A KNIGHT WITHOUT ARMOR: A CHAT WITH KATHERINE
Story and Interview by Vito Carli
I’ve known Katherine Chronis for close to ten years, and I have always admired her work. I first met her when she was the feature at Thax Douglas’s late, lamented weekly reading at Myopic Books. I was immediately impressed by the tough vulnerability that was evident in her spoken word material, as well as her abundant charisma, her take no prisoners attitude. I ended up giving her a spot for several years in my Usual Suspects show at the Bucktown Arts Fest.
For years, I would run into her at almost every outrageous art event in the city. I remember one particular performance in Wicker Park. During the show, she begged the audience members for money, and pretended to make love with a giant bird statue (it was like a bizarre reenactment of William Butler Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan.”) That show was one of the most real and shocking things I have seen on stage.
Chronis sometimes makes her audiences uncomfortable because she tears down the division between the audience and the performer so completely, and puts her soul on display in a direct manner.
One time, I was walking down Milwaukee Avenue with her during Around the Coyote. She was dressed in a strange scaly outfit, and she had a third eye stuck on her forehead. When she got some disapproving stares, she yelled: “What are you looking at, you damn yuppies?” It was the closest thing to hanging out with Sid Vicious.
I also saw her terrific show at the Lab which featured many members of the underground Pilsen art group, the Ever So Secret Order of the Lamprey. The various participants did various tasks such as reciting spoken word, performing gymnastics, and firedancing. Most of the participants were completely naked, but some of them wore costumes. When you came in, you were expected to sign a man’s body instead of a sign-in book.
She also did a really weird performance at Jerry Boyle’s immortal annual 4rth of July firedance party (it has since been discontinued), which featured the outrageous New York performance artist, the mangina. Her performances at Dan Miles’s Lovechaos events were also legendary.
Chronis has been involved in her project, "Get Naked" for some time. She walks around and does mundane tasks in public with no clothes on. She often travels with someone who records her actions and interactions with people on video or photos. This serves to desexualize female nudity and makes it less taboo.
But she got into huge trouble in Texas. She was walking from a museum on her way to mail a letter. She stopped and did a handstand in front of the state capitol building and attracted some negative attention from law enforcement officials. The police arrested her and charged her with indecent exposure. She was in jail for 36 hours and attracted considerable media attention. Chronis consulted with Gary Bledsoe of the NACCP, and his involvement may have helped her a sweet settlement. She ended up getting probation.
Last year, she spoke about “Get Naked” and freedom of speech at one of the classes I was teaching at Columbia College. During her talk, she took off her clothes and stood on her head. Afterwards she answered questions from the class, and it was obvious that most of my students admired her chutzpah and creativity.
Chronis is going to be a feature at my open mic show at Chela’s Café on May 30 at 7-9 p.m. She was kind enough to answer some questions for me at her apartment in Logan’s Square on Sunday, May 25.
Can you tell me a little bit about your background, and how you got started as an artist?
I grew up in Uptown, Chicago and I was born to Greek immigrant parents, I was fascinated by halfway houses, Vietnam Veterans in wheelchairs, and I was great at gymnastics. At a very young age, I affiliated with burnouts, Vietnam vets, fighters, peace activists. I just wanted to be fucked up. I was very athletic. I could take any boy until puberty hit. Puberty hit me hard. I had to go to Greek school. After I dropped out of high school, I started cocktail waitressing. At one point I had four jobs. I’d carry around a big bag filled with clothes and I would call my boss and ask, “Am I supposed to work today?” One day I quit them all and it was liberating. I wanted to perform. I always did perform, but now I wanted to do it on a stage. I started doing open mics at the Roxy around 1988. I met a lot of people, and I got a lot of encouragement. I cracked up a lot of people too. I was happy doing what I always wanted to do.
What are some of your main artistic influences?
Patti Smith, Bob Dylan, William S, Burroughs, William Faulkner, Diamanda Galas, Karen Finely, Annie Sprinkle, Guillermo Gomez-Pena, Miles Davis, Mohammed Ali, Harry Crews, and Flannery O’ Connor.
What artistic mediums do you work in?
I am definitely a multi-media artist. I make books, sculpt with paint, make scrolls from paper bags, and I make wall coverings of my own propaganda. I just make all kinds of different items that go along with the performance. But ultimately I am the piece of work. I may use body movement and no words at all or I may use only words or I might combine them all together. Sometimes I set out to make people laugh, and I make them cry, instead or vice versa. I never know what will happen.
You performed in many schools including my class at Columbia College, as well as many non-academic settings. How do the two types of audiences differ?
Well people want to party more in clubs so they tend to laugh out loud or yell out more. But every group is different, so the differences are all not all clear cut. I performed for Korean Conflict veterans, and they didn’t twitch a muscle or move during the whole two hours, so I did the show without any encouragement. But it was very satisfying. They loved it though, but they only reacted later. Afterwards, they were brimming with ideas. I also performed in front of and incorporated eight-year-olds at a school in Austin, Texas. They were already shy and hindered, but they looked like they were free, so every audience is different.
Do you think that the school system makes people more self-conscious?
No, I think the world we are living in is completely anal, self-conscious, and neurotic, especially in the city. We’re all crowded and congested. It all comes from everywhere. There is no clear single thing to blame, although the government is definitely insidious in their efforts to keep us as a people down.
Why did you move to New York?
I had to go to New York because I needed to jump-start myself after I got off heroin. I needed to just work on myself consistently. I always wanted to go to the Mecca of artists. I thought I’d fight Satan and win. I was a little performance monk for seven or eight years. I encouraged other people as well as myself, and created vehicles for us. I learned about how to work with an artist’s group. I belonged to an artist’s collective called the collective unconscious on the lower East Side and honed myself. But after awhile I stretched myself too thin, and I wasn’t progressing. I was doing myself a disservice, so I had to leave.
What was the collective unconscious like? Did the group have any kind of structure?
They were just a bunch of misfits trying to run a place. It was great.
I saw the mangina perform with you at Jerry Boyle’s 4rth of July party. Can you tell us about your association with him ?
The mangina is great. He wears a prosthetic vagina, and he uses real women’s vaginas to make the mold. He incorporates his scrotum into the labia. He also puts a big bubble on his head and fills it with water. It makes it look ten times bigger. I met the mangina very briefly. We were performing at a venue called Fox Opera. David Leslie had to defend himself and we, the artists, had to knock him down to get $1,000 dollars. The mangina and I were there to take him out; I was the only one who did any damage to Leslie. He let down his guard because I was a naked woman. He followed me around the ring, and his whole defense was defense. I popped him in the face, and he was wearing his contact, so I scratched his eye. It horrified me. I ran down to the basement and sobbed in front of the camera, “I can’t believe that I hit him. It isn’t worth a $1,000 dollars. My god, what have I been reduced to?” But it was a good experience. So that’s how I met Patrick—the mangina. Then, Patrick designed a road trip for himself and myself, and Donna Ferrato. She was along to document. She is an amazing photographer. We were on the road for close to two weeks, and we got so much incredible footage. We’re all working on it now. We’ve been friends since then.
What have you been doing with the footage?
I’m making a documentary about “Get Naked”: it’s really a documentary about myself.
You have a theatrical background. Have you ever done plays with an ensemble cast?
I worked with Mainline Productions, and I was married to Joe Larocca. We worked all together with people like John Harriman. We did lots of monologues.
It all started when Joe and John had come to check me out at Berlin, where I performed frequently, on Monday nights. I was so proud because I had a paid gig. But I had no idea what I was doing. It was the height of incredible lunacy and joy for me. I was descending into heavy drugs at that point, which might have been part of it. They kind of shut me out at Berlin and I stopped working all together after that, Anyway, Joe and John came to check me out, and then we all ended up working all together.
Why did you switch your emphasis to nude oriented projects?
They’re not nude oriented projects. I’m just stripping layers off myself, and nudity is just the most obvious metaphor for that
Can you tell me about Skapegoats Unlimited?
I feel like I have been the scapegoat persona in my family for a long time. I wanted to explore the persona, and learn how to use it rather than be used by it. It will always be part of me I am strong and I can take it and that’s part of why it happens to me. So I formed a conceptual corporation and put out signs all over Chicago. with my telephone number. People called and asked all kinds of questions I got very interesting responses and made an infomercial saying I would take all the blame for sins I recorded them. But I am not the main scapegoat anymore, because Osama Bin Laden took all my business (laughs.)
How did the Lab show come about?
I talked to Ed Mar. He hooked me up with the folks from the Lab. I just did it. I had known the lampreys for awhile. They’re good fellows.
Can you tell me about your arrest in Texas?
Well it was the best because it was the worst. There was lots of wear and tear between Pat and myself. We stayed in a studio together; he was on an air mattress. It was 106 degrees. By the time I was naked and doing headstands in front of the State Capital building, I was surrounded by cops. One cop told another to get a family to complain about me. It was really disheartening, They put me in jail and I organized a dance number amongst the women and we just screwed those guards mentally. But they sent us to the cells early just because of the dance. The next morning we all got up, we all had at look like we all had incredible sex. It was an orgasm of connection. But Texas really scared me. They held me for a long time: I was in for 36 hours. I began to think I might be one of the people that never get out. The national head of the NCAAP,
Gary Bledsoe brought the head of the ACLU out. Neither of them had ever seen such a long delay. But I was offered a sweet deal, if I don’t get in trouble naked in Texas all the charges would get dropped. I didn’t want to get into a fight when I was getting what I wanted. I took it. My whole point was just to do my work not get as much prison time as possible. I’m willing to sacrifice, but my days of idiocy in that area are diminishing.
What are some of your future projects?
Well, I mentioned the documentary before. I am also going to perform on June 6 at the University of Cleveland at a Performance Festival called Confessions for the Avant- Garde. On June 20 in Chicago, I am going to lecture at some kind of seminar that Ed Mar is putting on about how to deal with police effectively. I’ll be showing lots of footage of my interactions with police. We need to treat them as human being s and get over the badge.
Here’s some links to other notable articles about Katherine and her collaborators. The last URL is for my website, which contains other interviews I have done with artistic figures.
Confessions of Avant-Gardge
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Note: I’ve known Katherine Chronis for close to ten years, and I have always admired her work. I first met her when she was the feature at Thax Douglas’s late, lamented weekly reading at Myopic Books.