people? What was the problem? Well it was generally men that had the problem and maybe men of a certain age and that seems to still be the problem… you know… the bachelors are usually guys between the age of like 16 and whatever because they’re threatened- because they- I don’t want to be the one to you know, you know articulate that, but that’s kind of what I’m trying to articulate. 

AP: You found this light motif of the hand and so there’s a way in which you’re- I mean there’s a profound choreography that carries you know you through the piece and the audience as well, but I’m wondering- I’m thinking about that light motif then becomes almost a way for you to make contact with Steward too right? This sort of miming of what you’re imagining from what you hear in his writings?

JK: Yeah it’s a way for me as like director/choreographer/writer of the mise en scene which was comprised of entirely his words to kind of concoct a visual iconography- visual kinetic iconography that permeates the piece which then allows me to construct the piece in an artificial manner given a very realistic type of story scenario, and you know, theater performance- it’s artificial. But within witnessing profound emotion or something like that through artifice can make it even more profound and more clobbering, you know, what is realism? I mean even with realism there’s so- how artificial is one going to get and this is a pretty artificial thing to do in a way but it’s not- it’s it’s connecting to the body- it’s like people do stuff like that too. So it’s finding those points that are both hyper realistic and completely stylized that can then help me to have these kind of islands to reside in within the piece, but also to send signals to the audience of like this is- these are the signals we’re sending out that permeate the piece and that there’s a connection to each of these things. 

AP: There’s something I’m thinking one of the things that’s so powerful about the hand is that so with the hand we also get- the hand is his writing hand too right? And the hand is also a sexual organ, so we’ve just- it really holds so much in terms of tying together these elements. 

JK: Yeah there’s a lot I mean I didn’t you know- I was- I didn’t need to bring in a typewriter but there was a sound of typing and then he was- when he writes his erotic literature- there are two boys naked having sex, and I’m writing longhand, you know, so you’re right. The hand is the- and he was a writer and a thinker and a draftsman and a tattoo artist, so it was all about the hand. 

AP: Yeah this is- I mean this kind of real immersion in another person’s skin and this sort of deep historical performance as a form of historical research that you’ve done this with other pieces and thinking of the piece where you sort of become the fantasy child of Onassis and Calas-

JK: Oh yeah… Dagmar Onassis. 

AP: And of course you know, you’re very renowned you know sort of inhabiting Joni Mitchell and I guess as a performance, this is a particular way of doing performance research right and developing a performance piece like really kind of again a certain kind of mediumship on us

JK: Yeah and in order for any of it to work, I have to have an identification with the character and you know many of my pieces are fictions of it that I make up, but quite a few of them had been about existing people as you said Joni Mitchell, Egon Schiele- the Viennese expressionist painter, but within that I have to feel a kinship and a connection and either such a complete empathy for them and identification with them or a desire to like oftentimes make the pieces that I make speak to a need that I have, and so it’s like this is the character and this is me and we go- If we do this it always has to be like that because if I don’t fuel this idea with my reality, it’s not going to fly you know? I have and that’s what’s gonna make it work as my energy- I mean what carried me through this piece, I have no idea what carried… desperation, which we talked about earlier, living out of a sense of desperation, desire, curiosity, but maybe the performer needs to conquer and win in some weird way? And maybe it’s an internal skirmish done in public, but I tend to set the rung pretty high and maybe I’m addicted to a sense of aliveness I get from that? But I think more than that it really is about honoring these bigger than life characters as an idea that I want to both embody and share with the world, whether they’re real characters or fictional characters. And you know I’m more of a tragedian than an entertainer you know I really tend to go for the dark. I’m Irish and German, maybe that’s it? I also, you know, my entire generation was wiped out from the AIDS epidemic and it completely fucked up my life and I I I continued… you know I was diagnosed in ’89 I’m completely asymptomatic, I lost my first partner in ’82, so literally the AIDS epidemic has informed my entire life and my entire career you know and that has also given me another sense of mission, and honor, and responsibility because there are people like me that have survived and we’re still around and as these histories get written, I don’t know if we’re being accessed. There’s a whole industry around AIDS and around you know the epidemic and I don’t mean that in a necessarily negative way but what I guess maybe what I’m trying to say is that I would like to see more people like me being utilized to be the voices and not just that the work of the dead artists, the great dead artists, who I knew many of them you know? But I think it’s important that this intergenerational dialogue continues and it was really curtailed. It’s like we’re watching it, we’re sitting over a sinkhole, a huge cultural sinkhole, you know? Trying to and we are we trying to talk to each other? Are we succeeding? I don’t know. 

AP: Mostly even just thinking in the kinds of life-saving activism that came out of the AIDS emergency you know “Act Up!” among other- especially, but it’s sort of like it’s so important to sort of actually keep- hold on to the history because we need ongoing, you know, sort of life-saving activism and so how does sort of what- how can we reactivate these histories and have them in different ways? 

JK: Yeah and also there’s other types of activism- I made a very conscious choice that my place was not in the streets even though I was I was tangentially involved with Act Up! and Friends In Deed, you know but still my place was in front of people in rooms and making you know quite a few pieces that directly or attend gently about the AIDS epidemic getting people to consider mortality, getting people to look at mortality literally I got to die on stage as Egon Schiele in 1986 when I was already four years into the epidemic with my partners dying. So I was consciously Orpheus going into the Realm of Death- the Greek myth of Orpheus and Euridice- that was a very deliberate move on my part to ponder mortality and loss in 1988 and that began at the Pyramid Club in 1982, so I was really I was always looking at my artistic life in my creative work as activism absolutely you know? 

AP: How to sort of try to bring the story to an audience that needs a way to articulate what’s happening and also to get people to maybe hear stories that they don’t think apply to them. 

JK: Yeah and watch somebody on stage that they would- might normally not want to touch because you know people have a new innuendo and all that and you know in like every gay man you know who was around then. I imagined many people were afraid to touch gay men. People would drop change in your hand, you go to kiss them, they turn their head I mean literally it was it was not fun! And then you know I was on the cover of Poz I think in 1990 or something, there was not a peep about that because either people didn’t read the magazine or they were all like “Ew!” So you know it was important for me to be an exponent of of persisting in the midst of catastrophe I wasn’t going to believe that I was gonna die- I had work to do. And maybe I’m arrogant, but that was how I felt about it. I’m meant to be here. So I just kept working and that was my way of dealing with it as well. 

AP: You refer to you know- the end with the sort of ghostly figures that come to Steward and one of them you know it’s very important to mark a moment of the sort of early years of the AIDS crisis with this young man in a hospital gown and I’m sort of thinking that Steward also belonged to a gay male culture that was making itself up as it went along before aids in some sense so- in some sense unimaginable now right? This other world, but then I wonder about the importance of showing you know what comes before also… 

JK: Well AIDS was such an ironic catastrophe because it was like finally there’s some freedom you know I mean there were other upheavals before Stonewall, but that was the one that really kind of you know cinched it in a way and in terms of the public consciousness and that was what ’69 and then the ’70s was all about you know making up for lost time and then AIDS began 1979 to 1980, so it was a very quick turnaround and I don’t mean I I I think he was- Sam was very much aware of HIV because he was a tattoo artist. It was about cleaning the instruments and not transferring blood I mean it very much, He write- writes about it in his book about tattooing. I don’t think he was- he probably lost friends but I don’t think he was you know, he had- who knows, if he had gotten AIDS? I don’t know. He didn’t die from AIDS- he died from a heart condition and he was addicted to pills, at that point. But- but you know he experienced those freedoms as on the heels of him having made up the earlier version of his life and then he got to witness the dismantling of it or the the you know massacring of it and then died at the height of the epidemic in ’93 I’m not sure if I answered your-

AP: I’m just thinking that maybe the part of what I’m just thinking about- maybe part of what this piece does- it shows us intact- showing us a history before that is also- we don’t like- history doesn’t it to be done either that’s maybe it’s also like- what are the resources that is offered for sort of going forward now. The kind of resilience- the creative imagination and the teeth of all sorts of obstacles. I feel like that’s also like”Let’s pull ourselves up, you know?” 

JK: Well there’s a lot of amazing resources- there’s like the AIDS Memorial which is a resource on Instagram and Facebook. This guy Stuart whos out of Glasgow- and it’s it’s a repository of all these histories and photographs and stories of not just celebrities but anybody really there are also like there’s Ward B which is this Instagram page where it’s like just gay ephemera from from you know from forever, so I think I think a lot of young people are really fascinated by it by the ephemera and what I think a lot of people come to New York trying to get some semblance of what New York was like and it’s pretty much it’s most of its gone, you know gentrification so I think- 

AP: By the second… 

JK: Yeah yeah I think people are craving that connection to that vintage authenticity and by that I mean what’s in their DNA too and what they’re standing on? 

AP: Yeah a different kind of trans-temporal contact… So where is this piece going next- this is this was the debut at Skirball but you’ve been working on it over you know you had a residency you were doing work on it there well will you do it again? 

JK: I don’t know I- I don’t have a booking agent and there’s no there’s no history for this piece right now we videotaped it we have great photographs. I’d love it to be done, I think it should be done in schools, I think young people should see it, but there’s no plan yet, but I’m but I’m hopeful. 

AP: It’s part I’m thinking it was you know this is a huge stage here at Skirball it’s a big set and a lot of you know AV. Is it- I mean just even in terms of doing it somewhere else or- is there- are there different ways you could be configured or because it’s pretty big to move I would imagine. 

JK: Yeah I mean you know I made certain things look the way they did because it’s a big stage the video can be made smaller the bedroom which is PVC piping in black scrim that probably wants to stay eight eight feet, the mattress is a blow-up mattress, it’s portable it’s only you know four people to travel- five people. It gets- it’s pretty portable. Those closets collapse you know- those-

AP: That’s a metaphor! 

JK: Exactly exactly yeah indeed! But we can put them back up again, you know, if we need to. 

AP: Basically you’re saying you’re ready to take the show on the road- it’s very Judy Garland- Mickey Rooney. 

JK: It could very easily go on the road- this show could and it deserves to go on the road- people- yeah. 

AP: Wait I think we need to have like a sort of like a text on this video saying “And contact John Kelly Performance at-“

JK: johnkellyperformance.org 

AP: Alright, there you go it’s a- it’s a promo! 

JK: Yeah!

AP: What a delight to get to talk to you about the piece and I’m really so thrilled to get a chance to see it. 

JK: Thank you. Thank you.