Caterina Borelli. Photograph of Diane Torr and Ruth Peyser's performance at the Times Square Show, 1980. Photograph courtesy of the artist.
There is a series of photographs of the performance at the Times Square Show, and you can see the work of some of the other artists in the background.
DISBAND maybe wasn't "cool enough" to be part of the TSS. I mean, we weren't a punk band, we were a performance group. The TSS theme was about sex with a capital "S." DISBAND was more concerned with gender and feminist issues than down-and-dirty SEX.
Although the name DISBAND sounds like a band, and we called ourselves an art band, we were doing performance. Martha [Wilson], the person who started DISBAND, saw it as a conceptual group in that we didn't rehearse and would just perform ideas in the raw. I come from a performance background. I studied dance, theater, creative writing, and art history at Dartington College of Art in England before moving to New York in 1976. I crossed over into the visual and performance art space when I joined Colab.
Alan Moore introduced me to Colab, and I was a member from 1978 on. I was one of the few performance artists in a group of mostly visual artists. I was vehemently and vociferously politically active in the early seventies in London. In Totnes, Devon, where I went to college, I was an activist in the Women's Liberation movement, as it was then called. It was enthralling to discover Colab and to be part of it, as there were many politically oriented members involved in socially engaged work.
In 1979, I contributed a manifesto to Jenny Holzer and Coleen Fitzgibbon's "Manifesto Show" which took place in a storefront on Bleecker Street. I created a piece about miso and its anti-radiation properties. I had found a book that was a testimonial to the anti-radiation properties of miso. I read that after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, people who had traditional Japanese diets (e.g. brown rice, seaweed, miso) didn't suffer from radiation sickness. The people who ate bacon and eggs and Western foods did! And so I wrote a manifesto based on that. What was really wonderful about the "Manifesto Show" was that Coleen and Jenny included everybody. They solicited manifestos from a variety of artists, but also homeless people living on the Bowery (as many were at that time). There was an inclusivity about it that you just don't see anymore.
The TSS was in 1980. This was followed by a show in an empty SRO hotel in Washington DC. It was a collaboration between Colab and the Washington artists' run gallery, WPA. Every hotel room and corridor space was allocated to different artists. There were film evenings and performance evenings. I performed one of the evenings. It was a thrill to be part of artist-run events, haphazard though they often were. There was a camaraderie and a "we're in it for the helluvit" feeling that was shared by everyone. People might have complained about the lack of financial reimbursement but we all knew the score.
The Real Estate Show in an empty storefront on Delancey was the result of an initiative based on concern about how property on the L.E.S. was being allowed to fall into disrepair (usually because of non-payment of taxes) and then sold at auction for very little money to property dealers. Colab wanted to bring attention to crooked deals that were going on in the housing market, often between the city of New York and real estate developers. I see the Real Estate Show as a partly European initiative because many of the European artists who had come to New York were involved in the squatting scene in Berlin, London, and Amsterdam. At that time there was a big slump in the housing market in those cities. Consequently, there were many dwellings available for squatting. There are laws in England, for example, which made squatting legal. No such squatters' rights exist in the US, so it wasn't a part of American culture to squat a building. However, when European artists came to NYC in the late seventies and early eighties and saw the many empty buildings, the impulse was to squat.
That's what happened with the Real Estate Show: the building was squatted and the show was installed. However, there being no squatters' rights in NYC, the show was closed after being up for only three days. People were angry, as it seemed as if the art was being held hostage by the city. Colab received a lot of publicity because of the Real Estate Show. The rancor had results: we were given a small storefront space on Delancey and Clinton. Colab proceeded to create events at the space and included the neighbors or whoever was interested. I was learning how to eat fire, and I showed off with some performances on the sidewalk in front of the storefront. Many of the locals enjoyed our shows, since the storefront was accessible and right on the street. Subsequent to our time in this interim space, the City gave us ABC No Rio. I then continued to make performances and to show work in events and performance evenings at ABC No Rio throughout the eighties.
I was part of an "art-girl punk gang" in the late seventies that consisted of video artist Alex Halkin, Caterina Borelli, also a video artist who took these photographs [of the TSS performance], and filmmaker Ruth Peyser. We all had bicycles, and we would race around downtown Manhattan going to various punk clubs like the Mudd Club, TR3, CBGBs, Danceteria, Hurrahs, Peppermint Lounge, and all the different parties that were happening at that time. We were a tough-ass, very sexy group of women, and we chatted up the doormen and thus got into all the clubs for free. Between the four of us, we knew many people in the art world and there were always parties and openings to go to. Alex was the only American; Caterina is Italian, Ruth is Australian and I am from the UK. We had some wild times together.
The TSS gave me the opportunity to explore making a performance about pornography. I wanted to investigate the sex industry, sex culture. I worked as a go-go dancer in bars in New Jersey. The bars had corny names: in Harrison there was La Vie en Rose, Patterson had Vasco's Lounge, and there was Vinnie's in Seacaucus. I had a very strong, muscular body because I studied Aikido, was a trained dancer, and did lots of yoga. On stage, I didn't have the kind of body that men were used to seeing. I was also not up for doing dirty stuff. Plus, I was determined to maintain a sense of boundaries for myself. Additionally I thought I was tough enough to protect myself. Being a punk helped the delusion. But there were, in fact, situations where knowing Aikido was useful . . . let's put it like that. I used those go-go bar job opportunities as rehearsal spaces for the exploration of my ideas of creating a new erotic movement aesthetic.
In the process of my research in the go-go bars, the Times Square Show came along. What a fabulous opportunity, I thought, to create a performance that would parody pornography. I invited Ruth Peyser to join me as she was also keen on the idea of deconstruction, of making things visible. We decided to go to some of the sex shops in and around Times Square. No women ever went in there unless they were prostitutes or looking for pick-up Johns. You just never saw women in those places. They were dark, seedy, skanky, and generally hostile. It took a major amount of curiosity and derring-do to explore those sex shops, but what rewards! Both Ruth and I were just appalled. When you ventured into those places, you thought, "This is sex?" Imagine if you were a 14-year-old girl and you wanted to find out about sexual culture in America and you wandered into one of these sex shops. I mean, they wouldn't let you in, but you know this is what is perceived as sexual culture. It is atrocious—such a paucity of imagination. We found pornography, which was just laughable, risible. It was absurd in its formulaic-ness. How could anyone get turned on by reading a porn magazine that read, "In a sense he was fucking for America. His missile was a force to be reckoned with." We also found these very early strap-ons that had big white elastic and orange-pinky molded plastic penile attachments. We found a blow-up doll that had a horrible gaping mouth. We also found other items that were like toys, sex toys, or kinky things connected with sex. For instance, there was a little doll that had the head of Jimmy Carter, and he was wearing a kilt. (Why a kilt? Who knows.) When you pressed down on the head, a peanut jumped up from underneath the kilt. He had a peanut for a penis. You know, it was just stupid stuff. So we thought we have to put this in a performance. Our idea was to create a parodic performance of pornography, because it was so absurd and so laughable that we thought well, if we do this parody, everyone will see how ridiculous it is and maybe then start creating something new and more interesting, because we definitely need an overhaul of sexual culture. We need to move away from pornography and into something that is a tad more imaginative than the formula.
So we dressed up as men. We both put on these strap-ons, and we were reading bits of pornography. Lucy Lippard said to me [of the TSS performance], "I don't know if this is pro- or anti-porn." We just had so much fun with it. For me it was kind of a retribution, if I am being truly honest.
We did the performance over two nights. The second night, Alex, who was part of our girl art gang, was involved. She got into a confrontation with some guy from the street who was shouting at us. And she was shouting back. I can't remember the exact details. Alex was playing the part of "barker" for the performance, like a barker at a Coney Island type place, where they would urge, "Step right up, come right in." So Alex was doing a bit of that, and this guy got really offended from the street and he was shouting.
For the most part the TSS was all self-organized. I think what happened was you would say, "well, I want to do a performance on this date," and they put it in to the program. There was nobody saying what you could or couldn't do.
The one book that really helped me to get a perspective on my go-go dancing experience was a book by Angela Carter called The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography. It's a polemic that Carter wrote in 1978. Carter's position can be summed up as follows: "Morality demands a budget. The rich can afford to have morals. The poor have to shift as best as they can." The only other book out at that time was a book on pornography by the anti-porn feminist Andrea Dworkin. I read it when I was go-go dancing. I would take it to the bar, and I would dance. And I would go to the toilet and read some more. So I tested it on the front lines. And I thought, "She [Dworkin] is not interested in sex workers. She's simply interested in women behaving in a certain way, and is proscribing that from the privileged position of a lecturer in a women's studies course." What about all those women, single mothers with no skills, that instead of working at McDonalds for three bucks an hour (which I think is what minimum wage was then), they could work as go-go dancers for two or three nights a week and make a lot more money. Economically for me that was the bottom line. I admit I was an avid Marxist feminist at the time. I had an argument with Andrea Dworkin about it, because she phoned me up. She heard through a friend of a friend (Robin Epstein via Sarah Schulman) that I was working as a go-go dancer and reading her book. I think she thought I was a potential convert, like a Linda Lovelace figure. And so we had this long conversation. And I said to her at one point, "If you work as a waitress and you don't smile at the customer, you are not gonna get a tip. If you work as a secretary and you are not a bit flirtatious with your boss's business colleagues, its not gonna work. You will lose your job." There is so much covert sexuality that happens in so called "straight jobs" where you are expected to put out as a woman, and you don't get paid for that: it's just part of the job. When you work as a sex worker, that's what you are doing: exchanging sex for money. I am dancing sexily to turn you on, that's what I'm doing. Even though in my case, it might not be what you expect. I did get to a point where I just started bringing my own music and my own things to play with, like costumes, leather belts, and rubber toys. Then I started getting twenty-dollar tips instead of one-dollar tips, and it became a kind of underground show of my own making in New Jersey. And men would say, "Where is Tornado (that was my stage name) performing next week?" Well, they wouldn't say "performing," they would ask where is she next week. They were sleazy working men's bars but I could actually have some fun, once I was in control of the music and the atmosphere!
The fashion scene downtown was tied to the Punk scene. I was coming from London. If you look at photos of me in DISBAND at that time, I am the only "punk" in the group. Punk was coming to New York, but it wasn't quite there until the late 70s. Then when it did come, it was hot. The Peppermint Lounge or Danceteria were places where you would go. It was fierce. It was a code. If you weren't wearing cool clothes, then you weren't a punk; and you weren't included, let's put it that way.
It was fast and furious and against the status quo. The early videos of Joan Jett are a good example of that. Of course much of it was a show, but a lot of us also really believed we were tough, punk, and could stand our ground. The New York downtown neighborhood was so dangerous at the time you had to believe (even if you were deluding yourself) you were tough for your own self-protection. The first year I was in New York, coming from the UK, I was innocent, naïve, and it showed. I was assaulted, once on the subway and twice on the street. And that's when I started studying martial arts, Aikido. And I was doing it everyday, sometimes two classes a day. I got to be very good. There was an aikido dojo on West 18th Street called NY Aikikai that I attended.
Downtown Manhattan in the late 1970's was not populated the way it is now. There were lots of burned-out buildings. There was an availability of cheap apartments because not so many people wanted to live in that part of town. I moved into an apartment on 14th Street between A and B and paid one-hundred-and-sixty-five dollars per month. It meant that you didn't have to spend all your time working, and you could focus on what it was that really interested you. And you could have camaraderie with other artists, and that's what happened, people really did support each other. For example, I did a lot of improvised performances at St. Mark's Poetry Project even though I am not a poet per se, but there was an acceptance of cross-genre work. The poets would come to openings at places like the FUN Gallery. The painters would go and watch the films made by other artists at Rafik's. And I just drifted from scene to scene to scene and discovered new work, met different artists, became inspired by new influences. Everything was so accessible and open and run on very little money. Everybody needed the support of everybody else. It wasn't you in your apartment struggling to figure out "How am I going to get this project description down to two-hundred words?" In Colab, for example, there was a group of people working together on the applications. Of course the trouble started when the money actually came in, but that's another story. But I can't imagine a team effort like that now because everyone is concerned with their own debt at this point.
We all lived a sort of scrappy existence at that time, which is part of the punk aesthetic too. We were all very much against an idea of fashion costing a lot of money. It was DIY fashion—how innovative and playful you could be with leopard print, zebra print, stripes…I don't think polka dots were in. It was stripes and safety pins and torn things. That was what was cool. We weren't concerned with whether our jeans were from Diesel, it just wasn't an issue. In fact, if you had bought your jeans from Diesel, you might have been excluded. It was quite a shock when we found that people actually started buying jeans and fashion to look like us. Pre-worn jeans? What is this?
We never spent any money on transportation. We rode our bicycles to the clubs. We always got in for free, and we only drank water because we were all health freaks and we were skinny (poor) and we could get water for free. We would dance our asses off. Punk music was so energetic, so intense. Our joy was in dancing wildly and pogo-ing—jumping madly about and bumping into each other and anyone else who was around. At the same moment, there were a lot of narcotics around. And in a sense, at that time New York was kind of divided between the narco-freaks and everybody else. If you weren't into narcotics, you got lumped in with the Jesus Freaks, or so it seemed. In a sense, the history of that period has put a lot of emphasis on narcotics. When I look at Nan Goldin's photos, which supposedly represent downtown New York in the eighties I think, "excuse me, there were a lot of us who weren't doing coke and heroine and crack." How can you do narcotics and practice Aikido five times a week? It's not possible.
Because none of us had any money, our top priority was survival. Survival with very, very low overhead was our intention, which meant that you didn't have to pay for health insurance because you could take care of yourself. So I ate really well and didn't do drugs or drink. It was such a different time. We didn't have overheads like you have now. We could play. We could take on these different characters. No matter how delusional you might think it was, at the time we could live that life and believe it.
For me the TSS was a chance to have an investigation, which was in some way critical of what was around the corner. We did get a lot of traffic from people on the street who were curious about what we were doing. And Colab was also very anti-hierarchy and also anti-leadership. Of course you need individuals who take initiative to do things or else nothing happens. As soon as somebody would take the initiative and everybody agreed on it, it became anarchic. It wasn't like that person who had the idea was the one deciding who would have what space.
When you ask about the difference between then and now, we were living in the moment. It was really moment-to-moment. We weren't thinking about the past. We weren't thinking about the future. We were now. And that's how we were living. In fact when I think about it now, that is a very privileged position. But it also accounts for the fact that much of the work was not documented. However, at the time, it was just our moment. And we were going to create as much havoc as we could. There was a cheekiness to that time too. There was a fuck-you to authority but I think without the cheekiness it could just be abrasive, and then what? What is the point of that? You've got to have a bit of tomfoolery to feel like you are part of something that you can mess with, and have a lion's share of mirth and madness at the same time.
What is majorly different from then and now is the sense of self-actualization, of self-fulfillment through taking action; we didn't have to ask permission or get some organization to hire us so that we could then do this or do that. We just did it. We took action, and we did it ourselves. And I think that accounts for the vitality and the effusiveness of the TSS. It was everybody acting individually without a curator granting permission, because the threat of exclusion is what keeps people afraid. In a sense, the Times Square Show reflected Colab's ethos at its best. The ethos was everybody working collaboratively to make something happen but also everyone working as an individual creating work.
The energy that released in everybody was extraordinary.
As told to Shawna Cooper, September 2, 2011
Diane Torr (b. 1948, Peterborough, Canada)
Diane Torr works in performance, dance, installation, film, and video. In 1976 she graduated from Dartington College of Arts, England, and moved to New York City. From 1978 to 1982 she performed in DISBAND with fellow artists Ilona Granet, Donna Henes, Ingrid Sischy, and Martha Wilson. Throughout the 1980s she presented work at New York City venues including ABC No Rio, Danceteria, Franklin Furnace, The Kitchen, the Mudd Club, P.S.1, and Pyramid Club. Additional information is available at http://dianetorr.com/.