Amy Kaps: “Honest expression is the most potent”
I met Amy Kaps in Cologne, Germany around 1986. I had just arrived from NYC and was working in the legendary Rose Club, which was to influence my life in a way I would not have thought possible. It was here that I saw and met Psychic TV, Crime & The City Solution (with unbeknownst to myself my future husband), Laibach, Nicky Sudden, Celibate Rifles & Henry Rollins amongst many others. The Spex with Dietrich Dietrichsen were regular customers and I received an incredible diverse and unique education in experimental music every evening I worked there, serving drinks and taking care of the musicians.
Cologne was an incredible hub of art, music and performance art in the 80ies influencing generations to come and Amy was an important part of the local scene. She had a band called Beyond Good and Bad and I regularly saw her shows but she was more than just a singer. Der Alte Wartesaal – one of the largest and most important venues back then – had invited her to do a regular performance evening every Monday in their halls and it is there that she really made a name for herself.
Performance art was a much more rampant in the 80ies then it is today. One rarely hears of pure performance artists nowadays, usually only in combination with dance, spoken word or music. In the eighties performances happened all the time and everywhere, be it at the Palladium with Madonna Djing before and after or in Berlin at the Ex n Pop with Nick Cave or Depeche Mode in the audience and they always held an exciting atmosphere of everything is possible. There were a lot of bad performance artists with excessive body painting orgies, undressing, urinating or toilette paper extravaganzas but quite a few really good ones stayed in my mind over the years, stretching outrageous ideas and concepts into a surreal string of thoughts. For me pure performance art is like a “cut-up” by Burroughs; combining unusual thoughts into a non linear process, often questioning political or social norms in a sometimes humorous, often visual and possibly non vocal way. I find it interesting that it is an art form, which is exhibited or spoken about in museums or turned into activism or political theater now-a-days but is rarely seen on its own in clubs any more.
Amy Kaps was one of the good ones. Her performances in Cologne were unusual in that they were almost introverted, personal and quiet. I remember thinking how it questioned performance art in itself: that standing in front of an audience does not necessarily have to be extremely extroverted but instead can be done in a more hybrid fashion. Being there and yet not completely, without being boring, is an interesting approach and challenge on stage which has fascinated me ever since. Yoko Ono is known to have worked with this idea, Marina Abramovic as well and Japanese culture is probably an area in which these opposites are used a lot but Amys approach was interesting and attracted attention.
We lost contact after I moved to Berlin, she visited me once or twice but it was only twenty years later that we really reconnected in Los Angeles when I was living there for a couple of months. She has continued working as a performance artist, over the decades, one of those undeterred, tenacious idealists that just keep going, no matter how difficult and unrewarding it may be during long periods of time. When I met her again she was starting to receive recognition in form of residencies and grants and with her latest projects is attracting international attention. Her current project which I love, “Victus Versus or Living Stripes”, has stayed true to her tradition of being invisible whilst standing in front of a crowd and making me think about how much we do or do not really see and recognize in our surroundings.
I am very happy to present Amy Kaps to you here today.
Danielle de Picciotto: What is performance art for you?
Amy Kaps: A live act. I know that sounds simple. And vague. But true. Some people define it as theater with no narrative. But that is not completely true. I did a performance several years ago called “Poodles Too: very, Very VERY loosely based on Goethe’s Faust”. I use a lot of different mediums. The piece dictates how it will be realized. Sometimes it is very abstract, like a living sculpture. Sometimes they are prop laden. Sometimes there are words, music projection, and movement.
What do you look for in performance art?
I look for stimulation. With all media, I want to be moved, touched. It is very difficult to reinvent the wheel. I do not demand that but I look for new combinations of elements. Honest expression is the most potent.
You have developed “Victus Versus or Living Stripes” which I love. Could you describe what you do and what it means to you?
Amy: The genesis of “Victus Versus or Living Stripes” was a happy accident. I was asked to do a performance at the Beacon Arts Building in Inglewood in 2011. I appear backlit and in silhouette for “Litany of Lovers”.
I went downtown to the fabric district looking for white spandex. I needed about 30 meters. At the jumble shop where everything is about $1/meter, I found no white spandex. But they had the black and white stripes. I could see my hand as an outline. And voila!
That same year I went to Burning Man for the first and, thus far, only time. The theme was “Rites of Passage”. I was determined to not go as a spectator or just a party girl. As an artist, I wanted to perform within that environment. I wondered what I had in my arsenal that would fit the theme. I considered that a rite of passage is kind of like drawing a line in the sand and crossing over. Lines! Stripes! And so I sewed my entire wardrobe out of that fabric. And did a photo shoot out on the playa. And upon my return to LA, I was considering how to monetize my work and how the audience can take a piece home with them, as performance art is temporal; if you are not there, you miss it. So I conceptualized Victus Versus as a performance for the camera. I would set myself in an environment, move slowly and pose, always having a designated photographer accompany me. In the first photos, I was nude. But I came to recognize that they were more interesting when less or no skin shows. And you never see my face. It is really about the human body and the human condition.
I have other work that is more complex and intellectual, prop laden, uses projection, music, words, etc. But this is so simple and yet the people loved it. Since then, black and white stripes have kind of become my brand. A few years ago I started working with a wonderful photographer, Eric Schwabel. We created the first “Striped World” room in his studio. These images show the striped figure in a domestic atmosphere. And one of these photos garnered first place in the One Shot: One World International Photography Awards in 2014. Eric and I continue to work together producing an incredible portfolio of images. Of late we have been going out into nature – big, expansive locations are in abundance in California like the Mojave Desert, Joshua Tree, the Poppy Reserve.
Based on the photos and performances, I have been asked to do several large-scale installations utilizing the palette of black and white stripes and hot pink. And then I perform within these environments. Sometimes alone, sometimes with cohorts like last year I put together the band “Black Blanc” for the MARS festival at Art Share LA.
Is Los Angeles supportive of performance art?
Performance art is becoming more and more acceptable as an art form. Almost every art event will have a “performance” of sorts. They even offer it as a discipline as several Los Angeles universities and art schools. We have several venues supporting performance art such as REDCAT (Roy and Edna Disney Cal Arts Theater), LACE (Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions), Highways, Human Resources, Automata, and Beyond Baroque. I am somehow more hooked into the art scene and not so much the performance scene, which is predominantly dance oriented. Whether LA is supportive? I would say Performance is fashionable, trendy. Performance Art is “in”.
What are your fav contemporary performance artists?
Yoko Ono. Marina Abramovic. Dani Dodge. Kayla Tanga aka Coco Ono. Astrid Hadad. Laurie Anderson. These are all women. Some old. Some younger. William Kentridge. Mondongo. Robert Wilson. R. Wilson is more of a director/facilitator but I am quite inspired by him. I even see Cirque de Soleil as performance art.
How did you come to be a performance artist?
I have always danced. It’s one of my favorite things. I started with ballet and tap at the age of three, then modern and jazz throughout college and African dance in Germany. I have quite an extensive movement vocabulary. And I did quite a bit of theater. I played in the orchestra as a child – violin then clarinet. And then sang in the chorus. So somehow I was always involved and interested and consumed by the performing arts. At college I took a semester abroad sponsored by the Theater department. I went to Japan and was immersed in Kabuki, Noh, and some avant-garde forms of theater there. This still has a great influence on my work aesthetically and in practice. And while at Skidmore College, I was told by a friend of mine that a friend of hers was looking for a female to play the part of Jackie Kennedy in a performance piece he was doing. I was happy to comply. And my first “Performance” was with Ricky McKoy, a black gay man playing JFK and I sat next to him in a pink pillbox hat as Jackie for Charlotte Moorman’s 15th Annual Avant-Garde Festival at Pier 81 on the Hudson River in New York City. That was in 1980. I never heard of performance art before but I had found my medium and have been a Performance Artist ever since. After graduation in 1981, I actually moved to the East Village and was roommates with Ricky for a few years. I did quite a few performances at Club 57 and PS 122. Soon after that I moved to Cologne Germany. And at some point I was doing a performance for Blue Monday at the Alter Wartesaal. That one night a week paid my rent for about 8 years. In Germany I also played in several bands – Beyond Good and Bad, The Thing of Venus and some jazz standard stuff.
What are you working on momentarily?
I have a residency coming up from September through November at the Museum of Art and History in Lancaster, California. I will be occupying several rooms there. I have chosen to call the installation, “What is Black and White and Pink all over?” I will have one white room and one black room. And in between striped room accented with hot pink room filled with photographs. I will exhibit “A Striped World” series of photographs as well as creating environments that I hope will evoke a visceral response in the visitors.
I am also obligated to do four events while there. I will do a couple of performances including “Experiments in Stripes”. I am also planning a Judy Garland/Frank Zappa sing-a-long. They are former residents of Lancaster. I also intend to lead a conversation about Cultural Appropriation because not everything is black or white….there are a lot of grey areas. And pink ones.
What are your plans for the future?
I would really like to get out of the no or low budget concept. I am working on a major collaborative piece with Maya Kuroki and Philippe Wozniak. They are two artists that I met while in residence at Schloss Salem in 2016 and then the three of us collaborated in 2017 in a residence in Salem, NY. The piece is entitled “An Epic Rock Opera of Biblical Proportions” and is a major, multi-media work.
I am also continuing a series entitled “Experiments in Nude”. Photographs of my body parts isolated in space and paintings defining the color of nude. It’s really about the human body and sometimes contains a level of eroticism but is not overtly sexual.