The everlasting influence of Kathy Acker


Kathy Acker, to judge from the testimonies of her friends, her fans, her lovers, and those who did not love or even much like her, was a hot-head and a proud slut, and a bratty genius; a fashion plate, sicker than William Burroughs and chicer than Siouxsie or Madonna; a lover of the words “cunt,” “cum,” “bastard,” “prick,” et cetera.; a trust-fund kid who blitzed through her inheritance by buying clothes from Gaultier, Vivienne Westwood, Maison Martin Margiela, Comme Des Garcons; a habitual thief of husbands and of boyfriends; an alembic of herself and Dickens, or herself and Rimbaud, or herself and the Marquis De Sade; a queer-identifying woman who almost exclusively fucked men, and married twice. She was sex-positive, postmodern, and entirely obsessed with the idea of being famous, as singular and logo-like in her image as a pop star. “I was interested in ‘fame’ as one end,” she wrote in 1973’s The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula. “(1) people whose work I want to find out about would talk to me, (2) I would somehow be able to pay for food rent etc. doing something connected, (3) artists I fall in love with would fuck me.”

All of which suggests two things: that Kathy Acker would have really, really loved the circa-now internet, and that the circa-now internet would almost certainly have loved her back. The personal essay boom of 2008 – 2012, with its vaginal hairballs and its father fucking and its rotten tampons, would no doubt have left an author who once claimed to frequently “stick a vibrator up my cunt, and start writing…from the point of orgasm” entirely unfazed, while lines like “i [sic] am a limitless series of natural disasters” or ““If you ask me what I want, I'll tell you. I want everything” would no doubt have gone down like gangbusters on Twitter. It is no longer embarrassing to be an author or a painter or a sculptor and desire to be famous, and it is no longer embarrassing for an author or a painter or a sculptor to meticulously craft her image, or to prioritise being hot. Almost no facet of what we consider to be modern, experimental pro-sex feminist art is untouched by her influence, and almost no self-identifying practitioner of the selfsame art would deny Acker’s influence.

“Here is this astonishing American woman,” the critic Michael Bracewell drooled when Acker first made waves in London, “[who is] incredibly glamorous and punky, and kind of street. But obviously at the same time, talking an intellectual language that in London at that time was like being from another planet.” At the opening of I, I, I, I, I, I, I Kathy Acker at the ICA this May, it appeared as though her home planet, populated with He-Kathies and She-Kathies and They-Kathies, had crash-landed here on earth: I noted several beautiful trans girls, two maybe-dominatrices in baby doll attire, a twink with his eyebrows overdrawn in eau de nil, and at least six women in PVC jeans, or in vinyl trench-coats. I, I, I, I, I, I, I Kathy Acker, which closed earlier this week, was the first show in the U.K. to be entirely devoted to her, the press release occasionally referring to her in quotations (‘Kathy Acker’) as a means of illustrating her ongoingness, her status as “a still-unfolding cultural force.” Accordingly, the exhibition proved a dead-spilt between Kathy Acker ephemera, videos of the author, and enlarged texts from her novels — if the line “the soldier’s chest as he’s raping the female crushes the baby stuck in her tits” is moderately shocking read at book scale, it is infinitely more disquieting when every letter is the size of an immodestly large butt plug — and the work of other artists, mostly female, dealing with similar themes: sex, gender fluidity, queerness, literature, body modification, the appropriation of material from unexpected places. I particularly loved a video by the artist Penny Goring, a sinister dance piece with atonal vocals, and a text work by the writer Joanna Hedva. Both, in their aggression and their ugliness, their air of sexual threat, felt Ackerish. Both stuck, splinterlike, in the mind.

Sticking in the mind was Acker’s M.O., the effect of her collaging the texts of great, white male writers with her own I disorientating in its genderfuckness. “If fashion moves in 20-year cycles (low-rise jeans are, unfortunately, overdue a comeback) then [Kathy] Acker is proof that so too does culture,” Harriet Fitch Little wrote this year at The Financial Times. It made me wonder whether Acker – surely one of only ten or so ideal customers – owned or desired a pair of Alexander McQueen ‘bumsters,’ the jeans cut so dangerously low they seemed to invite sodomy. Here is an object that ought to feel retro, that kicked off a look once so ubiquitous that the phrase “low-rise jeans” can now be used as shorthand for something that’s passé, but that manages to persist in appearing daring, too modern for modern life. What is this if not what Acker has done through the medium of her novels, exerting her influence so widely that their sexual frankness now feels at once old and new?

The bumster debuted in McQueen’s graduate show in 1993, just four years before Acker – having refused non-holistic treatment for her cancer after a failed double mastectomy – died in Tijuana. It seems unlikely that she saw them. Still, always the universe suggests relationships, a network of suggested meaning. “Language,” Acker said, “is the accumulation of connections where there were no such connections.”

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