Penny Arcade Knows Too Much

The doyenne of the New York art house movement on sexual freedom, President Obama and performing at the Outburst Festival

Penny Arcade has never been to Belfast, but like many Americans she has an idea of the city based on ambient exposure to years of news footage and vague stories of political violence.

Very few people in Belfast, by contrast, have any idea what to expect from her show, The Woman Who Knew too Much, which has been custom-built for this year’s Outburst Queer Arts Festival.

Drawing on Arcade's 40-year career as a performance artist – which began in the punky outsider circles of late-1960s New York – The Woman Who Knew too Much perfects the blend of forthright political humanism and performance that Arcade has been honing since, as a determined youngster named Susanna Carmen Ventura, she fled her native Connecticut and, aged 17, wound up appearing in Andy Warhol’s 1971 satire, Women in Revolt.

After a peripatetic professional life that really began with the success of her confrontational mid-1980s monologues and the 1990 sex and censorship show Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! (watch a trailer below), Arcade arrives in Northern Ireland more resolute than ever.

She has been to the Republic of Ireland, certainly. First in 1994 for the Galway Arts Festival, followed by a tremendous run at Dublin’s Olympia, performing eight shows a week. But now she hopes to bring a flavour of New York and queer performance to a new crowd.

‘Quintessentially the Irish have always been a really great audience for my work,’ she says down the line. ‘They love honesty. And if you're really honest – if you tell your truth and you're funny – it's hard to go wrong with Irish people.’

But for all that, Arcade arrives at a time of political and personal uncertainty. New York is home, but she luckily flew to Kentucky only days before Hurricane Sandy battered America’s West Coast with winds of up to 90mph. ‘There has been a lot of destruction and a lot of death. I know I'm going to be quite shocked when I go home. There has been a lot of devastation in my neighbourhood.’

Her neighbourhood is the lower east side, home to St Mark’s Poetry Project and the site of the much-missed punk rock venue CBGB, which closed in 2006. ‘Along with being an old Jewish and an old Italian neighbourhood, it’s also an old Irish neighbourhood,’ Arcade explains.

‘It's where are the immigrants came to in the mid-to-late 1800s. It’s a neighbourhood that artists have been living in all along, but particularly since 1945, after the war. And the artists are the only immigrant group that doesn’t move on, because we don't try to assimilate into polite society, which people tend to do.’

While the young Penny Arcade cut her artistic teeth in the early 1970s with performances in projects like John Vaccaro's Playhouse of the Ridiculous, the lower east side was also home to other stars in the making, such as Debbie Harry, Allen Ginsberg and WH Auden.

‘Leonard Cohen lived in my neighbourhood,’ she adds. ‘His song 'Famous Blue Raincoat' talks about the music on Clinton Street, which is where I live, on the corner of Stanton and Clinton Street. Marlon Brando lived across the street from me. It's a very old neighbourhood of outsiders, anarchists, rabble-rousers and working poor.’

Arcades’s work is concerned with the working poor more than any other group. An outsider’s stance is unavoidable, because it reflects the facts of her life. While the Belfast performance is part of a self-declared queer arts festival, Arcade's principal concern is with the dispossessed, whatever their sexual stripe.

So while she cheerfully despairs at the then-prospect of a Mitt Romney presidency (‘I mean, the Republican Party is simply completely out of its mind’), she does not default to unequivocal support for the Democratic Party and Barack Obama.

‘Fundamentally,’ she says, ‘I think Obama is someone who has never been interested in the poor of America, whether they’re black or white. When somebody thinks that the middle class is made up of people who earn under $250,000, they’re really out of touch with the public. I don't have a lot of faith in either party. I just think the question is, who's crazier?’

Gay marriage was one of the most divisive election issues in America, which chimes with the Irish political scene where sexual liberty occasionally becomes a flashpoint.

There’s a peculiar irony that Northern Ireland – where the UK’s first same-sex civil marriage ceremonies took place in 2005 – is also home to political figures such as Health Minister Edwin Poots, who has attempted to prevent homosexual people from donating blood, whilst other notable public figures have remarked that gay people should be referred to psychiatrists. You can hear Arcade rolling her eyes.

‘These are a very backward people,’ she says. ‘What are you going to do? In America in 1969 the idea of homosexuality as a mental illness was put to rest forever. So if somebody’s coming up with that in 2010, they're really pretty behind the times.’

Arcade holds fast to the notion of the separation of Church and State, with a casual glance back at the Bible to argue that politicians should not meddle in people’s private lives. ‘My response to all of it is "Revenge is mine, saith the Lord". God doesn't need your help. Get your politics out! It all has to do with the live and let live attitude, which seems to be shrinking rather than growing in the world.

‘Fundamentally,’ she conlcudes, ‘my question is always "Am I my brother and sister’s keeper?". And I think I am. Not everybody feels that way, but you've got to stand up for what you believe in.’

Penny Arcade performed The Woman Who Knew Too Much at the Black Box, Belfast on November 17, 2012.