by Kembra Pfahler, Tyler Matthew Oyer, and Alex Reese
Kembra Pfahler photographed by Marcelo Krasilcic for Office Magazine
This conversation took place at Kembra’s Lower East Side apartment on April 4, 2016.
TYLER: What did you say about antinaturalism?
KEMBRA: When we are talking about the present state of the world, especially in the urban centers of the western world, there’s talk about longevity and the dystopian future, because these urban centers were and are blighted by decay and gentrification. There are little patches of greenery to remind us of actual nature, but largely antinaturalism was born out a desire to find a kind of beauty in urban decay in a post-WWII post-recent war landscape. Our urban centers are informed by WWII because most of the largest suburban housing projects were initiated after WWII. This was a time when large numbers of people left their farms and went to live in major cities. So there are generations of Americans, myself included, who have only known life within the modern urban city context.
Growing up in Los Angeles, what I found to be beautiful wasn’t what one would consider “original nature”- I don’t consider things being planted nature. I always liked Kazuo Ohno’s dances because they addressed apocalyptic themes, he danced toward death. Antinaturalism is a way to find definition of beauty in understanding; if this is all you have, then what is your nature? It is way to find beauty in decaying architecture, especially in the Lower East Side because up until a minute ago it was all gravel and rubble and filth. So is there a way to find beauty in that kind of filth?
This may be a stretch, but there is a movement called Wabi Sabi in Japanese culture that I gravitated toward- finding perfection in imperfection. It’s a way of creating meaning and justification for beauty in things that are blighted. So I started using the term antinaturalism to describe present conditions of a world that is eradicating most of its natural resources and killing it’s species. It’s not applauding the murder or reveling in the destruction of our planet, it’s a way to call out what is real to me. That’s antinaturalism to me.
TYLER: I’ve been thinking about antinaturalism when I hear Anohni’s new song “4 Degrees”. She sings about the impending doom and destruction of the beautiful diversities within nature.
KEMBRA: Even though her work is called Hopelessness, there is a desire to preserve. I feel the sadness of environmental destruction everyday. It informs everything that I do.
TYLER: When I think about antinaturalism within your artworks, the thing that comes to mind first is how you alter your appearance for performance. It’s extreme in the sense that we don’t see people with red, or yellow, or blue or purple skin walking down the street, or with blacked out teeth or with glittering skin.
KEMBRA: It’s not drag. I always get confused with that, my character is not coming from that impulse. You’re right about antinaturalism applying to my lack of wanting or being able to be real. I can’t do acting, I’m too shy. I sometimes don’t have a desire to go on stage at all. As a child in Los Angeles I was being trained to be an actor. It made me very sick. I remember being forced to recite Under Milkwood by Dylan Thomas and doing it so horribly that I went inside my room for six months afterwards I was so traumatized. It was such a dark piece. The drama teacher at school made me learn it and I was so disturbed by it. It’s a conversation with dead people basically- the people who live under this town called Milkwood. I was so upset by it. I realized then that I didn’t have what it took to emotionally handle it. The antinaturalist look that I have in The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black is a way to come out and be on stage.
TYLER: I think the anti is really important with how you have constructed this term. It reminds me of the act of disidentification. I think your work disidentifies with certain standards of beauty such as the global obsession with the white, blonde bombshell. To be antinatural is to disidentify with standards.
KEMBRA: Disidentify is an interesting word- did you make that up?
TYLER: No, it comes from Jose Esteban Munoz. He wrote a book called Disidentifications with Vaginal Davis on the cover. I feel as queer/feminist people it’s important to be anti something and to disidentify with legitimacy. Dominant culture has appealed to science for legitimacy, to make something nature, and to make something right. In some ways gay marriage is a naturalizing of the devastated gay body. Some of us don’t want to be naturalized.
TYLER: Martin Luther King said if maladjustment means I don’t agree with the problematic societal powers then I want to be maladjusted. To desire disidentification and maladjustment is antinatural in a way.
KEMBRA: I like the idea of born against instead of born again.
KEMBRA: I always felt born against.
There’s this teaching from Brian Geyson and William Burroughs cut ups which is: let’s look and see what it means then cut it up and find out what it really means. I feel like my entire life I have never looked for the obvious meaning in things. I never trust the obvious; I always gravitate toward finding what something really means. I remember reading TIME Magazine as a child and feeling very puzzled by it, thinking this is not true, and without any adults prompting those thoughts of mistrust. My parent’s were counterculture hippies but they didn’t say to me, “Kembra, everything in the media is a lie”. I did hear messages like “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” and books by Terence McKenna were in my house. My father read Terence McKenna. I was allowed to not accept what the media dished out. I remember always thinking, this is not what this means, or this doesn’t make sense.
So antinaturalism is a contrary action. To be antinaturalist is to be contrarian.
People have always been very aggressive with noting that I did not behave in a certain fashion. They thought there was something wrong with the way that I expressed myself. This occurred my whole life, until recently.
TYLER: So you were being antinaturalized by others, it was put on you. You were othered.
KEMBRA: Yes. People wanted me to fit into a certain media aesthetic. The people around me always said I needed to lose weight. As you can see I’m rather emaciated. They always wanted me to be blonder. Then people could consider me an actress or something.
Little girls and boys are often criticized if they don’t fit into cookie cutter shapes. Little girls more so than little boys because their development is always under observation- like, oh, you’re getting to be so pretty, your body is really developing… There’s this running commentary that, for me, was unsolicited. Did you have that as well?
TYLER: I did a pretty good job at assimilating. I had physical sensibilities or eccentricities that were scrutinized. I was often othered or bullied for behaving differently than kids around me. But I don’t think little boys get the same unsolicited attention to their bodies as little girls.
KEMBRA: Growing up by the beach in Los Angeles, it happened a lot. Beach girls grew up aspiring to be actresses and models. Really, like, bikini models.
ALEX: There’s been increasing conversations acknowledging how we interact with little girls. Often the first comment is on their appearance- like aww, you look so pretty or you look so nice today. We don’t approach little boys the same way.
KEMBRA: We noticed that when my sister was very young. My sister would say it’s not good to always comment on appearances, even when it is positive, because those compliments may not last when they are older. We don’t refer to beautiful women as adorable like we do young girls.
ALEX: It teaches girls to value themselves based on those positive comments.
TYLER: Those become pathologies for identity. It’s how many people identify value in the world- self esteem and happiness based on what others tell them.
ALEX: I read an article some weeks back by a self-identified feminist who admitted she needed to unlearn how she spoke to little girls. Even she could identify those problematic tendencies in herself.
KEMBRA: You are absolutely right. That’s so true.
TYLER: So you came to New York City in 1979.
KEMBRA: To this neighborhood. To Avenue D and 3rd Street.
TYLER: I’m interested in how you’ve developed these terms which have become an explicit framework for you to generate all sorts projects from the band to photographs, sculpture and writing… When you came to New York did you feel an opportunity to antinaturalize yourself? To shed the Los Angeles upbringing? You were performing with Gordon Kurtti. You moved from Malibu to the Lower East Side and were around radical, queer people, punks… how did those experiences manifest terms like antinaturalism?
KEMBRA: Even though I was living in the city around a lot of artists I spent a lot of time alone in my art practice. I think that had more to do with my education more so than anything. I had a couple of friends but I wasn’t social. I spent days and weeks and months being extremely studious and solitary. I went to Europe and studied German and Austrian cultures, and was solitary through all that. I spent most of my time alone until I met Samoa. Gordon was my one friend. I had one good friend. I separated myself from the punk rockers because I felt like I didn’t want to join a movement. I felt it was more important for me to go beyond what they were doing… the punk ethic is originality and can be very severe. There was a high standard…
TYLER: There are rules to punk…
KEMBRA: Yes- morals and ethics. I thought if I were to come out and do something it had to be interesting, I did not want to copy what that movement was doing. That would communicate nothing. What gave me the most strength was being very solitary and antisocial. That’s what helped me to develop all these languages. It was a sacrifice. It was difficult to spend so much time alone but I think it made me develop a strong sense of intuition. I don’t think I would have been able to develop those skills if I were lost in a sea of socializing and partying. Those were the first years.
Samoa was my first boyfriend. We got married in the mid 1980’s. So from the time I was 17-22 I spent with my mouth practically zipped shut and my eyes just peeled open. I was very stoic, and not talkative, quite different than I am now. You know that Bob Dylan song “I was so much older then; I’m younger than that now…” I had a very old soul. I had to unravel the abuse I had encountered growing up in Los Angeles. It took a long time. I unraveled it by way of doing live performance and inventing languages. Doing this work saved my life. I think artwork can do that. Creativity heals things.
TYLER: Solitude and free time can be less depressing when you have a creative practice. There is something to focus on, something to be excited about. You’re not as scared to be alone.
KEMBRA: Life can be depressing if you are an artist who doesn’t make your work... if you’re not getting the work out of you. I performed at ABC No Rio and I met a lot of people, but it was a very studious time for me.
TYLER: What kind of work were you making then?
KEMBRA: What I’m doing now! But without music. I guess my work was a bit more difficult because I was a lot angrier. I’m still angry. But I was even angrier.
TYLER: Bill T. Jones has this nice phrase about artists. He says the best ones have a healthy dose of irate in their guts. I think the people who I respect as thinkers and makers the most can identify with that. I feel people whom I’m understood by can recognize that healthy dose of irate. In graduate school people used to be bothered by how upset I would be by certain phrases or issues or behaviors. They would say “why do you get so angry about art?” I was like how the fuck not!? I don’t know any different. When I feel an injustice, I feel it deep. I think those feelings drive me to make art. It’s generative.
KEMBRA: I know. How can people not be angry? I feel like dark vanilla. I have a vanilla personality that’s light and delicious but it’s dark. The darkness never goes away.
Anger can point you in a direction. It can be like a compass that points you and help you with making work. I want to say it helps you solve problems but it’s not that, because artists aren’t mathematicians. We are not scientists. We are redecorating the world with new ideas to help raise consciousness more so than proposing math equations.
TYLER: Yea. I think that anger can propel us to do something. It makes you care.
ALEX: We saw some bad art in the city. There’s definitely no anger or any emotion behind what’s producing it. It’s not raising any consciousness at all.
KEMBRA: Was it abstract art?
TYLER and ALEX: Yea, kind of…
KEMBRA: Abstract art sells well. Is there a big abstract art movement in LA right now?
TYLER: Paintings. Big abstract paintings.
KEMBRA: The new pop abstraction? What is that about? It’s about decoration.
TYLER: It’s also about art advisors convincing collectors to by all the same artists.
KEMBRA: Un-angry art, decorations, and art advisories aren’t really my world. I don’t need a decorator. I don’t care about money. You can be beautiful and have a lot of beauty in your life without money. People get angry when they see others can exist and have beauty in their lives without money. You can have all the money you desire and still not make your life beautiful or your heart beautiful.
There can be humour and anger in abstraction. Like Hilda Klint is interesting to me. There are lots of feeling behind that abstraction. Sue Coe makes strange paintings. It looks like she’s beating up the canvas with condoms filled with paint. I don’t know if it’s possible for there to be a sexuality in abstract art but I find her work very interesting. New abstract works have to have a duplicitous aspect for me to be interested. Like Dan Colen making abstract paintings out of bubble gum. There’s humour.
TYLER: And there’s critique. Dan makes paintings that look like bird shit or bubble gum and they sell for the same prices as Picasso.
When I think about your term availabism and antinaturalism, and the moment when you came to New York, I think about Jack Smith. Can you talk about Jack Smith?
KEMBRA: I was in his last movie called “Shadows in the City”. He had AIDS and he was very beautiful physically. He was wearing glitter eye makeup and he was so enigmatic. It was by Ari Roussimoff. I was working at a place called Millennium Film Archives. The first ten years of my art practice I made a lot of super8 movies. I was friends with the Kuchar brothers and Jonas Mekas.
TYLER: Where are those films?
KEMBRA: In a box. Some are in museums. I have to transfer them to DVDs. I never deal with my older work because I try to just make new work. I don’t like to yesterbate. But I may die soon, I’m 54. So I may only have twenty or thirty years left.
TYLER: Did you see Jack’s performances at the Plaster Foundation?
KEMBRA: I didn’t go to his house. This person who introduced me to Jack’s work was Donald Miller. He was from a band called Borbetamagus, which was a noise project. They were very unentertaining. Donald was taking class at Columbia University with Jack Smith. He told me Jack was the greatest artist of this century. I had just come from Los Angeles. So I started to go see his performances at the Millennium. Those were the ones that he wouldn’t show up for. Or he would arrive like seven hours late. So you would be sitting there staring at his set waiting for him to come on stage. It was the craziest shit.
I met Jack Smith and he held my face in his hands because he was so tall, and he was looking down on me and said “creature, creature”… he started screaming at me. I think he liked my eye makeup. Then we did the film together.
Jack Smith starved to death. He was not revered or monetized the way he is now. He was very political and addressed art and capitalism in a way that has totally changed and informed the way performance people deal with their work. He’s the greatest teacher and the greatest martyr. He had to die in order for us to pay attention to his work. He died because of his work. He put everything he had into his work.
There’s a lot to be learned from Jack Smith.
Also, how your work carries on after your death. His art was so absconded by museums and galleries after he passed away in a way that he could never benefit from. The conversations around what’s happened to Jack Smith’s work helps people think about what their work will be like when they’re gone. Especially artists that deal with ephemera and artists who make not money from their art. Or artists who present themselves in such a difficult fashion that they are not invited to the Art table. Jack Smith wasn’t always invited to the Art table. He was always working.
TYLER: And he was difficult.
KEMBRA: Yes. He was difficult around the Warhol people because he didn’t love what was popular. He always re edited his films. They were hard to purchase because he was always changing them. I was lucky to have actually met him. I’m glad that he’s recognized now but it makes me sad that he can’t benefit from it. What systems can we put into place for ourselves that handles our works after we’re gone?
Marjorie Cameron, the Kenneth Anger actress who later became Cameron, burnt most of her works. I don’t think I’d do that with mine, but I’d rather share my work with my community first instead of it serving rich people, to make rich people richer. The work that I’ve sacrificed my life to make, I hope that it will benefit people like me rather than rich people. That’s just boring, actually. The world is so divided between who has money and who doesn’t. And there’s shame around not caring about money, and not having it.
Marjorie Cameron in "The Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome" by Kenneth Anger (1954)
Jack Smith in "Shadows in the City" by Ari Roussimoff (1984-1990)
KEMBRA: Antinaturalism is applied to my practice as way of defining and seeing nature in what I’ve got. I always loved science fiction writers like Philip K. Dick and I loved Blade Runner. It was my favorite movie. I do a performance piece where I sing to the music of Vangelis. I’ve been doing it since the early 1980’s. You wanna see it?
TYLER and ALEX: YES!
KEMBRA: Did you ever see “The Wall of Vagina”?
TYLER: Yes, I love that one.
KEMBRA: So to wind this up- I don’t think we should stop inventing language. It’s fun to invent the language to describe your own work. That’s something I encourage in Performance Art 101. Why did people stop inventing their own art language? We just recycle terms that everyone else uses. Genesis P-Orridge is someone who plays with the English language. The English language in all its simplicity is filled with double, triple entendres. For example, in rhythm and blues songs lyrics like “put a little sugar in my honey bowl” the words have many meanings.
The silence in spending time alone helped me to describe my work by going inward enough to try to figure out my own language. Availabism is more of a shared practice. Antinaturalism, because of the gravity of what it’s describing, the tragedy of what it’s describing, it’s hard to paraphrase exactly what it’s about. I’m still learning and figuring out what all these things are about.
Do you ever feel like you don’t know what you’re doing?
TYLER: Often. When I try to over plan my work it ends up being trite and boring. When I allow myself to get lost in the process and not try to have answers, but continue with the work… that’s when the most radical shit happens. It’s like jumping off the cliff instead of having a harness and scaling down.
KEMBRA: I feel like you know what you’re doing a lot of the time. Sometimes when I am in the middle of things I cannot describe what I am doing. I feel that way about antinaturalism. I am not a philosopher.
KEMBRA PFAHLER is a performance artist and lead singer for the theatrical cult-glam rock group The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black. She subscribes to a philosophy of Availablism, incorporating low-tech, readily accessible materials into her sets, props, and costumes. Pfahler also curates shows, including a 2007 show called Womanizer at Deitch Projects in New York. In 2008, Pfahler was featured at the Whitney Biennial. Kembra teaches Performance Art 101 at Pioneer Works and hosts Incarnata Social Club, a monthly performance event in New York City.
ALEX REESE is a graduate candidate at the University of Amsterdam in the Study of Western Esotericism. He holds a BS in Landscape Architecture from Cornell University. His interests lie at the intersections of urban studies, love, political-economy, spirituality and social justice.
TYLER MATTHEW OYER founded tir journal in 2015. He is an artist, performer, writer and organizer based in Los Angeles. His work has been presented at MoMA PS1, REDCAT, dOCUMENTA (13), Hammer Museum, Kunstnernes Hus Oslo, Art Basel Miami Beach, Bergen Kunstall, Rogaland Kunstsenter, The Royal Vauxhall Tavern, High Desert Test Sites, Highways Performance Space and the Orange County Museum of Art. He received an MFA from the California Institute of the Arts in 2012.