Feted by what she calls the “daylight culture”—winner of the Mercury Prize in 2005, Oscar nominee eleven years later—Anohni is doubling back to her days (nights, really) as a performance artist in early-’90s New York. Anohni’s quarantine project was culling from her “threadbare” archive, making thousands of stills from videos of her theater collective, the Blacklips Performance Cult, which rose from Manhattan’s queer underground between the summer of ’92 and spring of ’95. The results are presented in the book Blacklips: Her Life and Her Many, Many Deaths (Anthology Editions), coedited by Marti Wilkerson. A companion compilation Blacklips Bar: Androgyns and Deviants—Industrial Romance for Bruised and Battered Angels, 1992–1995 (Mexican Summer), features original recordings of Blacklips performers taking the Pyramid’s stage alongside select scene-setting DJ tracks. Below, Anohni traces her lineage of “avant-effeminate” performance, sharing vivid tableaux of her generation’s big stars of the small hours.
I’VE BEEN SINGING since I was a kid. Back then, kids would sing at the top of their lungs no matter what the song was. It wasn’t shameful to sing, and it wasn’t that gendered. As soon as I got to America, the girls would sing in breathy little voices and the boys just wouldn’t sing. For some reason, in English culture in the ’70s, there was a lot of permission for kids to sing. I think because pop had such a hold over our generation. Kids were rolling up their sleeves and starting bands all over the place. My grandmother lived in a suburb of London, and that made a big impression on me. We used to go up there a lot.
When I went to college, I thought I was going to study music. I was told by the head of the music department [at UC Santa Cruz]: “If you’re happy with your output, then don’t study because it will just disrupt your creative practice.” I used to think it was a mark of, I must have been shining so bright, but now I realize it’s probably because people saw that I was fragile in my process. I was lucky that I had a teacher who was compassionate in that respect. You know that line from Paris Is Burning: [sings] “I am my own special creation”? I was obviously my own special creation, and they said: “Let’s just leave this alone.” So they did. And I’m grateful that they did. I fastidiously avoided studying music. I studied other things: painting, photography, and to some extent, performance.
I went to school for two years at the University of California, Santa Cruz, then I went for two years at NYU at this school called the Experimental Theatre Wing, which was kind of Grotowski-based: a very anarchic, developmental environment for undergraduate performance artists. There, I took a couple of years to absorb the city and the things I cared about. I mostly moved to the city just to be in the city. The school thing was just a very luxurious means of getting to the city. Theater for me was always sort of a recreational activity, just getting your friends together and doing something ridiculous. I wrote my own plays. I would do one a year for me and my friends to do in the local auditorium, sort of taking the college over for a night. It would usually cause some ruckus.
It was 1990 when I arrived. It was an incredibly vivid experience coming here. The club scene was still really vibrant, all still in Manhattan. On Fourteenth Street; at The Palladium; at The Limelight; there were clubs on Union Square; all over the Village; clubs everywhere. Pyramid had nights that were really great. And of course Wigstock was every summer and was a particular moment: 1990, ’91, ’92. There was this intense conflicting energy, because there were so many people sick and dying of AIDS, and there was also still a lot of abundance. People were processing it in different ways.
People knew me to be a repository for a certain kind of information, especially information that reached back a little bit further into the imagination of a past.
I was good at organizing groups of people to do creative things for fun. I moved to New York and then my friend from California, Johanna [Constantine], joined me and then we started this club called Blacklips. We just dove in. We were both very inspired by Rozz Williams from Christian Death, a singer from LA who was this hardcore queen, a really intense counterpoint to the emerging “moral majority” in the early ’80s in California. I think of Rozz more and more as such a foundational presence in a certain line of underground queer dreaming. Rozz very definitely had a huge impact on me and Johanna, as did Diamanda Galás. It would run the gamut from these very tough, stealthy cultural snipers, like those two, all the way over to the other extreme of people like Divine, or things that were coded and filled with abandon, subterfuge, and delight.
I didn’t understand the word “drag” until I moved to New York. In New York in the early ’90s, drag was a huge empire. There were hierarchies of royal families from different clubs. It was very underground. It wasn’t until RuPaul that all that stuff shifted. Even in the early ’90s, when Ru did his first single, that suddenly opened the floodgates to all these heterosexuals coming in and wanting drag queens to serve them omelets and do a scissor kick or whatever. It also opened up a place in the imaginations of a lot of queens that there could be an economy for them in the daylight culture. All queens were very hand-to-mouth in the drag world in those days. Suddenly there were all these casting calls for movies like To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar. You saw this thing happen where all of a sudden what seemed to you, from your younger eyes, as these really dignified, amazing dynasties of gorgeous, unbelievable queens, participating in a race to the bottom. People desperately trying to squeeze some resources out of the daylight cultures, and just being kind of used.
The daylight culture lost interest in queens within a couple of years. At the same time, Giuliani rose to power. Then, Michael Alig did all that stuff. The whole scene was destroyed from a mixture of a superficial and very extractive engagement with the dominant culture, interior disruption, the winding down of the worst part of AIDS in the city, and the emergence of a much more rightwing city government. Blacklips existed in this final window of a previous world, from 1992 to 1995. By ’96, the city had really changed. A lot of the big clubs closed. Giuliani started a “clean up the streets” campaign and made it harder to support ourselves at night. It all kind of fell apart.
Creating an archive was intuitive; it had a lot to do with interviewing people. Research, collecting Xeroxes of bits and pieces of information. It’s not like I sit on this library. I just have my own collections of papers and magazines. A lot of queens have stuff like that. People knew me to be a repository for a certain kind of information, especially information that reached back a little bit further into the imagination of a past.
It was Martin Worman who told me about this idea of the family tree. He said Jack Smith and his glitter aesthetics inspired the Ridiculous Theatrical Company and Theatre of the Ridiculous, John Vaccaro and Charles Ludlam. Hibiscus saw that and moved to California and started The Cockettes. Hibiscus left The Cockettes because of his idealism. He started the Angels of Light and moved back to New York. Then Jimmy Camicia saw the Angels of Light and started the Hot Peaches, which featured Marsha P. Johnson as a member as well as International Chrysis. Bette Bourne from London saw the Hot Peaches and started Bloolips in the UK. That was a group that I’d actually seen when I was sixteen in London. That’s why I started the group Blacklips, a campy deathrock take on Bloolips. I could draw a tree of it in my imagination, of this certain strain of avant-effeminate performance. It was a thing in my head for a long time. Recently, it’s become more fleshed out for the broader culture.
The other part obviously is the whole Warhol world, Candy Darling and Jackie Curtis and Holly Woodlawn, but also Smith’s intervention. Warhol always said if there were one artist he would copy, it would be Jack Smith. When I was twenty-one and living in New York, Smith had just died. No one knew what to do with his stuff and none of it had been monetized, none of it had been institutionalized. It was literally in garbage bags, and Penny Arcade was running around ranting and raving about it. There were proprietary squabbles about these garbage bags, but no one really knew what was happening: how this would all be collated; how these stories would be collected and contained and told.
There had been this really violent interruption in the transmission of cultural queer knowledge because of AIDS. All of those deaths severed a major cultural artery and left a huge amount of holes in the culture, as well as the subculture, of the city. Suddenly all of these major cultural providers were gone. And a lot of the stuff that filled those holes was pop. Queer interest shifted from going to see a Charles Ludlam play to going to see a Madonna concert. A lot of really vivid artists who were disrupting the status quo got killed with AIDS. Then, it was just survival mode. There were older ones who had survived, but who were shellshocked. There were a few people who would take the time to tell you what had happened and a lot of people who didn’t want to talk about it. Because it was too much. They just lost eight of their boyfriends and three of them were really great artists. I was kind of clawing at it, trying to figure it out. It was personal for me, because I was kind of a motherless child. I was looking for that sense of home. For a long time I harbored my sense of home within some of those ideas. Later on, it shifted.
My best friend became Chloe Dzubilo. She was my trans mother. Chloe’s boyfriend had been Bobby Bradley, who founded the Pyramid club in the early ’80s. Bobby had initially been with Sister Dimension. They founded Pyramid together and presented people like John Kelly and Ethyl Eichelberger and Larry Ray and the Trockadero Ballet and John Sex, Tanya Ransom, Ann Craig, Phoebe Legere. Samoa and Kembra from The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black. A lot of artists like that were being featured at Pyramid in the early ’80s. Chloe becoming my central family member kind of rooted me again in a different history. It drew me, by family lineage, into closer proximity, spiritually or physically, to the previous generations.
Hattie Hathaway became a good friend of mine. Hattie was someone I interviewed when I was twenty years old. She was one of the only people left from the early ’80s at Pyramid who was still there in the early ’90s. She was now the manager of the club. She was the one who told me about Marsha P. Johnson and about STAR: Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries was already a legend amongst a certain type of queen in the village, but it was almost like a secret knowledge. I sought out interviews and documentation about Marsha and Sylvia Rivera. I became really enamored by what she had done, and this idea of Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries was so inspiring.
The daylight culture lost interest in queens within a couple of years . . . Blacklips existed in this final window of a previous world.
Johnson died in the summer of 1992, a few days after gay pride. That was a big deal. I got Johanna and [Psychotic] Eve to join me and we marched down Christopher Street at twilight a couple days later. We gathered at this sort of assembly of bottles at the exact spot where her body was pulled from the Hudson River and did this impromptu ceremony. I wasn’t connected to the institutions of queer Christopher Street at that time—I was just a college queen. I lived in a room in a basement apartment on the West Side Highway. I was immersed in the world of the piers. It was like a home, a safe place, for me.
In 1993, I performed in a show about Marsha with the Hot Peaches along with my friend Ebony Jet, who was also in Blacklips. I wrote “River of Sorrow” in 1994, a year after she passed away. I did a play about her at Blacklips called The Ascension of Marsha P. Johnson, where I recited a monologue from an interview with her from the late ’70s. It was a kind of a ceremony, a celestial reimagining of her presence.
Before Blacklips had ended I started a new performance group called The Johnsons. The Johnsons was inspired by Marsha P. Johnson and Hibiscus’s Angels of Light. We did our first play called Dusk on the Jane Street pier on a cold Sunday afternoon in the middle of winter. Beautiful androgynes making surreal gestures, tossing wigs into the river, screaming, reciting poems . . . this strange odyssey of vignettes. It was me and Kabuki Starshine and Johanna Constantine and Eve and a couple of other queens that I managed to convince to join us.
Leigh Bowery had died on New Year’s Eve 1994, and I’d become friends with Charles Atlas. We did a memorial for him in the last months of Blacklips.
For some reason my back became a bridge for a lot of that material to travel across. Now it’s the world’s knowledge. In those days, only a few people from the village were actively attending to the memory of Marsha P. Johnson. Not many from my generation. Older gay people—including Agosto Machado, and Randy Wickers, and Tony Nunziata—always remembered her, and treasured her spirit, and taught me to do the same.
We did plays as The Johnsons from 1995 until about 2000, when I decided to just do music. There wasn’t much of an audience for that kind of surreal, spectral, trans punk theater. It just got to a point where I knew that my music was the one thing that I could maybe make a living doing. I said, I’ll just come back to all of this material after I try to do this thing with music.
That’s what’s been happening over the last few years—with the show at The Kitchen and with me kind of digging back into my roots. It was very weird when I developed a career in music, because suddenly I was thrust into the daylight culture as this one self-identified trans body. There were no public facing trans people of my generation in the daylight culture. The last one was Jayne County. Jayne was really important to all of us, to me and to Chloe and to everyone. But there were no queens talking to The Guardian, except for me. That became a thing I took upon myself to do. I did a fifteen-year intervention wherein I tried to school them to address me more appropriately. It was a certain kind of labor. I was in a privileged position. And yet it was still pretty difficult at times. Magical too. I’m still compelled to make work, but I’m no longer walking into the abattoir with dilated eyes. I’m not going to presume that the main thoroughfares of our societies are safe places for me when they are not. It’s life on life’s terms.
I’ve been thinking about trans bodies as uniquely capable of voicing a kind of wilderness. An expressively gender variant child is nature in action. One doesn’t emerge like this of one’s own volition. Something doesn’t just grow back again and again and again despite a rolling genocide on its presence.
The book and vinyl compilation release projects unpack this archive that we assembled. We never put it on the internet, until now. We wanted to show that there was also this other thing that had happened that stayed under the radar, at least until now. We are excited to add our footnote to the documented history of that era in the city. It took Marti Wilkerson and me three years to pore over all that material. The book is intense. It’s encyclopedic. It weighs 7.8 pounds! It’s a giant picture book, and quite visceral. We hope it will capture people’s imaginations. It was a secret time that meant so much to us.