Art: Gianni Versace Harry Pussy

An Interview with Artist Kevin Arrow.

Kevin Arrow lived in South Beach in the 1990s. On Wednesday, there will be a screening of his Gianni Versace Harry Pussy at the Bass Museum. Here, we talk about murder, film and the dissolving cityscape.

As a teenager in Virginia, my first introduction to Versace was the media storm surrounding his death, as summed up by Eminem (“Hey, it’s me, Versace! Whoops, somebody shot me! / And I was just checking the mail, get it? Checking the ‘male’?”). So in a very specific way, my introduction was his finale. Gianni Versace Harry Pussy, with its wrecking ball footage, seems to be very much about endings, especially when you realize that Harry Pussy broke up in 1997, the same year that Versace was murdered. Do these two departures mark the end of an era for you? How was pre-1997 Miami Beach different from what it is today?

Andrew Cunanan may well have ushered in the most recent beginning of the end of South Beach’s Golden Glamour period. Gianni Versace was openly wandering the streets of South Beach like a free range fashion chicken. His routine was regularly publicized; morning coffee at the News Café, a stroll around the neighborhood with video camera in hand recording the local riff raff and the windows of the kitschy wig shops. It was a well known fact that his pool area was a decadent free zone with its high walls and private back door alley way entrance.

Harry Pussy was largely ignored in Miami Beach. They had to travel out of Florida in order to gain the recognition and acclaim that still resonates.  Their practice space was in the old Alliance Cinema which is now where Books & Books resides on Lincoln Road. That story is still waiting to be told. Everything seemed to be falling apart in 1996-97. A large chunk of South Florida was in a slow motion grand mal seizure and large segments of its creative community was leaving.

Endings always make way for new beginnings. I often ponder this cyclical nature of existence. I too left South Beach in 1998 for the greener pastures of North Beach, where everything seems to have been frozen in time.  Pre-1997 Miami Beach?  (As in Tubby Boots and Jake LaMotta?) My experience begins in the mid 80s when Scarface and Miami Vice was being filmed on the street of South Beach and the Amsterdam Palace on Ocean Drive was haunted by junkies and retired prostitutes.  The Mariel Boatlift was in full swing and South Beach seemed like a freakish William Burroughs lawless state.  It was a cheap alternative to life on the main land, renting abandoned store fronts on Washington Avenue or Lincoln Road and opening used book stores or thrift shop art galleries on a whim was common. It was in many ways like the Lower Lower East Side of New York City or like Alphabet City, pre Thompson Square Park riots, or like a homeless person’s Côte d’Azur.

Today it seems as if South Beach is again slipping back into a lawless space. No one is paying much attention, which is a good thing. The tanking economy was also a good thing for South Beach which in recent years was becoming over saturated and growing fat, like Elvis in the 80s. Perhaps now that the international attention has departed, South Beach will again fall into disrepair and the un-gentrification process can begin.

Tell me about filming this video. Super 8 film is a guilty pleasure for me, as it’s such a heavily coded medium. More than simply being “vintage,” I think that the film collapses time. It gets heavy play in movie prologues, be it Mean Streets with the Ronette’s “Be My Baby,” or Kevin Costner waving at the camera at the beginning of Field of Dreams. Why is this film so saturated with nostalgia and Americana?

Back in the day, my friends and I all ran around with cameras, the older the better. The day of the demolition I was out my bike when I happened upon this beautifully violent activity unfolding on a perfect Ocean Drive morning. The sunlight was glistening, the building was collapsing and dust was rising. I pedaled to my apartment, ran upstairs and grabbed my Super 8 camera which was already loaded with a film cartridge. Having studied photography, film and still cameras were like household appliances, similar to a blender or like a laptop or like the iPhone is now. The iPhone instagram photograph has been programmed to deliver instantaneous nostalgic saturation, for those who are impatient and unwilling to shoot and process film and file away photographic prints, only to be discovered years later at the bottom of a drawer or back of a closet. Thank the photography gods that E. J. Bellocq did not use an iPhone or digital camera.

You made this film in 2010, when the collapse of America’s infrastructure (especially that of Detroit) was documented/fetishized through Ruin Porn. The destruction of the hotel, and Harry Pussy’s destruction of traditional musical structures, complement each other. More than city planning, I’m interested in the aesthetics of this destruction. It’s like the invisible hand is smacking down Versace in an attempted correction of his gaudiness. (This is complicated because he ordered the demolition of the hotel.) And that Harry Pussy, in their almost Gregorian wailing, is offering penance for the decadent club music. Do you think that a recession spawns a defined set of artistic and stylistic choices? If so, could you outline some of them?

Economic recession and unemployment are linked to rebellious punk culture during the early 1980s Reagan recession and the collapse of the Soviet Union which spawned Black Flag, Husker Du and the Minutemen. Recession-era music: low-budget and danceable, or in South Florida’s case indigestible, idiosyncratic, over-the-top , violent, humorous and dark. i.e. Scraping Teeth, Harry Pussy and to a lesser degree Marilyn Manson & the Spooky Kids.

Images and films depicting time, nature, mortality, disinvestment all existed prior to the websites like abandonedamerica.us. Take The Americans by Robert Frank which documents his trip through America in 1955 and 1956, or Cocksucker Blues, which documents his trip through America in 1972 with the Rolling Stones as they were in the process of imploding and disintegrating like human skyscrapers.

The joke which went viral at the time of the demolition: What type of Palms did Versace put around his Pool area? Greased Palms. (The palms of the City officials who were drunk on glamour and probably the gift of a Versace designed change purse). HP was most likely responding to its own inner psychic implosion; working in a void, I doubt the decadent club music of the time entered their mind streams. In fact, HP was more decadent than any club or rave sound track of the time.  In my mind they were an enormous sonic vacuum cleaner or the musical equivalent of an industrial wood chipper sending forth purifying shards of sound. By Hunter Braithwaite

tc: temporary contemporary artist Kevin Arrow’s short film Gianni Versace and a live performance by Holly Hunt, a two piece instrumental band from South Florida, will screen July 19 at F@B fridays@thebass . $10. 7pm. Bass Museum, 2100 Collins Ave; Miami Beach. For info: bassmuseum.org

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