Last Thursday, the Museum of Arts and Design screened An Evening With Penny Arcade and Quentin Crisp, a film by Steve Zehentner that was retrieved from the archives of the Lower East Side Biography Project, an oral-history series chronicling the vibrant—and rapidly fading—arts and nightlife culture that defined downtown New York in the ’70s through the early ’90s. While Crisp, the late gay icon, came alive in celluloid, delivering such signature witticisms as, “I like Mother Theresa; she’s the only famous person that nobody envies,” Penny Arcade was there in the flesh. Following the film, the legendary performance artist, whose hair was dyed Bazooka Joe pink, traded discrete barbs with rival (and fellow friend to Crisp) Phillip Ward during an audience Q&A and then sat down with the Transom for a private conversation.
What makes the LES Biography Project so important?
The history of art has always been an oral history. The people that we choose [for the project] are not all artists, but people who are all highly individuated, which is what people used to come to New York to do. They left their small towns to come to New York, where they could be themselves. You watch four or five of those full-length interviews, and you can get real sustenance, because you’re probably not going to meet people like that [anymore].
Was it hard for you to watch this film, since your relationship with Quentin was not as close at the time of his death?
Not at all. He died when he was 90—he wanted to die. If you don’t have good health and you’re elderly and you’ve lived a very strong, very hard life, you’re ready to go. Of course, death is part of life. I was 30 when the AIDS epidemic started, so I’m one of those people who spent my 30s burying my friends. I became aware of the ephemeral nature of life, and the opportunity to capture any of it. I know that people got so much out of watching Quentin tonight. He’s so brilliant, and you get that kind of brilliance not by being the most popular kid at the party and the center of life. Only people who are on the outskirts of life can make those observations.
Patti Smith has advised aspiring creative types to find another city, because “New York has been taken away from you.” Do you agree?
What Patti is talking about is valid, but sometimes people get successful, and they forget what it was really like. It is harder now, but it was pretty hard then too, for different reasons. New York was a hard, hard place. It’s strange, really—you hear people say, “I moved to Avenue B in 2003, and there was almost nowhere to eat.” In 1997, you couldn’t get a cab. Even the bus wouldn’t stop. When people asked me where I lived, I used to tell them there was Noho, there was Soho, and I lived in Uh-Oh. Now I live in Faux-Ho.