Katherine Chronis is a performance artist: Skapegoat Unlimited, The Get Naked Project, you may have heard of them. Liz Baudler edits Transcendent Journeys. Take their meandering, long conversation as a performance; perhaps you’ll learn something too!
Liz Baudler: How did you realize you were an artist? And when you did, why did you become a performance artist?
Katherine Chronis: When I was a really little girl I thought artists were the most exotic people in the world because it seemed to me, (and it’s through a child’s eyes, but I still maintain it’s correct), that they seemed to be the freest people. They had opportunities to explore things that most people weren’t going to explore, they were crossing boundaries. They were travelers, they were, you know, weirdoes. And I always loved weirdoes, and I always loved altered states. I would run, and run and run, and get so whacked out on endorphins. So I just figured an artist was something like that, that kind of feeling but without running.
The reason why I went the direction I went in is because…I’m a high school drop-out, and I am not an academic artist, although I do read a lot, and I have a lot of culture. But I always was very interested in what I was interested in, period, and so even in school, I would have a book in a book in a book. If they offered something I was interested in, I would give it my energy, but for the most part I was not interested in anything. So, you know, I got the classic, “she’s very smart, but she doesn’t ‘apply herself’”.
I had a lot of traumas when I was little, and it made me really angry, and it also made me feel that, “I am really on my own.” I mean, my family, they’re really good people, and I’m very fortunate because I always knew I was loved. We had a lot of problems, but these traumas that I had, I just was like, “I’m on my own and so I have to protect myself!” And of course what does that mean to a kid, it’s like, “I don’t know how to protect myself.” I was rushing headlong into things, rushing and opening up to crazy stuff. And whatever someone else said, I was like, “no,” even if it was something I wanted, just to see if I could do that.
And I played weird games. I felt really bad that my parents suffered during World War II. We had food, we had shelter, we did not have to go hide in caves, we had TV shows, Popsicles, all kinds of things that they didn’t have. And so I used to play “Anne Frank”,. I used to go hide in the closet, and I would take a big blanket, and then I’d like [gestures putting blanket over head]. And the goal was not to make any sound breathing, because then “they” would hear me. And it wasn’t just Nazis like World War II Nazis, but it was like the Nazis of the world. I saw when I was little that it wasn’t just a World War II thing. Anybody could be a Nazi. You didn’t have to wear the uniform, you didn’t have to have an accent, you could even look really groovy and be a Nazi.
So I did stuff like [playing Anne Frank] to try and feel what my mother went through. Things like that. I was always like a weirdo, and doing my own thing.
LB: Did games like that, which seem very physical, lead you to performance, as opposed to sitting down and creating something? More of an embodiment of the art?
KC: It’s energy work, and it can be really cathartic and really good, or you can really mess someone up with it, too. When I was younger I ranted a lot, and people love that. I got all this applause, and I was like, “I can rant more”. But then I remember one night, I was up there and I was like, “AAAAAAAAAA!” and like everyone is like, “ttttthhhhhhhhhhh”, stiff as a plank, up there suspended with the energy and I thought, “oh my gosh, where I am going to take us? What have I been doing? I don’t know where to go.”
LB: Like you had the control in the room, and the places you could take people would be pretty scary?
KC: Or that I would just leave people in this state.
LB: Oh, because there’s no transformation, it’s like what Joan always talks about, just catharsis versus transformation, which leads to art.
KC: Yes, because [ranting] would just leave people with a reaction and in a reactive state. But then when I realized this, I told myself, “don’t use words.” I wanted to convey something. It’s a lot harder, but I took it as a personal challenge. So I created an aquarium setting, and for months I would go to dollar stores and get these little rocks and stuff. The whole stage was an aquarium, and I took green film and put it between me and the people so that would be the wall. I was just like swimming for two hours. After five minutes I was like, “well, what more can I do?” and went, “well, I’d just better swim some more.” So I just kept doing it. It was very meditative and before I knew it, two hours had passed.
Then the Get Naked project, going naked in public, that really was just to find out, “well, what will happen? Will I freak out if someone freaks out on me? What if the cops come? How will I deal with the police? I’m a reactionary: will I react with the police, or will I be able to stay calm? If someone attacks me on the street verbally, will I savage them with my mouth, and is that right, that I would set them up to savage them? Just looking at myself, really. Pretending that I’m looking at the other people, but I’m not.
LB: Wait, so, if you’re wondering how you’re performing in your piece—I always thought performance art was more about the audience. Are you sort of being selfish in a way by learning about yourself through the art? Is it more selfish than say, just painting a painting.
KC: It’s not, though, and the reason why is because you’re actually showing people one person being themselves.
LB: OK, so you’re doing for yourself, but also that deconstruction in public is helping the audience.
KC: For sure. When you do it for the audience, it’s inauthentic. It’s fake, because really, all we have to share is what’s in us.
LB: The other thing about doing it for the audience is that you can do it again and again and again. It’s like me giving tours of a place I know. I say the same thing all the time. If you’re doing for yourself, with an audience watching you take yourself apart, you don’t know what’s going to happen.
KC: But they’re not just watching. It is a connection because it’s an energy connection. And believe me, who is in the audience as I perform affects each and every moment of me performing. It has to be that I’m affecting them as well. If I feel them, they must feel me. See, we live in a world where somehow there’s a message to us that we’re selfish if we focus on ourselves. And I think that that’s part of a lot of discontentment and sickness. I know I can allow myself to be siphoned easily, and I’ve been learning more how to not allow myself to be siphoned without being conscious of it, thereby choosing more where my energy goes. The Shamanic Training Program [here at LFAC] has helped a great deal.
But also too, I’ve been working on this my whole life, that whole art thing of “I’m going to do it by myself, how I want to do it.” You know, I really, really had a bug up my butt that I was a high school dropout, but then a piece of mine got in at the MOMA. I was like, “I’m a high school dropout, ha ha ha….” But that’s just an ego trip too. I had to let go of that. I never put [my piece] in the MOMA. I never applied to those people. But it still happened.
LB: And once something like that happens to you, it becomes part of the story you tell other people about yourself that makes you who you are: at least, the part you want to tell people.
KC: It’s PR. I had been going around for years telling people, “oh, my work’s going to be in a museum…”, but I never would apply to museums, so I seemed like an idiot. But then a piece went in, and I was really excited. I thought to myself, “yeah, you know, now things are gonna change.” But then I realized, it made no difference in my life whatsoever. I realized the lie of those kinds of things. They’re not bad—there’s nothing wrong with trying to do that—it just doesn’t matter.
I did want to be famous when I was younger. But not “famous” famous. I wanted to be infamous. I wanted people to know me. But I didn’t want to be a celebrity, and I didn’t want to be an entertainer. I wanted to be one of those brilliant weird people that had their own thing and were their own selves and nobody could really mimic it. But then I realized that that’s a lot of work. I should just be me and then that will be accomplished. And I did become infamous. You know what, it’s cool, in some ways, but it’s got a lot of bummer things to it too…and it just doesn’t matter. People look at store clerks and think, “oh god, poor store clerk”, but that store clerk could have a really groovy life. We don’t really know.
I was on the train on Saturday. I was hungry, so I grabbed some egg rolls, put my bike on the train and figured I’d eat as I traveled. But I noticed all these people with their Saturday night clothes on, their makeup. I didn’t know what they’re talking about, but it was just a really vapid moment. And I was just sitting, I looked like, not homeless, but so schlubby, cabbage is all over my face, I’m holding my bike with my ankle, with my foot up trying to hold it so I can use my hands to eat but still so my bike won’t fly in the train and hit someone, and I just thoght that “I am totally non-groovy, so schlubby, not like anyone who people would think, “wow, that person has something going for them.” And I was like, “I am such a precious stone right now. I am the one person not in my fancy Saturday clothes (which I don’t even have). I am totally invisible and it’s really incredible.” ‘Cause I remember when I was younger putting out a signal on the street. I was just like, “I’m here”, and I’d look at everyone, people in cars, windows, without consciously doing it, like an automaton. It wasn’t until I started cutting that out that I was like, “oh, I’ve been doing that for a long time. I didn’t know.”
LB: You mentioned your family a little bit, and since you’re performing a piece about your mother for the Ancestors art exhibit, and are right now living with your father as he’s aging, how is that affecting your concept of family and ancestry, and possibly even your work?
KC: It’s not only that my father is aging, but that he has Alzheimer’s. In a lot of ways, people think that if we don’t remember, that we’re not who we are. But I’m learning a lot from being around Dad, not only about him and myself, but about humans. My dad held onto his identity, who he is, but because Alzheimer’s is changing his memories and informational input and output, I’ve gotten to get to know my father better. He doesn’t have to maintain who he’s always been; he can just be who he is right that moment. And it may not be incredible or like really slick or smart, but he’s really who he is, and I get to be me.
It’s changed my dynamic to go back home and live ‘cause it’s not something I would have ever done or thought of and I was shocked that I made the decision to do that. It’s been about five years. I’ve lived on my own. I left home at 15: I did not want to live at home. I wanted to have my own place, do my own things and be free if I wanted to wash dishes at 2 in the morning or be naked at any time. These things, they’re not a big deal, but they are a sacrifice and they do hurt, but just not that much in light of, “well, I’m getting all this information.”
It changes my perception of myself, and who I was in the group. I played the scapegoat role. And I’m not a scapegoat anymore. I had given up that role, so it wasn’t that this was what eradicated it, it’s just that I’m playing a different role than I had played in my family. I get to change the dynamic. Then the dynamic changed with my mother dying. Then the dynamic changed with me coming home. Then the dynamic changed because Dad really was flourishing with his Alzheimer’s: it was coming on, coming on, but all of a sudden it was “whoooosh”. And it does change my performance, like, for instance, this performance for my mother, it’s a lot different from me performing what I want to say or what I’m about, it’s more…important, that’s it’s for my mom.
LB: There’s this consciousness of this other person in the performance?
KC: Yes. And because of that, I’ve become more thankful, more grateful, more aware of what my mother has given to me. And this makes my life better too. I always was aware, I’m just more aware of it more and more.
LB: You’re almost inviting it into the performance.
KC: Totally. And then it’s like, is it the performance or my life? It’s really my life, too.
LB: It’s like a vehicle to get into it more.
KC: It’s the ritual, yeah, the ritual. And see, the words come easier because of the Shamanic Training Program.
[chants of “shamana, shamana, shamana!]
LB: Performance, though, seems a fantastic way to interface with your ancestry.
KC: What’s weird is that I have never, ever, in my life, cared one whit past my grandmother. I read Nikos Katzantzakis books and I just figure, “they’re all my relatives. All my relatives were like this.” I mean, I don’t need to know what their names were. But the weird thing was when I had the soul retrieval with Joan, she told me something about my great grandmother on my mother’s side, and you know what, it just opened up a lot for me. So it’s funny that I have never been interested in that but I am receiving information about it. It’s helpful, and I know it’s real and true.
LB: Keeping with the family theme, you always joke about how your family were all immigrants. In fact, last time we hung out you were telling us about going to the doctor with your relatives as a translator. Does that affect your art, your conception of family?
KC: It’s just part of me. I think it’s really cool when little kids have jobs that instill them with a sense of empowerment. Here I am, four years old, with my Aunt Artemis, who’s a “big” person. I’m a little kid, a nothing. And I’m the mouthpiece. That’s incredible empowerment. This was an important job, to tell her what the doctor was saying.
My parents were immigrants, and they did not have much school in Greece, either. They had grade school. My mother became a beautician, so she had that school, but when she came to the U.S, my dad knew how to write English, but when it came to school, I had to write my notes, and then my mother signed it. So I had a lot of power.
And of course, I abused it. I was a kid. I got called into Mr. Myron’s office, (the disciplinarian at Mather, one of the three high schools I went to), because there were like, I don’t know, 120 notes of all this dental work. Mr. Myron, I don’t know how he became the disciplinarian, because I would never pick him to enforce anything. He was a very nice man, and he was like, “you know, you have a lot of dental work being done,” and I was like, “Yeesss….I have…a lot of problems…with my….teeth.” And he never came out and said, “you’re a liar,” but he said, “I’m really sorry, but I’m going to have to call your parents to school.”
But I would do things. When I cut school, I would go to diners, and I would talk to veterans. World War I, World War II veterans. This was my backup. I knew I was going to get caught one day, and I also was interested in it. I loved going to diners, having coffee, and talking to old dudes about the war. Not that they talked a lot, but sometimes I could get it going. You could do it without asking direct questions. If your energy’s cool, they might open up, and you know, I needed that as my justification [for cutting school]: “you know what I found out?”
LB: You were learning: pretty much designing your own school.
KC: Yeah, but you know what, it was like just so goofy and stupid, just silly. One time I decided not to go a diner, not to go to the zoo, not to go to some kind of “oh, I have my lesson plans” activity, and I stayed home, like, I left for school, but then came home. But my dad, who usually was gone all day at work—he came back. So I ran in my closet, I was so freaked out, and oddly enough, it’s funny that I brought up the Anne Frank thing, but I threw a comforter over my head. I was afraid of getting caught now, for real, not by a Nazi but by my Dad. So I’m like, in the closet again, and I see my dad come in my room and look for stuff. And I wanted to jump out and accuse him, but I couldn’t, because then I would expose myself. That [time] saved me. I would have been home watching TV and eating stuff, and I would have lost my little lesson plans. I needed to do something.
LB: Did you go on these adventures alone?
KC: Yes. I was a total weirdo. Your friends won’t understand. And you can’t do it with them anyway. I grew up in Uptown. There was the Goldblatt’s, the loading dock, there was the area with the most halfway houses around, and there were a lot Native Americans drinking at Goldblatt’s. I was obsessed with people passed out in public. I just thought, wow, and I think it has to do with the art of, “this person doesn’t even CARE that they’re on the pavement just like THAT! That is INCREDIBLE!” But I had to also watch it with my romanticization of these things.
LB: Because then you want to do those things…
KC: I did, I did. I made myself unconscious, I took a lot of hallucinogens. It was hard to get off of heroin, but I did it. It’s been like 19 years. It was really great for me to be unconscious and to be a zombie, just because I’m not one now. It’s made me very appreciative. I would not recommend it for anyone, but I’m one of those people that for a long time, the only way I could learn was through some kind of extreme, harsh condition. Otherwise, I just would not learn. Yeah, intellectually, but because I’m saying these things, it’s gonna cover that I’m not doing them, but really, I still am. You know how when you talk, it glosses over your actions? I don’t bemoan it, but it’s a rough trip, and I’m really fortunate. I don’t want it. I know a lot of people give up stuff and they still want it every day, and that’s gotta be really hard. I still struggle with things that I have going on in my life, but that trouble, it’s gone, it’s done. There’s nothing there; you can only use something to a certain point and then there’s just nothing there. You know what the effect is, and so it’s not magical anymore. Math is so much cooler if you can do 1 + 1 + 1 = 1, instead of 1 +1 =2. When you feel the effect of a drug that you know, it’s like doing 1 + 1 =2. It’s just boring. You’re not gonna come up with anything cool.
LB: So then, how has your art changed as you’ve gotten older and presumably wiser?
KC: Since I’m changing, it’s changing. I stopped performing for many years just because I did not feel that I could do what I was doing from day to day and then be different and plug into the ego of performance. I had to really keep away from that ego to get myself together.
I have many ways of operating. For a long time, I though there was something wrong with me, because so many people talk about “you’re either an extrovert or an introvert”, and I’ve always maintained that I’m both. And people will say, “you’re a liar because you have to be one or the other. You have to be one and then maybe you have the skills of the other.” And I’m like, “no, I really am both.” They’re both equally strong in me. I can be on the street going “yeah, man, then I told him, bah bah bah bah bah!” and then I can walk into a room and be like [casts eyes downward, folds hands]. But not always, it just depends on how that room is. And my coming into it. If I’m aware not to be big anymore, or I don’t want to be big, or it’s inappropriate.
I’ve had a lot of people try and tear me down. I’ve been fortunate I’ve had a lot of really good people in my life, but I’ve also experienced since I was little—and I was doing performance stuff since I was little, I was crazy. My parents, we went to this family place when I was little to visit and they got this new coffee table, and I was like 3 ½, and all the adults are standing around admiring the new coffee table, so course I’m like “Hey, look at me!”, jump up on it, start dancing—and broke the table. I mean, I was always doing stuff like that. And fortunately, my mother knew I was not mean, I was not trying to break the table. She said to me, when I was like, 13, she goes, “huh, oh, I know…I know what you are!” And I was like, oh man, what is…what is it, and she goes “You’re a free spirit! Oh, my daughter’s a free spirit!” So she was always very kind in that way.
And I was a free spirit, and I am a free spirit, but some people don’t like that. I’ve had people get me fired, I’ve had people do things, say things. I’m sure everyone does, people say things about other people all the time, but I felt like I was always experiencing a large amount of negativity from a certain type of person. No wonder I was playing Anne Frank hiding from Nazis. In the past, I would be upset about that [negativity]. I would also pull back, even if it never looked like it, because I was always “GAAAAGGGH!”, monster-like.
LB: But something that negativity can feed the monster in a bad way.
KC: Totally. So now, I don’t care. For real, I don’t care. I’m just doing what I’m doing. I’m not trying to put you down, I’m not trying to boost myself up. Some people have said to me recently, people I’ve known for a long time, “Well, you act superior,” and I said, “really? Do I act superior? Honestly, I’d like know if you really mean what you’re saying. Can you look at all the years we’ve known each other and say that you think I have a superiority complex, and they’re like, “well, not really…” And I’m like, “well, do you think that it could be that you feel inferior? And you think that I’m acting superior because you feel inferior?” And they were like, “uh, yeah.” I’ve experienced that, and I know about that, so a lot of times I would pull myself down and make myself smaller and not go for what I want or something because I don’t want to be that person open to more attacks.
Stopping performing for a while was one of the best things I ever did, because when you perform, you have to have a big ego to do it. And you’re psychically open, too. If you want to work on yourself, you really have to psychically shut yourself down for a while. I couldn’t be open like that, I couldn’t take care of Dad, and then be like, cabaret at night. I just couldn’t do those both worlds, and that’s just helped me to become a richer person inside.
LB: And that will translate into your performance.
KC: I’m better than ever, but it’s in a weird way. It’s not like I’m like “I’m HERE now”, more like, “I’m here, where do you plug in, what do you do.” It’s just like life. It’s not a big deal being special. Like, there’s a lot of special people. It’s not even that special being special, but there’s a specialness to it. As I grow, my poetry grows, my writing grows, my performance grows, my connection with people grows. I mean, even just going to the corner store I feel more connected. I like that, because the more connected I am with my environment, I’m more part of the world. I’m not just, as Steve says, in my “lonely bubble”.
LB: How does something a little more contained like your writing affect something that’s a little more public like a performance?
KC: My writing totally affects my performance, the more I write about it. I don’t necessarily memorize my writings, but sometimes when I write something, it’s in me. It’ll just pop out in the right place.
LB: Is it like a processing mechanism for what you eventually do?
KC: Actually, I am doing that right now, and I’ve never done it this much before. But usually what I do is it’s kind of like a storyboard in a film before it’s fleshed out, so I have parts, and they don’t have to have a specific order. But the endings are what I want to work towards. I have points that I touch on. I’m breaking down this performance for my mother, and I was wondering, “what kind of loose structure could I give it so that I can hold onto it and yet know where I’m going in the piece?” So I can really let go, but also have an anchor. I was thinking about it, and I was like “oh, I’ll use the chakras as a code.” The next morning, I thought, “oh, I’m gonna code a story through the chakras for my mom, and then mine, and then weave them. I don’t want to give everything away—I know what the ending is, and so, I thought to myself, yes, weaving is the way to go. That’s why it was revelatory, the chakras, to convey a story for my mother, or my mother’s story, and then also I felt the brilliance of “oh, mine too!” and then combine them. Because we are inextricable. We are always inextricable. Infinity, inextricability!