On May 10, 2013, I spoke on a panel at the New Museum with Holly Hughes, Cynthia Carr, Emily Roysdon and Malik Gaines, organized by Travis Chamberlain, on the subject of “Queer Re-enactment.” Here are my notes.
to reenact is to perform again. in some performance art the idea of “performing again” may seem a transgression. hence, anxiety around the notion of “reperformance,” or, perhaps more shockingly, “rehearsal.” in the performing arts, this “performing again” is called a repertoire. my first piece in grad school. a video of an actor performing the opening scene from Christopher Marlowe’s 16th Century play Edward the 2nd.
My father is deceast, come Gaveston,’
‘And share the kingdom with thy deerest friend.’
Ah words that make me surfet with delight:
What greater blisse can hap to Gaveston,
Then live and be the favorit of a king?
Sweete prince I come, these these thy amorous lines,
Might have enforst me to have swum from France,
And like Leander gaspt upon the sande,
So thou wouldst smile and take me in thy armes.
i was raised in san diego, california, parented in part by late night cable television. this disembodied babysitter weened my brother and me on an unsupervised stream of of sci fi fantasies, set to synthesized music, that expressed – no, induced – anxiety about what i would later know as “the spectacle.” These films recurred in cycles on channels like cinemax, taken together they offered an alienated, mediatized, sexualized and sinister world of deformed mutants, vengeful clones, slick cyborgs, new wave femme fatales, alien media moguls, and movie-maddened maniacs. these films freaked us out, lodging themselves in our minds like a trauma, one we would re-enact with each other in our bedroom after the lights went out. i bought my brother a copy of looker for his birthday this year and when we put it on, we immediately recalled every word of the first scene, where a blond model recites her imperfections to a plastic surgeon, then is shot with a laser and falls out of a window. my brother and i are both gay. we took to camp early.
lately, my brother and i have been collaborating on a series of performances that take place in a california of the future. the advent of human cloning has lead to a regime of hyper conformist homosexual replicants. marriage between the gay clones is mandated by law. organics, as all non-clones are called, are monitored closely – and polyamorous queer dissidents are hunted.
i act as writer, director, producer and sometimes performer in these works. my brother, mateo, provides the music, live DJing his own compositions, soundtracks that recall the movies we grew up with. in the latest installment of the series, The Holo Library, which is performed as a staged reading, actors read from a script projected opposite the stage. The convoluted story imagines a moment in which the screens that inform, entertain, and estrange the people of this future world take on a life of their own.
what are my brother and i doing in these performances if not reenacting – restaging – reliving – the phantasmic, holographic, hallucinatory screen-lives of our childhood, a childhood that predicted much of the screen-based life we would come to know as our cntemporary monet? the mysanthropic sci-fi of the 80s was deeply misogynist, xenophobic, homophobic and archly conservative – with normal humans privileged over all the awesome alternatives they offered. i, personally, would prefer to be almost anything other than the protagonist of bladerunner or videodrome – and this how i knew, in part, i was queer. in these re-imaginings of the mythologies of the 80s that we grew up with, my brother and i are inserting, and asserting, a queer vision of our future.
wu tsang and i went to graduate school together at UCLA. our studios next to each other, both of us studying under the tutelage of mary kelly, we became quite close. both of us performers, both of us interested in pop culture, both of us working collaboratively – but not with each ther. ten years apart, wu is a trans man and i am what mary kelly termed “an old school queer.” when we were nominated for an art matters grant, we used it as an opportunity to fund something we could do together. after a lot of tequila and a lot of dancing and a lot of late nights, we found our mutual crush and our project: Yukio Mishima, the infamous Japanese writer, and decided to adapt one of his novels, Thirst For Love, a doomed love story, a meditation on desire and jealousy, two things you learn a lot about if you drink tequila and hang out in queer clubs late at night. I would act as writer, Wu as director, and we would switch off playing both the rich woman Etsuko, and Saburo, the poor boy who is the object of her obsession. We would also play ourselves. We sequestered ourselves in a Mexico city hotel with a film crew and acted out scenes from the book.
malik gaines and i met in 1991, right out of high school, and we fell in love – with each other’s personalities, bodies and imaginations. we started making below the underground theater in LA soon after, acting out queer versions of TV shows and historical melodramas for audiences of our friends. a few years later, we met jade gordon, an actor, and within minutes, a performance collective called my barbarian was founded. we have been working together for thirteen years now.
within that time my barbarian has taken as its primary strategy the appropriation and re-working of theatrical performance forms, morphing from art band to theater company to super hero team to encounter group to TV show production company to art collective, often renaming the group after the projects, assuming alter egos and group identities. in all cases, these representations of collective, collaborative performance propose and interrogate queer possibilities. two concurrent projects are the post-living ante action theater and the broke peoples baroque peoples theater.
PoLAAT restages leftist theater forms, from brecht’s epic theater to fassbinder’s anti-theater to boal’s theater of the oppressed, engaging pedagogical models, group participation, often taking the social form of the workshop.
The broke baroque ressurects camp classicism – a la Charles Ludlam and Jack Smith – with contemporary detritus of late capitalism, and it’s queer mutations, e.g. rupaul’s drag race, all within the framework of Baroque festive performance.
as a teen, i played dungeons & dragons, a convivial, relational game form based on chance – as in the rolling of oddly shaped dice – and role-play. nerds gravitated toward this pre-virtual RPG, asocial, awkward, but together, at our parents dining room tables, we could collectively imagine another place, ourselves another group – racially diverse band of elves, half-orcs, gnomes and dwarves – of whatever gender we chose. and it wasn’t a coincidence that these gatherings would often end in a slumber party, and that the games themselves took on a queer coloring, if repressed by adolescent anxieties and complicated by the homophobia of the reagan era and the beginnings of AIDS. a storyteller always, i often served as the dungeon master. this game is one of the origins of my own understanding of myself as a person, a queer, and this may be what i am reenacting in making the work that i now think of as art.
i am not interested in artwork that is satisfied to reenact already canonized avant-gardes, using modernism as a camouflage to blend into the artworld. reenactment of this sort interests me less than the queer pleasure and play of acting. and i’m not interested in straight acting either.
“Don’t tear me down. Why don’t you give me somethin’ helpful I can work with? Instead of talkin’ shit and making mean expressions,” he sings, accompanying himself on electric piano.
There’s been a lot of trash talking the Zeros. The Zeros! Some of us gave this decade the best years of our lives. Some of us were sexy during the Zeros, and had multiple partners at once; some of us fell in love, got married; some of us made beautiful music together; some had loving pets; some stopped watching TV; some of us cooked; some made art, and some of it was good; we all got older, and, if we managed not to die, wiser. So, wise up. Stop acting like we aren’t supposed to be dissatisfied. It’s not a burden to be critical of the circumstances of one’s existence: it’s awesome, and banal, and it’s the situation in which we find ourselves, together.
“Don’t tear me down, and I won’t make you feel bad to make myself feel good. I’ll give you somethin’ you can use to make improvements. Help me grow and I’ll return the favor. Face me critically but full of positivity.”
We return to the term ‘critique,’ because it can be inspirational. For those of us who attended and/or taught in art schools during this decade and/or others, there is ritual and revelation in the word. It describes a moment of reckoning! (“I have a critique today,” she said, breathlessly. She was defenseless, exhausted and hungry, when the group encircled her object, which inspired a stuttering cascade of concurrences and rejections.) In it’s active form, critique is the passing of judgment upon the quality of a work; in order to make this judgment, it is considerate to have a method for organizing one’s responses; and a theory to inform the method. There are those who survived art school and never want to hear the word again, but this reaction is based on a misunderstanding. ‘Crits’ (elides with the condition ‘critical’) can feel like a mortal wound, self-inflicted, accidental, or purposefully torn open by a sadistic classmate. Crits are never good; but a good critique could save the (art/life) world.
His voice is joined by harmonies: “If we’re open about it, when institutional thought is ruptured, an inspirational critique can result. A moment in which, for a second, all is questioned, allowing understanding of the situation that opens itself to new possibilities.”
We are embarrassed by the regime that occupied the US for eight years. We are embarrassed by the plutocracy that dominates the art world. As long as art is expensive stuff, this will continue, and though it’s not-new, critique is a means toward another order of things. One may worry the boards of museums have hijacked these places in order to improve the value of their own collections. Without commodification, we would escape the capitalist trap, but alternatives to commodities, such as performance art, can also be used to move merchandise. When performance artists become celebrities, they take on the aura of the commodity, and when celebrities become performance artists, the hegemony of the fame/wealth axis is entrenched. We imagine an exception: un-collectable art by no one in particular. Hence, a useful complication is collaboration: by undermining the authority of the signature/brand, we forge a collective identity that cannot be collected. Collaboration must be critiqued too: museums increasingly support collaborative projects and so are imbricated within these artistic productions. Everyone is implicated: artists become collaborators in an uncomfortable sense: they are working for a regime. Many artists who mobilize critique toward liberation fashion themselves the resistance, yet our circumstances are such that artists must collaborate with the establishment in order to be seen/heard. Political art, sold in galleries or exhibited in biennials, is not a popular front. It is a luxury good. Thanks to the critical space art objects must occupy to enjoy their status, critique is a roommate of paintings. The self-inflicted mandate of the institution to critique itself allows money for projects that address this complex. Money seemed to die this year, yet artists haven’t disappeared, and neither have rich people. We have a live/work space that can accommodate both, but the lease must be re-negotiated regularly. The privileged are often the audience for the demands made by artists, and though we may participate in protest, we find ourselves saving up for cute outfits to wear to parties where the deciders promise a temporary piece of consecrated real estate, a wall upon which to hang a note with the cleverly hidden message: “End the War, Help the Poor.”
All together now: “La la la la La la la la la la la la la la la la la la la La la la la la la la la la la la La la la la la la la la la la la la la.”
The inspirational is an embarrassment that shocks the affected into the productive aspiration to modify behavior. Inspiration suggests our own condition is conditional. Critique is motivated by and towards inspiration. Inspirational critique flourished in the Zeroes (thanks, in part, to the clarity of opposition to it), and will continue into the Teens, hopefully. The most inspirational aspiration is the conditional phrase, “I could love you,” which, when sung aloud, becomes a refrain worth repeating.