Sunday, January 20, 2008

John Giorno

On Tuesday, February 12th, Art Metropole presents Everyone Gets Lighter, a performance by John Giorno. Giorno is an activist and poet, with many ties to the visual arts community. He was the subject of Andy Warhol's first film Sleep, which was shot in his apartment in 1963 when he and Warhol were lovers, one of his better known books (Cancer in My Left Ball) was published by Dick Higgins' artist book imprint The Something Else Press, and his Giorno Poetry Systems label published (an unrivaled?) fifty LPs and CDs of artists' recordings.

The label grew out of his innovative Dial-A–Poem project of 1968 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which made contemporary poetry available over the phone to millions of people. The LPs featured writers (Jim Carroll, Allen Ginsberg, Kathy Acker, William Burroughs), Fluxus artists (Dick Higgins, Emmett Williams), songwriters (Patti Smith, Tom Waits, Nick Cave, David Byrne), Black Panther members (Bobby Seale, Kathleen Cleaver), rock bands (Husker Du, Sonic Youth, Henry Rollins Bands, New Order, The Swans), filmmakers (John Waters), Performance Artists (Lydia Lunch, Laurie Anderson, Karen Finley), experimental vocalists (Meredith Monk, Diamanda Galas), sound artists (John Cage, Philip Glass, Glenn Branca) and dozens of others. The covers were often designed by artists such as Les Levine, Keith Haring and Robert Williams.

In 1978 he organized The Nova Convention over three days in NYC, with performances by Anne Waldman, Ed Sanders, Allen Ginsberg, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Laurie Anderson, Patti Smith, Philip Glass, Timothy Leary, Robert Wilson, Brion Gysin, Terry Southern and Frank Zappa. The event sold-out quickly due to the inclusion of Keith Richards on the bill. However, due to a heroin bust in Toronto the year prior, Richards' handlers suggested appearing alongside Burroughs would be a bad idea, and he cancelled at the last minute.

Giorno is a performance poet as much as anything else, having participated in high-profile tours in art and rock venues around the world, as a solo performer, with the John Giorno Band and on collaborative tours with Laurie Anderson and William S Burroughs (who he toured together with for more than thirty years). His readings are bellowed and stuttered, often with electronic modifications. Presumably Everyone Gets Lighter is a rumination on death, as the artist has never shied away from death and disease, either in his writings (Cancer in My Left Ball is a harrowing account of the surgery to remove his testicular tumors) or his activist work (he founded the AIDS Treatment Project in 1984 and continues to work as an AIDS fundraiser and activist). However, it is unlikely to be a strictly sombre affair - I saw him read in '94 and it was both dark and funny.

Giorno turns 72 this year. The collection Subduing Demons in America: The Selected Poems of John Giorno, 1962-2007, will be published by Soft Skull/Counterpoint later this year. One of his signature works, I Don't Want it, I Don't Need it, and you Cheated Me Out of it, is available here, at Ubuweb. An interview with Giorno by Hans Ulrich Obrist can be found here.

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