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Blacklips, Blacklips: Her Life and Her Many, Many Deaths (2023)Photography Michael James O’Brien

The story of radical East Village art gang Blacklips, as told by ANOHNI

We speak to ANOHNI about founding ‘a collision of queers, punks, performance scene veterans, women, queens, and outsider femmes who weren’t having it’ and the new book she co-authored with Marti Wilkerson

When the musician and visual artist ANOHNI arrived in New York City in 1990 to study experimental theatre, the AIDS virus was ravaging through America, while moralists and evangelical Christians looked willfully on at the annihilation that was the early years of the crisis. In the East Village, ANOHNI found a queer and artist-populated neighbourhood both desecrated by AIDS and alive as a site of resistance. Yet the kind of performance she saw at the neighbourhood’s clubs and famous drag festival, Wigstock, didn’t reflect the world back at her as she saw it.

With her friends Johanna Constantine and Psychotic Eve, ANOHNI created Blacklips Performance Cult, which was – as she explains to me over the phone – “a collision of queers, punks, performance scene veterans, women, queens, and outsider femmes who weren’t having it.”

A performance troupe made up of around 13 core members and running from June 1992 until March 1995, Blacklips was a collective in the truest sense; any member could write a play for the group to perform. Success, failure and chaos were embraced. Plays were ad-libbed and avant-garde.

The name Blacklips itself was “a campy nod to Bloolips, Christian Death, and the bubonic plague,” explains ANOHNI in a new photo book looking back on the story of the group. The essays in Blacklips: Her Life and Her Many, Many Deaths recall how Blacklips found their home at the iconic East Village venue the Pyramid Club with a 1am Monday night slot that attracted only the most committed of audience members. Although, Blacklips weren’t there for the audience, money, or fame. Rather, it was about “biting the hand that feeds” – anti-authoritarian gore porn meets surrealist satire, with an added element of surprise since performers were sometimes on drugs. 

“I never had money but dressing up was escapism” – Kabuki Starshine

In an analogue era, much of the documentation of Blacklips’ creations was ephemeral. Yet, Her Life and Her Many, Many Deaths [published by Anthology] unearths the scrawled scripts for Blacklips performances, hand-drawn posters, as well as stills from performances that were caught on video8. “We thought that film was unusable for many years,” says former Blacklips member Marti Wilkerson, “but recently – when we were able to digitalise the film – we realised we had an endless amount of stills we could capture, almost like rephotographing the live performances.” Much of that film had never been seen, ANOHNI adds: “We put those films in a box and forgot about them, most of us were on stage so we didn’t ever see the shows. This was our first time discovering what actually happened.” 

As for what did actually happen, Blacklips member and makeup artist Kabuki Starshine remembers seeing ANOHNI perform at Crowbar in the early 90s, and becoming transfixed. “She was performing as Fiona Blue then, very punk, with a mohawk, and intimidating.” The range of performers that night resembled “a strange cabaret, a collage of personalities that perked my interest because it was so random and bizarre”. When Blacklips relocated to the Pyramid, ANOHNI asked Kabuki to join. “I was a star club kid but I was living on the poverty level, ” he remembers. Blacklips paid $5 a week, but it was more about the creative outlet, being part of something that felt punk and unprecedented.

The first plays were all written by ANOHNI, recalls Kabuki: “They were more surrealist or Dada or dreamlike. I thought: ‘OK, it’s not gonna be too hard to fit in because it’s a free for all, in a way.” The group would go through a play at 6pm, go home and cobble together a look (scraps of metal and fake blood were popular), then return to the Pyramid to perform at 1am. At the time, Kabuki lived in “squalor you wouldn’t believe” with Constantine, whose wardrobe was always full of props, from evening dresses to antlers. “I never had money but dressing up was escapism,” remembers Kabuki. Embracing the mayhem of the improvised productions was “like getting in the pool and adjusting to the cold water,” with no one in Blacklips responsible for anything or anyone else. “It was pure self-indulgence. The most collaboration I got was when ANOHNI would have an idea for a song that she wanted me to lip sync. Other than that, it was every man, woman, or it for themselves, like Andy Warhol’s factory. It wasn’t really competitive, but you either brought it or you didn’t.”

“F****ts could be hairdressers but they couldn’t take centre stage, not until RuPaul came along and figured out an ingenious paradigm whereby certain compromises could be made and you could be visible. There was no Sam Smith on telly” – ANOHNI

Still, plays had serious themes. Constantine described writing around the themes of feminist trauma and rage against a bleak future. “In one breath we inhaled the AIDS crisis and exhaled climate collapse,” says ANOHNI. The plays were almost like group therapy, a group of marginalised people exorcising the hatred society wanted them to internalise and throwing it back at the world. “Back then you didn’t assume you’d be heard by anyone, not even your peers because there was no such thing as a f****t in culture,” recalls ANOHNI, “f****ts could be hairdressers but they couldn’t take centre stage, not until RuPaul came along and figured out an ingenious paradigm whereby certain compromises could be made and you could be visible. There was no Sam Smith on telly.”

Blacklips rejected compromises and commercialism, leading to an aesthetic and ethos a world apart from the drag we might recognise today. However, Blacklips was in dialogue with the New York underground queer scene that came before it. In one play, ANOHNI coordinated a Butoh homage to Candy Darling; Blacklips channelled the “trans ecstasy” of artist Jack Smith’s work and took cues from Hot Peaches, the street queen theatre troupe of the 1970s. ANOHNI also references the unapologetic rage of AIDS activist Vito Russo and the dramatic pathos of the singer Diamanda Galas. It was about creating a family tree, a lineage, “to metabolise all that vanishing work” and pay it forward.

Over the years, the crowd changed often, says ANOHNI. “Each playwright had their own cachet and attracted different quirky constellations of people to come and see their work; Lulu, for instance, was very popular on the Boybar scene so she had a general East Village appeal.” The time slot also dictated the crowd: “It was quite an obscure time slot – you couldn’t really have had a normal job.” Plus, shows often ran late, a further test for the audience. “There was a lot of squabbling about how we were never ready on time and how people were leaving, but the committed audience member enjoyed the socialising and the air of expectancy and the ridiculousness of the whole thing.”

The legacy of Blacklips reverberated throughout the lives of those in it; Kabuki’s makeup artistry, Wilkerson’s performance art, and ANOHNI going on to form Antony and the Johnsons. “At Blacklips, I thought maybe I could find a way to take an emotional risk that was uncanny, that would disarm people in a nightclub environment,” she says, “I think Blacklips was based on that notion of: how vulnerable can we be, and how far can we push it? The punchline was it was for us and it wasn’t really for anyone else, so we always thought: what is there to lose from being honest?

Blacklips: Her Life and Her Many, Many Deaths is published by Anthology and is available now.

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