It’s 1986. A small woman with large kohl-rimmed eyes, a red buzz cut and a leather headband looks directly into the camera and says: “Hello, I am Erica Jong.” She is all attitude and leather. She shifts voices while she talks about being Erica Jong. She says: “I would rather be a baby than have sex. I would rather write goo-goo.” She starts talking about pain. “I’m ripping. I’m ripping. I hurt pain oh hurt pain. Pain at this point is good.”
Pain at this point is good? What is she saying? Who is she being? Is she for real?
This was Kathy Acker and I watched her “alive” again the other day in video excerpts shown at the ICA. She has been dead for 20 years, but Chris Kraus’s extraordinary biography After Kathy Acker has brought her back to public consciousness. There is a new generation interested in her work. What Kraus does so cleverly in the book is to situate Acker in the narrative of the avant-garde. She borrowed cut-ups from William Burroughs, she loved the Black Mountain poets, she read Kristeva and Bataille. She knew what she was doing. This was conscious experimentation designed to render the established givens of “good writing” – imagination and originality – obsolete. She would defy conventions to the end. She refused conventional treatment for cancer and died young as a result.
Another generation may see her as a punk fossil or see something raw in those brutal formalist experiments. Long before the internet and the ubiquity of confessional writing, Acker was pushing the first person until it was senseless. It was quite something to watch her read, and watch her live, and watch as she was dying. I knew her a tiny bit, and saw her move through shoals of people, but always felt her intense loneliness, her wanting. Was this what it was to be a female artist, I used to wonder. To be an outlaw, to be a nomad, to have a life of sexual adventure that some days looked like old-fashioned masochism and others like thrilling narcissism? I didn’t know then and I don’t know now, for she invented her own mythology. The best people do.
Kraus, though, takes Ackers’s series of personae apart to deliver real respect for her work. This is a fine reminder of how hard the so-called avant-garde was for women in the 70s and 80s.
Acker did not live to write the memoir, though a lot of her work at the time named and shamed those with whom she was having sex (or feuds). She used sex to write. She used sex to make money. Accusations from some of the audience at the ICA that Acker was being slut-shamed speak of new times and new rules, and a complete misunderstanding of what she was. To criticise this memoir because it is written by Kraus, who constructed a fantasy object, Dick, of I Love Dick, fetishising him and objectifying herself in the process, is to miss the power with which women of this generation used sexuality both as connection and then utter dissolution and abjection. Think too of Sophie Calle and her “stalking” of men in the street.
This attempt to be sexually free has produced lives of hardship for many women artists. Cosey Fanni Tutti’s autobiography, Art Sex Music, recalls in matter-of-fact tones life in the 70s avant garde. She lived in a commune making performances that would be banned. She entered the world of porn; Acker worked in a sex show. Both these women write of themselves as transgressing all the rules, including the “rules” of feminism. Tutti’s work is also being reassessed, but what is shocking is not so much the sex that her great memoir reveals but the drudgery. And violence. The entire time she lived in a collective, she reports doing all the cooking, cleaning and shopping, while being encouraged by Genesis P-Orridge to have group sex. He was abusive towards her.
Viv Albertine’s Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys is also full of accounts of the pain and mess and poverty of being a woman on the punk scene. Brix Smith Smart lets us know that being married to Mark E Smith was not all fun and games in The Rise, the Fall, and the Rise. Chrissie Hynde emerges unbowed and cowboy-like, saying her rape was her own fault. Patti Smith sugarcoats everything with a gorgeous gloss underwriting the Mapplethorpe hustle. These women are survivors.
The men in Kraus’s biography do what they want. Acker chose to have a series of relationships with married men. Sometimes she wanted to write out of pain as an altered state. Sometimes, she perhaps wanted something else.
Maybe Acker thought there could only ever be one avant-garde heroine – her – and maybe she wasn’t very good to other women. Nonetheless, sitting in the ICA all these years later, I wonder how it would be for her now. The avant garde is fully incorporated into the art market. Few poets make any money. The currency for women artists is still sexual revelation . Some things don’t change. What still matters about Acker, and Kraus, is their minds, their blood and guts, and their smarts. Their time is still to come.