Cultural Rebels: The Art of Defiance: Kembra Pfahler

Kembra Pfahler by Bob Krasner Photography

By COCO DOLLE, November 2020 

The first time I experienced “The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black” led by the performance artist Kembra Pfahler was in 2006 at Deitch Projects in Soho. To me, it was a true cultural explosion where punk rock, performance art and female empowerment merged. Later on I curated Kembra’s visual artwork in my feminist concept exhibitions and performed for her in a few of her shows in both Miami and New York. She has been an inspiration ever since. This interview has been long in the making and I’m happy to share it finally along with the photographs of Bob Krasner and Walter Wlodarczyk in Whitehot Magazine. 

COCO DOLLE: Your band is a staple of the East Village punk era now decaying into a groomed gentrified corporate culture. In your eyes, how will the punk spirit rebirth or pertain?

KEMBRA PFAHLER: Thanks. A staple is a little piece of metal that holds papers together and the lower east side doesn’t need a staple for decades. We've had some of the greatest artists of this century  inhabit the neighborhood. I’ve lived here but consider myself to be a West coast artist. Samoa is from Japan. Gyda is in two other bands that are active and Michael writes his own music, so I feel fortunate to get to have a band at all. What gentrification has done is made it harder for people to start bands because it’s expensive to rehearse and get shows. With COVID I had to come up with new paradigms for performing live and did it without any financial help so it was a sacrifice that I was happy to bear. I forgot the question but hope I answered some of it. There are still artists coming here to make their dreams come true. New York still answers the questions the world wants to know: ”What in the fuck is happening?!“. I hope this changes but it won’t. It’s in the street here and in the air.

The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black - Halloween 2020 in Tompkins Square Park by Walter Wlodarczyk

CD: Your perseverance is legendary. Your work has influenced a mosaic of artists crossing over aesthetic genres, genders and practices. How do you keep up navigating both the world of performance art, music and activism?

KP: Perseverance is something I don't think about. I don’t really suggest anyone navigating their work in any way unfamiliar to their own instinctual process. The harm comes when people start doing work for others instead of themselves or by doing what’s popular. As long as an artist stays true to their instincts there’s never a moment of despair. It’s a luxury to be able to do creative projects. Many can’t because they’re taking care of their families or their children. Art isn’t cool anymore, it’s for greedy suckers. Being creative is freedom and sharing what you make is like a celebration of that freedom. But art is for creeps these days, it’s become so disproportionally monetized people feel like failures when they don’t make money. Money has deformed art and money itself should be redesigned. It’s aesthetically so ugly. Change the size paper! Have someone do a sharpie drawing for the 2 dollar bill. The government has been so creative with stamps, they should get creative with money. I’m not sure if I answered that question either. 

The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black - Halloween 2020 in Tompkins Square Park by Walter Wlodarczyk

CD: Your last Halloween streamline event at the Bowery Electric was truly fantastic as a remote experience. The sound was amazing and the whole ensemble felt visually real strong. They did a great job filming it and I loved your curation with the prominent guests Bob Gruen, Lydia Lunch and the transgressive voices of Christeene and M Lamar. Coming from a film background yourself, how do you feel about the new digital film platforms and productions that are in use today?

KP: The new digital platform in relation to what I did took collaboration and teamwork which in artwork doesn’t really happen. Gyda did much with tech stuff because she’s a wizard with computer works and does a lot of graphics. When Samoa and I were together we worked as a team but he’s got two kids and an awesome wife, so he doesn’t have time for much and always urges me to do more alone. A band is different than making music alone. It requires a whole painful but gratifying set of circumstances to make a song as a band. Each person adds what they know and together a little forest of emotions grow. Plus it’s difficult and I like a challenge. When I started no one said we would last and what I personally did with performance was farcical. It is a farce, but stories told with music and images will never leave the vocabulary we as humans use to communicate.

The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black - Halloween 2020 in Tompkins Square Park by Walter Wlodarczyk

CD: All your songs become signature themes in your work and carry a strong statement of living in New York with a clever satire on social politics and twists of humor. From “Clean my underware drawer” to “Fuck Island” and your latest “Soldier of Female” single that you composed with Gyda. Can you tell us more about your creative process as a band?

KP: The creative process of the band. Well it takes me about 8 years to write the lyrics for one body of work. I worked on the lyrics for “Slippery when dead” all through covid and several years before Gyda wrote the melody for “Soldier of female” on bass, but the sound usually is born from Samoa’s guitar. I wrote “Fuck Island” by coming in with drum suggestions. Rarely do songs get born away from Samoa’s guitar, but it happens. Everyone in the band is an artist in their own right. As I said, Gyda has Sabbath Warlock Judas Priestess. Michael has his own music he does. Samoa is a painter. Karen Black is like a benevolent black cloud that when activated is hard to see anything but us. That’s why I started the band though. I was angry and wanted to do something different. I’m worse now. Angrier than I ever have been. But the choices I make to express that anger is hopefully not a panacea.

The girls of Karen Black I haven’t spoken about enough Christian Music, Alice Moy, Jackie Rivera or Chloé Blackshire. These women have illustrated the songs with costumes and a strong dislike of show business. The show must not go on. We aren’t in the entertainment business, we are just artists who accidentally formed a band that at times has more of an outreach than decorating a wealthy person's home. I like that it’s hard to put a picture frame around what artists do collaboratively. I don’t have a team, a manager, or anyone advising us on relevancy. I don't care if you think I’m relevant. I don’t have a career. I have a life and it’s fun to share things we learn or discover. That’s where art serves its greatest purpose. What else do we do? War? Make prisons for sick poor people or create shit jobs that don’t pay? Being creative and sharing is a benevolent human trajectory that’s difficult to irradiate even under the most heinous conditions. It lifts the spirits. WM

 

Coco Dolle

Coco Dolle is a French-American artist and curator based in New York since 1997. Over the past decade, she has curated the works of numerous feminists and ‘cultural rebels’. Her personal work has been exhibited and performed internationally in galleries, art fairs and contemporary art centers. Photo by Elaine Rita.

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