Who is Penny Arcade? Andy Warhol fans may recognize the name of the starlet from his 1971 film Women in Revolt. But Arcade transcended the Factory scene to become a New York legend and infamous performance artist. A new book published last October by Semiotext(e), Bad Reputation: Performances, Essays, Interviews marks the first time her work has been critically examined in print. And that’s no small task; Arcade doesn’t fit neatly into categories. Her work is not easily sold as a commodity, and she openly addresses controversial issues. Arcade is a renegade who makes work she believes in, even if no one else does.
Before picking up the book, my knowledge of Arcade was limited to Warhol films, so I dove in with few preconceived notions of what to expect. I learned that her work beyond the Factory is autobiographical, walking the line between performance art and theatre. Arcade has performed original monologues since 1985, and is widely known for characters inspired by the experiences of Lower East Side residents.
In 1950 Penny Arcade was born Susana Carmen Ventura into an Italian working-class family in Connecticut. A rebellious teenager who ran away from home and ended up in reform school, Arcade eventually made herself a home in New York’s Lower East Side, where her working-class background—a running theme throughout all of her work—made her feel much like an outsider. In a famous scene from her performance La Miseria, Arcade’s brother derides her ambitions as an artist:
“Let me clue you into something. Art, Sue, art is for rich people! And you’re not one of ‘em. Ha! And you know what? Besides that? Nobody wants to fuckin’ hear from you.”
There are three scripts reproduced in the book: La Miseria, Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore!, and Bad Reputation. However, reading the scripts is not a substitute for experiencing the performance. In his essay, Stephen Bottoms notes that the way certain lines are performed, with sarcasm or irony, greatly changes their meaning. Reading through the dialogue revealed only the basic themes of each script, but the interview with Arcade, along with several critical essays, allowed me to understand her motivation even as an outsider.
Arcade still lives and works in New York. She founded the Lower East Side Biography Project, which trains locals in video production in order to preserve the oral and visual history of her beloved neighborhood.
Within the pages of Bad Reputation, we discover an artist who knows who she is, stands up for what she believes, and doesn’t care if you or I disagree—refreshing virtues in an art world where perhaps too often art is merely a commodity.