This summer I attended a farewell party at Mx Justin Vivian Bond’s apartment in the East Village. Actually, let me rephrase that. I attended a farewell party for Mx Justin Vivian Bond’s apartment in the East Village. From early afternoon through the midnight hour, friends and loved ones of V came to drink, dance, and bid a warm and sometimes angry farewell to a beloved loft space where over the course of 2 years, the adored NYC singer, author, performer and artist flourished. Within days of the party, the apartment would be vacated to make way for a new condo complex called Avalon. A few weeks ago the contents of Justin Vivian’s loft settled into a new home at the Participant Gallery for V’s gallery show The Fall of the House of Whimsy. I sat down for a drink with Bond to discuss the show and the increasingly autobiographical direction of V’s work.
Adam: Tell me about your new show at Participant.
Justin: It’s called The Fall of the House of Whimsy. I chose that because it’s opening on Halloween, and you know, in Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher this house that this artist is living in disappears into a mist at the end. And, my house that I’ve been working in is disappearing in the mists of Avalon, literally, because the developers that have done the Avalon Complex are turning my part of the building into a 12-story condo unit. The original tenants will each get an apartment for like $10 each, but for the rest of us, we’re out on our asses. My intention had been a show of my watercolors, but shortly before we had to move out in spring I was lying in bed one morning and the light was so beautiful that I just got out of bed and started photographing my apartment. I really started meditating on how creative I had actually been in the two and a half years that I had lived there. I produced my record and did the Jackie Curtis book with Hilton Als. I did my ReGalli Blonde show at The Kitchen, and we rehearsed it in that loft, and we rehearsed the Christmas Spells shows in the loft. I wrote my book Tango, had amazing parties and met amazing people in the loft.
And became a weekly sensation at Joe’s Pub.
I was at Joe’s Pub every weekend while I lived in the loft, and that was a few blocks away. And, so I started thinking, about how, you know, not only how neighborhood has changed (I’m not one of these people who is resistant to change), it was just amazing to me how much able I was to accomplish given low rent and space. And you know, a lot of people and I’m not saying this to be egotistical or whatever, but I’ve lived in the East Village for 15 years, and a lot of people consider me to be a New York artist and a certain part of the New York zeitgeist, and when I think how frustrating it is for me to maintain a presence in New York and to make work in New York, and I’m one of the people who is quote-un-quote “successful”, how do we maintain it? And I don’t have an answer, but the show at Participant shows what is possible given space and a little bit of financial freedom. I don’t know what the hell is going to happen now.
You were living Virginia Woolf realness with a room of your own right?
Yes I was. And now I am basically couch surfing. I haven’t got the time to look for an apartment. I literally don’t have the time to look. My next creative project after the St. Ann’s concerts, the Participant opening, and my opening at Joe’s Pub is to create a home for myself. But I won’t be able to do that for a while, so I imagine I’ll keep couch surfing. But I’m putting furniture from my apartment in the Participant show.
So you’re creating a temporary home almost?
Sort of. I’ll be spending a lot of time on the couch and I’m putting my TV in there, so I’m going to have some sort of like late-night watch movies and order in parties at Participant and I’m doing a thing on World Aids Day with Visual Aids, a performance to go along with the film that Jimmy Hodges made with Felix Gonzales-Torres. And then I’ll be “activating the space” with performances and things like that. Maybe a few rehearsals of the show that opens Dec. 7 at The Abrons, Mx. Bond’s Austerity Measures: A Snow Job For the Masses. And I’ll be performing at Joe’s Pub again every week.
This is our autobiography section, so I wanted to ask you, though I’m sure you’ve talked about it with a lot of people, Kiki was a character that used bits of your autobiography, and now you’re —
Not too much of my autobiography.
But there were monologues, and there were things—
There were monologues, inspired by friends. Like the story of her stabbing Ruby with the knives was actually my cousin’s ex-husband brother got stabbed by his girlfriend. So that was a true story. And the Kiki character was married, she had a baby with a boxer named Ruby, and they were married – the real person.
Okay. So now you’re in a space where in the past two and a half years, you’re not doing a character. You are digging into your own autobiography, into who you are and also redefining who you are to a lot of people, making who you were known to people in a way that you want to be. Do you feel liberated to share this side of yourself with people? Do you find new challenges coming up everyday when you’re so present to people in a way that you weren’t when playing a character?
My art, and my creativity and the way I express myself I’ve always felt that it was very sort of like fractured in a way. I developed this character Kiki in 1993 because I was frustrated, and I was upset, and I was feeling underappreciated. The world was such a frightening place at that time. So many of my friends were gone, so I retreated, I guess. I always felt that Kiki was a capitulation because it made it easier to have this character to hide behind that people liked. Whether I liked it – it was enough that people liked it, other people liked it to a certain extent. And I’m proud of what it was. I did other things, but I wasn’t asserting my own identity. I was just kind of living so when I stopped doing Kiki and I went about rediscovering my own voice as an artist, I had no idea it was going to be so fulfilling; that it was going to allow me to unfold in so many ways. I said well ok, to find my own natural singing voice again, and my own voice as an artist, I am going to start writing songs. So that was an amazing thing, finding out the kind of songs I was interested in writing personally. And I started to meet other artists and musicians that were able to work with me in that way, and I branched out into this whole world of musicians and people that I really enjoyed who liked the same kind of music that I liked.
Simultaneously I started to draw again, and paint again. And I started to write things, you know, texts that weren’t necessarily meant to be songs. I was also diagnosed with ADD. So my ability to focus and finish tasks and stick with something - it was so hard for me to remember something that it was easier for me to play a drunk in her late 70’s. That was not only because it was funny, but it allowed me to work in a way that I had a lot of difficulty with in many other ways. I had a hard time remembering things, or I would get lost or distracted, so all those things coming together has been amazing. So for me, I mean my life is much more integrated and it’s great. I don’t have to do autobiographical things, but it’s just been really fun.
Did you go on medication for your ADD?
Yeah, I take Adderall. And my friend Tim Carpenter came up to me and told me that “Aderrall is my Madeleine”.
Ha! I’ve only taken, it once in high school, and totally had this same experience of just like, clarity. But what I hated about it is that I crashed when it wears off and had hard depression. So I’ve felt completely low and not able to get back up. So I can’t do that.
Well, I’ve never been that prone to depression. I mean I get depressed, obviously, every day but —
By other people?
(laughs) No, it’s funny how you can just wake up and be in a horrible mood, or lie or wake up and be happy and lalala. Yeah, but I guess, I mean I don’t get speedy from Adderall which is why a lot of other people like it.
That’s how my friends like it.
Yeah, they chop it up and snort it. I would never do that.
When exploring your own autobiography – do you consciously have places where you say “That’s more than I’ll reveal about myself. That’s too much”. Or have you put everything out for people to …
Well, I think there are places where I haven’t gone. Whether there are places where I wouldn’t go, I don’t know. I certainly never really intended to write about the story that happened with Tango. I mean not so much the story itself, you know, just the difficulty I had, you know, specifically that Sunday morning when I was on that couch and my mom had that, you know, quote-un-quote, “tribunal”, or whatever. That was really, um, that was really difficult for me to live through, and I never thought I’d necessarily be writing about it. But I also sort of found that, having had, secretes exposed about me that I didn’t even know were the truth at that time. I find that secrets kept can be really, really destructive. Keeping secrets, I mean I am a fierce believer in the truth. And I also believe that the truth changes. I don’t believe the truth is some sort of definitive thing that never budges. But I’m always more comfortable telling the truth than I am lying. And I always feel like I’m more of a slave to a secret if I’m keeping it. Conversely, I’d like to respect other people’s privacy. I’m not interested in writing exposes. In my book I change some of the people’s names.
Yeah, It’s interesting that you say that. It’s sort of Ira’s ethos, too. Like Keep the Lights On, this whole site, and this whole film, the whole idea is that the secrets are what hold you back. Being completely honest with people sets you free to be able to…
As long as being honest isn’t a way of punishing people. I don’t think that you should use honesty as a weapon, per se.
Right, “oh, you look like shit”.
“I’m just being honest”. Sometimes it’s good to say that, but sometimes it’s just vindictive. You have to know the difference, I guess. Being honest and being quiet, can also go hand in hand. You don’t have to say everything.
Would you ever do a show where you just went from character to character to character? You know, almost like a Lily Tomlin style show or something like that?
I’ve thought about it but the problem is, I know it would be great, I know I would be really good at it, it’s just not something I want to do or be known for. It’s a funny thing. It’s like you know, when you’re like, “what wouldn’t you do?” There are a lot of things I feel I’d really be great at, and that people would really like. And I’m just not going to do all that. For instance, I feel like, that’s what happened with Kiki. It was something I did for fun, and people loved it so much, that I just, you know, I wasn’t disciplined enough to really stick with what I felt was the right thing for me to do as an artist. And then I ended up going down the rabbit hole with that character for a very long time. And then you have the person you’re working with, and you don’t want to let them down by you quitting. Then you have, people offer you, whatever: off-Broadway or Carnegie Hall. I’m very lucky that these things happened, and I appreciate them. But you can’t say no when someone offers you Carnegie Hall. And the reason they offered me Carnegie Hall was because I told them I didn’t want to do Kiki anymore. And then they said, “Well, what would entice you?” Well, maybe doing a few concerts here and there. “Well where?” Carnegie Hall. And then they called and said “We can get Carnegie Hall”. And then I feel spoiled.
So there are things I can do that I think people would like me to do, that I just said no to. So that’s like, maybe like, secret talents and secret characters. I don’t want to explore those. If I had a place to live… I’m so sick of carrying my suitcase around. I think my next memoir is going to be called Nutcase with a Suitcase: My Life as a Homeless Trans [Adam and Justin laugh], My Adulthood… With Luggage, and a Brilliant Career.
Photos above by Jan Wandrag.
The Fall of the House of Whimsyis currently on view at the Participant Gallery through December 18th. Mx Bond will be performing after a screening of Jim Hodges’ Untitled on December 1st at 8:30PM at Participant in honor of World AIDS Day. Mx Justin Vivian Bond is currently performing V’s show ”Mx Bond’s Low Double Standards” at Joe’s Pub on Sunday evenings. For tickets, click here. Mx Bond’s Austerity Measures: A Snow Job For the Masses opens at the Abrons Arts Center on December 7th, and runs through December 17th. For tickets click here. Bond’s autobiographical book Tangois available in stores and online now. For details and more, visit JustinBond.com.