‘If you ask me what I want, I’ll tell you’, declaims Kathy Acker towards the end of a video recording of ‘Pussy, King of the Pirates’, performed in 1996 alongside Leeds-sired post-punk-folk agitators The Mekons, ‘I want everything’.
This was a year before the American post-modern provocateur and polymath’s death, aged fifty, after a lifetime of extreme literary adventures. Despite Acker’s impending demise, such a statement of intent remains possessed with a hunger to be heard and a lust for life that never quite seemed sated. Acker seemed to absorb experience with every tattoo that turned her skin into a work of art, buccaneeringly alive to the last.
This is the case, however much ‘in character’ a manuscript-wielding Acker may be, in this DIY music-theatre staging of her final novel. It’s a spirit captured throughout this remarkable, and at times overwhelming, exhibition cum documentation of Acker’s life and work, as well as her influence – accidental or otherwise – on a new generation of artistic outlaws.
With contributions from more than forty fellow travellers, there are moments moving through the exhibition’s nine rooms across two floors when you don’t know which way to turn. Like one of Acker’s books, form and content seem to collide into each other before exploding outwards, picking up other influences en route and inviting them along for the ride.
As you zig-zag your way through a maze-like sprawl of TV monitors, headphones, vitrines and wall-hangings, it’s possible to listen to recordings of Acker reading excerpts from one of her books while watching 1970s film footage of her her fellating a male colleague. At the same time as you do both, if you angle yourself just-so, you can absorb another of her texts emblazoned monumentally full length on the wall opposite.
The effect is of a living cut-up, a noisy collage of references, regurgitated ideas and explicit, auto-biographical purgings. These are laid bare in such a way that life and art are inseparable if terminally antagonistic bedfellows.
I first saw Kathy Acker in November 1982 when she read at Michael Horovitz’s Poetry Olympics event at the Young Vic in London. Possessed with punky-Beat attitude and outsider cool a-plenty, she had yet to acquire the buffed and tattooed biker girl pirate image that would give her work such visual as well as literary power over the next decade and a half.
Here was a proto riot grrrl plundering ideas from all sides, then remixing them with consciously plagiaristic élan. Her relentless barrage of ideas read like diary entries reimagined as self-mythologising montages plundered from her voracious and sponge-like absorption of counter-cultural classics her work is now seen alongside as an equal
With a bibliography of her books, and assorted journals she contributed to, lining the downstairs wall, Acker has now been historicised and contextualised into the canon. Far from neutering her, in terms of a new wave of gender-fluid identity explorers who echo her taboo-busting, gauntlet-throwing and attention-seeking craving for validation, this seems to point to a future which only now seems to have caught up.
For all the sprawl of poetry and polemic laid bare, from telling tales of the world’s first female pirate on Channel 4, to reading Rimbaud’s ‘A Season in Hell’ in a BBC documentary on photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, the real Acker, if such a terminally reinvented beast exists, comes through the exhibition’s quieter moments.
Look, and she’s there in Kathy Brew’s 1991 black and white photographs of a peroxided and leather jacketed Acker with a motorbike. Like stills from some girl gang reinvention of a Kenneth Anger flick, sexual subversion swaggers from her core. But this is a calculatedly fearless front. She is there most of all in a 1977 photographic portrait by Jimmy DeSana. Again taken in moody black and white, Acker peers at the camera, her face half in shadow. She may be hanging tough, but it’s what’s going on in the dark that drives her.
Neil Cooper is a writer and critic based in Edinburgh.