My morning at City Lights started as usual: I answered my emails, checked the papers in my box, and looked over the list of tasks I was supposed to finish by the end of the day. Halfway through my regular routine, someone in the office announced, “Oh, by the way, Karen Finley will be downstairs at noon, if you want her to read your psychic energy and put it on a bookmark.”
After two years of being an intern here, this didn’t surprise me. It was just another day at City Lights.
For those of you who are less in the know about Karen Finley–as, I have to admit, I was a few months ago–she’s an acclaimed performance artist who shocked the art world during the ‘80s and ’90s, performing pieces that often dealt with graphic depictions of sexuality, abuse, and violence. She was one of the NEA Four, performance artists who were granted money from the NEA that was later revoked due to the perceived “obscene” subject matter of their projects. She’s written eight books, recorded multiple albums, and had an exhibit at the New Museum in New York called Sext Me if You Can, where spectators were asked to privately sext Finley so that she could turn the pictures into public art. When you think of famous, innovative pieces of performance art, Karen Finley was probably part of it or influenced the works in some way.
City Lights just published an expanded edition of one of her most famous books, Shock Treatment, to celebrate its 25th anniversary. The book is a collection of poetic monologues that are full of rage and criticism about the AIDS era during the late 80’s/early ’90s.
We were lucky enough to have her in the bookstore to do some psychic readings and sign books not too long ago, which is part of a larger ongoing project for Finley. In a previous event earlier this year at the 2015 Book Expo America in New York City, she sat down to paint watercolors that represented the aura of the people who approached her table.
This is how it works: Karen Finley can feel your psychic energy and intuit your past, present and future from the aura you exude. When the person sits down, Finley will begin to paint without a word, then write phrases that come to mind after she finishes. Afterwards, she’ll explain how these abstract concepts relate to your life.
When someone at City Lights explained this all to me, I was pretty skeptical. Psychic energy? Auras? I didn’t really believe Karen Finley could figure out my “essence” from a 15-minute sit down. When Karen came up to the offices before the event, my skepticism deepened. Karen seemed, well, normal and pretty down to earth. I couldn’t imagine her reading “my fortune.”
She soon disappeared from our offices and began to set up for the event in the main room. When I saw her next, somehow, she wasn’t the same woman who I had seen before. Nothing about her physical appearance had changed, but the way that she sat at her little table with her bookmarks and pens arranged around her showed that she was in her element. She was in control. The customers who were lined up for the event were shifting nervously in place. I began to get nervous, too. What would Karen Finley say about me? What if she told me some horrible, cursed future? What if she predicted an early demise? As the first person went in for her reading, we all held our breath, trying to anticipate what would happen.
After a while of waiting for the first participant to emerge, we started to relax a bit. Each conversation took a long time–Karen wasn’t trying to speed through the process. A man came up to us and asked us when the reading from Finley’s book began, and we explained that it wasn’t that type of reading. He got in line. When the first woman finally emerged from Karen’s spot, she was beaming.
“I can’t believe she knew all that!” she told those of us waiting, “It was fantastic. She’s better than I could have expected!” She wouldn’t reveal anything more. This pattern continued, one woman coming out almost in tears–although she assured us it was because she was happy. The knot in my belly intensified.
When it was finally my turn, I almost backed out. I wasn’t sure I was ready to hear whatever Karen was going to tell me. But as soon as I stepped into the room and made eye contact with her, I knew it was too late to turn around. As I awkwardly sat down on the chair next to her, she told me to scoot a little closer, looked at me, and then set to work. She quickly scrawled words on the bookmark, “Carousel, Maris, Marisse, Love, Joy, Love, Happiness, Stupidity, Drums, Commotion, Make Noise.”
As I watched her write these words all down, I was pretty confused. Besides my name, I really didn’t get how these were part of the makeup of my psychic energy. Once she started to explain though, it made a creepy amount of sense. I won’t get into my exact psychic reading, but I will say this: Karen told me that I would be a “bad ass drummer in a band” and that I should take lessons. It can’t get better than that.
But I think the last words she wrote were the ones that are the most important for me to remember and apply to my own life: “commotion” and “make noise.” Karen Finley has never been afraid to make noise about issues that matter. Shock Treatment, as well as her bold, critical performance art pieces, are testaments to Finley’s impressive ability to start a commotion, no matter the consequences.