with Katherine Dieckmann
Museum of Modern Art | October 31, 2017 — April 1, 2018
Ann Magnuson was the doyenne of downtown NYC in its subcultural heyday, presiding over the legendary Club 57, housed in the basement of a Polish church on St. Mark’s Place, and now the subject of a sprawling retrospective staged in the bowels of MoMA: “Club 57: Film, Performance and Art in the East Village, 1978-1983” (through April 1, 2018). Magnuson sang, danced, performed skits, made costumes, invites and fliers, and generally exercised her sharp parodic wit in myriad forms all over lower Manhattan before moving to Los Angeles to take up an only slightly more conventional acting career, contemplate Jungian psychology, and continue to create everything from music to puppets. Throughout her life, she has been dedicated to the low-cost, the handmade, and the aggressively pluralistic, as her talk with the Rail, conducted a week after the raucous Club 57 opening at MoMA, attests.
Katherine Dieckmann (Rail): When I was at the opening I was wondering “Could a show like this even exist in thirty-five or so years for contemporary youth culture, the way that the Club 57 show exists for ours?” And I realized probably not, because there’s not the same dedication to collecting material objects, or there’s a tendency to be indifferent to hanging onto things. And let’s face it, you were such a saver—a lot of the show is there simply because of that, and it wound up creating this amazing collection of artifacts.
Ann Magnuson: Ron [Magliozzi, MoMA curator] came out to L.A. and soon discovered from looking through my archives and also seeing what Kenny Scharf had that there was enough material for a show. And so the idea was hatched, but it took two years to really come to fruition. I was already in touch with most of the membership, so I gave Ron everybody's names, and those people gave other names, and it grew exponentially, and became what it was. The basis of the show was inspired by looking through my archives, even if all the material isn't technically from my archives.
Rail: Today you probably wouldn’t have that archive. Now you can just take a picture of something and digitize it.
Magnuson: You know, it’s interesting, in the last few weeks of my father's life, I was with him down in West Virginia, and I was on my laptop writing, I think, MySpace blogs [Laughter.] and messages to people and emails—and my father said to me, "Do you ever save those things?" And I said, “Yeah, some of them,” and he said, "Well, it's not gonna be like John and Abigail Adams, is it?" He’d read the letters between John and Abigail Adams, and inferred that unless people saved their emails it was all going to be gone with the wind. I think there probably will be some interesting show in thirty years where younger kids will have to get even younger kids to find ways to get into these obsolete gadgets that right now are cutting edge, to retrieve all their material.
Rail: Right, but what is the shelf life of digital matter? A lot of that is unknown. At the Club 57 show you’re able to see where someone cut out a piece of paper and rubber cemented it to another piece of paper. It's so crude in a way, but there's something great about how material that is.
Magnuson: Yes, and one of the earliest things I ever did as a kid was cutting out pieces of paper and collaging. I've still got childhood scrapbooks with newspaper photos of John Glenn and ads for the movie Babes in Toyland cut and pasted, and I have kept that up my whole life. I cut out little pictures to illustrate what's happened in my weekly planners. So I can look at them and go “Yeah… cool! I remember that!” And, y’know, ticket stubs, brochures matchbooks… My mother kept all that stuff, my paternal grandmother kept everything, and her house was this magical place that I loved going to when I was a kid. Grandma made those dolls that I use in my videos now, the ones on the cover of Dream Girl. She was very crafty. You know, she was born in the nineteenth century and barely survived during the Depression. They saved everything because they were so poor. My grandma was basically making outsider art, but she would never have called herself an outsider artist. She made these wild-looking dolls for her grandchildren out of pipe cleaners, old stockings and fabric remnants. She did hook rugs, crochet, and even took a pottery course. My grandfather was a preacher, a Swedish evangelist, who preached to Swedish communities in Wisconsin, and then came to West Virginia and was a pastor at a variety of churches. So people gave them things, everything in my grandmother’s house was given to them. None of the furniture matched, but I just thought that was the greatest thing. People gave her magazines after they read them—she had stacks of Life magazines from the ’30s to the ’60s up in the attic—and I would spend hours and hours up there. It was a wonderland, full of trunks of old clothes, and she also had old issues of Woman's Day and McCall’s. So I collected those magazines when I'd see them in East Village in New York in the late ’70s and early ’80s—that's where I got a lot of the images for the Club 57 calendars and fliers.
Rail: You’ve said that "Club 57 was about using the detritus of our childhood as a kind of exorcism," and I thought that was such a great quote, because it really did feel that way at the time. It was collecting all of this material and re-contextualizing it creatively. The video you made with Tom Rubnitz, Made for TV (1984) [a piece in which Magnuson embodies various invented characters based on television shows and advertising of the time] also feels that way, it's all this crazy image matter and female personae, like pre-Cindy Sherman, although I guess you two were contemporaneous.
Magnuson: It’s how all of us found each other back in the late ‘70s and ‘80s, we all liked the same things: punk rock, found stuff, avant-garde art. We didn't really belong with the uptown mainstream world, and we had these commonalities through the culture. We had a shared societal programming that we were rebelling against. And in a lot of ways David Bowie, Iggy Pop and the New York Dolls and certainly punk rock and glam rock were part of that, part of creating a tribe, which created a sense of safety, and then an environment of freedom to experiment and do something other than what the mainstream was prescribing. That was heady stuff—very, very liberating and exciting and fun, and there was not ever a thought of monetizing it. You look at the fliers in the show, and they're kind of trashy, you know, the punk rock fliers. We used stuff from the trash. And I think that approach also applied to our ideas about identity and what women’s roles were, we were really into pulling all of that apart and putting it back together again in a way that made sense to us. We were dealing with the aspect of mockery, which gave us this power over something that was actually inherently oppressive. And there was something deeper and more Jungian that was going on; I haven't entirely articulated it for myself, but the fact that what we were doing was subterranean— literally in a basement cave, we were doing cave paintings in a way, creating our own rituals when the old ones were not satisfactory. They didn’t work any more, they didn’t speak to us. It was the primal material of the subconscious that we had collected through our lives up until that point— through television, through film, through art, through drugs, through psychedelia, through Bowie, through Disney, through Warhol, through TV variety shows, through living through the Vietnam War. I think watching coverage of that bloody, insane war every night over dinner had a traumatic effect on everybody. That still has not been analyzed properly. Watching the recent Ken Burns series on the Vietnam War reminded me of the everyday horror that was put on a par with ads for shampoo—and, oh my god, truly believing that you would be killed in a Russian nuclear attack! Going through that as very young children, and then going through a different version of it with Reagan—there was, I think, a certain shared brain chemistry that brought people to the arts and to the Lower East Side. There were definitely some trauma issues that were being worked out subconsciously at Club 57. I would love to have a Jungian see the Club 57 show, to view it and read all the material, and then work up a psychological profile of what was going on with us at the time. On the surface it might seem like goofiness and irony or camp, but there’s something much deeper that is primal and primitive and shamanic, as pretentious as that might sound.
Rail: No, no, not at all, it's very emotional, actually.
Magnuson: The way they set it up at MoMA is quite moving. It starts out all fun and games, and it ends up becoming very dark, because of AIDS and drugs and all the loss associated with that.
Rail: Yeah, I though about it a lot the night of the opening, because it was shocking how many people from the scene were still there, and present. It was kind of a “We the Living” feeling—you know, we who have somehow made it through. And there was a kind of triumph just looking around and seeing the way that people were dressing and presenting themselves in public. And then all these other people have been lost.
Magnuson: I was so aware of everyone who didn't get to come to MoMA—like my brother, and Keith [Haring] and Tseng Kwong Chi and Tom Rubnitz. All the people who weren’t there. Many of whom died of AIDS, our generation’s Armaggedon, which laid waste to the entire arts community. But then they were alive again in the exhibition, in the videos, in the photo collages. And the slideshows really gave a sense of how much was going on in that era, and how much we did with no money, or no sense of branding yourself, or trying to sell yourself. It was very pure, in the moment, a very art-for-art’s-sake kind of vitality that was going on. Really, it was a beautiful thing. Yeah, that opening was incredible, it was so much for me, I was just so overstimulated. I don’t think MoMA had any idea there would be such a big turn-out. Later Ron said to me, “Congratulations, that wasn’t just an opening, that was a cultural event.”
Rail: I have to say that coming up on the train, I was a little trepidatious.
Magnuson: Oh, I was very trepidatious.
Rail: Because you have to process how much time has gone by. But then when I got there, my reaction was much more like, excitement to see people still being themselves, or in themselves in a certain way, in their essence.
Magnuson: But that’s also a Jungian concept: the process of individuation. You have to get rid of your provisional self, which has been defined by cultural and familial conditioning, in order to become the person that you are actually meant to be, that is, your divine self. And I think art and a bohemian environment and the hippies were all certainly an inspiration to us. They broke the ground, planted the seeds, and gave us a way to do that, and again, there’s a lot there that I haven’t completely—
Rail: Processed, probably.
Magnuson: Assessed. But I can feel it. I just haven’t articulated it fully. I don’t have enough scholarly information! If Dr. Marie-Louise von Franz were alive today, she’d be the person who I would want to have analyze the whole thing, she’d get it. There’s something going on there, the same thing that was going on for a couple thousand years, if not longer, with human beings finding each other to survive. Way back when, it was to survive physically. In our time—well, I think it was to survive physically too, because you know, the environment was so inhospitable and incredibly dangerous. There needed to be a place— the bishop at Club 57 would say that youth needed a safe place to be. And not in the traditional way, like the idea of teenagers hanging out in church in youth fellowship or something, although in a way it really was that, too. Club 57 provided a place that was safe, but also a place where where we could be silly and optimistic and have a positive energy and laughing and sharing the joy of life vibration, instead of a negative “Everything sucks” kind of dark punk rock thing, like “Let’s just take heroin.” There was a lot of nihilism in that environment, and I don’t feel that Club 57 was that way, although yes, there were aspects to it that were nihilistic. And then, unfortunately, people developed drug habits that really deep-sixed the place in the end. The drug habits sadly took center stage.
Rail: You and I have had a lot of conversations about the physical changes in the East Village, and the revival of the Club 57 spirit at MoMA—the ethos of it, the energy of it—is in fact happening when the nail is in the coffin of the actual neighborhood.
Magnuson: Last year I went to the Howl Gallery on First Street, between First and Second, and I thought I was lost. I was like ‘Whaaaat? Where am I?!” This could be Minneapolis! I could be in San Diego! Branson! I have a friend who calls New York “Dubai On the Hudson.” It’s a steel-and-glass mall retail shop now.
Rail: With Club 57, that basement was a container against a certain danger in the outside world, like you were saying. At the same time, it was a little microcosm of hipness or coolness that simply didn’t exist in other places. And that’s hard for people to understand now, now that so-called hipness is everywhere—it’s everywhere! It’s spread all over like a blanket, and so it doesn’t really mean the same thing.
Magnuson: The counterculture back then was so small. And people could know each other from scenes in different cities, because there weren’t that many people to know. Then MTV came along and completely commodified it—they took over the ethos. So I feel like young people today don’t understand how there was this massive division between the normal mainstream world and these small, small coteries, people doing this other stuff that was not understood, and would never, ever have been embraced by the outside world. Like, Iggy Pop was struggling for decades. When Ziggy Stardust came out, it was a big deal, but only in very particular markets. There was a countercultural dog whistle, and that dog whistle was pitched really, really high. Super high, and the mainstream, like ninety per cent—don’t you think—maybe ninety per cent of America did not hear it. That might even be generous! I think maybe 1% of the population, if that, was hip to the trip, because these kinds of artists came in through these different portals— glam rock, punk rock, Warhol, and then new wave. I remember when I auditioned to be a DJ at my staid Midwestern college radio station, and my DJ set was Blondie, Talking Heads, Television, Richard Hell, and all these guys I was auditioning for, it was always guys, they didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I remember the response was absolute blank. Blank stares. I really felt like I was from Mars. [Laughs.] I knew it was time for me to get to New York City. It was so exciting to meet other people who loved those records. I befriended a young person in Joshua Tree recently, and her outfit just blew my mind. It was all homemade. She made it out of scraps, she had no money and practically no shoes, she had on broken, mismatched flip flops, she was wearing this ratty old fur coat that had been rehabbed in this very DIY Portland way—she was from Portland—and she was down in Joshua Tree hitchhiking around. She was gonna get a ride with this weird desert guy, and I said, “No, you’re coming with me, you’re coming to our house, to take a shower, get a meal, some decent shoes, and a good night’s sleep.” She was camping, she’d been hitchhiking around with a friend, doing that kind of “Wild” Reese Witherspoon thing, you know? Like backpacking, looking for her spirit animal, which was a wolf. Then her friend left and she was doing it alone. She keeps changing her name all the time, so I can’t really identify her—but she was and is a true artist. A true artist. She made this incredibly bizarre DIY marionette out of sticks and mud and things she just found. I was like, “Whoa, this is right out of Carl Jung’s Red Book!” She was showing me pictures of some of her other artist friends, and they are up to some wild, original stuff. Have you seen this movie called Freeload (2014), it’s a documentary about these millennials who are riding the rails? These kids have no money; they’re like millennial vagabond hobos. Some of them have real artistic vision, like she does. And they’re doing stuff in their own nooks and crannies, creating their own collectives in outer places that aren’t urban areas where you need a lot of money to live. That is happening now. This stuff is about taking the subconscious and making it into something tactile. That’s what art does in general, and that’s definitely what this girl I picked up hitchhiking was up to—her name was Meghan Lavender, but now it’s Lilith Soil—
Rail: Lilith Soil! Oh my god. But it’s like what you were saying earlier about founding a tribe, and the people who have been lost to the tribe. At the end of the day, it really does feel like the tribe can only be forged out of real matter. You know, we have these virtual tribes now, but they’re not quite tribes in the same way.
Magnuson: They’re literally looking at reflections in a pool, like Narcissus, just staring into the pool. But I don’t know, there can be something real about that, too.
Rail: Well, it’s not better or worse. It’s just different.
Magnuson: Yeah, it’s a different way, and it’s interesting, because I’ll see these videos that Lilith Soil made—and again, that name may have changed. She has so many names. I kind of love that! I used to do that—there are these early photo sessions from the SoHo Weekly News with me and others modeling Stacey Elkin’s Amazon and Shawn McQuate’s AMMO fashions, both designers are in the MoMA show—and I had a fake name for each picture. So I felt that this Lilith Soil was a kindred spirit and is someone to be encouraged. She does these little videos with these homemade costumes and almost, like, masks, and different make-up. They’re online. But they kind of come and go; they’re on Facebook or Instagram or whatever. They’re just there for whoever wants to find them—I mean, she’s still, like, twenty-five or something, or twenty-six. Around the time you hit twenty-seven, you have to face certain responsibilities. That happened as we got older in the mid-80s. Maybe you don’t want to live in a cockroach-infested apartment where you’re terrified you might get mugged every time you go up the stairs. You realize you need health insurance. There are certain things that then require a real growing up and focusing on making some money. But, I don’t know, things are different now. The art world has become so Hollywood-ized, and so beholden to the ultra-rich. And they want objects. They want things they can hold and display and sell and control the investment market of—
Rail: Well, that’s the negative side of materiality, right? The greedy side. As opposed to the patchwork side.
Magnuson: To create work that’s completely ephemeral is a very radical notion. It’s just difficult to sustain economically as you get older.
Rail: Of course. When you say that thing about the different names for the different fashion guises, I’m thinking about “Made for TV” (1984) and it’s the same thing of trying on these various modes of being female, these types of beauty and behavior constructed in the media, and you and I have been discussing how we’re in this post-Weinstein era now, and it could alter the thinking about about female representation—
Magnuson: It’s not even post yet. We’re right in the belly of the beast.
Rail: I think content and what we see will change.
Magnuson: I’ll keep my fingers crossed. I’ve got so many crazy stories about being an actress that I want to turn into a book. I also want to get a grant to do “Made for TV Part Two: Old Lady.”
Rail: [Laughing.] I would love to see that.
Magnuson: That’s one of my priorities for next year. And thank god I didn’t get into Hollywood acting until I was thirty! That was the other grace of Club 57, I was allowed to be a woman in charge. I mean, it was a collaborative thing, I wasn’t totally in charge. But I wasn’t being dictated to by an asshole older man. Stanley [Strychacki, founder and manager of Club 57] was fantastic, he wasn’t anything like a Harvey Weinstein. I had encountered that kind of creepy dynamic uptown. And then I saw people like Patti Smith, who had carved out her own identity and controlled her own destiny, or Ellen Stewart at La MaMa, women downtown who were saying “I’m just gonna do my thing and nobody’s gonna stop me.” And that was so inspiring. Downtown I felt was a place that you could do that, and uptown was gonna be a long, hard slog with those kinds of guys in control. I probably never would have gotten into acting if it hadn’t been for people like Beth & Scott B, or Sara Driver, or Susan Seidelman [who cast Magnuson in Desperately Seeking Susan (1985) and then gave her the lead in Making Mr. Right (1987)]—Women and different kinds of progressive men who weren’t doing things like raping people in hotel rooms. But that’s why I’ve always sort of operated like the Viet-Cong with my mainstream acting career. Some of it was by choice, and a lot just because that’s the way the dice rolled, and I rolled with it. When opportunities come, go with it, but then go down in the tunnels and run in the opposite direction and come up in a safe spot, so then I can be free to be who I am. I did that with the band [Bongwater], and with performance art, and with writing, and a lot of these things I did for travel magazines and the SoHo News. I’ve been lucky in that there are many ways to be creative, and to not have to be beholden to one thing, particularly the acting world. I saw the writing on the wall when I worked up at Ensemble Studio Theater, seeing the actors come in and get trapped in the patriarchal power structure, and thinking, “I’ll never do that.” But of course I got suckered into going to auditions out in LA. All that rejection is so demeaning.
Rail: Back to Club 57, again, that was a great incubator for a certain way to be a different kind of female, right?
Magnuson: Oh yes, every night was an opportunity to be a different kind of female. Or She-Male! I always envisioned it like a big television set with channels changing. It was like our own Little Rascals version of Cinecittà or something, a movie studio. It was our own dream factory.
Rail: Well, you can only have that kind of dream factory if you’re surrounded by people whose thinking is as flexible as you want to and can be within it.
Magnuson: The community. That’s another Jungian concept, the communitas, the spirit community. And Brian Eno talked about it, that instead of genius, there’s a “scenius.” That the scene enables the individuals to be who they are, or vice versa. So it’s a collective energy, it’s a zeitgeist. It’s not really about one individual or another, but that’s always what the press tends to pick out, the boldface names. But there were people who were standing in the shadows, just being there making a difference in all kinds of ways. Everyone who walked through those doors at Club 57 made that place what it was just by being there. Yeah, and we could get anything, all the things you needed for a show or for your apartment, you’d find perfectly good furniture discarded on the street constantly, plus things were so cheap in the thrift stores. And I just did not want anything that was expensive. I saw the world of money as hopelessly square and something that you just would not want to be a part of. So when Jean-Michel [Basquiat] came back from Italy with hundred dollar bills spilling out of paint-splattered Armani suits, it was like, “Oh…. So this is how it’s going to be now?” And then Keith [Haring] started getting attention, and the vibe changed a little bit. I never wanted expensive things. That was something my grandmother taught me, growing up in West Virginia. There wasn’t this divide like there is right now with the Have-Nots and the super-ultra rich, always abusing their powers, like Harvey Weinstein is showing us. And these companies, like Black Cube?! These places that exist to spy on citizens? It is so Orwellian and driven by the obscene amount of wealth that’s being accumulated among this small percentage of people, and that’s why contemporary life now feels so medieval to me. When I grew up there were really rich people, but they considered it vulgar to display it. They all went to the same schools (until they were shipped off to boarding school), but in grade school we had the kids who were super poor and the kids who were super rich, but mostly there was a middle class and I never felt that there was much difference between any of us. Being gaudy with your wealth was not something people wanted to do, and then the hippies came. That “back to the earth” movement was big when I was a young teen in West Virginia. I also always thought that Andy Warhol and that whole Studio 54 scene was grotesque, all based on how rich, how beautiful, how photogenic you were. It was very beauty pageant adjacent, and there’s no freedom there. Hey, can I tell a story about my grandmother, and maybe that might bring this conversation full circle?
Magnuson: My grandmother used to babysit this girl from one of the richest families in Morgantown, West Virginia—coal mining, of course, where all the money comes from in West Virginia. The girl was an only child, and the father had died in a car accident. The mother would go off to Europe every summer, and leave the girl alone, an eight or nine-year-old girl. Grandma would babysit her, which meant being her parent. It’s funny, recently their house was for sale and I got to go online and go inside the house. There’s one great thing about the internet, I got to virtually go back in time by traveling into this house that I hadn’t seen since, like, 1965. It was practically the same, looking like a rich people’s house from the old Hollywood movies, decorated in this ’30s and ’40s style. Anyway, to make a long story short, we used to go down there sometimes, particularly when it was really hot in the summer, because they had air conditioning in the bedrooms, which was a really big deal then. But I always felt a huge relief when we would go back to grandma’s house. Her place was small and cozy, and there was love there, there was something real and authentic. As opposed to this big cavernous mansion where this poor little girl was left, which was so inhospitable and cold. And I remember the little girl would call my grandmother “Grandma,” and being a kid, I said, “Why is she calling you grandma, you’re our grandma!” And my grandma pulled me aside and said, “Don’t say that, you have to let her call me grandma, she doesn’t have parents and she’s alone.” And basically what I heard in my child’s mind was that we have to feel sorry for rich people, because they don’t have love. That was basically what I heard, and immediately I felt badly and said I was sorry. And what stayed with me was this idea that being rich was really, really sad, that it was to be pitied. And the real deal was at grandma’s house, this small house filled with all this fun stuff that had no intrinsic value but was a portal into creative worlds and adventure and love and the smell of cinnamon rolls, and comfort and nurturing and safety. It was a place where she made things out of nothing. Once she made a necklace out of turkey vertebrae. She would melt crayon shavings, we used to make stained-glass windows where you would melt the crayon shavings between two pieces of wax paper.
Rail: You were doing all those puppet pieces on Facebook for awhile, and it really is coming right out of that grandma part of you— that talking puppet was like a sanity valve, some way to keep it together as the world falls apart.
Magnuson: Yes, originally I was going to have a series called “Ann Magnuson’s Dream Puppet Theater,” but the animation ended up being too labor-intensive, so I just decided to go DIY with it, and put the videos on Facebook live. What I like about that is I’m just making up the content as I go along, letting this direct conduit happen to the subconscious, letting these personas take over and comment on the insanity of the world and the beauty of nature. It sort of is what it is, and the people who see it, dig it, and then it’s over, and I’m not hustling it. And that’s what Club 57 was like. We weren’t hustling those things, we did it for each other, and we enjoyed it, and then we were on to the next thing the next day. That kind of spontaneity and being in the moment doesn’t have a price tag on it. It’s a spiritual practice, in a way.