Putting it on the record

I first heard about the work of performer, musician and artist Kembra Pfahler in the early 90’s when a friend told me she’d seen a Richard Kern film—Sewing Circle (1992)—that documented Pfahler getting her vagina sewn shut. I recall her gesture making me feel sad and a little sick, yet I mostly felt deep admiration for the extremity of her self-possession. Here she was taking on rape culture (among other violences), prohibiting the penetration of her body by means of needle and thread, the classic tools of “woman’s work.” Perhaps best known for her death rock project the Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black, which she co-founded in the ’80s with artist Samoa Moriki, Pfahler has continued to create a body of unabashedly feminist and transgressive work with her body at its center, all the while redefining beauty as that which expresses one’s self purely as oneself. Pfahler will perform her latest piece On the Record, Off the Record: Volume Two on June 17 and 18 at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn, New York. Her show is the first in the series HERETICS, curated by Jane Ursula Harris, which presents live commissions by artists working at the intersection of performance art and music.

IN THE ’80s, my mom had a clothing store near Topanga Canyon/Malibu with Roswitha Newman, Randy Newman’s wife, a woman named Sandy Kaufman, and another woman, Helen, who was married to the singer of the Zombies. My mom had that store for many, many years, and it supported the heck out of many, many, many, many of my art projects. She used to make costumes for me when I was a kid, and later I wore one of her costumes in the Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black. She informed a lot of my design sense, although I’m the exact opposite of her. She has blond hair, and we fight a lot because, you know, that’s what moms and daughters do.

Even before I hit puberty, I felt subjugated by my gender. I really hated being told what to wear, how to look, how I could look better if I was thinner. I hated when people offered their opinions about my appearance. When I was at Santa Monica High School, I dressed in suits, cut all my hair off, dyed it black. There were four punk women in the whole school—and we just got the shit kicked out of us. By the eleventh grade, I’d gotten accepted into the School of Visual Arts in New York and I thought, “well, since I got accepted into SVA, I don’t even need to graduate.” So I didn’t, I just moved to New York.


Kembra Pfahler. Photo: Jean Toir.

To me, at that age, at that time, New York meant freedom. It meant gender equality. It wasn’t as racially segregated as Los Angeles was. And I felt—I feel—that what is very indigenous to this city is developing your chosen family. I live on the Lower East Side, and during Black Lives Matter, there was so much violence on Second Street and Avenue C. There were murders on Third Street and Avenue C. There was so much bloodshed. And I kept telling everybody what was happening. It was so insane because nobody believed me, you know? They were just like, “you’re exaggerating.” I mean, I saw a young kid surrounded by cops, all pointing guns at his face. He was standing there, crying, with guns pointed at his face. It was a fucking nightmare.

On the Record, Off the Record basically arose from me wanting to tell my stories, which is what I do in my performances and artworks. I did the first version at Participant Inc. on my birthday, and the second version I’m doing at Pioneer Works. The idea came from experiencing life in the ’80s and just being an “IRL person.” I don’t use my computer very often and I’m very suspicious of what’s happening on the internet, although I know it’s a cool tool too.  And I’m very suspicious of what’s on the record and what’s left off the record, because I feel what’s on the record is usually bullshit—hold on. Not to go off-topic, but I want to put this in here: When I was working on the “Future Feminism” show in 2014, I had an intern who came to work with me. Her name was Ashley Mead. She was an amazing woman, and she worked harder than any of us. After the show, she went back to Colorado where she was from, and she had a baby with a man who murdered her. He killed her, chopped up, and—oh, God, it was. . . It was a case of domestic abuse that turned violent, that ended her life violently. And I think of her in this moment of the revocation of women’s rights, and. . . God, it’s all so appalling. Just knowing how many women have been killed, how many have died getting illegal abortions— just knowing what people suffer just to live, you know?  

We never know who is going to change the world. I have faith in all people. I really do. So however the world changes, bring it on. I’m here to help by doing what I can. I’m not quite sure what’s going to happen, but I think we have to redesign the world together, not separately, with complete consensus, and complete consensus takes a long time. It’s not a hurried process. I’ve been in Hawaii with my parents for a while, and I’ve been reading William Butler Yeats with my father. Poetry is a big part of his life. We were just reading Yeats’s “The Second Coming”—“the centre cannot hold.” The center is definitely not holding, and I guess what I also want to say is that during times of pain, during times of change and despair, share your poems and your ideas with one another. Do it, and do it IRL as well as on the computer, because our future is going to need us to show up and suit up at some point.

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