Regarding the Queer New York International Arts Festival
As I said when we ran into each other at The Invisible Dog, when I imagined all the people I might run into at François and Cecilia’s performance, you didn’t come to mind. It wasn’t that you would never come to mind should I imagine who might show up at a performance of dance with dildos in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn on a Thursday night in June. It’s only that, as I was on my way to see the dance with dildos, and I was imagining who I might run into—because A.) birds of a feather flock together, and B.) festivals tend to attract repeat offenders—you did not come to mind. So it was much to my surprise and delight to spy you, all on your lonesome, awaiting the opening of the doors (because nothing ever starts on time; more on this later), and looking stoic as ever in the face of pending outrageousness. And now, as promised, I write this open letter to you, attempting, as much as I can and cannot, to “explain” to you the first everQueer New York International Arts Festival.
It all began before it began at La MaMa, etc. with a performance (auxiliary and prior to the official start of the festival proper) of Jukebox Jackie, a glittery pink mess of a show by Scott Wittman based lovingly on the life and work of “superstar in a house dress” Jackie Curtis. If you didn’t know anything about Jackie Curtis before you saw this show, you would leave knowing even less. It’s a sort of collage of monologues, dialogues and songs from Jackie’s life and oeuvre. Very insidery, but then, aren’t all things queer? I mainly wanted to go because Mx. Justin Vivian Bond was in it. I must admit, Mx. Bond begs a bigger spotlight than this gig could offer (wink, wink), but V., ever the showgirl, delivered despite all that heaven allows.
My top five favorite moments: 1. Bridget Everett singing I’m Waiting for the Man. 2. Cole Escola (generally). 3. Mx. Bond singing a gorgeous song I didn’t recognize near the end, shrouded in pink feather boa and a projection of rolling ocean waves. 4. Lance Horne as leather-daddy musical director. 5. Mx. Bond looking the oily variety beauhunkcharacter square in the face and saying, “You’re part of a doomed culture. You know that. Right?”
That really applies to all of us, but mostly it applies to straight people, white people, rich people, men, U.S. Americans, and any culture predicated on the belief in its own supremacy, because, after all, like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our dominance. Even Roger Federer had to stop winning grand slams eventually.[Speaking of tennis, the thing I find most annoying about the arts scene (international or otherwise) is the fact that almost no one can speak about tennis with any competence. Tennis, simply put, is the greatest sport ever invented. I also happen to be pretty excellent at playing it. You would think, especially considering the remarkably international makeup of the professional tennis tours, that more artsy folk would be able to relate to it, particularly at a festival which claims to be “International,” “New York,” and “Queer”—all terms that apply, at one point or another, to tennis—but alas, no. Perhaps we’re supposed to relate over the “Arts.” But before I regress and focus once again on the “Festival,” please help me spread the word that this summer the Olympics tennis competition will be held at Wimbledon, which makes this summer a DOUBLE WIMBLEDON summer! Call it a Spotted Owl. Call it a Blue Moon. This happens almost NEVER, so please, can we all drop the pretentiousness and CARE about this?! Thnx.]
The first official part of the festival I attended was the unofficial pre-opening party at Out NY, the new big gay hotel in Times Square. That should be Gay—capital G—because I mean, there’s nothing less queer than a big gay hotel in Times Square. Well, maybe it’s queer in its own blunt sort of way. But come on. Mark and I drank our $8 martinis and, not knowing who he was, I hit on André von Ah, one of the festival co-curators. Wow! God bless alcohol, if there were a god. I also ran into Earl Dax, which was great because we hadn’t seen each other in quite some time. Dax is an official festival “Partner,” queen bee and queer dear; i.e., it was inevitable that I would run into him at some point, if only at PUSSY FAGGOT! (I will “explain” this three paragraphs from now).
Next was another opening—I mean, what is a queer arts festival without its openings, amiright?—this time for For Personal Use, an exhibition at The Impossible Projectfeaturing Polaroid photography by various artists (not necessarily “photographers”) including, once again, Mx. Justin Vivian Bond, among others, comma, etc. I guess the idea was that “mainstream” “gay” “culture” has gone away from its “sexy” “origins.” FYI, this is a very specific sort of romantic longing about the gay past held among certain circles. Long story short, people are really having a hard time with the ramifications of legal “equality” for queer folk. Call it assimilation or mainstreaming. Either way, why do I feel like everyone’s getting their talking points from episodes of True Blood? You see, way back when, long ago, in a decade far far away, when someone was gaylesbianortrans, this person was sort of by default a “lefty.” But all that’s changing now that we can (almost) marry and (so they say) not get kicked out of the military. Turns out Nationalism is a stronger foundation on which to build one’s identity than gender/sexuality. And this makes some people sad.
But back to the exhibition, which was like queer strategies gone awry. The Polaroids of each artist looked virtually the same. I could hardly tell Josh McNey’sscrotum from V.’s nipple. And each artist was allotted exactly five images that were displayed on the walls in exactly the same format. The new fascism arrives. Conformity is fine if it’s for an exhibition of “art.” The art is queer but the exhibition is uniform! Aesthetics are the new Ideology, or maybe they are the Old Ideology. All I know is, I’m really getting tired of the kind of bullshit people justify with aesthetics. I’m not saying that this exhibition was bullshit. I’m just saying I’d like not to have felt out of place because I was wearing seersuckers. As soon as Mark arrived, we bolted.
After an overpriced dinner at one of those “authentic” touristy Italian replica restaurants in L’il It’ly, we went to Earl Dax’s PUSSY FAGGOT! (9-10 open vodka bar, m’okay?) PUSSY FAGGOT! is a party. Occasionally, there are performances. I caught some of gadabout town Justin Sayre’s monologue. Very southern. Very dusty. Very boy-vs-man-vs-woman. Back at the bar, who should I run into but none other than STAR CRITIC Claudia La Rocco (known once upon a blog as L. Ro.), by whom I was asked to do this write-up in the first place. What a relief to see L. Ro. in her natural habitat—at a queer performance party, surrounded by smart people, and drinking. This was the queer performance I had been waiting for. We all hung out for a spell and then dipped down to the basement to catch some more of the authorized performances. Carmelita Tropicanawas tearing up the soap box. Fun and feisty but something about what she was doing felt so rote, almost as if she hasn’t questioned her own tactics since the 80s, which were nothing if not the greatest most grittiest era ever of queer art and no gentrified assimilationist fags of today can EVER EVER hope to do anything as authentic, edgy or sexy/dirty as those fags of yesterday half of whom are no longer with us and lucky for them because they don’t have their own legacy to live up to anymore I mean there is NOTHING worse than having to live up to your own legacy except for maybe being normal which amounts to there’s nothing worse than being average or there’s nothing worse than NOT TRYING TO BE DIFFERENT which isn’t necessarily true but sometimes that’s just what it amounts to and I apologize for the careless AIDS reference people who got AIDS were not lucky quite the opposite in fact but really if I hear one more person lament how the queers of today are somehow of less inherent interest/value because we are not making art during the middle of the AIDS crisis I am going to personally go out and get an HIV test (again) just so I can find out whether or not I actually have a chance at being a queer person of merit/interest/talent—cross fingers!
(Alastair, I know you’re British and of a more formal temperament, so I’m taking a little extra time to acclimate you to the queer American present, which can be a pretty infuriating if entirely indecipherable thing to comprehend. And that’s sort of what this festival was trying to do—make us comprehend something about the present moment. Although, I’ll be honest, I’m not entirely sure I understand what went on. It was a queer festival of international arts in New York. But what is queer? And what is international? And what, may I ask, is New York?)
The actual first “international” arts I saw was Macadamia Nut Brittle by Stefano Ricci and Gianni Forte. I did not see them at the replica restaurant in Li’l It’ly, but they are Italian. The performance was pretty gay. Maybe even queer, but mostly gay. Three attractive male performers and one older female performer/clown/punching bag. This is a “theme” of gay performance, apparently. I’ve been talking about this with Claudia, actually: The role of misogyny in gay-male performance. I tried to explain (excuse?) this to Claudia as a byproduct of compulsive heterosexuality, where gay boys, growing up, were expected to revere, and protect, and desire, and want to fuck, and want to marry and live forever with the female body. The rejection of the female as an object of desire might come across as ugly, but it’s vital in some way and has its own political merit. However, the end product is the rejection of the female, an already rejected (or minoritized) person, by men. Gay men. But men nonetheless. So the politics of the rejection of the female by the gay male fall into some tricky areas, and, as L. Ro. picked up on, can read as men demeaning women—again. Maybe it’s something the gays can get over, or at least get to in more interesting/less obvious ways. But until gay boys are allowed to have men be their sexual and social objects of desire from the get-go, there might always be some backlash against the ladies in gay art. At any rate, the woman is tied up and slapped and tortured by one of the hot skinny men. This hot skinny man later dons a plushy bunny rabbit suit and is subsequently tortured, degloved (look up this term at your own peril, but yes, it means exactly what it sounds like) and skinned from the neck down. There is a semi-drag number with blood and music from Dream Girls. There are masks from The Simpsons and kiddie tents and the whole thing ends rather mysteriously.
Next was Marlene Monteiro Freitas, who is from Cape Verde, a place I had to Google because I had no idea it was an actual country—color me red, white, and blue. I saw Marlene perform in Trajal Harrell’s (M)imosa, and I was curious to see her solo. However, on the day I was scheduled to see her performance, I was in the WORST mood in the world because my hero on this earth, Serbian Novak Djokovic, the number one ranked male tennis player in the world had lost to Spaniard Rafael Nadal, the number two ranked male tennis player in the world, on a rain-delayed Monday final at the French Open, aka Roland Garros, and lost his opportunity to hold all four grand slam titles at once. Instead Rafa made history by surpassing Björn Borg’s record of six Roland Garros trophies by reaching seven. Seriously. I was angry and feeling very antisocial, which is a big no-no in a social world. And, if you didn’t already know, the art world is a social world, and so being antisocial can be a huge liability. So I got to Abrons and—OF COURSE—the show was not anywhere close to starting on time. Not being able to face the public, I opted for waiting outside instead of being crammed into the hot foyer of the Abrons playhouse. I really couldn’t handle having to deal with people, but I really wanted to see the show. P.S. This whole showsneverstartingontimeindowntownperformance thing has gotten so out of hand. It’s not something I normally mind. Usually, it’s Mark who finds the whole starting late thing entirely unprofessional. What can I say? A girl is entitled to her standards. At 8:10pm, when the doors were still not even open, I made a pact with myself and said if it gets to 8:15pm and the doors of the theater still haven’t opened, I’m out of here. Naturally, the door opened at 8:14pm on the dot. So I went inside, still avoiding eye contact with anything even remotely human, and as I entered the playhouse I was overtaken by the urge to rush up to the very front row of the theater where I was sure no one else would be sitting. I was correct, and I waited patiently for the show to begin, or should I say “begin,” since, like basically everything now, it was already in-progress as the audience entered. Marlene was cloaked in a boxer robe and theatrical smoke filled the theater. A large blue swath of carpet covered the back wall, the stage, and spilled out into the auditorium. Then suddenly, Marlene had thrown off the robe and was planted one stage, directly in front of me, shaking her hips to a hot drum beat, and making wild faces at me. This was the show. For like twenty minutes. Just me and Marlene. I literally could not see another person in my peripheral vision. It was like I was getting my own private Idaho. The only evidence that other people were present was the occasional rustling of plastic, the brush of fabric shifting in seats, or a cough or whisper every now and then. But really, it was me and Marlene. Her presence really pulled me out of my bullshit. It was visceral. I just sank into my seat and soaked up what she was giving. I watched her toes wiggle on the carpet as her hips gyrated endlessly. As she began to sweat, her makeup began to smear and her face shape-shifted with mercurial agility from one expression to another. You HAVE to sit in the front row from now on, Alastair. Performance is an entirely different art form that close. Years ago I was at a discussion at the BAM Harvey Theater with the filmmakers Barbara Kopple and Albert Maysles, and during the discussion, Albert Maysles said something about how the new smaller cameras developed by the 1970s allowed documentary filmmakers to get into peoples’ homes and, effectively, to get closer to the truth. During the Q&A, I asked Albert Maysles to speak in more detail about how closeness relates to truth. He didn’t really get what I was asking, even though it was directly in response to something he had said. But that is beside the point. The point is, I suppose, that being so close to this performance made me think of what Albert Maysles had said, and now I think that maybe any review of dance/performance that isn’t given from the perspective of the front row might be less truthful. I mean, is it possible that the entire cannon of performance criticism not given from the perspective of the front row is completely a lie??? Please respond to this. Other things happened in this performance. As Mark usually says after everything I drag him to, “It could have been shorter.” But the opening was everything, and could have been the only thing. I suppose people feel compelled to put on a show. As I walked out of the theater, I ran into Claudia—again!—and we went out for gentrifiedMexicanfoodexperiencewithattitude and talked about a lot of things.
Next up was…a symposium! This symposium—“How Queer Everything Is Today!”—was supposed to have answered all of our questions about what queernewyorkinternationalarts is. Just kidding. But it was supposed to provide an opportunity for people to ask more questions, discuss, and hopefully, leave feeling better about the world. Just kidding. I don’t know what the goal was. It was supposed to have been, technically, a “long table” event, inspired by “The Long Table” event invented by Lois Weaver, where people sit around a long table with food and drink and talk about things, and people watching around the periphery can jump in and kick someone off the table so that they can participate. It’s supposed to be “democratic.” Well, there was no food at this long table, and there wasn’t really a peripheral audience, but there was at least a long table and some bottled water. Some people had a lot to say. I eventually had some things to say. And yet more people had some completely stupid things to say. I didn’t say that to anyone then, because that would have been rude. But, in the end, people will always say stupid things about complex things. My biggest issue was about the legibility of queerness, or being queer. A very articulate participant at the event—let’s call him Yve—challenged the idea of “being” queer. Everything queer is linguistic, and maybe a lot of it comes down to splitting semantic hairs. But basically, I maintain that one can “be” queer, and that queer people are real and queer. To me, “being” and “doing” are the same thing. What do you think? It matters, I guess, because people were at the looooooooong taaaaaaaaaaable asking, “Well, what is queer performance?” And, “Is there a queer aesthetic?” The astounding elision of queer art and queer life aside, the discourse on legibility is vital to any conversation about queerness. For instance, I was walking down Washington Avenue in Brooklyn one day with a coworker, and I saw this total queen walking toward us, and I said to coworker, “Look at that queen!”, or something like that. And coworker was like, “How do you know that guy is gay? You can’t tell someone’s gay just by looking at them.” And I was like, “What planet do you live on where you can’t tell if someone’s gay just by looking at them?” We can tell if people are gay just by looking at them. Not always. But often. That’s how gay people find each other, by looking at each other, reading cues, and, once assured, having sex with each other in the a public bathroom. The history of queer survival is the history of using and subverting legibility. But we’re taught, in a very P.C. sort of way (that’s “politically correct,” not “personal computer”), that a person’s sexuality is their own private business and that, not only is it rude to identify perceived queerness in others (I know I’m exchanging gay and queer, but I just CAN’T makes space in this tiny little article for a full-blown exposition on these terms), but it supposedly isn’t even possible to read someone’s gayness/queerness by sight alone. WELL, the very next week, I was walking down the same damn street, alone, and I came upon a group of high school students. As I passed them, they hollered at me, “Are you gay? Hey, mister! You gay?” Instead of turning and addressing them directly, I simply kept walking and then began to sway my hips saucily from side to side. After a brief pause, the group burst into riotous laughter and then they began to yell “Faggot! Faggot!” as I ducked into the subway station and prayed not to be hit in the head with a rock or followed. THE POINT IS, queerness resides in this terrifying space of being simultaneously conspicuous and invisible. Queer people more or less play with (in)visibility to suit their needs as individuals. Society often picks up on these cues, often defining them in the first place, usually with pejoratives. But WHATEVER! It’s just life.
The last thing I went to in the festival was François and Cecilia’s dildo dance at which we ended up sitting side by side. And you know, I can’t really explain that one to you. Two people dancing around with giant translucent dildos stuffed up their assholes. Is that queer? Or is it just utopia? I’m pretty sure we could all use a little anal dilation.
Yours in queer criticism,