Kembra Pfahler revisits ‘The Manual of Action’ for CIRCA

Artist Kembra Pfahler will lead a series of classes in person and online, with a short film streamed from Piccadilly Circus in London, as well as in Berlin, Milan and Seoul, over three months until 30 June 2024

Kembra Pfahler, dressed up beside trolley
(Image credit: Courtesy of the artist)

Kembra Pfahler, the transgressive performance artist and frontwoman of punk outfit The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black, was still in the earliest phase of an idiosyncratic career when she debuted The Manual of Action, at ABC No Rio on New York’s Lower East Side in the 1980s. ‘It’s essentially a document, I call it nonfiction illustration – it's got drawings and performances and writings about each decade of the artwork I've done,’ she explains today, clarifying the work’s various forms. ‘I'm 62 now, so it’s been four decades, and essentially it’s a directive and a reminder, a way I can share with others my vocabulary of images.’ 

In its latest guise, The Manual of Action is a big screen-cum-workshop-led project organised in collaboration with the Cultural Institute of Radical Contemporary Arts (CIRCA). Over three months, through 30 June 2024, Pfahler will lead a series of classes in person and online; each week a new class is introduced with a short film streamed from Piccadilly Circus in London, as well as in Berlin, Milan and Seoul, daily at 20:24 local time.

On screen, Pfahler appears dressed in her Karen Black get-up of full body paint, big bushy wig and shiny vinyl boots – other times, wearing a Rick Owens for SSENSE dress printed with her own ‘sit in’ design – scribbling the class titles on a red chalk board. Watching the first short premiere in London last week she says, ‘was one of the strangest, most wonderful days of my life. It was so contrary to anything on the screens in Piccadilly’.

woman in full make up

(Image credit: Courtesy of the artist)

First introduced to Josef O’Connor, the founder and artistic director of CIRCA, by filmmaker Angel Rose in summer 2023, the artist has been overwhelmed by the platform’s support and speaks warmly of the partnership, which follows similar activations with Ai Weiwei and Marina Abramović. ‘I’m very proud to be able to participate. It was everything that I wanted it to be, which doesn't always happen,’ she observes, reflecting on the initial shoot that took place at Carroll Gardens in New York. While the films serve as invitations – to partake; to expand one’s notion of beauty – the workshops are for fans, artists and more casual parties to explore their own potential and reclaim a sense of agency. 

At its core an educational offering, the nucleus of the project is ‘availabism’, the concept of making the best use of what’s available, which Pfahler initially conceived at college and has subsequently employed across her practice. It’s this philosophy that she aims to pass on with each of the 12 classes, amongst them ‘Classism, Liminality’, and perhaps most crucially, ‘Volcano’. ‘It speaks to taking action and showing up,’ the artist notes of the fifth class. ‘That is very important right now. Since the pandemic, we've culturally imploded, existing in a very isolated fashion. So “Volcano” represents participating and showing up.’ 

woman in full make up

(Image credit: Courtesy of the artist)

Informed by her own experiences of the arts education system, Pfahler is wholly sincere about fostering a more democratic creative framework and her role as a teacher. ‘I’m a high school dropout. I flew to New York the day I was supposed to graduate to attend the School of Visual Arts in the Lower East Side; Mary Heilmann, Joseph Kosuth, Lorraine O'Grady, were my professors,’ she shares. ‘Besides two of the women professors, it was very painful and destructive and I thought, when I get older, I want to share things in a different way – a different kind of art practice, resources, ideas about forming community. That's when I started to utilise availabism.’

Invariably shaped by Pfahler’s distinctive feminist perspective (notably, 2024 also marks a decade of Future Feminism, the programme she first established with Anohni, Bianca and Sierra Cassidy of CocoRosie, and Johanna Constantine for a show at The Hole in New York; comprised of 13 tenets, it remains a vital component of the artist’s daily practice and life philosophy) she is keen that those participating in The Manual of Action will arrive at a similarly forward-looking disposition. ‘I want people to have a sense of hope, about the present and the future. Not to sound like a Hallmark card, but I want people to take away some really pragmatic steps so they can accomplish what they want to accomplish. The bottom line is change and hope.’ 

The Manual of Action will appear every evening at 20:24 local time across Piccadilly Lights in London and notable public screens in Milan, Berlin, and Seoul until 30 June 2024.

Zoe Whitfield is a London-based writer whose work spans contemporary culture, fashion, art and photography. She has written extensively for international titles including Interview, AnOther, i-D, Dazed and CNN Style, among others.