:: Article

The Tit Bars and After

Chris Kraus interviewed by Alison J Carr.

[Chris Kraus by Pablo Castaneda]

CK: You’re wondering what I used to do in the clubs? Well, it was a hustle bar. The topless dancing was there just as bait. The real job was to sell over-priced drinks, which were equated with sex acts that optimally were never performed. For a $20 Perrier split, you’d sit on a banquette in the lounge. A $150 magnum of champagne — apple juice, actually — would get you into a back room, where you’d proceed to sell more ‘champagne’. The guy had to believe if he kept buying drinks he’d eventually get laid. But no one’s that dumb. The hustle, like gambling, was a particular taste. I worked in these clubs in the late 70s, early 80s, and wrote about them in a story called “Trick”. They were shut down by the Department of Health in response to AIDS. You had to think fast on your feet all the time. Sometimes I’d get exhausted, take out a Kleenex, do a hand job, and take the $50 tip. Once or twice a blowjob, that’s about it. But you could be equally well tipped for having no sex at all. Of course as soon as a guy comes, he’s gonna go! (Laughs.) There was a lot of talking and very little actual sex.

3:AM: Was that something you prepared for? Kind of before you went to work, how did you prepare for that kind of experience?

CK: Well, like any shit job, you try and let it take as little out of your life as possible. I tried to keep living my life until half an hour before work. Then I’d throw my clothes in the bag, get a cab uptown, and be Sally West for seven or eight hours, two or three or four nights a week. The rest of the time I tried not think about it, except for buying the costumes. In those days, they were not very elaborate, it was all thrift store stuff: a ratty blue feather boa, a little 1940s fitted jacket I’d wear with a pair of spike heels. It was ridiculous. I didn’t give a shit about the costumes. The job had nothing to do with my sexuality, it had nothing to do with me. You had to wear makeup and heels, but beyond that, it was not very exacting. The students I met in LA when I arrived in the mid-90s who were lap-dancing had to be so into it. It was much more professionalized. I could never have done that. Art students getting silicone shots to better compete! I mean, shit.

3:AM: So you never felt that you did things to your body like waxing or shaving that you wouldn’t have done ordinarily?

CK: Oh no, you didn’t have to do those things. I don’t think I even waxed. All you had to do was get up in some nylon underwear, or a g-string, and a feather boa and shake around and sell drinks. 

3:AM: Did you have dance training or did you enjoy dancing in nightclubs?

CK: Like anyone studying theatre, I’d taken some dance. But really, you could do anything — jiggle around, do an interpretive modern dance — so long as your top was off by the end of the second song! By the start of the fourth, you had to be on the floor. It didn’t look anything like what you see in the clubs now. There were no poles — just a table, where you’d get up and jiggle around. It was a hustle: getting an empathic line into the guy and figuring out how to play him best. What is he looking for? How can you make him spend?

3:AM: Is there any part of that that you enjoyed then?

CK: Well, I liked to do it well. At one point, I got very competitive and became one of the top bottle sellers. Doing it “well”, of course, just means making more money. The more bottles you sell, the more tips you get. I did get a certain kick, as a nascent writer, in being able to get this verbal dance going with some of the men. I was good at that. About a third of the women were art girls, and everyone had their own thing going on. Some were rock musicians, one was a choreographer: her thing was much more physical. Mine was more verbal.

3:AM: Have you got any explanation for why there were so many kind of artsy people in the scene?

CK: Mmmm. Yeah, because it paid very well. You could just walk in, get hired, and make $300 a night, which was a lot of money at that time.

3:AM:: Quite a bit now! (Laughs.)

CK: Well, at the time, $300 equalled about three weeks’ rent. The reason I needed so much money was, I was starting to produce my own plays, and that was expensive. And I didn’t have any other means of support.

3:AM: So did your experiences change your attitude to your own body?

CK: It did. It took me years to cultivate a relationship to my body after doing that work.

3:AM: So you became disembodied?

CK: Yeah, yeah. Because I was so detached from the sexuality I had to project in the club. It had nothing to do with me. When I left the club, I’d put on camouflage gear. In order to keep those boundaries clear, I looked like a total dyke. It was years before I could integrate femme-ness into my own persona or life.

3:AM: That’s interesting.

CK: I wrote a little about it in Aliens & Anorexia: dressing in camouflage gear and being completely asexual whenever I was not in the club. I didn’t have a boyfriend for most of the time I was doing that work.

3:AM: So was that your way of recuperating from overexposure?

CK: Well, it was confusing. Because if what went on in the club was “sexuality,” it had nothing to do with me! Going out to CBGBs at night, I’d see these girls stuffed into these bustiers with their tits hanging out, and wonder why would you do that if you’re not getting paid? (Laughs.)

3:AM: Returning to the talking aspect, I’ve never heard anyone talk about the talking as part of the role of the sex object, the showgirl. Was there any part of that that you enjoyed? I wonder if you can talk a bit more about the talking?

CK: Oh, sure. I love talking. But, just to back up a bit, it was years before I could reclaim any femme quality, or sexuality, in my persona. When I moved to LA, for various reasons, I began to take an interest in recreational sex. And within that realm, gravitated to BDSM, which, you know … at least had a structure! It wasn’t about romantic love, it wasn’t abject. As a submissive, I hooked up with several dominant men who introduced all these trainings and games focused upon the submissive becoming more femme. I thought that was fantastic. It was less cynical, and had much more to do with my own pleasure than anything in the clubs. There was a reciprocity to the exchange. I wrote a little about that in Video Green.

3:AM: So how long was that after giving up your hustle bar work?

CK: A long time. I stopped dancing in 1982 … it was about thirteen years.

3:AM: How was your relationship with your body during those thirteen years, were you still a bit out of your body?

CK: Well, I was married! (Laughs.) I think most people agree there’s kind of a sexual deep-freeze that takes place in a long-term, monogamous marriage …

3:AM: Back to the question I was asking about speaking in the showgirl roll, that sounds fun…

CK: Yeah. In my case, it was more conceptual. Not sex talk at all. More like, engaging people through stories, or digressive conversations about ideas … I guess I was practicing to be a writer. I was reading all the female Japanese court writers at the time – tales of Genji, Sheherezade, where the story itself becomes a form of seduction.

3:AM:: Did you get good feedback from that? Did you find that men enjoyed that?

CK: Well, yeah, I mean I had my niche. (Laughs.) I did really well with lawyers. I did well with a certain kind of hustler, people who were cynical and had a strong sense of irony. It was such a red herring for them to encounter someone like this in a sleazy tit bar, right?

3:AM: Yeah!

CK: An intellectual. (Laughs.) So it was all about being kind of the crazy girl, kind of Nadja trip.

3:AM: You must have enjoyed that.

CK: Yeah, I couldn’t really do the other thing, grinding my cunt around on the floor, with much conviction, but I could do the Nadja thing very well.

3:AM: That’s very interesting.

CK: Yeah. The clientele were a particular type of person. Anyone who just wanted to get off could walk four blocks over to the piers and do it for 20 bucks. There was plenty of vastly cheaper, actual sex to be had. Like gambling, the hustle bars played into somebody’s hubris and masochistic streak at the same time. It’s complex, a way of losing yourself. Like in a casino, there were no clocks in the club. Time would just disappear.

3:AM: So you must have learnt something about humanity or men.

CK: Not just about men – everyone was equally odious! For someone who already had a fairly jaded and misanthropic view, the work in the clubs certainly reinforced it.

3:AM: So you went with your misanthropy.

CK: It was reinforced. No matter how intimate things felt during the con, there was always the moment when the customer would wake up and abruptly leave. A curtain dropped down, the connection was broken. They had a strong instinct for when they’d had enough. At that moment, the tables turned and it became clear they’d been using you like a drug. So that was a toxic double helix, enacted over and over again. The girls were not nice to each other. And the management was abhorrent. I mean, everyone was just out for themselves; it was like, a perfect microcosm of real life.

3:AM: Were there any silver linings to this cloud?

CK: I don’t think so, no. I don’t know that I regret doing it. I’d certainly rather things had gone a different way. I would have preferred to have independent money and not have to do that, but given that I did not, and it seemed imperative at the time to produce those plays, it was a way of pursuing my work. When I see younger women doing it now, I don’t see a happy outcome. I don’t want to be the person who says, Don’t Do That, but – given how professionalized it’s all become, I don’t see any way for the woman to win. It just takes you down this very dark street. The risk is, that it takes over. You always begin by seeing it as a means to the end, but gradually it becomes the content you’re working with. A therapist I met once remarked how many young women were ‘lap-dancing to pay for their therapy,’ and that seemed uniquely evil to me. Like agreeing to see an addict while he or she is still in the throes of addiction. It’s counter-productive and unethical. The only way that you can get clarity would be to stop.

3:AM: So do you feel nervous or worried about the dancers that are part of the burlesque scene?

CK: Oh no! The new burlesque scene’s a whole other thing. It’s absolutely delightful. These people are completely on top of the game. They’re doing it as an art form. They’ve studied the tradition, they’ve met the old strippers, they create the costumes, those replicas. No, I think it’s absolutely wonderful. I was on the Sex Workers Art Show tour with a couple of stars from that world — Dirty Martini and World Famous *BOB* — and I just adored them. They are brilliant performers. I don’t see the New Burlesque as sex work at all. It’s more like a cabaret form. There’s no comparing. The difference, of course, is that the performer is in charge.

 3:AM: Is that how you felt? Did you feel not in charge?

CK: I was maybe more in control than someone doing regular escort work … The hustle makes you feel nominally in charge. But the toxicity of it permeated the rest of my life. It was a kind of carnival atmosphere but there was a real ugliness underneath, and you can’t get away from that. In the end, it’s sexuality reduced to an exchange: body, money, money, body, that’s it.

3:AM: You had a little bit of the brain happening in what you were doing, so I wonder if that changed your experience compared to the women you were dancing with?

CK: I don’t know. But because I was kind of whoring my charm, my relation to it got kind of messed up. Or maybe clarified.

3:AM: Did it take you while to get back into being charming, for yourself?

CK: Once you see anything’s use-value, it’s hard to go back.

3:AM: Are you charming now?

CK: I can be. That kind of charm got channelled into my writing. This is not the same kind of charm you exercise to teach or give a reading. Charm as seduction is something else. It’s a tool, it’s a mask. It’s a mask that I used a great deal in writing I Love Dick. That book was a kind of performance, and the idea of the mask was very important. I remembered it from studying acting. The “mask” isn’t fake — it’s more an awareness, a slight exaggeration or push, of certain gestures or tendencies you observe in yourself.

3:AM: Do you think about theatre school and stripping, your kind of work as, as being something very similar, because they were happening at the same time?

CK: Yes, I do. The work in the clubs is a kind of performance, but you’re always in an abject position because you need to go home with $300, and if you don’t, you’ve wasted the night. Performance and writing have other objectives than money. I’m sorry, but it just boils down to a class-based thing. If you need money, you will always be in an abject position of need. In Colette, all the old whores play the stock market or buy real estate. In Chéri, the narrator spends afternoons with the other courtesan-retirees discussing their stocks!

3:AM: It’s interesting that you’ve used the word abject…

CK: I’m writing something about Simone Weil right now. Among other things, she worked on a Renault factory assembly line for a year and a half. Work that she — as a philosophy klutz and sickly, underweight person — was extremely unsuited to. But she believed the leadership of the Communist Party, of which she was a part, had become very estranged from the physical experience of what it is to do routine factory work. She needed to have that experience in her own body, before she could “represent” anyone in that situation. And it was completely abject. Deadening. Any work you do purely out of financial, survival need is probably going to put you in an abject position. It’s the same for someone competing for tenure. So my goal became to be independent. And I did that.

3:AM: Was the abject something that was revealed to your customers, or was that something that this kind of mask that you’ve mentioned prevented them from seeing?

CK: Oh no, they ate it up, that’s what they’re there for. The debasement that they’re witnessing is part of the kick.

3:AM: So you didn’t feel that you were creating an impenetrable body?

CK: No, I never had that kind of commitment or conviction to the physical mask. I know what you’re talking about, and I think people who have to do the pole dance thing, who have to do a much more professional version of it, that’s probably how they cope. But I wasn’t nearly half way down that road of professionalism, where it became that. It was pure dilettantism.

3:AM: Do you think that lack of commitment saved you psychologically?

CK: No, I mean nobody wins, right? Nobody wins. The damage for me was this estrangement from myself, going through these porno-calisthenic moves while my head’s some place else. A Cubist mind/body split. It’s not a desirable thing. I don’t really think there’s any way to beat it. And I really dislike the kind of stripper memoir genre, like the one that Lily Burana wrote fairly recently; it’s so false. That bravado just cannot be real.

3:AM: So are there any narratives of this that you, you don’t see as problematic?

CK: Any positive, uplifting narratives? No, I don’t really see any.

It became important to me to make my own money after that, and not to be dependent on others. And I did. After arriving in LA, I saw a chance to make my own money, and that seemed better for me than the tenure-track line. I bought apartment buildings that give me some rental income, and that allows me to decide when to teach, and for whom. I’d be in a very different position now as a writer if I didn’t have that income. I always felt strongly about the singularity of my work, and knew it wouldn’t be easily fundable. Which means you have to either have family money, or marriage money, or make your own. It takes a long time for me to write a book — as much as five years. I write catalogue essays and journalism for extra income in between, and give lectures and readings, but if I were completely dependent on that income, my work would be completely different. I couldn’t do the work I do now without an independent income. This is awkward, maybe, to disclose, but I think it’s important — especially in the US people are led to believe that there’s something wrong with their work if it doesn’t result in financial security. When in fact, many of the most prominent artists and writers have relied upon outside support for at least the first part of their careers. Very few people are able to support themselves through their work after art school, or even at all. If you can’t spend years after school developing your work and career, nothing kicks in. And how do you do that without independent means? It’s almost impossible to create a body of work, and do all the professional networking things that go with an art career, if you have to work 30 or 40 hours a week at something else. So in a way, working in the tit bars at that moment in New York in that dilettantish way was almost like the GI Bill!

After World War Two, the G.I. Bill enabled anyone who’d served to go back to school for free. Not everyone went to college in those days. It wasn’t online. It was four or five years, going full-time. For the first time, working-class people had access to four or five years of free time during their youth. A lot of amazing artists and writers, who might otherwise not have appeared, developed their work thanks to the GI Bill. Poets like Ted Berrigan, Ron Padgett — all those people who came from lower middle-class families in the Midwest, had that leisure given to them. And it was a great thing. So that’s the upside, I guess. The tit bars did provide a certain amount of free time to young women who couldn’t have afforded it otherwise.

 

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Alison J Carr is an artist, writer, Iyengar yoga teacher and associate lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University. She has an MFA from the California Institute of the Arts and a PhD from Sheffield Hallam University.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, June 2nd, 2017.