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Q&A with Penny Arcade

Off The Leash was rather thrilled to correspond with legendary New York performer Penny Arcade in the lead-up to her show Longing Lasts Longer, a hilarious and biting satire of contemporary culture and its consumerist obsessions, such as cupcakes and nostalgia. 

I understand your reaction to the cupcake phenomenon - but what about artisanal toast (which is now a thing)…
I love to eat! And I live my life like a nine year old with money, cookies, cake, candy – I am obsessed with them, too but the infantilisation of society that has taken place where we are hypnotized not by great culture – books, music, ideas – but by highly fetishized food products is depressing. Nothing spells the end of Western civilisation more than four grown women in their 30s oohing over a tray of heavily decorated cupcakes.

What's the difference between longing and nostalgia – and is either healthy?
Nostalgia is a wistful, sentimental yearning not only for the past but for who we were in that past. One of the ways in which nostalgia functions is that it protects us from experiencing the reality of who we actually grew up to be, the reality of what we settled for. Longing is a persistent sense of loss that attaches to ourselves, our values, our history. Nostalgia is connected to the past but we long into the future. We all experience moments of nostalgia, for instance the late summer days when my grandfather pressed wine from great boxes of grapes and my mother and grandmother canned dozens of bottles of grape jelly and I got to stay up late in the flurry of activity and the whole house smelled delicious but I know I am not going out and buying 30 kilos of grapes and spending eight hours make grape jam! But in our culture today every experience and every product is being endlessly recycled for our momentary entertainment, with everyone choosing from the same menu drawn from history's midden. Handle bar moustache? Check! 1930s pocketbook? Check! Artisanal kimchi? Check! Meanwhile an untenable future looms.

What object, book or idea do you most wish would make a return to our modern day lives?
Well. A few! The idea of an arc of development would be very welcome. Our current idea of “instant” everything is so boring. A “Young Turk” writer, painter, etc. used to be 45 years old not 25. One has to be at least 40 years old before one is wearing a leather jacket rather than the leather jacket is wearing them! Childhood would be another great idea. There is no childhood anymore. Nine year olds are teenagers now with dyed hair, sexy outfits and kitten heels. No child likes wearing black. Also I wish they would stop making rock tee shirts for toddlers! A two-year-old in a Ramones CBGB tee shirt freaks me out. Let your children find their own heroes!

Can there still be a counter culture in Western society?
There will always be a counter culture but where it exists is the question. In a hyper-capitalist society the counter culture is forced to operate in the cracks. We are in such a time right now. All of the symbols of the counter culture have been co-opted by the mainstream. There has also been the commodification of rebellion. The Eagles said it succinctly in the song ‘Boys of Summer’: Out on the road today, I saw a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac /A little voice Inside my head said, "Don't look back. You can never look back." 

We have just passed the epicentre of co-option recently and I feel there is a backlash gaining momentum. The promise of the internet in 1994 to bring people together has been exposed as one of the biggest con jobs of all time. The writer Bruce Benderson said, “once the city was cleansed of its poor, all it took was for the invention of the internet to wipe out city space with all of its adventures forever.”

You can see this in places like NY’s Lower East Side or in Sydney, were the traditional counter-cultural neighbourhoods like Kings Cross have been sanitized and colonised by big money. People have also started to realise that information used to get around faster through word-of-mouth and real people are craving real connection. When I was in Australia last year I met 11-year-old kids who were shunning social media and having local cultural experiences with their real friends. The counter-culture always resides in real time/real place. Walk around in any city and you will find it, even if it is only in a temporary location. But I believe the desire for the alternative, the authentic, the real and the true is growing.

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