New York–based artist Justin Vivian Bond’s breakout came in San Francisco in the 1990s as part of Kiki & Herb, a dastardly and delightful duo that paired Herb (a sometimes-screaming pianist played by musician Kenny Mellman) with Kiki, a pill-popping, cocktail-swilling lounge singer that Bond embodied with élan. Many solo musical performances have followed, as have gallery shows at New York’s Participant Inc and a formidable presence for an installation, paintings, and performance work in the New Museum’s 2017 exhibition “Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon.” Bond has a live stage show at Joe’s Pub in New York opening March 5 and running various nights through March 17.
Stuart Comer has served as chief curator of media and performance art at the Museum of Modern Art in New York since 2013. Prior to that he worked as curator of film at London’s Tate Modern, where he also curated performance programs. He was a co-curator of the Whitney Museum of American Art’s 2014 Biennial, and his exhibition credits include shows devoted to Tania Bruguera, Charles Atlas, Alexandra Bachzetsis, Charlemagne Palestine, and Simone Forti.
Bond and Comer joined ARTnews for lunch at the Modern, the restaurant appended to MoMA. For Bond, the herb-stuffed chicken with trumpet royale mushrooms and salsify. For Comer, baked sea bass with spaghetti squash and ginger. —Andy Battaglia
ARTnews: How did each of you arrive in New York?
Justin Vivian Bond: I arrived twice, to go to college in 1981 and then again in 1994, from San Francisco. People thought I was a lot younger than I was. I’m still a lot younger than I am.
Stuart Comer: I grew up in Connecticut and would come into the city as a kid, but around 14, I was allowed to run around downtown by myself. I remember going to the East Village galleries. I would go to Gracie Mansion, and Sur Rodney Sur would be sitting on the sidewalk on a lawn chair. I was too young to participate, but I was a voyeur. When I got older I had an internship with the New Museum in 1989 that changed everything. That was the summer of the Robert Mapplethorpe controversy. I got heavily involved in ACT UP and things changed very quickly.
ARTnews: What was your main gateway into the performing arts? Was it theater, dance, music?
Comer: One of my professors, John Schott, had a program on PBS called Alive from Off Center. He commissioned Laurie Anderson, Charles Atlas, Bill T. Jones, and all these amazing people to do television. It wasn’t for galleries or museums. It was broadcast to a lot of people, and I loved that about it—the democracy of it and the way artists were provoked to work across disciplines. Even now, when you say “performance,” some people automatically think of performance art, but I think of cabaret and Merce Cunningham and everything in between. Michael Clark’s ballet I Am Curious, Orange completely changed my idea of what could happen onstage. The Fall was playing. Leigh Bowery and BodyMap did the costumes. There was not one medium—there was this fusion, a hybrid situation.
Bond: When I moved to San Francisco I wanted to study art, but I found queer performance and then everything sort of came together. I worked at A Different Light bookstore, and all of a sudden I was mixed in with performing arts and visual art, taking those practices out and making street theater and art for protests. That was all synthesized into Kiki & Herb. I focused on that because all it required was a dress, a wig, and a song.
Comer: I want to ask you about San Francisco. David Weissman has an amazing documentary about the Cockettes [The Cockettes, 2002], and there’s this moment when they came from San Francisco to New York City and got totally panned. In New York, drag culture was about talent, and they were coming out of this completely different ethos in the Bay Area that was about collective living and freaking out together. It was not about who could sing better than the next person. It wasn’t about a conventional idea of talent. At the time you were emerging, there was an incredible punk and indie scene, and Kiki seemed to come out of that. Going from that Bay Area scene, which was smaller and very nurturing for queer artists, to the alleged “big league” of New York City—how was that for you?
Bond: The punk aesthetic went on top of rigorous training. I had studied Shakespearean acting at the London Academy of Music & Dramatic Art and had a B.F.A. in theater, so I was technically very competent. That said, in San Francisco we took mushrooms for every Kiki & Herb performance for at least a year. When we got to New York, we were like, “You know—we can’t do mushrooms before every show. We have to raise the bar!”
Comer: I used to obsessively watch this YouTube video that documented Vaginal Davis and Glen Meadmore’s first trip to New York [from California]. The West Coast and New York were completely different cultures.
Bond: When I moved here it was the height of Michael Alig and the Club Kids. When I lived here before, I was used to the big clubs and the cocaine and all that, but I was bored by it. I was older, even though nobody knew it. And I was fortunate because Mistress Formica and Mario Diaz started this whole other scene in the East Village. I found this night called “Hippie Chicks” and Squeezebox, which was the rock ’n’ roll drag bar. We played Cowgirl Hall of Fame and Flamingo and developed an audience along the way. Then I went to see something at Fez and said, “This is the room I have to play.” It took about a year before I got in there. But it was easy to see where I needed to be. It’s not as easy now.
[Read more from the Spring 2019 edition of ARTnews: “The Name of This Issue Is Not Queer Art Now.”]
Comer: When the era of the big clubs collapsed because of the war on drugs and [New York City Mayor Rudolph] Giuliani shut them down, the scene did go to other places, and it was more about cabaret and smaller venues. That created a different audience.
Bond: And people needed to have talent. Those go hand in hand.
Comer: In the early ’90s there was also the Gulf War and the AIDS epidemic. A lot of people died, and there was an edge that performers had to have or it didn’t really work.
Bond: There was a shared urgency then. The summer I moved back to New York was also the 25th anniversary of Stonewall, and some people were asserting that Stonewall had been initiated by [trans activists] Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson. That really informed underground conversations. As opposed to its being a gay-led revolution, it was led by these queens, and it empowered a lot of downtown queens to think that in fact we and our trans-cestors were the leaders in New York.
ARTnews: Queer art has long manifested in contexts beyond museums and galleries, whether through cabaret or disco or different kinds of performative scenarios. Was that lineage something you were conscious of when you were coming up?
Comer: When I did the Whitney Biennial, Justin was part of this A. L. Steiner video in the same room with a project by Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst, who lived in L.A. and worked in the film industry. They made a conscious decision to work within the entertainment industry at least as much as, if not more than, in the art world. They realized there was a big audience, and, frankly, it was less conservative [than the institutional art world]. There were more options available for how they could divide themselves and what they could get out into the world. I don’t know if that was your experience . . .
Bond: They are much younger than me. I’m still getting over my ideas of what my limitations have been because, in the early ’90s, they didn’t even really say “queer” or “gay” on TV. I gave up the idea of TV when I started doing queer performance. I didn’t want to be in the closet, and it seemed like if you were out as a queer performer you were never going to get mainstream success unless you were Ian McKellen. I’m still getting over that. They [Drucker and Ernst] were in their early 20s, and I admire them and am sort of envious. It was the same thing with Laverne [Cox, the trans actress]. We moved to New York the same summer and ran around together a lot. She is a groundbreaker in the way that they are. I’m still retraining my mind to believe in the possibilities that I missed.
I did manage to do quite a few things: we brought our show to Broadway and were nominated for a Tony [for Kiki & Herb: Alive on Broadway, in 2006]. But my forays into Hollywood were always really weird. Those people creeped me out because of the compromises they seem to have to make. Like Transparent—I auditioned for that show and I was completely skeeved out from the get-go. I was like, “These people are creepy”—and as it turned out, they are creeps!
ARTnews: Who was the first queer performer who made an impression on you?
Bond: One who I saw in San Francisco was John Kelly. He did a show using this black motorcycle jacket; it was poetic and musical. I was blown away. His storytelling and his evocation of loss and sexuality—I’m getting chills just thinking about it. It was a combination of music and poetry and movement and all these things that were just so elevated. It felt like the air was filled with something really special. Also Diamanda Galás—the edge of Diamanda gave me permission to be Kiki, in the way that I didn’t sing “beautifully.” I was inspired by her.
Comer: You have talked about how, early on, when you were establishing your own identity as a performer, you wanted to be icy. Do you think that a younger artist now would feel the same need? Where does that come from? There was an ironic distance that was so much a part of that time, and I’m not sure if it still is in the same way.
Bond: I’ve talked in my Christmas show about how persona comes from trauma. I was a very sensitive, warm, light person. I was trans but not quite sure how that was going to manifest itself. In San Francisco I was young, I was pretty, and I wanted to be glamorous, but the world I inhabited was not glamorous. It was rough. It was scary. People were dying. All the boys in their leather—I had a leather jacket and, when someone stole it, I was so relieved that I didn’t have to live up to that image. Also, I was treated as a drag queen—I was supposed to be caustic, though I didn’t feel that way. I was confused by it all. One night I got stoned at a party, and I was like, “If they want a bitchy fucked-up queen, then I will give them one!” I went through this transformation—like Clark Kent, or Lois Lane, I went into the bathroom and came out as Kiki. I terrorized people. It was great because I didn’t feel vulnerable. I joke about being icy because it’s a way of protecting myself. I am a very emotional person and this is not really the best world to be that kind of person in.
Comer: You already mentioned A Different Light, and San Francisco had the most important queer film festival at that time—all in the tiny neighborhood of the Castro. I’ve been thinking about the history of gay ghettos . . .
Bond: A Different Light was ground zero for all activists and the queens and writers at the beginning of the golden age of queer literature. We had all the books. We had all the zines. In 1990 I went down to L.A. for the first international zine conference and saw Vag [Vaginal Davis] and her band, Cholita! the Female Menudo. We had all this stuff that I learned from.
Comer: There was an explosion of zines right before the internet. And in the Castro you wouldn’t have had to go online because the entire community was there. I’ve been thinking a lot about how in 2015 the entire roadmap changed. Gay marriage was legalized and, at the same time, in London, a shockingly high number of gay bars closed that year because of gentrification and queer life going online. There was also the Caitlyn Jenner phenomenon alongside more nuanced representations of being trans. Has being queer become accepted culturally? Maybe, maybe not. I think a lot of people feel that gay ghettos are no longer necessary. But I do miss—this is me being nostalgic—the urgency of having a community. You actually knew who you were talking to and talking with. That has changed a lot.
Bond: It really has. You don’t get into a room with people. That is one good thing for me as a performer: my community comes to me and they meet each other in my spaces. One of the unquantifiable benefits of what I do is all the people who have met at my shows, fallen in love, had affairs, and just chatted and found other like-minded people they wouldn’t have known. It’s also nice where I live part of the time, upstate in Hudson, New York—there is not a huge community, but there are little things that happen once in a while, like a drag show at this queer-run restaurant where everybody goes. You at least know each other, and it’s important. I think it’s easier in small towns to coalesce a community.
Comer: The last couple summers I have been spending at least a week in Northern California in a place called Salmon Creek Farm, a four-hour drive north of San Francisco in the redwoods. It’s run by an artist, Fritz Haeg, not exclusively as a queer community but very informed by queerness for sure. He says he is one of the only gay men living there because, in the ’60s and ’70s, and into the ’80s and ’90s, it was primarily the lesbian community that went “back to nature” as a political strategy, to go back to the land and create their own communities. Largely, gay men remained urban and stayed in the cities.
Bond: Probably because of the arts.
Comer: Yes. But now I know so many people living up around Hudson. It has become such an important community. It gets to the question of gay bars closing in London and prices driving people out of the cities. Where do they go?
Bond: It’s also because the general population is more accepting. Not everybody has to leave their town now. Big urban areas like London and New York benefited from people like me having to go as far away as they could from their hometown. Now you don’t have to so much.
Comer: I remember doing a cross-country road trip in the mid-’90s and, in tiny little towns in the middle of nowhere, there would be Barnes & Noble. They would have a queer literature section in the middle of Nebraska—you could walk in and people are drinking a Frappuccino and reading Leo Bersani. Now you have chat rooms and other forums for kids to discover things about themselves. Everyone has access through the internet. It makes me wonder if cities will play the same role that they always have.
Bond: Everyone I know who is a performer in London just goes in for their performances—they don’t live there anymore. They’re moving to the seaside. It’s a nicer life. You have space to be creative. I still have my apartment in the East Village, but I feel trapped when I’m in it—miserable.
ARTnews: Museums have engaged with multimedia and performance work more and more in recent years. Where would you place the present on the spectrum—are we still at the front end, has it reached a peak, is it in fact different than in the past?
Comer: It’s still early days. Even now I have to defend video from people who say, “I don’t want to spend eight minutes looking.” No one thinks twice about sitting down for two hours to watch a ballet or an opera or a concert, but if they come to a museum they don’t want to be confined to a chair. We are still at a stage where we are changing models and changing people’s expectations. Artists are the first ones to institute those changes, whether it’s Marina Abramović’s durational performance in the MoMA atrium or museums figuring out how to address the history of cabaret culture, without which Dada would have been very different. Picasso and Matisse would have made very different work without Ballets Russes. We are not telling those stories yet.
Bond: Do you think that’s because of the way the institutions are structured? When I was putting together my show “My Model | My Self: I’ll Stand By You,” it was a series of paintings and some video in a gallery, and I also performed in a window and did a cabaret show about the whole thing. I was trying to find a place where I could do all of that at the same time and people would say, “Oh, it’s visual art, performance art, video—those are different departments that are at war with each other or very competitive and not cooperating to get all of those zones together.”
Comer: The exciting thing about being at MoMA now is that what had been the Balkanized situation you are describing has disappeared. We are looking toward unified goals of presenting the collection as a single collection. We are trying to connect the dots more. Artists haven’t worked in a media-specific way for decades, so why are museums still operating that way?
ARTnews: What changes within the museum have occasioned that?
Comer: It is in part [MoMA Director] Glenn Lowry’s vision and also a new generation of curators he’s hired. There is a more collaborative spirit than there was a generation ago. When I was coming up it was all about intersectionality and shape-shifting. I just can’t see things as having only one fixed position. Things morph and change—there is a spectrum.
ARTnews: What are the biggest challenges for a performance curator still?
Comer: The first challenge is that you need to pay performers and they need time to develop the work. This is not something that you can just hang on a wall. A really serious level of commitment and resources is required to do it properly. It can be a shock to people when they realize what that commitment entails.
Bond: I’ve often thought that museums and galleries feel it is their right to exploit you. It is strange how that works.
Comer: And it’s not just about payment. You have to think about their well-being and make sure they have time to debrief and get things off their chest. It’s intense to put themselves out there, especially in work that dissolves boundaries. They are not on stage, not distanced from the audience as they would be in a theater. They are in the middle of it all, vulnerable. We have to take that into account. It’s about care and compassion and being organized and knowing what resources are required so that people can do what they need to do. Museums have been structured around objects and their conservation and presentation. But objects are not living bodies, so you have to shift the logic of the whole infrastructure in ways to make it sustainable.
ARTnews: How does fund-raising for performance or media compare to that for other disciplines?
Comer: One of the things I love most about New York is that it is one of the few places where people understand philanthropy—where they really care about art and want to support it. There are collectors who support what they themselves are collecting, but then there are patrons who understand the need for public spaces as crucial civic venues. With performance, there is no object. It is a fugitive, ephemeral, transitory thing that they are supporting. Some people understand the magic of that. But we are still in a transitional stage.
Bond: It doesn’t change the fact that most things that exist in the art world exist to please the rich. It’s like a neo-feudalism that you can’t get away from. You have to kowtow to wealthy people no matter what you’re doing. It’s the reality: you have to deal with wealthy do-gooders.
ARTnews: How much easier or harder is it for you to support your performance work now?
Bond: I’m fortunate because my cabaret work is how I make my living for the most part. When the National Endowment for the Arts was defunded in 1990, that was a real eye-opener for me. I realized shortly after, when I started doing Kiki & Herb at a bar and charging a cover, that so long as my work appealed to the audience I was presenting it to, I could do whatever I wanted. I don’t have to cater to anybody except the audience I’ve developed. Because I’ve kept it so simple, I can say and do whatever I want.
Comer: In the context of this conversation, it’s important for people not to forget that the defunding of the NEA happened because of homoerotic art. It was a direct reaction to Robert Mapplethorpe. The culture wars were broadly about a lot of other kinds of work—not exclusively queer content—but really it was Mapplethorpe who brought down the NEA. The reason for the loss of cultural funding publicly is homophobia, primarily.
Bond: And Ron Athey’s HIV-positive blood . . .
Comer: . . . at the Walker Art Center. The defunding happened behind the epidemic as well. It was crashing down on content that was in many ways provoked by the crisis, and funding was given neither for medication nor for the arts.
Bond: They wanted us dead. That is why my hopes for mainstream success didn’t develop as I was finding my voice as an artist. I’m happy to be alive and still at work, but I don’t depend on anything other than people coming to my shows. That and my wit and endless charms.
Comer: I would be remiss not to mention MoMA’s Lincoln Kirstein exhibition [“Lincoln Kirstein’s Modern,” on view March 17 through June 15]. Lincoln was a founding member of the New York City Ballet and also started what would have effectively been my department. In the 1930s there was a MoMA department dedicated to dance and theater. Even then they couldn’t quite figure out what that meant or what they were going to do. A lot of it was costume design and set design and props. They weren’t so interested in presenting live work, but it’s important to mention that Kirstein was a central figure in a gay mafia that kind of ran culture in this city, without whom modern art would have been very different in New York. The degree to which the gay community contributed to building institutions for modern art in New York is an under-championed story. I hope his exhibition raises awareness. There is a long history of an active queer community and queer performance history in the city, and it’s important that we remember so these stories don’t become as invisible as the government would have liked.
Bond: So much was lost. Just trying to save the art of our friends who died was a challenge.
Comer: Fran Lebowitz makes an amazing point in her HBO bio-documentary [Public Speaking, 2010], that it wasn’t just the artists who died but also the audience. You had the world’s most sophisticated audience for ballet and opera, and they all died. When you lose an entire generation like that, cultural amnesia is really a problem. So it’s up to institutions to figure out how to fill in those gaps and make sure we don’t forget.
ARTnews: How has the state of acquisitions changed for performance work by sizable institutions?
Comer: We’re about to open a major performance space, and I’m not looking at museums by and large. I’m looking at the history of alternative spaces, artist-run spaces, cabarets, places like the Kitchen. You have the problem that many performances happened for an audience of 20 people and can’t be collected. Simone Forti’s “Dance Constructions” in our show “Judson Dance Theater: The Work Is Never Done”—they were performed in the museum three times a day, three days a week, for almost four months. That is a huge commitment, and that work was originally presented in Yoko Ono’s loft or in underground spaces. Gradually it has been canonized, but we cannot buy every performance. And then artists like Mike Kelley emphatically did not document their work because they didn’t want it to be monetized—they wanted it to remain fugitive. So we are trying to be strategic about certain kinds of works that are appropriate for us to acquire and have a deep commitment to.
Bond: Work that was made in the ’60s in New York was made when there was space and freedom. Where does a person find the space and the freedom to make that kind of work today? Where do you get the funding for that? You have to get grants. People were living in a different way back then.
Comer: Things were less precarious. The cost of space and the cost of materials and the cost of living in New York have changed. But if you look at the Walker Art Center’s acquisition of Merce Cunningham’s materials, that is a huge commitment on their part. That one major figure alone commands an enormous amount of resources. One museum cannot take on the entire history of performance work, of course.
ARTnews: Justin, have you thought about documenting your performance work for the future?
Bond: I’ve been thinking about it more recently, I guess because I’m getting older. There are films of some of my shows, but what happens is, I watch them and don’t want anybody to see them. They are documentation of the words I’ve said and the songs I’ve sung, but the energy and the context of the performance is not there. Every show I do is coming out of what is happening in my life and in the world in the weeks around when a show happens, so watching later just doesn’t work. When I was beginning my work in cabaret and read Lipstick Traces [Greil Marcus’s 1989 book about Situationism and punk and other epochal performance movements], I realized I don’t care about being documented, for the same reason I don’t like the New York Times coming to review my shows. Why do I want them to come and trivialize my show? They’re not giving critiques of it, they are just comparing me to David Bowie or whatever. I don’t need them to sell my shows, and I don’t find any benefit in having them talk about it.
ARTnews: What are your prospects for something like mainstream success? You’ve talked in your shows about possible TV projects.
Bond: I’m working with somebody on an idea for TV. We will see what happens. I can’t even get an agent. Nobody knows what to do with me. Everybody says, “You should be a bigger star, you should have an agent, you should have a manager.” But I have given up. I’ve tried. I’ve had meetings. Nobody knows what to do with me because everything I do is all over the place. How do you make money from supporting somebody who does visual art every couple of years? How do you make money with somebody who is doing cabaret performances? Where do you put them? There are not that many cabarets to book a person in.
Comer: I’ve always been frustrated by people who think video art is a stepping-stone to a Hollywood career as a director. Or that performance art is a stepping-stone to being an actor. These are art forms in their own right—important art forms. They are ends in themselves.
Bond: I have ultimate respect for cabaret and what I do. It is really important and it changes the world—otherwise they wouldn’t have all these strict cabaret laws to prevent artists from being able to do what they want to do. When people say, “You have to take it to the next level,” I want to say, “I’m at the highest level.” I would like to do film or TV so more people know to come to my live shows. I only want to move into a larger context so I’ll be able to do what I love doing and make a living until I die—on stage.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of ARTnews on page 28 under the title “Justin Vivian Bond & Stuart Comer.”