Karen Finley"Call Me Adam" chats with two-time Obie and Bessie Award winner Karen Finley about her latest work Written in Sand

Written in Sand includes some of Karen Finley’s most searing work on the subject of AIDS, written at a time when medical treatment was ineffective and when she was losing her friends to the disease on a continual basis. Some pieces are excerpted from her earlier shows of the era; others are based on writing she did at the time that has never been published or performed. Interspersing the Finley pieces are musical selections originally written or performed by musicians who died of AIDS during this period, performed by jazz artist Paul Nebenzahl. Written in Sand plays at Baruch Performing Arts Center (55 Lexington Avenue, entrance on 25th Street between Lexington & 3rd Avenue) from October 2-23. Click here for tickets! 

Opening night, October 2, is a benefit for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.

Karen Finley performing1. From October 2-23 you will be presenting your new work Written In Sand at Baruch Performing Arts Center based upon pieces and writings on AIDS that you wrote between 1983 and 1994. What excites about presenting this new work? KF Revisiting the texts and memories of loss and youth places the trauma with time in order to process and gain perspective. The performance also memorializes and celebrates the activism for action, recognition and acceptance of those living and suffering with AIDS. The impact of this era, lives lost, all too many was devastating trauma for a generation and in particular those in the gay community. Yet, there has been progress and advances in human rights - and in healthcare. But the piece is about loss and can have a relationship to loss that is too early - and the heartache the loss and missing brings us to a profoundness with the meaning of life though these intimate passages with those you loved - the performance allows for a ritual space in a public forum to bring together the emotions in a human offering through voice music and audience witnessing. But what excites me is the musical accompaniment with the texts - there will be piano, flute, IPAD instruments and bells, drums. The music gives a percussive heart beat to structure the work. Looking forward to performing with my collaborator Paul Nebenzahl who works in jazz and blues.

Karen Finley, Photo Credit: Getty Images2. What made now the right time to present this piece? I was invited by Sur Rodney Sur to participate in the 25 Anniversary of Visual Aids - while doing research of the vast creative responses to the AIDS crisis I compiled all of my texts gathered from various performances, writings - poetry and when I read them together I realized they were its own narrative that had been broken up and scattered. And now with time, the pieces interrupted were put together as a woven testimony of memory and as a homage. When I performed a small section of the work for the 25 Anniversary, the response was tremendous, and I decided to begin the process of performing. Although intense, the 25 years will enable the time to be able to view the crisis in a way that I have been carrying with me for many years.

3. What was it like to go back through these pieces in preparation for this show? What emotions/memories came up for you during this process? The emotions are very deep - heartfelt - yet there is a joy in recalling of the friends that I had such a deep and profound relationships with - so there is also humor and the personality of my friends. Yet this work is a lyrical document of the artist as a historical recorder. And I want to give and perform this work to the community of New York.

Karen Finley as "Jackie Kennedy", Photo Credit: Jennifer Taylor for The Boston Globe4. Do you feel you will be presenting these stories differently now than if you presented some of them earlier in your career? Yes - and No - because I have never performed all of these works together before - I would not have assembled all of the entries. The piece is also about the looking back. The AIDS crisis is still a problem - and being Queer is still a legal issue in Uganda - but this work is situated in a time frame when there were proposals to place those infected with HIV in colonies or camps, the ostracized, the homophobia. This was before gay marriage or domestic partners so victims were shamed - families would not even announce the lives or deaths of their family member. The performance is about a time in our country's shameful history of great cruelty and neglect to those suffering from the illness - first in terms of support of research but secondly in terms of the inhumanity. We can learn from these times and to learn to be more sensitive and prepared to open our hearts. But in human terms in terms of performance - I feel the work transcends time and place and focuses on the emotional voicing of connecting memory and longing.

5. How do feel these writings of yours relate to where things are at with the AIDS crisis today? Do you think progress has been made? Yes progress has been made - but not in certain communities -  If you are white you will have a better chance to have healthcare - and there are places in the world where you do not have access or the expense of medicine such as in Africa. I have many friends who are living healthy productive lives with the disease.

Karen Finley in chocolate, Photo Credit: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders6. What makes Baruch Performing Arts Center the perfect place to present this work? First I am honored to perform at Baruch which is part of our New York State Public University system. And I wanted to work with Chip Duckett at Baruch and his business partner Ron Lasko who is producing events this season for their professionalism, artistry in theater production, and integrity, I first met Chip Duckett performing for an AIDS benefit in the mid eighties.

7. Who or what inspired you to become a performance artist? I have been creating performance or conceptual based work since I was a teen - so I have always been interested in art. I wanted to create work that would disrupt traditional theatrical productions. I also enjoyed night clubs and other spaces to create artistic production to expand the occupation of artistic territory. 

8. What made you go against the grain so to speak to get your work produced? Was there a moment where you were like "I have to do this my way?" I think that is what I have been doing since I have been in my teens - as a feminist artist and a political artist - taking and making space becomes a political act in having a moment to be seen or as a woman to direct myself in a unsocially unacceptable appearances - and to work with that energy makes for tension and adrenaline!

Karen Finley in honey, Photo Credit: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders9. What's the best advice you've ever received? The problem with selling out is that the second time it is easier.

10. What have you learned about yourself from being performance artist? To find the joy in the making of art, to find the joy in being part of the human dimension of sharing a physical aliveness together, to be present with my audience, and to feel the love and emotion flow from my heart into theirs and then back to mine.


11. If you could have any super power, which one would you choose? I would like to be involved in urban planning.

12. If you could be an original flavor Life Saver, which one would you be? Coconut - dont know if that is original but I like Coconut. 

13. Favorite skin care product? Honey body creme.

Karen Finley, Photo Credit: Timothy Greenfield-SandersMore on Karen:

Since her first performances in the early 1980's, KAREN FINLEY has become synonymous with performance art. She is the recipient of two Obies, two Bessies, and multiple grants from the NEA and NYSCA. She has toured internationally with pieces including Make Love, George & Martha, The American Chestnut, A Certain Level of Denial and The Return of The Chocolate Smeared Woman. In 1990, Karen became an unwilling symbol for the NEA when she, along with Tim Miller, Holly Hughes & John Fleck, sued the NEA for withdrawing grants on the grounds of indecency. She last appeared at Baruch Performing Arts Center last November in The Jackie Look, in which she played Jackie Kennedy on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination.

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