Around Valentine’s Day, 1980: Kathy Acker and Cookie Mueller’s Lovesick Letter-pieces

Speaker: Alice Butler - 2021/2022 Terra Foundation Centre for American Art Postdoctoral Fellow

On the evening of February 14, 1980, the writer and actress Cookie Mueller posed as the ex-boyfriend of the poet and playwright, Gary Indiana, for a performance he was doing alongside another of his friends, Kathy Acker, at the Mudd Club in New York. They both read aloud letters addressed to ex-lovers, and while Acker projected photographs of her sexy correspondents; Gary projected ‘Cookie’. In the remaining artificially lit portrait: she wears a lilac-cotton bowling shirt, her unwashed bleached hair slicked back into a low ponytail, complete with stick-on sideburns. She clutches a lit, half-smoked cigarette, brings it closer to her moustached mouth. But as a costumed bit part, this time her lips didn’t part to talk her own love letters.  

Or did they? Could they have? What if I were to take the picture as an example of what José Esteban Muñoz describes as “ephemera as evidence,” meaning “memory and performance… all of those things that remain after a performance, a kind of evidence of what has transpired but certainly not the thing itself”? Following Munoz, I propose that the part-object picture is an invitation to dream, gossip, and speculate new possibilities about, but also for, and particularly with, and especially around the original event (Valentine’s Day, 1980: this lecture’s permeable boundary), in a way that dates it and departs from it at the same time, circling it, stretching ideas and texts and events beyond it, which have an affinity with one another. This stance makes it possible to reconsider the Mudd Club performance as an entry-point into recognizing the critical effects of the love letter in the work of Mueller, as well as Kathy Acker. For in this lecture, I write between, across, and towards them, adopting a spatial, affective, epistolary position to show how both writers transformed the traditions of the love letter etched into histories of women’s writing—they let it be perverse; they let it be sick — to transform and repair our narratives of love.  

Dr Alice Butler is the Centre for American Art Terra Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow. She also teaches in Critical and Historical Studies at the Royal College of Art. An interdisciplinary scholar and art writer, she specialises in the intersections of feminist art and writing to explore questions of sickness, sexuality, and gender, via feminist and queer perspectives and experimental approaches to archive and autotheoryShe has previously held fellowships with the Paul Mellon Centre, the Freud Museum London, and the AHRC. Recent publications include the article “‘Have you tried it with three? Have you?’ Ann Quin, Love Triangles, and the Affects of Art/Writing,” in Capacious: A Journal for Emerging Affect Inquiry (2021) and the essay “Fan Letters of Love,” in Fandom as Methodology: A Sourcebook for Artists and Writers (2019). She has also recently published essays in the art writing anthologies ON CARE (2020) and ON FIGURE/S (2021). She is currently finalising work on a number of book projects, including a monograph on the sick desires and pleasures of Kathy Acker and Cookie Mueller’s interdisciplinary art writing, and a collection of essays, articles, and dialogues on gesture in feminist art and writing, within which she will be publishing new research on Francesca Woodman’s photography and autoeroticism. This intersects with a new project on the interrelation of textiles, sickness, and perversion, as represented and performed in feminist art practices, that she is researching during her Fellowship at the Centre for American Art.  

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9 Dec 2021

Thursday 9th December, 5.00pm - 6.30pm GMT

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Photograph showing a figure with a ponytail, moustache and sideburns holding a lit cigarette.
Cookie as my ex-boyfriend, NYC, 1980. Photo by Gary Indiana.
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