For this LADA Screens we are showing a film of Johanna Went’s seminal but rarely seen performance ‘Knifeboxing’, recorded at Club Lingerie in Los Angeles, California, 1984.
Johanna Went is a pioneering performance artist who began performing as part of a street theater troupe that travelled America and Europe in the 1970’s.
Combining a wild, chaotic performing style packed with visual excitement, gallons of blood, streams of multicolored liquids, giant bloody tampons, enormous sewn fabric sculptures, wacky scary costumes and enough Styrofoam and found film stock to fill a room, Johanna packed the clubs in LA, San Francisco, Seattle, Phoenix and New York. For more than ten years she was known as an innovative performance artist, particularly for the visual richness of her on-stage characters. She was equally renowned for her use of live improvised music that crossed over from jazzy rock grooves and jungle beats to electronic soundscapes and industrial noise. And always, above all the wild, driving music: Johanna’s completely stream of conscience vocals.
‘Knifeboxing’ features Johanna Went on vocals; Mark Wheaton on Steiner-Parker synth, tape loops and mixing; Greg Burk on Saxophone and Robin Ryan on Percussion.
Accompanying the online screening will be a transcribed conversation between Johanna Went and Mark Wheaton about ‘Knifeboxing’. Thanks to Johanna Went and Mark Wheaton for making this screening possible.
A DVD compilation of Went’s performances can be found on Club Years, which is available for sale on Unbound.
About LADA Screens
LADA Screens is a series of free, online screenings of seminal performance documentation, works to camera, short films/video and archival footage. It is part of Live Online, LADA’s dedicated space where you can watch short videos and films drawn from LADA’s Study Room or generated through our programmes and initiatives.
Each screening will be available to view for a limited time only, and will be launched with a live event at the White Building in Hackney Wick, London. Online art magazine, thisistomorrow will also feature the films on this website for the duration of the screenings.
For more information about LADA Screens contact Alex Eisenberg.
We are very pleased to be able to share this conversation between Johann Went and Mark Wheaton to accompany the screening of ‘Knifeboxing’ on LADA Screens which is online from 29 March - 11 April 2016.
Johanna Went (JW): When we talk about the Lingerie show it was during in the time of the Olympics in Los Angeles, the 1984 Olympics and there was a huge art festival going on of performing arts. Of course I wasn’t included in that and I kind of didn’t really expect to be included in it but my show ‘Knifeboxing’ was a reaction to that. Down at the sports arena they had these huge bodies, artists like Robert Grant had made of these nude athletes that didn’t have heads - they were just bodies - and those were the bodies that I made, but I cut their heads off and cut their hands off and cut their feet off and you know made them bloody and silly and threw them into the audience.
Mark Wheaton (MW): As you can tell by this show and the reactions of the audiences after this show that you’ll see, people at that time that were part of this club scene in Los Angeles totally accepted what they call “Performance art” as part of what they call the “entertainment universe” that they were interested in being part of. They would go to these shows and enjoy them just like they would go to a show by a regular old rock band and enjoy it and they’d walk out at the end totally jazzed up. The media in a way kind of distorted the audience’s view of what performance art was: if you watch movies of the time if they mention performance art at all its in a very derogatory “what is this idiocy?” kind of way and yet the audiences were eating it up at the time
JW: Well they were eating it up, you know I think the thing is the audiences were made up of very art minded people also. Who didn’t necessarily define my work as either music or entertainment you know? And actually saw my work as art, as a more flexible format, it wasn’t in a museum, it wasn’t in a gallery, sometimes it was in a gallery but not very often, it was nevertheless considered art and I was considered an artist.
When you look at my shows, I did a lot of work, you know I made the costumes, I built the props, but I also had a whole lot of people who helped me, my friends Peggy and George who I met the On Klub, that was like the end of 1980, and they helped me for years and years. The people that helped me were really, those were the people who really worked hard you know? Because they cared about me and they cared about my work and were excited and turned on by the work, they would help me clean up the mess, and you know this was really the thankless work – picking through the bloody mess for the props that can be saved, for the costumes that I want to try and keep, wash the stuff the next day. I used to have to go to a commercial launderette because I didn’t even have a washer or dryer. I was poor, I lived in a little tiny place so I’d go to the laundrette near George and Peggy’s house and I’d go really early in the morning so nobody would see what was going on and I’d dump all these costumes, all this mess, and I’d go over to George and Peggy’s and have a cup of tea, then go back and put it in the dryer and fold it in their house to see what I could keep and what I couldn’t keep. A lot of the stuff was a one night thing you know it lasted for one night and then it was destroyed, sometimes I would take off elements of it, like you’ll see that monkey mask, the monkey mask had many reincarnations but you know eventually it just became soaked in blood and decayed.
MW: As our performances evolved by the mid eighties we had other people playing the music, my brother Brock was no longer drumming with us and so in this particular show we had Robin Ryan playing percussion and she was a real found percussion improviser, in some ways she was kind of harkening back to the Z’EV thing of your earlier shows.
JW: She was very Z’EV, she loved found objects, loved to bang on things and she was a great percussionist, she had that real punk rock girl energy, she was completely excited about just doing free form, she just wanted to get up there and bang out her tunes
JW: Also Greg Burk had been playing with me for a while and his saxophone really added a new element, it sounded smokier, softer, and at the same time it was completely erratic, it was an erratic sound. There is something very sweet about the saxophone, and horns I love horns too, because as a kid I remember sitting in the car with my dad and there was some saxophone music, or someone was playing the saxophone I don’t know what it was but it was on the radio and it was a kind of yakety sax kind of thing and I said “how do they sing like that?!” because I didn’t realise it was an instrument, I must have been like 3 or 4 but I really heard it as a voice, I heard the saxophone as a voice and my Dad kept trying to explain to me that it was a horn and that you blew into it but was just like “how does it talk, how can it sing?!”
MW: And Greg definitely approached it from that point of view he would have little fragments of melodies or respond to something that you would sing, just live into the mic. You would make something up and then he would do a little echo of it.
JW: I know, it was a conversation
MW: And his white suit was getting covered in blood quite often
JW: He was a canvas
MW: A lot of our audiences really loved our shows because you threw a lot of things out into the audience and then they would throw them back at you, there was this constant, it happened a lot at the Whiskey shows too, it seemed like there was a lot of stuff going out and then coming back to the stage.
JW: There was this one guy who came to our shows a lot and he told me that after this show he took one of the giant tampons, the big bloody tampons and he rode a bike, he had to ride home that night, he put it on the back of his bike and he said he was riding home from the Lingerie Club with this huge giant bloody tampon on the back of his bicycle.
Well you know this show was in 1984, and the audience was so much a part of the show, the scene wasn’t like, just some bands, the scene was the audience, it was the journalists who wrote about the shows, the photographers that documented the work, there was the fashion element, but all of it worked together and that’s what created the energy. I would feel this energy from the audience when I’m up on stage. In the same way that I would improvise with the music, I think that you, the musicians, would improvise with that energy that was being thrown at you from the audience. There would just be moments of excitement where you just felt the vibration of the audience in your body, and you had nothing to do but just respond to it
There were plenty of people who were not in bands that were the most fabulous punk rockers of all time because of the music, they were there for the music, they loved the music, and they were a part of the music.
MW: At that particular time there was finite number of clubs that had original music like this and you would see the same people at every show. You’d go to shows, whether at the Hong Kong, or the Lingerie, or even the Whiskey and there was this entourage of people that were sort of a tribe, that were there.
JW: There was! A sort of multicultural, multifaceted scene. There were so many different styles of music, so many different bands. I was really lucky to be on stage with so many different bands.
When I look back I realise that I was really in a constant state of flux. I was forming as I was onstage in the performance, I was learning to be an artist, I was learning to be a performer, I was learning to be a performance artist. My experience on stage was really cathartic, and it was very frenzied, it was a trance like state of mind that I would enter into, and the music definitely contributed to that, the audience totally contributed to that state - the energy that they would put out, they would help me enter into that state. I had a very unstructured formula for putting together the shows. There were so many elements going on at the same time, there was the movement, there were the lights, the way that the lights hit my eyes or hit my costume and bounced back at me. It was this perfect alchemy of forms and colours; the weight of things as I would pick them up, as I would throw them. The placement of objects was almost ceremonial; there were actions that resulted from these scenarios that were going on it my head during the shows. I definitely had this particular fetish about horror imagery, because I was watching a lot of horror films and I had a great affection for objects and I always wanted to kind of redefine these objects, I would try to find their emotional meaning. And then there were pieces that I used in other performances, almost like relics, they would be transformed in another show, and they would transform me as I was going through the performance.
I know a lot of the time it seems like maybe I’m complaining about feeling like an outsider but I actually was an outsider! I wasn’t a punk rocker, I wasn’t really rock and roll, I wasn’t a theatrical entertainer and I certainly wasn’t a traditional artist. I was a separate entity, a separate entity that was operating alongside and was crossing over into these various art and music scenes.
MW: I think that a lot of the reason that people responded so strongly was that despite the fact you weren’t coming from a traditional art or theatrical background, your energy and your engagement in your visual, and also your physical activities onstage was so mesmerising you didn’t pay attention to that part, you just sort of got caught up in the nightmare dream world that you were presenting.
JW: And I think that they recognised objects, even though they didn’t look like the specific inspiration for the object. For example one scene was kind of in my mind as something similar to the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, I’ve got my little hatchet, I’ve got my man who’s kind of crucified on this ironing board while wearing a wetsuit. This piece to me was called “Watersports” – that’s what the title of that particular piece was, you can see the plastic bag where the guts are kind of like spewing out of the plastic bag onto the wetsuit and his head. This is kind of a whole little Leatherface scenario, it’s not totally taken from that because in my mind this is also some kind of a sport – but I am turning round and around like at the very end of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I’m also moving to the music.
MW: That particular costume you have a certain amount of attachment to that costume, despite the fact it is very primitive, almost thrown together piece it just totally worked in terms of the way the imagery ended up being set up.
JW: By the looks of the costume it was probably thrown together really quickly because it’s just foam and pieces of map glued onto it. Now the next costume, the Statue of Liberty costume is a little bit more sophisticated, even though it’s still tacky. It’s white, it’s white because a lot of times white made a good background for any kind of blood, certainly the blood painted very beautifully on a white image, but I would say I probably have a greater connection to the other costume, which is a more primitive costume. I don’t even know at this point in my career if I could make a costume like that again, if I would have the insight to be able to put that together. I think I’ve moved past that, and in some ways that’s unfortunate.
MW: One thing to note is that we go into a little bit of a patriotic anthem that goes with the statue of liberty imagery. The actual fact was we never rehearsed any of this stuff, it was all completely improvised. I just happened to have a loop tape that had some patriotic anthems on it, I saw the statue of liberty, I popped the tape in the cassette player, Craig responded to that and it was one of those happy accidents that kept happening in these shows that weren’t really planned ahead of time.
JW: I think that the shows were a series of accidents. As you can see the pump doesn’t go on immediately – this is a pump that our friend Mark Pauline gave me and our friend Pam Woodbridge who worked with us sometimes in the Bay area, is operating. As you can see it doesn’t start to work immediately, but of course eventually the goat’s head starts bleeding blood like it’s supposed to and it’s going all over the place and all over the audience. I didn’t necessarily try to get my audience splattered, otherwise they would be a lot more splattered if it was really really intentional – this just happens to be overflow.
The goat’s head I would go pick up downtown at the market, there’s this huge Mexican market downtown and they had quite an array of animal parts that I would use in my shows; goat’s heads; beef lips, beef lips were really a wonderful item that were very slimy and gross to use.
MW: I remember when we went to Rotterdam and did our show there we went to Rotterdam market for a lot of the animal part used in that show, they had eels over there so we used eels.
JW: You know the bloodletting, even though it’s fake blood, creates a very powerful sense of bloodletting in my imagination, it’s just being completely wet, all parts of you red.
There are people in the front row who are just into the blood, these are not the people who would call the club afterwards and be like “urrr could you pay for my cleaning bill I can’t get this out of my clothes.” One day the guy who ran the laundry said to me “yeah well you know we had some complaints from people calling up about wanting to their clothes cleaned and wanting us to pay for their cleaning bills because of your blood, but you know what, I just told them to forget about it, I wasn’t going to do anything”.
I was lucky enough to have a tape like this and to look at the show afterwards. I was able to understand all the little things that went perfectly but were not planned.
This is kind of the end of the show when I’m all wet from the blood, I’m really exhausted and I’m trying to remember what I’m supposed to do. You can see it in my eyes that I am totally out of it. By this time I’m in a trance, moving from thing to thing, I’m looking around trying to see what’s going on, I’m looking at the musicians, I’m ready for the show to stop and then somebody grabbed my leg and I kicked them.