BY MICHELLE TEA
Erin Markey puts on R. Kelly’s “Pregnant,” which if you don’t know it, is a really creepy and absurd song where the R. croons “Gurl, I wanna get you pregnant” again and again in that melodramatic R&B way, and then Erin is lip-synching to it in black lipstick, and then she pulls her hair out of her ponytail and it’s all wild and because she is a legitimate actress she can keep a straight face while she does this, make her wide eyes wider, sort of sexy and intense. It’s on YouTube, part of her Just a Little Something with Erin Markey series. Another episode has her gyrating insanely in a mirror in her pajamas to Jay-Z’s “99 Problems.” Watching these, I think: This is like harm reduction treatment for Erin Markey, like her brain is so full-up with constant bananas hilarity and weirdness she has to create these quickie videos to let out a little steam. Like the tiny earthquakes that give us a tremble so the big one doesn’t totally destroy us—that’s Erin Markey. What is it like inside her brain? Let’s talk about it.
Puppy Love: A Stripper’s Tail is a sex work narrative, but in the form of a musical. The problem with most sex work narratives is that they are not musicals, and I guess by that I mean, they don’t innovate on a story that we’ve now heard a lot, a story that doesn’t really change up all that much. But Erin brings into it her voices, her singular artistic voice of course, but also her singing voice which is really good. Like, she could go on American Idol or something. The phrase She can really belt it out is sort of disturbing if you think about it, so let’s use it. It sounds like something deep inside Markey is being cranked when she sings. She practically unhinges her jaw to let the sound spill out—more on this later. In Puppy Love she erects a pole in the middle of the stage, she swirls her body around it, you can see how being a stripper could be fun, like being a fairy, and you would like to—I would like to—go to a strip bar and watch girls that look like Erin spin themselves about such a pole, ribboned like maypoles. Once, in Las Vegas, I took ecstasy and went to a strip club and sat at a platform the size of a dining room table and watched girl after girl climb the pole with the skin of their thighs and slowly undulate back down. Mesmerized, I watched for hours, drinking water from a giant gallon bottle I managed to smuggle inside. Once a stripper held out her arm to me so that I might peel her long, leopard-spotted gloves from her arms. Her skin smelled like a candy tree and was poreless as a dolphin’s.
In Puppy Love Erin is a stripper and she falls in love with another stripper. In Puppy Love Erin is female, so she has this body you spin around poles for cash, but she’s queer so she sees through it too. It’s like you’re God, being queer in such a situation, you’re the omniscient narrator—you’re the girl who has the body and the lez who wants the other girl’s body and you see how the whole thing is so stupid and cheesy and pre-fabricated, because you’re a feminist, duh, but you see how it works too, how it’s powerful, and it’s even more powerful—the allure of it—when you have all that knowledge and you are the one you’re lusting after, when you can let all of it in, the gross and the cute, the hardscrabble realness and the sillyness, the artifice. Your brain is engaged, and your aesthetic senses, but so is that lazy part, the lizard brain that’s like, I don’t want to think so much, I just want to space out and watch this girl spin around the pole so slow it’s like she’s turning over in bed, just waking up from a dream.
Erin Markey has a soft spot for preciousness. It’s like she wants to cuddle it and destroy it, kill it, eat it and then, for our pleasure, become it. Families are precious. Babies are precious. We are all precious, our bodies and our longings. It’s sort of pathetic, we are, and also poignant, it depends on the angle. Erin Markey hits all the angles. Once I watched her walk onto a stage naked and somber. She began to talk about the history of feminist performance art. This is maybe a little dry for Erin, but the thing is, you know she is very well-versed on the history of performance art. No matter how bonkers her work gets, how off the rails she allows herself to fly, there is always a heavy intellect behind the wheel, and I want to know what she knows, so I’m listening close. She’s talking about Carolee Schneemann’s Interior Scroll, the classic ’70s piece where the artist pulls from her vagina a long scroll of paper and reads from it. Performance theorist Jeanie Forte said it was as if Carolee’s vag itself was speaking about sexism, it’s an amazing piece. The writer Laurie Weeks calls the vagina nature’s little backpack. I mean, it’s such a cool contraption, you can smuggle drugs in it, have a baby, have sex, duh, hold onto a tampon, famously there are women who can shoot ping pong balls from theirs (fun!) and open a bottle of beer or, sadly, smoke a cigarette. So much activity from a site that the larger world—don’t make me say patriarchy—sort of thinks as a void, maybe a fanged void but a void nonetheless. Makes me think of Jonathan Lethem’s As She Crawled Across the Table, and the awesome void Lack which contained everything. Lack is sort of male in the book but whatever, that’s what happens. We know Lack is a girl and is chock full, a treasure chest.
Did Erin Markey do a cover of Interior Scroll that night? She pulled a spiral of paper from her vagina and proceeded to proclaim, in a loud, proud Munchinkinland accent, the Munchkin’s welcome to Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. A Fluxus happening for our time, when everything is a mash-up, everything is known, all information available, all references everyone’s references. The shock of it was extreme and extremely funny. Later she came out dressed like a Dickensian orphan and took a collection by passing around a baby doll and making people place their money in its hollowed-out genitals.
Some things that Erin Markey has said in interviews are, “Our bodies are all we have.” A female will always know how quickly she can be reduced to that, but there is an inverse power in this—our bodies are all we have, what excellent, beautiful monsters we can be! She has also said, “I’ve got a soft spot for people with big dreams.” It shows. The Dardy Family Home Movies by Steven Sondheim by Erin Markey is based loosely on her own childhood. The paradox for queers bumped out of the whole American Dream thing is that, though for the most part the culture discourages us from taking that path as adults, we all come from some kind of family. There is a tenderness in Erin’s portrayal of Dardy family matriarch Molly Dardy. Her desires are simple enough to be cliché, derided—a family, a happy American family. And they are simple enough to be fair enough—a family, a happy, American family, is that really so much to ask for? The sweetness of the plain desire and the darker realness of the compound psyches that build a family—the undercurrents of ignored and denied energies, of the banished negative—this forms the force field that Erin steps into, jaw unhinged.
Since we only have our bodies, let’s talk about Erin’s. She is beautiful, and there is something very terrifying about the way she is beautiful. Her hair is too lustrous. Is it a wig? No, that’s just her long, incredibly thick hair. Her face is angular; at certain angles her face falls off the edge of her cheekbone like a cliff. Her eyes are huge. She can either look alluring, or like she’s going to pull open her jaw with both hands and crack her head open to show you the monster beneath. And you’d be like—yes! I had a feeling that was in there! It is fortunate for Erin, an artist interested in investigating and embodying both the innocence and horror in being alive, that her visage can flitter so seamlessly between a classic beauty and something more primordial. I was lucky enough to be in New York during the brief run of Green Eyes, a lost Tennessee Williams play that was staged in a very small hotel room in an actual hotel, the Hudson. Two sets of folding chairs, 14 total, were arranged against a wall, facing the bed. We were right there. The play is about a couple, just married, on a honeymoon in New Orleans. The man is an alcoholic soldier, the woman is maybe cheating on him, maybe fucking with him—well, either way she is fucking with him, and she is Erin and in this role as a cruel, sexed-up, manipulative new bride she is lightning. The play is violent, the couple, physical, and you’re in the room with them, practically on top of them. Eventually, Erin will lock eyes with you, and it’s like a tiger bound into the room and you’re in its stare now, will be in its jaws in moments. I forgot to breathe when Erin looked at me, she crackles. The play got stupendous reviews, critics called her scary, observed that she had seemingly no boundaries. That’s part of the high-wire act of watching her—how far will she take it? She seems capable of taking it awfully far. And what does that mean for you, in the audience? Who is the one netless one, exactly? But she does have boundaries.
She got rid of a dead-dog storyline embedded in Puppy Love because it was “too weird.” I love that. Artists knowing their limitations is just as exciting as limitations being pushed—it creates this boundaried chamber where the work can bounce around, where it can grow to the size of its tank and be done. Once I saw a performance artist in a Buddhist space enact a performance that involved him jerking off his elbow, lighting up a cigarette, smoking it with a pair of cooking tongs while making jokes about the Holocaust, then using a neti pot and drinking the neti pot water. Maybe he gargled with it and sang—I don’t remember, like everyone else in the audience I had left my body in horror. The beauty and value of Erin as a performer is that there are limits on where she will go, and if they are not visible to us, the audience, how much more thrilling, to remain on that edge in her safe, manipulative hands. It’s not a free-for-all, there’s a point here—art, thought, hilarity, surprise, something poignant, something vulnerable, a darkness and then something ridiculous. Erin Markey is a carnival ride, one operated by a recent ex-con whose facial tattoo hasn’t fully healed yet.
Erin performs a lot at a regular event at Joe’s Pub in New York City called Our Hit Parade, where performers do covers of that week’s top ten songs. You can watch videos of it on the Internet and again get a feeling for what it feels like to be in proximity to Erin Markey in action. She sings Bruno Mars’ codependency ballad "Grenade" in a sports swimsuit, her hair in a whatever ponytail, her neck rippling with the storm of her voice running through it. The lyrics are melodramatic—I’d catch a grenade for ya / Throw my hand on a blade for ya / I’d jump in front of a train for ya—but in Erin’s muscular clutch they get real creepy real fast. That she weaves a bit of “The Wind Beneath My Wings” makes it even creepier, a stalker torch song. But the real performance is in Erin’s face, the sneer of her lips, the eyes that grow huger . . . and huger . . . ! She bends over with the effort of the singing but doesn’t break a sweat. She cracks a joke and leaves the stage. In another act she sings Shakira’s “Hips Don’t Lie” with a fake pregnancy and fake black eye. Wiz Khalifa’s blackout anthem “No Sleep” is performed as that weirdo little boy orphan with a smudged-up face, suspenders and all her hair tucked under a scrappy beanie. Her voice takes on a tinny, little kid timbre: The bitches, the hotel, the weed is all free! Then she passes around the baby for people to put money in. The drinks is on me! A gang of other disturbing fake little boys with things hanging out of their pants suddenly descend upon the audience grabbing at their money.
Her body, her self! Erin Markey is a maniac who will only keep pushing herself in some sort of breakneck direction, trawling the culture for absurdity and pulling a lot of pathos, sarcasm, sincerity, darkness and joy into her net along the way. Her range is bonkers, able to take on Tennessee Williams, her mother, her younger self, a lollipop kid. I think she is what they call in the biz a triple threat. The night is young, and she lives in the city that doesn’t sleep.
Michelle Tea is the artistic director of Radar Productions and cofounder of the legendary and long-running Sister Spit. Tea has published five novels, a book of poetry, numerous short stories, hundreds of Bay Area newspaper articles and has edited several anthologies on fashion, class, queer writing and personal narrative. Her novel Valencia won the 2000 Lambda Literary Award for Best Lesbian Fiction, a San Francisco Bay Guardian Goldie Award for literature and the prestigious Rona Jaffe Foundation award for early-career female writers.
The San Francisco Film Society’s KinoTek programming stream presents nontraditional, cross-platform and emergent media. Eight KinoTek programs will be presented throughout 2011 and 2012, each featuring the work of an artist or practice that challenges the boundaries of screen-based art. KinoTek is supported by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and the Phyllis C. Wattis Foundation.