The Radical Rage of the Blacklips Performance Cult

A new book and compilation album chronicle the abject glamour and visionary legacy of New York City’s Blacklips Performance Cult.

ANOHNI as Fiona Blue. Photography by Megan Green

“New York is filled with scenes that are called worlds,” Laurie Anderson recently told a standing-room-only crowd packed deep in the Modernist complex at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. The crowd gathered to celebrate the release of Blacklips: Her Life and Her Many, Many Deaths, a sumptuous hardcover archive of the 1990s’ most notorious “performance art cult,” and its compilation album Blacklips Bar: Androgyns and Deviants—Industrial Romance for Bruised and Battered Angels, 1992-1995. “The art world, the financial world, the fashion world, it’s a city of worlds,” Anderson said as she moderated a talk between co-writer Marti Wilkerson and ANOHNI, who sat next to her in a black hooded cloak and silver-spangled shoes. 

In 1992, ANOHNI started Blacklips with Johanna Constantine and Psychotic Eve one hot summer evening in the East Village. Today, that time and place—a community indeed “bruised and battered” by the ongoing AIDS crisis, a rough city on the precipice of ravenous gentrification—feels like a very different world. “There were so many people dying,” Psychotic Eve (aka Scott Jackson) said on the panel. “AIDS was in the zeitgeist. [Blacklips] bloomed from there. It was like the landscape of the East Village. When you walked around the East Village then, it was just completely bombed out, an apocalyptic landscape we were living in. That’s where the sort of trash sculpture mentality came from.”

Spreads from “Blacklips: Her Life and Her Many, Many Deaths”

He means literal trash. Blacklips staged, by some estimates, as many as 150 shows throughout its early-’90s residency at the East Village den of iniquity known as Pyramid Club. Sets were assembled from garbage; props were bought at the bodega around the corner. When plot mechanics required raw meat, they’d hoof it over to the slaughterhouses in the West Village corridor of sex clubs and butcher shops that gave the Meatpacking District its name. Those plots revolved around body horror as Blacklips’ cast of characters processed the trauma of AIDS and the brutal imagery deployed by the rising anti-abortion movement. Their authors, mostly broke young artists, were in the gutter because society wouldn’t let them live or work anywhere else. And if they were looking at the stars, that’s because the stars were dying. 

Blacklips’ trash-into-treasure resourcefulness was also an aesthetic. In the pre-internet age, they sought out what history was available to them. From it, they boiled a witches’ brew of Charles Bidgood’s candy-colored queer fantasias, Kenneth Anger’s occult sex rituals, Charles Ludlam’s Theatre of the Ridiculous, the “let’s put on a show” silliness of the Cockettes, the feminist shock value of Ana Mendieta, and fearless presence of Vaginal Creme Davis. But Blacklips’ magic ingredient was rage. To world-build, they first had to tear what was left of the old world down, dance on its ruins, and salt its evil soil. 

Blacklips Performance Cult. Photography by James O’sBrien

The thousands of photographs the book reprints vibrate with the performers’ deconstructive intelligence and destructive glee. “Our pathology was documenting,” Wilkerson says, “so with the exception of a couple of professional photos, all of them are generated by people in the group.”

Outsiders were viewed with suspicion. “A bitch like me was telling photographers they couldn’t come in,” ANOHNI told the crowd, “unless they gave the photos for free. That was one reason why the archive was so quiet and dormant.” Another was that the world wasn’t ready for them—culturally, in terms of reception to challenging queer work, and technologically, in terms of digitizing shaky (and slightly shitty) video recordings of the plays. But over the past few years, ANOHNI was able to digitize it all. Twenty-nine were shown at the Participant Inc gallery this past September.

Blacklips didn’t last long. In 1995, the curtain finally came down. “What differentiated it from other collectives is how there were 13 authors, which emerged organically from the situation,” ANOHNI said. “We all started writing plays because one person cannot possibly write all of them, especially when you’re being paid $5 a week. Everybody started seeing all these friends who will do pretty much anything within their wheelhouse, and so people just started organizing on their own, realizing their own dreams or mythologies.”

Pearls (aka Alex Perlof). Photography by Marti Wilkerson

ANOHNI, of course, realized her generational talent as a singer-songwriter. Other members, including Hattie Hathaway, are no longer with us. Constantine, Eve, Kabuki Starshine, and Michael Cavadias live on as fixtures in the city’s avant-garde performance worlds. “It was such an insular project that was really for us, by us,” ANOHNI said. “When the coffin closed, it clamped tight.” Until now. 

“We were more the end of a system or legacy than the beginning of a new one,” ANOHNI said. Perhaps Blacklips could still kiss the foreheads of future revolutionaries. “It’s very possible,” she said, “but the children would have to be a lot more disciplined in what they allow through the door. You can’t really romanticize poverty—it’s not fair. But at the same time, there’s something to be said for a firewall protecting developing material from reaching the clatter of the marketplace.” As states outlaw drag and trans people’s presence in public spaces, it’s on us to make sure this world gives artists time and space to build a better one.

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