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!) 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!) 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.
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
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
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
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
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. .
 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.
 We love you J.D.! If you’re googling yourself and would like to be interviewed, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org!
 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.