INTERVIEW: “Nan Goldin Talks to Tom Holert – ’80s Then – Interview” (2003)

 

By Tom Holert, Originally published in ArtForum, March, 2003

 

TOM HOLERT: What is your predominant memory of the ’80s?

NAN GOLDIN: I missed the ’80s, fortunately–I wasn’t very aware of things outside my world. I knew about those photographers who were doing media-related stuff, from Cindy Sherman, whose work I love, to Sherrie Levine and Laurie Simmons and all those other ones, but I was never part of any movement, and I never read theory. I think that was to my benefit.

TH: Did anyone try to put your work into a theoretical perspective?

NC: No, but Lisa Liebmann wrote about me in Artforum in ’85. She picked The Ballad of Sexual Dependency slide show out of the Whitney Biennial, where it was part of the film program because it wasn’t an installation, and only shown a few times, but she wrote a rave of it. J. Hoberman had also written a rave review for the Village Voice, and Andy Grundberg wrote on me in the New York Times, and then Max Kozloff wrote a piece in Art in America in 1987.

TH: Did anything change after you’d gotten recognition from “outside”?

NG: No, at least not from that degree of recognition. My financial realities didn’t change until the ’90s. I didn’t make any money; I was represented by Marvin Heiferman, who was incredibly supportive, but we didn’t sell much. I was marginalized in the art world. I was more known in the photo world–or I thought I was well known, but I wasn’t. Then, in 1988, Heiferman decided not to work with artists anymore. He called various galleries, and Pace MacGill took me. The 1993 Whitney Biennial was a big breakthrough for me in terms of the larger art world.

TH: Right at the beginning of the ’80s you participated in “The Times Square Show.”

NG: I’d been friends with Kiki [Smith] since the mid-70s, and I’d been an outside visitor to [the artists group] Colab [which organized "The Times Square Show"], so I was invited to do my slide show there. It was a one-off thing, a performance, and the woman whose bar in Times Square I worked at came and saw it. That woman, Maggie Smith, recognized its political subtexts–she saw that it was intensely political about gender roles and options, the power of relationships, and women in general. It’s about the difficulty in coupling, the struggle between autonomy and dependency, sexual addiction. That’s when I started formulating it as The Ballad of Sexual Dependency.

TH: So “The Times Square Show” slide show prefigured The Ballad?

NG: Yes. Then afterward The Ballad started to evolve as a more constructed piece. It opens with a segment about supposedly happy couples, then goes to different roles for women and for children, and on to chapters on men. There’s a long section on violent men, and then there’s men lonely and vulnerable. From there it goes to bars, drinking, and drugs, and from parties and fashion back to couples–couples alienated, gay couples, and then sex. It ends with empty beds and twin graves, which I’ve been photographing since the ’70s–long before Sophie Calle. The final image is of two skeletons coupling.

 

 

TH: The sequencing of these motifs and the music accompanying them made it political?

NG: It became much more overtly political as it grew–and though I never changed the sound track after ’87, the slides changed up to ’94. Most of the work comes from the early ’80s, and the basic construct didn’t change after ’87, but I changed slides, lengthened sections, and took out one section.

TH: How was the music conceived?

NG: The sound track is like the slide show’s narrative voice. Some of the music is obscure; my friends gave me music, and I collected music from around the world. Wherever I went to do the slide show, people would turn me on to another piece of music. There’s a lot of Charles Aznavour. There’s stuff from The Threepenny Opera–not just the “Ballad of Dependency”–because I grew up on that. I used “I Put a Spell on You”–then Jim [Jarmusch] put Screamin’ Jay Hawkins in Stranger Than Paradise [1984], and the song had much less impact on audiences after that came out. Luc Sante and I were close friends in the early ’80s, and he turned me on to a lot of music.

TH: Your first slide show in New York was at the Mudd Club, right?

NG: Yes, in 1979, at Frank Zappa’s birthday party. I was holding a projector in my hand and loading the slides one by one. It was totally untechnical.

TH: Mow did the audience respond?

NG: I don’t think many people noticed it–it was a big party. Some of my friends came to support me and couldn’t get in the door. They were very pissed off-those were the days of the red velvet rope, of who got in and who didn’t get in.

TH: Where did you next show slides?

NG: I did a slide show at a place called the Rock Lounge. The Del-Byzanteens played, a band with Jim Jarmusch and Phil Kline–Luc wrote a lot of their lyrics. They were downstairs, and the slide show was upstairs. And there was a place called OP Screening Room on Broadway, run by a guy called Rafik. Jack Smith did slide-show performances there, and I showed my slides there all the time in the early ’80s. The audience would be comprised entirely of the people in the slide show, my lovers and friends. I used to do them every few months. Sometimes I had to run home and get another bulb for the projector.

TH: When had you moved from Boston to New York?

NG: November 1978. The Mudd Club opened a week later.

TH: Did you know many people In the city?

NG: A lot of people. Some had already gone there from Boston–Cookie Mueller and Sharon Niesp, from the John Waters crowd, had moved there from Provincetown around 1977, and David Armstrong and Bruce Balboni moved down the same year. I knew Adele Bertei, who was in the Contortions, from Cleveland.

TH: Who else was In the family?

NG: My closest friends. The text I wrote for The Ballad of Sexual Dependency was about what family meant to us. Perhaps I was idealizing what had gone on, but there was a solid basis. The people I considered my family were David; Suzanne Fletcher, who is in a lot of the pictures, a very thin woman; her boyfriend Philippe; Bruce, who’s in a lot of the pictures too; this woman I moved there with; Vivienne Dick, the underground filmmaker, who is still my friend; Robert Cooney; Cookie; and Sharon, who lived nearby on Bleecker Street. Then people left and other people came in.

People came to my loft on the Bowery from Belfast, Australia, Berlin, Paris, Holland, later from Tokyo, and stayed for months. Greer Lankton moved in, along with another artist, Robert Vitelli, and Bobby Swope, and my lover Brian Burchill. Then later Ten Toye and Patrick Fox lived with me, and at the end of the ’80s and early ’90s the artist Siobhan Liddell. The family kind of moved in and out, but Cookie and Greer were solid until their deaths. And David and others have remained solid.

TH: You used your loft as a kind of stage for the enactment of the family novel?

NG: I took my pictures there, but not as a stage–it was just that I spent most of my time there. That’s where I lived, that’s where at some point thirteen people were living. Eventually things started to fall apart, but the bonds didn’t break with most people. One problem was that I went over the line from drug use to drug abuse.

TH: You didn’t consider yourself as working in a directorial mode?

NG: The thing about my work is, nothing is prearranged, prethought, premeditated. In no way was I directing the pictures; they’re just fragments of life as it was being lived. There was no staging. When you set up pictures you’re not at any risk. Reality involves chance and risk and diving for pearls.

TH: But weren’t you interested In the methodology of the glamour shot?

NG: That was in the early ’70s, when I lived with drag queens in Boston and wanted to put them on the cover of Vogue–when I wanted to be a fashion photographer. That no longer had anything to do with my work by the ’80s.

 

 

TH: Your pictures from the ’80s evoke a kind of desperate glamour.

NG: Maybe we were younger and thinner and did dress-up, but I didn’t know anyone who found The Ballad particularly glamorous until the ’90s fashion world discovered it and co-opted it as “heroin chic.” I don’t photograph anyone I don’t think is beautiful, but I wasn’t glamorizing anything.

David always said I just photograph things as they are. I just accept life exactly as it is; I’m desperately trying to survive. The pictures came from deep emotional need and connection.

TH: Who was the center of the family?

NG: For a long time the center of it all was Cookie. I spent a lot of my time at her house, we all did-she was sort of the mother of the tribe.

TH: You didn’t consider yourself that center?

NG: Off and on maybe. We all feel like the center of our universes. I’m the connecting point for my tribe here in Europe, where I live now. In some ways I became more of the mother figure in New York in the early ’90s, when a friend and I had dinner parties at his house weekly and I would show slides.

TH: Were there power struggles within the family?

NG: Not consciously in the early ’80s, more so in the ’90s. People acted out because of their addictions in ways that other people could not support. David left New York in 1983 and went to Boston but returned in 1989. Suzanne moved out in 1986 because of my addiction and my insanity.

TH: What did the idea and practice of family mean to you?

NG: It was about re-creating a family and developing a history. The text of The Ballad talks about bonds stronger than blood-family bonds, because the family was bonded by sensibilities, political views, aesthetics, sense of humor, shared history. David, Suzanne, and I had grown up together; we met at a hippie free school.

TH: So you produced a social and pictorial counter-history to your blood-family history?

NG: I don’t have such a good feeling about blood families, having come from a particularly chaotic one. I needed to develop a new one.

TH: Goethe talks about “elective affinities.” Do you consider yourself electing the people to whom you grant access to the family?

NG: Not electing, selecting.

TH: Was there ever someone you might have selected but who didn’t want to join?

NG: Perhaps. A lot of people came to live at the Bowery but didn’t stay. But it wasn’t like, “You, you, you.” Well, it is a bit like that now, but in those years it wasn’t–people left or broke ties for various reasons, but other people came in. Now, I’d say, it’s more that I recognize a person immediately as a member of my tribe. The whole issue of “tribe”–that word came from David Wojnarowicz in the ’80s.

TH: Wasn’t it already floating around in the postmodern stratosphere?

NG: How would I know? For me he gave it that definition–he wrote that he didn’t believe in nation-states, he believed in tribes. David had a huge impact on me. We became very close after the show I did in 1989 about AIDS ["Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing," Artists Space, New York], where the text he wrote for the catalogue created a huge controversy–it was an attack on the government and the Catholic Church for their silence on the crisis.

 

 

TH: But you must have known each other before?

NG: We would run into each other, and he would end up talking to me incredibly intensely. He was close with Peter Hujar, whom I adored, so I also knew him through Peter. Somebody wrote an article about a recent show of Peter’s photographs in New York and said he had influenced me; the fact is, I was told I was the only living photographer Peter liked. We both went through periods of trying to do each other’s style, and it didn’t work because we each had such a distinctive style of our own.

TH: Was there a particular Issue you associate with your conversations with Wajnarowicz?

NG: In one-on-one conversation he talked mostly about his life, in amazing depth, with great recall, and with a lot of anger. I grew up in a political family, but I was repoliticized by Maggie, and then I was further politicized by David.

TH: You became engaged with AIDS activism.

NG: Yes. In the later ’80s I was involved in ACT UP demonstrations. I was in that group Visual AIDS–a small group, with [art educator] Philip Yenawine; Cee Scott Brown, who used to run Creative Time; the artist Frank Moore, who had the idea of the red ribbon; and Simon Watson and Patrick O’Connell and about a dozen others. We also started Day Without Art. David didn’t come to the meetings, but he was sort of the figurehead.

TH: Speaking of politicization, you’ve never been affiliated with any feminist school of artists or theorists, have you?

NG: I’m a feminist, but I have been since I was a child. I haven’t stayed involved in any feminist organizations. In the late ’60s, when I was a teenager in Boston, the feminist movement was happening around me, and I went to some early meetings, and then there were feminists who knew me when I moved to New York. Me and my roommate used to wear a lot of leather; I know some of the feminists I met through Vivienne Dick, and who published that magazine Heresies, disapproved of that. But there were others who saw that the way we dressed was actually a feminist act, because it was flaunting our sexuality but saying that it didn’t belong to men–claiming it as our own.

TH: Was there resistance from feminists to your work as well as to those parts of your lifestyle?

NG: There have been some feminist diatribes against me. But Maggie said I was born with a feminist heart.

TH: When did you start to work at Tin Pan Alley?

NG: In 1980 got sick of downtown; I thought teal life was Times Square. So I lived that life completely for five years. I worked all night and at an after-hours club, and that was my life. I kind of rejected the art world, but then the art world started to come up there. Kiki Smith worked there and Ulli, as well as a lot of other women artists. Then Charlie and John Ahearn and Jane Dickson and Tom Orrerness went there, and David Armstrong and his friends came up. It started to mix, There was never another bar like that in New York–such a mix of the streets, the sex trade, artists, bands like the Clash on tour, and hip Japanese tourists. Not any bar that I know of.

In the ’80s it seemed all the pictures had been taken. If you were talking about issues of representation and how they played out in popular media, about the effect of Calvin Klein, then the best place to go was Herb Ritts or Bruce Weber. So many ideas were bound up in the “popular” image, and it seemed natural that one’s own commentary could be marshaled with someone else’s pictures. But once the idea of having ideas went out the window, you could take your own pictures– because you weren’t necessarily trying to say something about the world; you were just talking about yourself. The Boston School people took their own pictures; they broke a double spell in photography, against the anti-sentimentality of the ’80s and the patriarchal technicality of the ’70s. Artists who wanted to talk about intimate life needed to go into their personal image bank, redrawing documentary photography and the notion of family.

 

Tom Holert is a Cologne-based writer.

 

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