I appreciate you taking the time to do this interview. What was it like growing up in Southern California?
Kembra Pfahler- EYE-DILL-ICK.
Punk Globe- What were the arts like at that time?
Kembra Pfahler- In the late 1970s I was exposed to many great artists that instilled an ethic and an ethos in me that I have put into practice my entire adult life. The artists I was inspired by were all interdisciplinary, provocative, and original. As a young girl, it was life changing to see bands like The Screamers and Diamanda Galas. These very extreme artists who were all very boundary less. It made me want to push myself as an artist. I thought to myself that if I came out and did artwork that looked like what Exene Cervenka or Lydia Lunch was doing that they would just kill me. I realized that it was my job to come up with an aesthetic of my own and that I would at least attempt to be original. I invented the terms Availabism and Anti-Naturalism because I thought that what I was doing should have a title.
These punk artists weren't interested in reification. Things didn't have to be in a filing cabinet or in their proper place. It was the complete opposite, which is also called contraranism. It's more aggressive and obvious to say anarchistic, but it's contrarian in terms of behaviors.
As a way of being contrarian, I always felt people would observe The Voluptuous Horror Of Karen Black to be some out of control drunken scene. When we were on tour, everyone would ask us what drugs we were on. I think it was Gibby from The Butthole Surfers who said, "We are the drug." I'm standing on my head, cracking eggs on my vagina without shooting heroin or being intoxicated on alcohol. I'm doing it that way because the people who came before me did it the other way already. G.G. Allen did that fantastically.
How you work with the body is remarkable. Any thoughts you'd like to share in regards to this?
Kembra Pfahler- I was so shy. It certainly cured my shyness to do all that body work, body work meaning: naked. It's also really fun. The actual definition of hedonism is sitting around in the sun. It's not a bacconalia where you have to be drinking boxes and boxes of wine.
Punk Globe- In regards to Availabism, just because one is using objects that are readily accessible, it doesn't mean that what one is making with them is random. Is that right?
Kembra Pfahler- Yesterday someone asked me if being an Availabist meant that my writing was random; like William Burroughs using cut ups or David Bowie using cut up methodology in writing lyrics. Availabism is more about the use of material. The content and the initial idea behind a song or performance is very much thought through in my case. I'm somewhat minimalistic, always stripping things down to their bare essentials.
Availabism is also an anti-classist, socialist tool. Meaning, you don't have to have a million dollars to make an album and you don't have to buy millions of dollars worth of fabric to look fabulous in fashion. You just have to make the best use of what's available. I remember when I was a younger artist people were always complaining that they couldn't finish their projects because they didn't have the money. As far as I can see, there's still tons of free paper at Kinkos. People are still throwing away drinking water bottles, which you can make tons of crap out of. I choose to spray paint everything black. You know those coffee cup holders they have at 7/11? That's a fabulous, high fashion gauntlet. Just look around. Availabism is concerned with encouraging artists not to sweat what they don't have, but concentrating and seeing what you do have.
I really like that. It makes sense to me that if one is using materials that are available that they could possibly have added meaning than an item that was purchased because their 'laying around' quality makes them familiar. Does that make sense, or have I run it in a wrong direction?
Kembra Pfahler- You're not running in a wrong direction at all. That would be something very subjective that is a part of each individual artist's process. Art and music are pretty much the only way that most of us can communicate using any sort of kindness or meaning. I really like what Mike Watt from The Minutemen had to say in regards to the younger generations coming up while older people were lamenting that punk was dead or that graffiti was over . . . He said, "The truth does not know what time it is." When I say that I have being an artist and being of this thought process in my DNA because there have been generations in my family and around my family that have passed on this aesthetic to me. In my case I got lucky because I had really nice parents who had fabulous taste in music. There's a generational trajectory of people who have done similar work to what I am doing who came before me and that will come after me. It's called punk rock in some cases people call it something else. I just got lucky that I was born when I was and got to see all this fantastic music. I got to see that first wave of music in Los Angeles and then I got to see everything that happened in New York when I was a teenager. I got to see James Chance, Suicide, The Mad, Richard Hell, The Swans . . . All these amazing artists. I still get to see the people that are alive from that era around New York and L.A. There's all these fantastic new bands that are coming up too like, Jailbait, No Bra, my friend Walt Cassidy is really inspiring . . . These are all much younger artists. Then there are people like Gyda Gash from the late 1970s punk movement and she's still around and making incredible music. She's about my age. I just saw Richard Kern on the street and I asked him if we could finally do that all nude over 50 photo shoot.
Punk Globe- It's really cool you latched onto Karen Black. How did that happen?
Kembra Pfahler- In the 1980s I was making movies and I met the great filmmaker, Mike Kuchar. At that time I didn't have a soundtrack for the films I was making. They resembled TVHOKB of today, just a bit rougher because I was younger and still learning about things like body paint. Mike described the films I made with Samoa -Samoa being the guitarist and co-founder of TVHOKB with me- as "voluptuously horrific". I had always loved Karen Black's films, not so much the horror films, but films like The Day of the Locust, and particularly Five Easy Pieces. She's incredibly beautiful to watch. Karen Black is an amazing artist whose medium is acting. I can't get near what actors do. It's such a specialized and difficult art form. I always really loved watching her on film. So, in the spirit of poetry where you don't quite know where something comes from, it just comes to you . . . I just all of a sudden said, "The Voluptuous Horror Of Karen Black" and that was it.
We met her in Los Angeles during the first couple of tours we did. We were doing a show in Venice with Vaginal Creme Davis and some other friends. Karen Black came and said, "Wow. You guys are really artists." She's so incredibly generous. She's never given us a lawsuit for using her name. She's such an amazing artist. She needs a plaque, an award, a star on Hollywood Blvd. with the ceremony in front of Grauman's, and a red carpet in front of her house. She's so busy, which is so feminist to me and a really great power of example. This woman has never stopped working at her art form.
Also! Can you please include in the list of bands that I love and the people who I think are important . . . Antony and CocoRosie. Those two are extremely important to me.
Wait. You mean Antony from Antony and the Johnsons?
Kembra Pfahler- Yes. Antony is one of the most important and intelligent future feminist artists alive today.
Punk Globe- I love Antony's work. It's really cool you just said that. I fully agree. Do you like Mx. Justin Vivian Bond?
Kembra Pfahler- Mx. Justin Vivian Bond is an incredible future feminist artist, as is Joey Arias. Vaginal Creme Davis, Bruce LaBruce, Richard Kern . . . all very important, very inspiring artists.
Punk Globe- Love all Richard Kern's films. But, The Sewing Circle. Did you conceptualize that together?
Kembra Pfahler- I came on to the Cinema of Transgression a bit after that first body of work that Nick Zedd did with Richard like, Submit to Me and all the early Lung Leg stuff. I came along around the time of The Bitches, when Richard was doing shorter pieces. We were neighbors and friendly. He said that he really wanted to do a film where someone sewed their vagina shut. I couldn't believe he was saying this because I had just been dying to sew my vagina shut. It was fabulous. We were thinking the exact same thing. A lot of us have the same thoughts at the same time. In the spirit of the collective unconscious it's all just floating around. It was one of those happy accidents and something that was very synchronistic that we were able to do the sewing circle together. He filmed it beautifully. It was recently restored and I just saw that last week along with some of the new work he's been doing. It's so elegant, it reminds me of Caravaggio. His use of color and lighting in his new work is mind bending and unbelievably gorgeous.
Have you ever seen a documentary called The American Nightmare?
Kembra Pfahler- No. What's that?
Punk Globe- It's a documentary on horror movies from 1960s-1970s that places the particular monsters/themes within the social/political context they were made in. It makes a lot of horror movies make a lot of sense in a way.
Kembra Pfahler- Have you ever read a book called The Monster Show, by David J. Skal?
Punk Globe- No. What is it?
Kembra Pfahler- It's a really good one. I found it to be really inspiring.
Now, for some reason I'm obsessed with I Am Legend, The Omega Man, and apocalypse through contamination and disease and such. In the spirit of the times. I probably should be filled with fear and completely paranoid, but I'm not. I'm thankful that I don't have that type of anxiety. In New York, in particular people have a lot of anxiety. There's no apartments for anyone to live in. There's so much classism here. Occupy Wall Street has just started and everyone is sleeping in the park. It's so extreme here. Where I live in New York, there's people from The Food Channel or the Duke of Austria or something. It's so expensive to live on The Lower East Side right now that there's no young people, no Sid and Nancy types like you saw in the movie can live here anymore. Hence, people have a lot of anxiety, particularly since 9-11. It really changed everything. You didn't even hear about these pills before 9-11 that they have out now and everyone seems to be on. People used to be normal junkies. Now, all the children have to be on all this terrible crap because everything is so anxiety ridden. I do get very upset and depressed. I'm glad I have an outlet for it in TVHOKB.
You were in NYC for the Reagan years, huh. I imagine you've lived through some pretty visceral changes.
Kembra Pfahler- I lost almost every friend I've ever had to A.I.D.S. It looked like Vietnam, or Hiroshima, or Nagasaki. I feel like a war veteran after watching so many of my friends die. My eyeballs will never be the same again. I'm really not feeling people who tell me to go to a grief counselor or to take some sort of medication to make me feel better. People don't like to see other people that upset, it's very aryan nation these days: "Don't be a mess and don't cry."
Punk Globe- It seems like the pills are less for the person actually going through all these negative emotions and more so that others don't have to be bothered by them.
Though, that's a complicated topic. . .
Kembra Pfahler- I don't want to send out the message that taking medication is uncool. It's saved many lives. One of my band members started to take meds. He was an Apache from San Carlos, Arizona and his name was Noel. He was in TVHOKB in the early days. He was medicated really early on when people were first starting to take these psychotropic medications. He wasn't monitored and he decided to stop everything on his own and he died. He's dead. I had to learn in the hardest of hard ways that if people are on these medications, they're supposed to go to the Dr. and therapy . . . they can't just rip themselves off of them.
We're living in really confusing times. There's a lot of confusing shit that people have to try to understand while they're still in their teens and twenties.
Punk Globe- Were you ever interested in the Situationists or people like that?
Kembra Pfahler- They were fantastic in theory, but the Situationists were really very black suit-white blouse and tie to me. Since I was born on the west coast a lot of the theoretical European art movements went right over my head. I can discuss Van Halen I at great length if you'd like (laughs).
Kembra Pfahler- I like the situationist Marsha P. Johnson.
Punk Globe- That's a remarkable observation.
Kembra Pfahler- The Transexual situationists were born into a world where everyday they're in a situation. Marsha P. Johnson was murdered because of her identity. Trans people had to go through a situationism that was far beyond anything academic. As far as I'm concerned, they're far more courageous than an academic art movement.
I don't think many people would make that connection. It's a rather important one.
Kembra Pfahler- Now is a good time for all of us to be communicating and formulating ideas so that we can present the world with more text of the world. There's been a stopping point with performance and certain literature that people can get exposed to in order to learn about this stuff. Maybe in the next ten years all of us will be able to present a new paradigm, a new example to the world; A concrete and honest, un-revisionist perspective of history as it's unfolded. As Miss Vaginal Creme Davis said: "It's the job of the younger generation of artists to knock people off of their pedestals." I don't know how long that will take. I feel delusionally optimistic about it.
Punk Globe- Loud and clear. I feel almost absurdly hopeful about it all. I've been back and fourth to Occupy L.A. and it seems like people are at least attempting to have cross community discourse while simultaneously rebelling against economic injustice. It's nothing like Occupy Wall Street in terms of all the police brutality and oppression they're having to deal with. OWS was the first front line. I don't like to get too hopeful, but it does seem like the kind of drastic governmental and ideological change I'd like to see is at least within the thin realm of possibility, or I like to think it is.
Kembra Pfahler- That's good to hear about the discourse. The police are not cool in New York, nor are they cool in any other city in the Untied States.
Punk Globe- No, they're not.
Kembra Pfahler- We had this incident here in New york where a woman was raped four times consecutively in the same night by these policemen on the Lower East Side. These two policemen were acquitted. It was sort of like that Jodie Foster movie, The Accused. It made you want to just throw up. I remember walking down the street and wondering why the whole Lower East Side wasn't rioting about it. Two cops were singing Bon Jovi songs to a passed out young woman in her apartment and it was caught on video tape. This was one of the worst things I've ever heard about and they were acquitted. That's really a sign of the times . . . that there was so much quietness and sedation surrounding all this very real activity that's happened.
I've heard some people remark that Occupy Wall Street is just a drop in the ocean. Well, at least it's more than what you're doing, you stupid piece of shit. I think it's very courageous. I feel like we should just be running wild in the streets . . . naked and screaming.
Yes. I feel like people need to re-wild themselves.
Kembra Pfahler- Well, let's see what happens in the future. Hope is not an Obama poster painted by Shepard Fairey. Hope is something that I still have. I'm extremely angry all the time. There's not much to celebrate. I have no idea what people are talking about when they invite me to their DJ party. My response is that they'd better learn how to play an instrument and start talking about something because I'm not standing around at a party with nothing to celebrate. We don't have much to celebrate right now. There's a lot to be angry about. I love that Thor song, Anger Is My Middle Name. I do feel angry, but it's not a debilitative anger. Things are just not working. I really love Antony's suggestions regarding Future Feminism, that we actually start changing the way we're thinking and evolving. Genesis P-Orridge talks about this as well. Where is the evolution? There hasn't been any, really. Antony's Future Feminism is something that I want to continue having discourse about. I feel like these times are a lot like being stuck in a hall way. We haven't gotten to the other room yet. All the ingredients are lain out on the table. As far as what happens with that, what we make of it . . . I'm uncertain. Again, as much as I hate to sound talk show-ish, I do feel hopeful.
Punk Globe- What are your thoughts on post-gender theory?
Kembra Pfahler- Bringing it back to what I was taught, the punk rockers in Los Angeles were very advanced in their gender politics. Women were treated very differently than we see today. There were androgynous women, saucy women, big girls, small girls, and the concept of beauty was not cliche at all. I feel like the women who were involved in those bands integrated with the boys. It wasn't as sexist. That's what I grew up with and it's carried on in my art work. My brothers are feminists. My brother, Adam is in a band called Jawbreaker and he's probably more academically educated about feminism that I am. Feminism for me is like racism is like racism in a way. Are you a racist? Look around at your group of friends. How many Black friends do you have? How many Asians are in your circle? Are you hanging out with people who are all just one kind of person? As far as feminism is concerned, I look around at who I'm working with. Am I working with women who have high esteem? Women who I respect and feel could be the next president of the United States? In TVHOKB, I'm surrounded by extremely intelligent, fierce women of all ages. I'm glad to be able to work with so many great women. They're all really tough girls who are making movies, taking pictures, and are in there own bands aside from TVHOKB. I have a great wish that there wasn't misogyny in the world and that there wasn't hatred and disrespect towards the Trans and Mx communities.
Punk Globe- Right on. You have a a few art books that came out relatively recently. Can you discuss them?
Kembra Pfahler- Well, Kathy Grayson, who has a blog called, Art From Behind, and gallery, The Hole wrote Beautilism, and we also just put out a book with Bruce LaBruce's pictures from Wall Of Vagina. My other friend Lia Gangitano, of the gallery, Participant Inc. just wrote a book called, Dead Flowers.
Some friends and I are also working on a new book about a friend who died from A.I.D.S. His name is Gordon Kurtti and we finally get to do this book 25 years after he died.
Punk Globe- Is it a collaboration?
Kembra Pfahler- He was an artist and he died when he was 27 so no one has really had a chance to see what he's accomplished in his life. It's a most incredible thing that we get to do this book about his now.
That is incredible. Can you explain the concepts around Anti-Naturalism?
Kembra Pfahler- It's a little Philip K. Dick-ian. Remember the movie Blade Runner, where all the wealthy people were allowed to leave the contaminated earth and go to the off-world world colony? All of the robots, sick people, and weird people were left in a post apacalyptic, decaying, urban environment. The theory of Anti-Naturalism is essentially thriving in that state, which is the world as we now know it.
We're not writing about Walt Whitman's Leaves Of Grass. We're talking about Diet Pepsi, Klonopins, and spray tan. That's our world. As much as I'd like to go to Yosimite and watch a glacier, and as much as I'd live to go to the Black Forrest in Germany; I live in the city. What is my nature? It's Anti-Naturalism. I get to look at the trees on my block . . . they're all dead trees, but I still love them. I find beauty in the East River. This is my nature.
Punk Globe- That makes a lot of sense.
Kembra Pfahler- I just don't have it. Remember in the 1980s, when the Dead Kennedys wrote the song Moon Over Marin? At some point in the 1980s there was a big chain link fence around the Pacific Ocean because it was so contaminated . . . that was where I used to surf.
Punk Globe- The music you make is amazing. What concepts were you kicking around early on?
Kembra Pfahler- I wrote a song about my bathtub because I don't really have anything in my house besides a bathtub. So, I wrote the song Water Coffin. There's this Frida Kahlo painting that she did when she was in the bathtub. It's a reflection of her feet in the bathtub and I never forgot it. The concepts within the songs just come from my life experience and poetry. Sometimes you write the song and sometimes you don't know what the fuck is happening, it just travels through you or something.
There's a Native saying that like: "Make sure to follow your dreams, and be sure that their your dreams that you're having." I've had other people's dreams before. I've had dreams that came from the Indian Restaurant on 5th St. in NYC. I woke up in the morning and realized that I'd had someone from the Punjabi Restaurant's dream by accident because the entire dream was filled with Indian people and they were all talking about food service things. What I'm trying t say is that the content of The Voluptuous Horror Of Karen Black are also about my true dreams, which I think that they have been . . . and nightmares too.
I might be getting a little goobly gobbly from being in the bathtub all this time.
Punk Globe- I forgot you were in there! Do you have any parting words for the Punk Globe readers?
Punk Globe would like to thank Kembra Pfahler for being so generous with her time and for her wonderful contributions to our cultural history.