Queer Culture and Art After the Bubble: An Interview with SLC Alum Billy Cheer

We attend Sarah Lawrence during a dark time in American history. With the job market extinct, Gingrich running for president, and the media running essays on the worth—and worthlessness—of a liberal arts education every week, Sarah Lawrence students naturally wonder if their education even matters.

Sure, we all know about Rahm and Babs, but they graduated from SLC during more prosperous times. What happened to the students who graduated in the last ten years, entering the same dark world we will enter—a world with less jobs and more debt? It’s takes over ten years for an alum to accomplish anything Wikipedia worthy, so how the fuck are we supposed to know?

One tactic is to watch YouTube videos about artists you love, like Billy Cheer, learn they graduated from SLC several years ago, ask if you can interview them, and then discover they experienced situations similar to yours (i.e. Sarah Lawrence).

For those of you who aren’t art fags with Tumblrs, I’ll inform: Cheer graduated from Sarah Lawrence in the mid 2000’s and then started Fag City, a blog “to sketch out ideas.” After a few years go-go dancing at the Cake Shop and writing, he developed a cult following for his zines, blogs, and performances, which have been performed at the New Museum (gasp![1]) and several queer art spaces in New York City.

He may not live off his art, but Billy has made waves. And in the art world, public notice is a bigger signifier of success than any paycheck. (Look at  J.D. Samson: everyone at Sarah Lawrence idolizes her, but she blogs about her financial woes for the Huffington Post![2]) Plus, Billy is queer, from NoCal, and learned “the rules” from Melvin Bukiet: he’s just like us. Okay, okay. I know some of our SLC readers aren’t queer, from Cali, or studying writing, but most of us are at least one of the three. Regardless, Billy is a product of the bubble, and the bubble served him well! Plus, he worked as a go-go dancer, justifying all our dreams to work part time as strippers.[3]

 

Mitchell Sunderland: You’re most known for your blog and zines. Both mediums are D.I.Y., and both mediums are associated with up-and-coming writers and artists. You’ve worked on zines and blogs simultaneously. For you, what are the differences and benefits of the mediums?

Billy Cheer: I’m really attracted to writing zines and blogs because I like the

idea of having something immediate and visceral, which doesn’t have to

be polished or adhere to some formal framework. The zine is definitely

much more edited and put-together than the blog, which I use as a sort

of journal and to sketch out ideas. I definitely think (and hope) that

it makes the writing or ideas more approachable. I’m not as interested

in making a statement and taking a hard-line stand or something than I

am about creating and participating in a dialog. I don’t know how I

would feel about, say, publishing some 200 page novel that you’d have

to go off and read on your own and then form your own idea about, I

like the idea that you can interact with the writing and respond

quickly.

 

MS: We associate “fag” with gay men. You’ve written about how fag can serve as an empowering for word all queer people.

BC: This is sort of a tongue-in-cheek explosion of the idea that you can

reclaim and reappropriate hurtful or offensive language, subverting

the meaning and recoding the associations. On one hand it’s kind of a

very late 1990s/early 2000s way of looking at identity politics, and I

like revisiting intellectual/political strategies which seem obsolete,

or to have outlived their usefulness. On the other hand, I think the

notion of reclaiming and fucking with language is a perennial queer

past-time. We’ve always had to read ourselves into history, and my

favorite queer writers (like Gertrude Stein and William Burroughs) had

to literally break down and cut up language to find a new way of

expressing queerness.

 

MS: Do you consider yourself a write, a performance artist, or both?

BC: Definitely both. I don’t know that I would make the distinction

between the two. I treat writing as performance, and I definitely

think of performance work as involving text. When I have to say what I

do I generally say “writer and performer” rather than “artist.” Artist

sounds too vague, and I want to make clear that I am thinking about

what I say.

 

MS: Did go-go dancing serve as artistic expression for you? What do you find empowering about go-go dancing?

BC: When I was a senior and about to graduate, I had that panic of

worrying what I was going to do once I got out of school. Not just in

terms of making a living, but what did I want to do, what would seem

fun to me? Also around this time I was getting really, really into

Deee-Lite, and I saw an interview where Lady Miss Kier mentioned go-go

dancing after college, simply because she liked to dance at nightclubs

anyway, and at some point they asked her to do it professionally, and

it seemed like the best idea ever. It’s definitely a lot of fun, and a

kind of artistic expression. You get to be part of the party, the

scenery, which is an interesting vantage point, and you also get paid

to dance at the party, which is just great.

 

MS: I know David Wojnarowicz influenced your work. How did you find David? The media hands young gay men straight, campy women as icons, and you managed to find an icon who was both queer and male. Do you think young gay males need more gay male role models? What other gay writers have influenced your writing? Considering you wrote about Berlin in first person about a character modeled after yourself, I see some similarities between you and Isherwood.

BC: I first found Wojnarowicz when I was in high school because I was

really into Diamanda Galas, Karen Finley, Lydia Lunch and the late 80s

NYC art community. I’d been really interested in alternative culture

from an early age, I think because it felt more applicable to my life.

I’m distrustful of mass culture. I think that for young gay males and

queer people in general, our history is largely hidden, and we have to

really work to find our ancestors. Wojnarowicz was a big influence, as

are people like Kathy Acker, Jean Genet, William Burroughs. Allen

Ginsberg was really important to be from a young age as well. Finding

voices that resonate with your own was a really liberating thing, and

continues to be. I just read Larry Kramer’s “Faggots” which I did not

expect to love as much as I did. It’s been a huge influence lately.

I’ve never read much Isherwood but it’s been recommended to me many

times, so I think I’m about due…

 

MS: How has the AIDS epidemic influenced your work?

BC: I think the biggest influence of the AIDS epidemic on my work has been

the tragedy of severing inter-generational dialog. We lost a

generation, and queer people who’ve come of age after the beginning of

the AIDS epidemic have a tenuous relationship to our own history,

which is staggering. I’m really heartened by the amount of interest

lately (it feels like) from people my age and younger who are working

to reforge these connections, seeking out stories and testimonials,

and addressing the loss. I think of someone like my friend Dan

Fishback, who just did this amazing show about the AIDS epidemic,

thirtynothing“, which was really inspiring for a lot of young queer

people in New York, myself included.

 

MS: What was the queer scene like at Sarah Lawrence when you went there? Right now there’s a strong lesbian and trans activist circle, but a lack of gay men participating in queer organizations.

BC: This was also the case when I was there, as well. I think by sheer

dint of the fact that there are just fewer men there. It can sometimes

be a bit of a bubble, and people who are at very different points in

their coming out and identity process don’t always immediately

connect, unfortunately. It’s a process. People change and their values

change.

 

MS:  You wrote traditional fiction at Sarah Lawrence and becoming more experimental after you graduated. What made your writing change? What classes and professors were most influential for you?

BC: The old saying of how you have to understand the rules in order to

break them is corny, but it’s true. I think it was tremendously useful

to study how to write serious traditional fiction in a workshop

context. I learned a lot about the nuts and bolts of writing. When I

got out, I felt like I could sort of pick and choose what rules to

follow and when, because I wasn’t turning something in for a workshop

the next week. I could go my own way. I had really fantastic fiction

teachers there, like Nelly Reifler and Melvin Bukiet. I was deeply

influenced, especially in my second two years, by the faculty in the

Art department. I did studio art with Robin Winters and studied Art

History with Judith Rodenbeck my junior and senior years, and they

both totally blew my mind (albeit in different, complementary ways).

It was really the first time that I felt like I could participate in

the world of ideas, that it wasn’t something separate, that there was

a context for the questions I wanted to ask.

 

MS: What were your first few years after SLC like?

BC: Very interesting. Everybody says that your first year out is the worst

and it’s not so bad, really. When I was in school, I felt like I had

all these resources and time and energy to devote to art projects, and

I tried to maintain that momentum afterward. In school, I would, like,

write four songs and then just book a show at the TeaHaus and play for

20 people. It was great! And not that hard. I think it’s important to

give yourself permission to do the crazy creative project you are

dreaming about, because life rarely knocks on your door to give you

that permission.

 

MS: How do you balance your day job with making art? Has the recession affected your art?

BC: Both of my parents were working actors, so it was instilled in me from

a very early age that you can be an artist, but you also have to make

sure your rent gets paid. It is a struggle to live somewhere like New

York and want to make art and support yourself. In an ideal world, of

course, I could just live off of money from art, but this is sadly not

the case right now. I’ve had day jobs that made it really impossible

to do art and made me really sad, and I’ve had day jobs, especially in

the last few years, that are really supportive and make me excited to

make more art. It’s a process of trial and error. The recession hasn’t

directly affected my art, because I never really made money from it to

begin with, and that’s never been the point, and that’s not how I

measure success (thank goodness!). However, the cultural shift around

the recession has, I think, made it a very interesting time to make

art. We’re in a period in America of having to take a hard look at

what we value– and our country doesn’t provide much support for art,

either institutionally or socially, though of course we very much

value the art itself. I actually went and saw Courtney Love speak at

the Guggenheim last weekend, and she talked a lot about how artists

are more valuable dead than alive, and to simultaneously want to be an

artist and want to be alive (and have a good life) are sort of

contradictory impulses. I think the recession has emphasized this.

 

MS: What’s your opinion of Dixon Place, the Wilde Boys, and other popular queer venues in the city right now?

BC: It’s really hard to find regular and supportive venues for queer

artwork. Very often a space will open up only to close down a few

months later. Dixon Place has really stuck it out, though, and been

home to some amazing work, so I am always excited about performing

there and seeing shows there. They’re very brave and inclusive of new

work, which is rare, and wonderful. Wilde Boys is a private party, and

I’ve never been invited, so I don’t know what it’s like.

 

MS: Do you like/feel pride for the queer arts scene in New York at the moment?

BC: I gotta say, I really do. It’s a favorite hobby of New Yorkers to

complain about how much better things used to be, and while that may

be true, but I am also inspired and thankful to be part of this

community, and to get to see the amazing artwork I see here. People

like Earl Dax work really hard to keep the queer arts scene alive in

New York, and they do it by taking risks and booking performers and

acts which are on the rise, and connecting diverse scenes, art

practices, and communities. I think a big benefit of living here is

having proximity to so many other amazing people, and anything you can

do to forge these connections is worth doing.

 

MS: You said that you prefer New York to California. Why? Both are accepting of queers. What led you to prefer New York? Is there a difference in the queer scenes? How has California affected you?

BC: I think California is wonderful, and if I hadn’t grown up there I

would want to live there now. San Francisco is obviously a gay mecca,

and there are lots of really exciting artists living there right now.

I think I prefer New York, though, for the sheer population. There’s

just more here. More fun, more danger, more hassle, more intensity.

It’s more exciting. .



[1] Although I have been called “a hipster dick” in the Phoenix, this isn’t an ironic gasp. This is a legit gasp. Homeboy performed at the New Museum only a few years after graduation. He’s a BAMF.

[2] We love you J.D.! If you’re googling yourself and would like to be interviewed, email me at msunderland@gm.slc.edu!

[3] That last one is totally my secret dream only, but whatever. This is my interview. I will do as I please…unless Ella hates this, in which case I won’t.

Featured Image: Billy Cheer performing at SLC’s Senior Show circa ’05

Originally from Hollywood, Not California–a city in South Florida better known as “that town where Anna Nicole Smith died”–Mitchell moved to New York to study writing and gender studies. He has written for Thought Catalog and worked as a writer’s assistant to novelist Cara Hoffman. Next spring he will intern at the publicity department at Simon & Schuster. He blogs at mitchellsunderland.tumblr.com. Be like a stripper in Miami and follow him on Twitter (@mitchsunderland).

1 Comment

  • Reply January 30, 2012

    Kate Watson

    Really great interview!

    Reminded me of a hilarious and semi-historical video document featuring Max and friends from the time:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IPmBJyqIFEM

    This video is almost exactly 5 years old. Crazy.

    Best,

    Kate Watson ’06

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