Nan Goldin’s Bohemian Ballads (2003)

The ASX Team

November 8, 2011

Misty_and_Jimmy (Custom)

Misty and Jimmy Paulette in a Taxi, NYC, 1991

“People commonly think of the photographer as a voyeur, but this is my party, I’m not crashing.”

Excerpt from, Phototextualities: Intersections of Photography and Narrative, University of Mexico Press, 2003

By Alex Hughes and Andrea Noble

The work of the American artist Nan Goldin, born in 1953, has often been cited as offering an authentic document of life in the bohemian cultures of Boston and New York in the 1970s and 1980s. Goldin is understood to be a member of the community she photographs rather than an apparently objective outsider. Goldin herself has commented: “People commonly think of the photographer as a voyeur, but this is my party, I’m not crashing.” One of her major works, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, might in particular be understood as an artwork through which a subculture recounts its stories to itself. First presented as a slide show in clubs during the early 1980s and with a pre-history in the informal circulation of Goldin’s early prints, The Ballad has subsequently been “recounted” in a wide variety of media, and for an increasingly disparate audience that is also increasingly distanced from the original community of reception that its narratives served. This apparent reification of bohemian creativity and community, predicated on the authenticity of the work’s contents and sentiments, has become the object of a particular critical program, directed in part at Goldin’s documentation of the deaths of friends from AlDS-related illnesses and in part at the degree to which Goldin’s representations arc authentic.’ This discussion seeks to avoid the often personally inflected critiques that have characterized that program and to avoid the polarized positions eulogistic or demythifying into which writing about Goldin’s work seems to fall. It accepts the authenticity of Goldin’s images, to the extent that one cannot deny the fact of presence in the photographs. To do so would be to ignore that essential characteristic of the photographic medium that Roland Barthes expresses as its encapsulation of “what has been”: a characteristic dissected by a number of contributors to this volume. This essay suggests, however, that the “authenticity” that is ascribed to Goldin’s images – an authenticity that refers not to presence but to the lives that those represented are apparently living is fissured both by an imagination of what bohemia should look like and by an imagination of how bohemians should behave.

In a 1986 interview, invoking Walt Whitman, Goldin described The Ballad of Sexual Dependency as “my Leaves of Grass constantly updated and revised.”3In its flexibility and historical contingency, the performance history of The Ballad of Sexual Dependency might be understood as reflecting subcultural shifts, so that a performance history is also a history of performance. In its successive mediations, I suggest, The Ballad is also a measure of the relation between a particular moment of bohemian history, the art world, and, to a more limited degree, mainstream culture. This relation is not simply one of reification into commodity forms, although certain mediations of The Ballad of Sexual Dependency doubtless represent a drive toward formats of mass consumption and fiscal rather than social value. Although, despite its nomination, its variable content, and the informal conditions of its early performance, The Ballad is clearly not figured as “a ballad,” I have taken Goldin at her word, in her borrowing from Kurt Weill and her comparison of the work to Whitman’s collection of verse. Without pressing too closely for historical parallels, I suggest that the history of The Ballad of Sexual Dependency‘s mediation and its relationship to its primary audience – that is, the subjects who are represented in it shares certain similarities with the fixing of the ballad as a literary genre. I further suggest that the values that are read, retrospectively, into the ballad by the consumers of its stabilized forms —immediacy, authenticity of experience, unselfconscious articulation of free subjectivity are those that are projected onto The Ballad of Sexual Dependency by its wider audience. What these retrospective readings neglect, in privileging a certain naivete, equivalent perhaps to the innocence ascribed to folkloric culture, is the consciousness of presence, the pose, of both subject and photographer, their awareness of their own identities and the historical circumstance in which they are formed.

Goldin’s photographic work began in Boston in the mid-1970s, when she was studying at the New England School of Photography under the tutelage of Henry Horenstein. It was here that she became influenced by Larry Clark’s documentary style, in which the photographer was wholly complicit with his subjects, and discovered a subcultural milieu that provided an appreciative audience. Hers was a group that was, by its emphasis on its gay sexuality, drag, drug use, and self-consciously bohemian lifestyle, outside the norms of conventional behavior. As Goldin says in the film I’ll Be Your Mirror: “It was as if we’d all escaped from America.”5 Goldin’s early pictures are studies of her drag-queen friends and housemates in bars and night-clubs and portraits such as Ivy with Marilyn, Boston, 1973 (fig. 5.1). The latter image overtly references Monroe as a hyperbolized icon of femininity. However, it also points toward Warhol’s Factory as a role model for creative, “bohemian” behavior and endeavor.

The slide show became Goldin’s principal medium.

Goldin’s audience was also the community she photographed. Speaking of “exhibition practice” in mid-1970s Boston, David Arm-strong remarked: “We’d bring the film to Phillips drugstore, and we’d get it back as packets of black and white snapshots. So that, became a huge plastic bag full of pictures by the end of the summer, and the major activity that went on was taking the pictures, and everyone looking at them, and everyone stealing the ones that they liked of themselves.”

If this was the first means of disseminating her imagery, Goldin sub-sequently discovered a medium that enabled her to edit the material that had previously been jumbled in the plastic bag and to control the temporal relationship of image to audience. In 1977, unable to afford time or money to make prints, Goldin showed her work as slides. Goldin had also switched to working in color, reflecting the influence of then critically denigrated fashion photographers such as Helmust Newton and Guy Bourdin, whom she had encountered in the magazines read by her housemates. Bruce bleaching his eyebrows, Pleasant St., Cambridge, 1975 (fig. 5.2) not only marks this stylistic shift externally but also establishes an internal, self-conscious reference to the prior sensibilities that have, to some extent, “produced” it. At the subject’s feet are a Harper’s Bazaar anthology and the collected poems of Frank O’Hara—representative of an earlier gay subculture.7

The slide show became Goldin’s principal medium, and the format by which an expanding, though still resolutely bohemian, community recounted its histories to itself when Goldin entered the burgeoning punk scene around New York’s East Village and Lower Fast Side. Goldin’s performances became a central feature of a culture in which personal identity was transient, often experimental, and above all “posed.” Luc Sante comments of the period: “We were all finding our legs and moving shakily around on them, like baby giraffes. People were trying to decide on their names, their hair color, their sexual orientation, their purpose in life.” The slide shows addressed the community they depicted, functioned as a recollective focal point, and confirmed both individual presence and group cohesion. Goldin’s first performance was at the Mudd Club in 1979, with the slides hand loaded. There was no conscious editing and no music. It was only when she showed slides at the Rock Lounge to accompany a band that Goldin saw the chance relations between images and music. Through 198o and 1981, with her boyfriend acting as deejay, the slide shows became reg-ular features at venues in the Fast Village. Goldin remarks: “The audience was the people who were in the slides. Cookie would be there, Sharon, Suzanne, David. People would yell and scream in relation to themselves on the screen. People would be mad at me because there would be some unflattering pictures or they’d be happy because there’d been a lot of beautiful pictures of them. One Thanksgiving, Jack Smith was there and did one of his endless slide shows.”

The screenings acquired titles: first If My Body Shows Up, a col-laborative project using a written script and then The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. The live music accompaniment was abandoned in favor of prerecorded tapes and the visual material subjected to a controlled exposure, with each slide on-screen for four seconds in a performance lasting twenty to thirty minutes. What had been an ephemeral performance became a work with a distinct nomination, even if its content remained fluid, with Goldin editing the subject and order of slides between shows. In its sequenced flow of images The Ballad of Sexual Dependency aligned Goldin as closely with “no-wave” filmmakers such as Vivienne Dick and Lizzie Borden and older avant-garde practitioners such as Jack Smith as it did with photographic practice.

Defined as an autonomous entity, The Ballad began to reach audi-ences beyond the original context of its construction and reception. It remained, however, a highly mobile narrative work, with a different sound track accompanying every performance until 1987, and Goldin still edited and presented the images. In 1985 The Ballad appeared in book form, albeit, and of necessity, with significant dif-ferences from its performative mode. The publication contains 125 images in a sequence chosen by Goldin. In performance at this time, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency used about 700 slides and ran for forty-five minutes. The temporal relation of the spectator to the image was significantly transformed. Where, on-screen, the photograph was a brief semifilmic flash in a flickering sequence, here it was reduced to an individual, static object of contemplation that could be considered for a protracted period, outside the context of the images that surrounded it and also outside the context of the audience that surrounded the spectator in live screenings. The public and transitory became established as private and extended. Publication also sepa-rated the images from the music t hat accompanied live performance.

Jimmy_Paulette_and_taboo_in_the_bathroom (Custom)
Jimmy Paulette and Taboo in the Bathroom

The book of The Ballad presents a partially denatured version of bohemia, emphasizing “the pain” and addictive quality of heterosex-ual relationships –themes with which the larger audience the book required might more easily identify—and marginalizing those aspects of the lifestyle—homosexual difference and drug use—that might balk reception. An image such as Greer and Robert on the bed, New York, 1982 (fig. 5.3), is ostensibly about a boy-girl relationship: one that, through the postures of its subjects and the hints of squalor in the crumpled bed and bare brick ‘vall, solicits pathos in the same way that Picasso’s sad clowns and acrobats, his Blue Period invocations of bohemia, seek our pity for their suffering. The masks on the wall behind the couple are perhaps the only hint that there is some degree of “masquerade” involved. While it conveys a certain inverted glam-our of marginality and difference, The Ballad as book for a general audience succeeds in taming the content of The Ballad as slide show fir its subjects. If in the early 197os Goldin had documented her community as it escaped from America, the publication of The Ballad of Sexual Dependency seemed to reincorporate its marginality in main-stream culture. This process was to be repeated in the subsequent medi-ations of the work: a video in 1987 that guaranteed a fixed format, even if it included a sound track, and which meant the work could be “performed” in Goldin’s absence, and the documentary film I’ll Be Your Mirror that Goldin made in collaboration with the BBC in 1995.

While I’ll Be Your Mirror has significant differences in form and narrative structure from The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (not least because of the editorial decisions of its codirector), in its continuous reference to The Ballad, its citation of sound track, and its self-conscious restaging of slide shows, we might well regard the film as a particular variant of The Ballad, albeit one in which the role of the work’s original performer has been derogated against the retrospec-tive “writing” of a history by others. Goldin’s comments about the film, that she “wouldn’t have made it so ploddingly narrative”‘ and that she could have made a thirteen-hour version, are illustrative of the artist’s frame of reference within avant-garde filmmaking rather than television. They assume a spectator familiar with the durational exercises of Warhol’s Empire rather than a general audience’s expectations of narrative resolution produced within a tightly managed fifty-minute programming slot.

Goldin’s evocation of Leaves of Grass as an equivalent for The Ballad of Sexual Dependency was perhaps more apt than she realized.

Goldin’s evocation of Leaves of Grass as an equivalent for The Ballad of Sexual Dependency was perhaps more apt than she realized. With its instability of content over time, framed by a number of temporary inscriptions, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency parallels the evolving texts and contents of Whitman’s numerous editions. Goldin’s remark also points to other comparisons between her life and work and Whitman’s. Whitman is the progenitor and reference point for a particular American bohemianism that can be traced throughout the twen-tieth century. Goldin’s life and work are embedded in, and to some extent determined by, this milieu. Reading Goldin’s photographic visual “texts” through Whitman’s poetic forms highlights a distinctively lyrical appeal in her work: work rooted, as Goldin has commented, in the “subjective” and the “self-referential.”” Leaves of Grass is a collection whose author’s first “poetic” act is to represent himself on its flyleaf, posed as an idealized illustration of a bohemian. The contents are styled as personally observed fragments of the Real America.

Whitman’s work is contingent on his life and, apparently, eschews conscious aestheticization. Like Goldin, always a participant but also always observing, Whitman experiences, suffers, is there: he witnesses, participates, and in particular announces himself as the representative of the marginalized and the abject.” For Goldin the act of representation is “a moment of clarity and emotional connection.”‘ Whitman similarly erases distance to effect identification with his subjects.

Although The Ballad of Sexual Dependency is not posited as analogous to other performances and texts in the literary genre of The Ballad, its nomination nonetheless offers a point of entry to similarities with that archaic poetic mode. As genre, the ballad is a vernacular form that resists its transitive condition by mnemonic preservation; as individual text, it relies on performative reiteration for temporal and cultural continuity. The materiality of performance is reclaimed only through the memory of audience and perfbrmers. However, The Ballad’s repetition does not guarantee its fixity. The performed oral content changes according to historical context. As Susan Stewart pertinently writes, the ballad is “continually marked by immediacy – immediacy of voice, immediacy of action, immediacy of allusion.”

The ballad, as repeated, temporally and discursively variable per-formance, parallels Goldin’s live screenings of The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, with constantly updated material reflecting immediate concerns within the community to whom the work is shown and who constitute its principal subjects. Goldin is that community’s narrator, its registrar of couplings and separations, of marriages and deaths. The oral tradition of the ballad is similarly grounded in a community to which the performance is wholly intelligible and of political and social import. The performer “voices” quotes and makes state-ments with the authority of an observer in context or witness.'” This authority is bestowed by the interpretive community within which the performer speaks.

The Ballad is often posited as a mode of production below the level of conscious literary art. Goldin’s work, especially in the context of reflexive gestures that emphasize art’s status as art, is similarly posed in terms of innocence. Liz Kotz cites an essay on Goldin’s contempo-rary Mark Morrisroe, in which Peter Schjeldahl remarks: “The Bostonians reacted authentically to a situation dominated, in ‘8o’s art culture, by the theoretical prattle of ‘postmodernism’ and brittle pic-torial mediating of . . . mediated media mediations. Rather than brainily distance signs of’ signs and images of images they sought bedrock in ferociously honed exposure of their first person, bodily, sex-saturated, fantasy-realizing, determinedly reckless experience.”6 As Kotz observes, “[A] return to a prior model of photographic practice (a model of autobiographic self-display with roots well into the early twentieth century) is posed as the ‘authentic’ in order to allow the critic to deny, it would seem, the very historicity of photographic images.”7 The feral innocence that Schjeldahl ascribes to “The Bostonians” is a critical illusion. Goldin, as she shows from her earliest images, is wholly aware of her precedents. Naïveté of self-representation might be under-stood as equally “postmodern”: a commentary on the pursuit of “authenticity” as much as authenticity’s depiction. As Stewart points out, the very nomination of the Ballad as below the level of conscious art is not an internal condition of the form but rather an external, and retrospective, categorization that as much defines what “literature”— or “high art”—is not as it tells us what a folk art might be. “Materiality, the collected form, invents an ephemerality that legitimates its own sense of temporality and subjectivity.”18

We might here consider Elizabeth Sussmamis reference to the handcrafted aesthetic of the early versions of  The Ballad 9 and contrast this to the polished, industrial productions of the book and the television film—even though the latter, in its editing strategies and use of a visually imperfect medium (Hi-8), seeks to efface that sophis-tication in favor of a rough-hewn effect. The Ballad is often described as a genre that “emerges at the point of’ transition between a feudal and a capitalist/industrial order.”2” There is, of course, a certain circularity in this argument, since it is only the emergence of the capitalist-industrial order, with its own modes of literary production, that forces the recognition of cultural modalities inherent to precapitalism. However, we might see the poverty of materiality that characterized punk as reflecting a liminal cultural positioning that parallels the liminality so often ascribed to folkloric culture.

A profound tension exists between the ballad as oral form and the ballad as literary genre. The latter is constituted not by the continual iteration of performances but by the inscription of one or several per-formances into a single, authoritative version. Cultural recognition is contingent on the conversion of speech into writing. This materialization fixes the absent text of transitory performance, reclaiming it from the oblivion threatened by its ephemerality and guaranteeing its continued signification. However, the act of signification and what is signified address a different audience: that of’ the fine-art or literary collector. Stewart suggests that the historic “rescue” of the ballad through its written form only validated the vernacular condition by instituting its newly universalized texts as objects of curiosity and col-lection. The re-presentation of The Ballad of Sexual Dependency as a stable collection of representations—whether in book or on video or film —may be seen as a similar gesture of preservation. In the early 19805 The Ballad had no materiality. Its images existed as momentary projections for its audience. Publication conferred status and authority on the performative by fixing signification as durable and establishing presence through privileging print over projection. The Ballad of Sexual Dependency can he seen as a souvenir of’ a past culture in the same moment as it finally articulates the concerns of that culture within a wider discourse. The book places Goldin simultaneously within East Village bohemia, as authentic representative, and outside its purlieus, as narrator and commentator. Stewart remarks that one motivation for the artifact ual collection of verbal art was “to place such ‘specimens’ as curiosities, characterized by fragmentation and exoticism, against the contemporary and so use them to establish the parameters of the present.” One might argue that a similar motivation underpins the film I’ll Be Your Mirror with its narrative watershed of’ post- and pre-AIDS. Here the separation between history and its moment of collection is compressed into a few ‘ears—a symptom perhaps of an accelerated nostalgia for a distanced and short-lived culture. We might see The Ballad in particular as fulfilling that role which Stewart per-ceives for the Ballad as tocsin of nostalgia. “Such a separation of speech from its particular moment may result in a singular text, but this text goes on to become symptomatic. It is a fragment of a larger whole that is a matter not only of other versions, but of the entire aura of the oral world–such a world’s immediacy, organicism, and authenticity.””

As an object of consumption, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency was addressed not to a community represented in the pages of a book or in prints but to the art market. Success in that field was contingent on the effect of those images, on identifications other than those facil-itated by immediate recognition and transparency of meaning in a communal environment. The materialization of signification ensured that it signified with different effects, told a different story. In this context The Ballad of Sexual Dependency comes to resemble nothing so much as a souvenir, an objectival trace of authenticity. As Stewart remarks: “The souvenir distinguishes experiences. We do not need or desire souvenirs of events that are repeatable. Rather we need and desire souvenirs of events that are reportable, events whose materiality has escaped us, events that thereby exist only through the invention of narrative. ‘through narrative the souvenir substitutes a context of perpetual consumption for its context of origin. It represents not the lived experience of’ its maker but the ‘second-hand’ experience of its possessor/owner.”

We might conclude that in its successive mediations The Ballad of Sexual Dependency “behaves” much like a ballad. Progressively fixed as an object of collection and souvenir of experience, it becomes increasingly remote from the community to which its political and social specificity was addressed. Its mediations, as they diversify their contexts of reception, increasingly rely on a spectacularization of and nostalgic investment in the original material. We need, however, to temper this conflict between an originary bohemia and a late-capi-talist reification of bohemia’s cultural difference through appeals to the authenticity of the lives depicted. There is no originary bohemian community here but rather one that constitutes itself in knowing ref-erence to previous manifestations and to a previous moment of collection—whether that moment is encapsulated in Whitman and his subsequent invocation by the Beat Generation; Picasso’s Blue Period; Ed van der Llsken’s vision of Love on the Left Bank from the early 1950s; Warhol’s circle in the 196os; or the underground cinema of Jack Smith and Ron Rice. In its constitution and its points of reference, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency is a knowing constitution of what a bohemian document should look like: one that engages in the self-referentiality of high art, which Schjeldahl sees it as evading. Goldin’s work, even as it documents bohemia, is imbued with an artistic strategy that, rather than comment overtly on the mediation of bohemia, effaces its status in favor of authenticity. In such a reading. Goldin is not only complicit with her subjects, she assumes a certain poverty of form as the appropriately bohemian mode of representation. What we have, then, is not the original “Ballad” but rather a version of that narrative read through a century and a half of thought about what the bohemian life should look like. The Ballad of Sexual Dependency is simultaneously a document of feral immediacy and a retrospective meditation on how such immediacy is figured.


1. Nan Goldin and Edmund Coulthard, l’ll Be Your Mirror (London: Blast!Films/BBC, 1995). I refer here to the unpaginatcd transcription of all the material shot for the film I’ll Be Your Mirror, on which I consulted in 1996 and is not generally now avail-able for scrutiny. I should like to thank Blast Wilms for their cooperation with my work on Goldin and this essay.
2. See. e.g., David Deitcher, “Death and the Marketplace.” frieze 29(1996): 40-45: Liz Kotz, “The Aesthetics of Intimacy,” in The Passionate Camera: Photography and Bodies of Desire., ed. Deborah Bright (London: Routledge: 1998), 204 15.
3. Mark Holborn, “Nan Goldin’s Ballad of Sexual Dependency,” Aperture 103 0984 45.
4. I am thinking here of the subject as “posed” in the scnsc outlined by Craig Owens as neither wholly fixed by the camera nor controlling its representation, and equally as neither free in its subjectivity nor wilt illy determined, but rather in a condition of diathesis-between terms. See Craig Owens, Beyond Recognition: Representation, Power and Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992). 201-17.
5. This is articulated in the Blast !Films, Goldin and Coultbard transcript. Goldin’s remark is resonant of that much earlier declaration of bohemian independence, voiced by John Sloan in t916, when he announces Greenwich Village as a “Free Republic, independent of Uptown.” See kred McDarrah, Greenwich Village (New York: Corinth Books, tgb 31, 30 32.
6. Goldin and Coulthard. 171 Be Your Mirror.
7. I am grateful to Renee Vara for identifying the O’Hara volume.
8. Luc Sante, ‘All Yesterday’s Parties,” in Nan Goldin, David Armstrong. and Hans-Wert her I lolzwarth, 171 1k Your Mirror (Ziirich: Scab, 1996), 99. I refer here to the paginated catalog of a 1996 touring exhibition tided 1711k Your Mirror, published by Scat°.
9. Nan Goldin and Jay H01)(1111,1?), “My Number One Medium All My Life,” in Goldin, Armstrong, anti Holzwarth, 171 Be Your Mirror, 140.
10. Conversation with the author„hily 1996.
11. Holborn, “Goldin’s Ballad,” 38.
12. Sec, e.g., Walt NVIntman, 7s Song of Myself” (lines 509-12, 518-20), in Collected Poems (London: Penguin Books, 1975).
13. Nan Goldin, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (New York: Aperture, 1986), 6.
14. SUSall Stewart, Crimes of Writing (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 125.
15. Ibid., 124-25.
16. Peter Schjeldahl, “Beantown Babylon,” Village Voice, April 9, 1996, 81.
17. Kotz, ‘Aesthetics of Intimacy,” 2t5 11.7.
18. Stewart, Crimes, 104-5-
19. Elizabeth Sussman, “In/Of Her Time: Nan Goldin’s Photographs,” in Goldin. Armstrong, and Holzwarth, 171/k Your Mirror, 34.
20. Stewart, Crimes, 109.
21. Ibid., 103.
22. Ibid., 104.
23. Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1993), 135.

Phototextualities: Intersections of Photography and Narrative, University of New Mexico Press, 2003

BOOKS: Nan Goldin

The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (Aperture Monograph (2005)
Nan Goldin (Phaidon) (2010)
I’ll Be Your Mirror (2007)
The Devil’s Playground (2008)