This essay was originally in Blog Salon at theoffcenter.org, and was first published last June.
During a panel discussion of queer choreographers and performers at the CSU East Bay Queer Dance Festival earlier this year, someone asked the $100 million question: What makes your work so queer?” Moderator and Dandelion Dancetheatre Artistic Director Eric Kupers was quick to interject:
“Or, how do you use queer in your work?”
For me, a better question may be How does QUEER use YOU?
Do I have a dysfunctional relationship to queer? Yes, perhaps. The myriad options queerness presents – in terms of its ontological possibilities as well as what potential it holds for my own mode of being – gives queer, the act of being queer, and the tactic of queering and performing queer a thorny and nebulous nature. An approach to answering this question of how queer can be used might start with the ongoing and complex theorizing around what, anyway, queer even is. A performance of shame or a performance of performance; a means of identification or disidentification; a survival strategy; a communal and utopic perspective on the quotidian; or —? Is it simply feminism in the era of the identity politic? Queerness undoubtedly owes much of its present incarnation to feminist movement from the 1960’s and on. The interrogation of gender and sex, and the emphasis on domesticity and traditionally unrecognized labor and productivity are all central themes to contemporary urban queer life.
Well, I am a feminist. I am a collectively-minded disidentificatory feminist mired in the ongoing performance of my own shame and embarrassment – so there is my simple answer to the question of how I use queer. But how does QUEER use ME? And why do I so often feel that a movement of queer performance for me exists not as a gateway offering potential bright futures but instead as the swinging door upon which I sometimes bang for far too long without answer, sometimes turn from and run? As a queer-identified performer who consistently works with themes of blackness and racial ambiguity, who owes their DIY aesthetic and conceptual investment in the temporal to feminist performance and minimalist video art, and whose source material ranges from speculative fiction to critical race theory, my work is QUEER as long as we consider queer to be ambitiously expansive and unabashedly inclusive.
Ironically, it is the investment in utopic community and feminism, so central to queerness, that drives the dysfunctionality of my relationship to queer performance culture in the Bay Area. I am far too aware of the many iterations of feminism and utopia that have been superseded by a “possessive investment in whiteness” (to quote George Lipsitz), and I understand all too well the means by which a white spectral presence can loom within and even construct the zeitgeist of a movement regardless of individuals’ skin tones. (See the work of critical race art theorists like Martin Berger and Africanist dance historians like Brenda Dixon Gottschild, both of whom discuss at length the nature of unnamed whiteness present in both plastic and performance art.) There is, anyway, an undeniable lightness to this “new” Queer Performance Movement in the Bay. But beyond melanin levels, there is also an approach to queer politics within this movement – as well as the tendency to leverage critiques of institutionalization and funding streams as justification against self-segregation – that is conceptually white.
That is to say, it is a movement that struggles with cannibalization, strict border demarcation, and a singular approach to the political.
I use the term movement – as opposed to community – intentionally. I believe that the queer performance community in the Bay is far more diverse than this Movement that is currently being circumscribed and dilineated not only by Robert Avila but also through allocation of resources and other accolades. And I believe it is the strength of this diverse and historically rooted community that presents opportunities to settle the dysfunctional urges I feel towards the movement. Our community is, actually, quite professional (even while DIY) and exceedingly savvy (even while critical of institutions). It is within this boundless community that I feel the potential for real growth – as opposed to the spoken of and spoken for movement. It is not the community that I feel used by.
Having said all that, I do just have one request of my community: If we can agree that queer performance in the Bay is indeed becoming a movement, let us please give language to it before everyone else does. Let us, for the love of queer, define it as exceedingly expansive, anti-hierarchical, intentionally and pointedly political, and truly feminist. The type of movement that we all have a stake in, and that closes its doors on no one.
[1. Indeed, this Queer Bay Area Performance Movement is unarguably homogenous in terms of body-type: light-skinned, able-bodied, cisgendered, and young.]
Anyway, here’s a few folks have I been watching over the past year, and would love to see some more of. NB: The Grotowski Workcenter, Walid Ra’ad, and Hennessy Youngman are not explicitly queer. But I feel queered by their work, I think their presentation is incredibly important to the issues artists are currently grappling with in queer performance, so I’ve included them in this list. Call it reclaiming…
The Grotowski Workcenter at the Performance Art Institute. A very very strange performance. Clearly influenced by Hair, a European articulation of spirituals from the Black American South, Allen Ginsburg, and acid. I’m not sure that any of the artists were queer, but everyone in the audience certainly experienced some element of that queer affect of outsiderness and collective discomfort.
Tina Takemoto at the SF Public Library for RADAR. She presented a short drag number addressing her gay muscleman fantasies of a real-life prisoner in a war-era Japanese internment camp. The piece was over-the-top campy, and at the same time spoke directly to the time-lapse phenomenon in queer self-identification and social construction.
Hennessy Youngman talking to his homie Jacoby for the Gay perspective on Youtube. Youngman is my go-to for up-to-the-minute critical art theory. In this episode, Youngman breaks from his usual news and views to interview a young queer gentleman wearing a golden turban imbedded with a video of a fish aquarium about what gay people are really like.
Chris Vargas and Greg Youmans at SFCamerawork. Their piece was aptly titled: Falling in Love… With Chris and Greg. I think I went on Facebook the next day and wrote something like, “Chris and Greg – the most important queer artists in the Bay right now?” That’s love.
Ralph Lemon at Stanford, discussing his various “buck dance” research projects. In particular, the very intimate projects he did in the homes of elderly Southern black folks who have some relationship to this early black American dance, which precedes hoofing and has its roots in Irish-American step.
La Chica Boom at the California College of the Arts Visual and Critical Studies Symposium. As an introduction to Marta Martinez’s masters defense, La Chica Boom performed her short burlesque piece Dominatrix of the Barrio, which ends in the fisting of a little burro piñata. Watching qpoc burlesque in a college lecture hall surrounded by academics and Ranciere-ites was strangely hot.
Nomy Lamm at Z Space with Sins Invalid. She sang some sort of watery siren song, dressed as a mermaid, while attending to giant snail and stork puppets! Totally brilliant and weird.
Philip Huang at the Contemporary Jewish Museum (to an audience of fine arts gallery types in the middle of a Sunday). Everyone was very uncomfortable. I believe Philip said, “What am I doing here? I’m used to performing in spaces where everyone is drunk and dying of AIDS.”
The Dandelion Dancetheatre Band at the CSU East Bay Queer Dance Fest. At the end of a full day of performances and workshops, Eric Kupers led a band in a prideful rock song and invited all students and performers on stage to sing along to the celebratory chorus. This was unabashedly adorable – like the kind of Pride I could take my little cousins to.
Walid Ra’ad, trying to move on from The Atlas Group. Where he used to perform his lectures in character as an historian and archivist, he now struggles to address this curatorial project as himself – a visual artist no longer interested in memory and collective trauma in the same ways he once was. His more recent lectures, which can be found online, are a very different kind of a performance: an artist struggling to distinguish himself from the identity he constructed through its performance. I think most queers – regardless of their on-stage performance history – can relate.