When Penny Goring answers the door, she does so in a platinum blonde wig and carrying a red toothbrush.
“’Ello,” she says, in a distinct London accent, foam still in her mouth. ‘Max wol be here in a minute’. (I think ”Who is Max, and why?”)
I step inside the apartment, follow her down a long dark hallway, walls covered in obsolete Sex Pistols posters and two paintings of pale deformed bodies performing obscure rituals with flowers, past a giant-sized stuffed unicorn, over several stacks of A3 sketchbooks, and into the living room, which is crowded with tableaus of junk.
Penny takes a seat on the couch and gestures loosely but decisively at a chair. A tower of books wobbles on the coffee table between us, closest to me – Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency and Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. A yellow plastic ashtray sits in the windowsill.
“So how does this go” She states, picking at the fur cuffing her skin-colored leotard.
I’ve come to interview Penny because her work stands out—the phrase “boundary-pushing” gets thrown around a lot, but it actually feels appropriate here—and because relatively little is known about her, aside from the work itself. In the hyper-exhibitionist world of alt lit, which Penny has somehow become associated with, her reluctance to chronicle her everyday minutia comes across as borderline reclusive. Of course, “exhibitionist” is a hazy word, and I’m talking to a woman who’s resorted to turning her tampons into art.
“Let’s start with the basics.” I say. “Where were you born?”
“Seriously?” Penny leans back in the chair, notices the toothbrush, leans forward to put it on the coffeetable, and leans back again. “Why?” she shrugs, and the wig shifts slightly.
“I’m not being deliberately awkward, I promise” she laughs.
“Did you make these paintings?” I ask.
“Yea.” She seems to have already wandered off in her head.
I walk over to a huge painting, it’s about 5′ x 8′ .
”What’s this one called?”
“My dad was a pornstar.”
“Was your dad really a pornstar?” I ask.
She laughs again. “You’re trying to pin me down”
“Okay, okay. Where do you get your inspiration?” I ask.
“Okay, well, ‘Bone Dust Disco.’ Stuff like that. The focus on relationships, jealousy, loss. But you keep coming back to this vision of what a happy domestic scene might look like, even a weird one.”
“Yeah, so, like, do you think of yourself as writing ‘relationship fiction’? Like, documenting the human interaction, or is there some other focus there I’m missing?”
“What the fuck.” Penny leans her head back in the chair and closes her eyes. “What the fuck gurl.”
“No. I feel like crying. I don’t know how to answer that.”
“I write about myself, is all.”
“No, let’s try again. Focus? Uh, I write about myself. And I write about windows. There are windows everywhere in my writing. But I didn’t decide that consciously – why should I? I didn’t even know I was doing it until someone pointed it out. It’s not just windows, it’s houses, rooms, clothes, names, dolls, the sea…” Her voice trails off. She shifts in the chair.
“No, this is totally dumb. Just go with my first answer. I’m making coffee.”
She disappears into the kitchen and I hear the sounds of a coffeepot being filled from the sink and the door bell ringing.
“Hi Max, come in. Caleb’s here.”
Max, (who I find is known online by the name hella trol buzy) walks into the living room and collapses into another chair, his white miniskirt flouncing. He dresses like a skanky girl. He smooths out his floral tights and pulls absently at his ear lobes, which have been spaced with blue silicon tunnels. He says ”Haaiii” (like a Japanese schoolgirl), and waves at me in some way.
Penny comes back into the room and sets coffeepot and mugs on table.
“So, you know we collaborate on alien cum and voodoo tampon. And, we’ve just finished a whole new set of macros called BLODCATZ, about a pack of white cats addicted to period blood.” She takes a sip of coffee.
“Max is a philosopher…”
Max gestures with his face: ”D:” and then ”-_-”, swiftly implying that categories are obsolete.
”I’m a tranny who mashes keys on the keyboard.”
”…And in this text-speak he uses, becomes meaning and/or poetry-whatever, in my opinion.”
Max looks at her and squints. She looks down.
“Are you not wearing shoes?” She asks.
”Of course I am” (though none are evident).
“Your work together definitely has a distinct flavor.” I say, quickly. “What’s your overall goal in the collaboration?”
I look at Max’s feet again and he is wearing shoes…
“Um to me, it felt like we invented a project because we wanted a reason to hang out together.” says Penny.
“Most of what we’ve done,” explains Max, “so far hasn’t had an explicit goal, but, like, a body of implicit ones. We’re trying to keep ‘purpose’ as implicit or external as possible, working mostly with trial and error and experimentation. A good one tells us when we see it. We’re the workers not the architects”
“That’s a woolly non-answer, Max.” Penny says.
“It’s a woolly non-project, Penny.”
“We want to entertain and surprise ourselves, as much as we could hope to for other people” continues Penny, “We don’t have a goal, we have an inexplicable yearning.”
”Which implies a goal of sorts. Something with a present state has some form of destination – like – implicit in the potential of its present state…” Max says.
He takes a sip from his mug. “I take a sip from my mug.”
“We’re putting these pics and words together so they more indirectly represent how we ‘feel’. It’s lo-fi–uses chance, accident, experiment. It’s about the word choice, the colors, shapes, moods. Look at our macros as stories with no plots, sequences, like a cod-comic strip – a semi-faux-confessional-period-dragon-ghost-alien-anxiety-diary.”
“Look, and expect not a narrative but an ethos” says Max. ”The narrative will come to you as you see fit. Be self indulgent.”
“—and voodoo tampon is an extension of our mutual interest in menstruation as a theme.”
“The challenge is to avoid coming across as simply feminist. Too easy.”
”Too easy’?” I ask.
“Feminism’s a given.”
”For us it is, and for anyone using tampons, it’s generally expected” Max adds. “Can you make a note of the double meaning in ‘anyone using tampons‘ lol”
Penny waves a hand in Max’s face. “We already got to that point. So we take this iconic tampon, and it’s like, okay, where do we go now?”
“So the going is the project. More than the content. Or the going is the content.”
“So where do you go from there?” I ask him.
“Fuck the patriarchy, obviously, everyone agrees on this. Fucking it hard but passionately – and compassionately. Also why are you asking us lol.” (I cringe each time he actually says lol out loud, as one would say loll…)
“We want to say what other people only think, if only by not really saying anything and letting them use it as an expressive vehicle. Because what else can you really do anyway. Even if it’s uncomfortable or makes us seem… uncool.”
“Or almost especially if it makes us seem uncool.”
“It’s confrontational, if you’re not into it. But there’s a broad streak of humor. We’re having fun.”
Max makes the quotation mark hand gesture for Penny’s use of ‘fun’.
“But what comes after feminism?” I ask. “I mean, once it’s a given, do you start refining it, or moving in a totally different theoretical direction?”
“It’s definitely an inter-pollination between feminism and other theories-slash-movements.”
“Well, the ethos represented in feminism is applicable and comparable to other rights movements, with which it forms a broader Rights Movement. Potentially the last of which will be the freeing of men, whites, heteros, et cetera from having to identify with the norm.” He shifts in his baggy grey sweatshirt, gesturing generally.
Penny adds, “But when I’m working, I’m in my own world where I make the rules and everything agrees with me, and if something isn’t how I think it should be I change it. And if something isn’t working, I can delete it. It’s only in rare chats that Max and I touch on these things. Mostly, it’s unspoken between us. We know what we want and why. The focus is the work, not theories behind it.”
“Yea. The space we work in – everything is true – until we make it public, and it has to work to become true again…”
“The machinery that moves it, for me, is a compulsion to make things, things I want to see, that show how I see.”
“So representing an ethos – which isn’t named yet… Glam punk lol idk.” Says Max.
“This is actually Vivienne Westwood,” Penny says, tugging at her leotard.
“Is your wig a replica of Andy Warhol’s?” I ask.
“Maybe. Did you see this?” She hefts a massive volume from the coffee table and shows it to me. Andy Warhol’s diaries.
“Eleven years of his life, right up to the end. I read it every day. I’m cool yeah?”
“I feel like we haven’t even touched on what kind of artist you are.”
”Can you say something of substance which will make a reader feel like this is an interview?” Stage whisper from Max.
“I make things, wherever I am, with whatever is at hand. I switch media all the time. It’s an ongoing performance.”
“Bye” Max, standing up.
“Bye!” Penny waves as Max stretches. He clunks his mug down on the table and prances towards the door.
“So writing won out?” I ask.
“Just kidding”. Max had been hiding instead of leaving. Penny ignores him.
”Not exactly. I just let it in. It’s something else I do, alongside everything else. And making macros satisfies the urge to paint, for now.”
“Well painting has become obsolete…” says Max.
“You talked earlier about being in your own world.”
“A world is always being generated – did you read my piece on self design?”
“No…?” (To be honest I didn’t actually know he wrote…)
“The deeper into a world one can go, the more there is to bring back out. Did you read my piece on collaboration?”
“Do you ever worry about being too insular? A lot of art and writing gets self-absorbed, narcissistic, just the creator talking to themselves or a group of friends who are in on the joke.”
“Max, I thought I was doing the interview…” He doesn’t seem to have many boundaries.
“Well if I don’t communicate it in an effective way, maybe that’s going to seem like I’m talking to myself. But I’m going for drama. I want to show someone what it’s like. I’m not just putting it out raw—that’s tweets, fb status’, tumblr stuff, but even those I often delete. The release comes from transforming my shit into…” She laughs. “Supershit.”
“How can you tell when you’ve gone from one to the other? How do you know it’s no longer shit?”
“We look at them.” Says Max.
“Wah!” Penny pulls her wig down over her face. “We enjoy working fast. I sometimes post stuff I’m still working on. I’ll post a poem on tumblr and finish editing it online, which is interesting because if people are reblogging they’re getting different versions. But it’s not the only way I work. In fact, it’s not at all unusual for me to work on something for several years before I’m okay with it.”
“I only post stuff I’m still working on” says Max, “Unless someone else is publishing it. But I s’pose that’s still being worked on in a different way…”
“Is it hard to judge that revision when there aren’t a lot of precedents for the genre you’re working in?”
“What’s a genre?” She finishes her coffee. The mug’s rim is discolored to fuchsia. I wait for a hint of sarcasm, and look to Max, but he too is looking on eagerly, as if to find out what I’m talking about.
At a loss, I distract myself by following my finger with my eyes until I’m looking out the window. Until Penny pipes up again, her voice slightly raised.
“There’s just something about editing ‘live’ that makes it feel triple-double urgent! I love that. You just have to trust your own judgement. And even if you get it wrong, it’s not like you’re gonna get arrested or summink, is it? I’m going out for a ciggy.”
On the balcony, Penny rolls a cigarette and lights it in one fluid motion, then pauses.
“This is a poxy interview, innit?”
“I think it’s going fine.” Says Max. I nod.
She inhales. “I hate all these answers. I hate them to bits. It’s not like that, I described the writing process wrong. It’s about finishing something, and, if I’ve got it right, watching it move away from me and becoming… whatever it is.”
She takes another drag.
”The first thing I wrote happened like this – I was having a heartbreaking recurrent dream. One morning I woke in tears, again, but this time I wrote down all the memories causing the dream, spent two weeks cutting it down to five hundred words and polishing it, and then, a few weeks later, I realised the dream had gone away. I couldn’t believe it. It did a magic.”
Max cuts in “Freud was right.”
“What kind of memories?”
“What kind of memories did you write down?”
“The writing down is the memory. That kind of memory”. I start to get a little sick of Max’s interjections so I just ignore him and raise my eyebrows at Penny.
“The expression of the memory is just as, or more, important than the memory. The memory is only one representation of an experience. Aren’t we more concerned with how that experience is represented in writing – how it’s written about, more than what ‘kind’ of experience we might categorise it under? Especially given that to categorise it is only adding another layer of representation, rather than getting closer to something ‘real’.”
Max is rambling, he notes my blank stare and narrows his eyes.
“I know you’ve read Freud. Just no one wants wants to admit it. Also, reading Lacan, Zizek, Derrida, Deleuze and Guattari (and some of their respective solo work), Andrea Dworkin, the latter half of 20th Century sci fi forward, etcetera, counts as reading Freud.”
I start to wish he hadn’t been pretending when we said he was leaving.
”I have quite a few disturbing memories, if that’s what you mean. I’ve been beaten up so many times in so many different situations it’s ridiculous – the first time was at school – I became an expert truant, I say ‘expert’ because I never got caught – um, OD, relapse – arrests, police cells, court rooms – six months in one of the toughest rehabs in Europe – relapse – getting into recovery only to be diagnosed with, um, other shit – then there’s all the death. Death of my brother, death of Bibi’s dad, death of lovers and friends, uh, suicides, like my auntie Pat, she threw herself under a train, just too much death. Also, art college, haha. I really appreciate it when absolutely nothing happens.”
She stubs the cigarette out and lights another.
“I’m not going to get details on any of that, am I?” I ask.
“No. Well, no. It’d ruin my source material.”
The wind gusts and blows out the cigarette, and Penny lights it again.
“Instead of all this doom n gloom, what if I give you a photo of me when I was happy?? I’ve got a really shiny nose and no make-up. Would you want that?”
“Yeah, I guess.”
She throws the cigarette away and we walk back inside, the door’s latch chain jangling as Penny slams it.
She steps over several piles of clothing and begins sifting through notebooks.
“When was this taken?”
“Summer, at the verrrrry birth of proto-pisswave, by someone I’m in love with.”
Penny goes back to her bamboo chair and sits, the chair legs balanced on some paperback books.
“What’s that.” I ask, pointing.
Penny shifts the chair, lifting up the leg, and pulls out the pulpy Penguin.
They answer simultaneously
Penny with “Lolita.”
Max with “Freud”
“You like Nabokov?”
“Yeah. I read him as a kid.”
“I read him in the Oedipal phase. I was a precocious child” Max says.
“Quite the education.” I say.
“Well, my parents tried to keep the interesting books out of my reach.” She laughs. “Nabakov was on the top shelf of the bookcase. Ada. History of Orgies. Orwell. PK Dick. With the porn mags my dad wrote for. So I climbed up and read them all.”
“Freud”, Max, whispering this time.
“What was your mom doing while your dad was maybe-maybe-not being a porn star?”
Max just winks at both of us.
“Attempting suicide. Throwing plates and bottles at my dad. After John died.”
”Baby brother. Eighteen months of crying, some brain thing only male babies get, apparently.”
Penny starts to ignore Max too.
“My earliest memory is of parking my doll in her pram next to John’s pram in the back garden one morning, and then, that afternoon, he was dead..”
“So yeah. Mum had her first breakdown. Dad started having affairs. She had no family, no money, nowhere to go. And she was madly in love with dad. Always. It was hell.”
Penny picks up a purple plastic pony from the floor and toys with it.
“She was so afraid.”
“Of your dad?”
“Was your dad a good guy, aside from the infidelity?”
“He was good to me. I went everywhere with him. They called me his little shadow.”
“You still in touch?”
“Yes. He was the only one who stood by me when I was in active addiction.”
“How old were you when you went into rehab?”
Penny looks at me.
“What you mean is, how fast did I fuck up?”
“When my dad admitted me, my liver was packing up. I couldn’t keep up the pretense of functioning. I had no choices left. I didn’t want to be there. I didn’t want to be anywhere.”
“This before or after the fashion? What was that about?”
“I did a fashion writing course for a year when I first left school. I was dead scruffy, they called my writing ”neo-porn”, and I kept getting told that if I lost two stone they’d put me in Vogue, so I started over-eating, in defiance. Macaroni cheese and choc chip cookies. I put two stone on, haha, and then I ran away.”
”And you studied art?”
”Yeah. I was really happy for a few years, until I wasn’t.”
“So you left all that.”
“I fell apart, and now I’m putting myself together again. Build something, destroy it. That’s my pattern. I don’t know why. An inner thing. I’m not ambitious, I’m just… desperate.”
A girl about six years old walks into the room and sits on the chair with Max.
”What on earth are you doing, Mummy?” she asks, speaking standard BBC English, in marked contrast to Penny’s London accent.
“Having an interview, Bibi.”
The girl, who looks just like Wednesday Adams, leans over the table and hugs Penny, her black braided pigtails falling forward as she does so.
“Crazy scary Mummy!” She says, and bounds out of the room.
“You have a daughter?!” I ask.
“I didn’t know.”
“Well, yeah, that’s ‘cause I keep her out of my online stuff.”
“That not true” says Max, “I’ve saw her in your photos”
“Does having a kid affect your process, as an artist?”
“Lol obviously it would.” Max laughs.
Penny laughs. ”Yeah, she gives me more to think about, and more to do.”
“So what’s next for you two”
They look at each other, then Penny looks at me: “Pisswave”.
Max continues, “The extension of all waves. Rehydration of the atmosphere or landscape in dehydration of the body.”
Penny continues, “Most things involve piss. It deserves a wave. Piss is a foundation of life, the wave only pays tribute to its beauty.”
They share another look, seeming satisfied with themselves.
The vibe in the room distinctly communicates that the interview is over.
I see myself out.