S_P_I_T_ is the title of the format, but the body fluid of the evening is another. The fourth edition of the festival begins in front of the main entrance to Tanzquartier Wien for the first time. I and the many other people sticky with sweat, who have made it here through the sultry heat of the city, are standing in the passageway, enjoying the first, unexpected choreography of the evening: the gentle breeze sweeping through to cool us off.
But the wind brings even more delights with it, namely the sweet scent of fried onions. From one affectionate embrace to another and one quick chat to the next, I make my way to its source bit by bit and find myself standing in front of a food stall with friendly faces behind silver heat containers. Eat Meat Politically is the name of Flávia Mudesto’s project.
I am the kind of person who loses her appetite whenever food is moralised over. The answers and countermeasures to systemic problems such as industrial mass production and exploitation of the earth, humans and animals are neither to be found on the plates of individual consumers nor in their purchasing decisions. Moreover, as is so often the case, a latent question of class lurks in this train of thought: meat substitutes are often twice as expensive as meat. But no one needs to worry about that today because the food is, in fact, provided for free! Now that’s what I call a political statement!
Vegan meatballs, fresh salad, bread rolls, vegan mayo – the chef, the S_P_I_T_ curatorial team and the TQW employees are taking good care of us. When I ask Flávia about her collaborator André Rachadel’s share, whose name is indicated on a sign, the first thing she says is: “Emotional support.” Only then, she adds: “And help with cooking. Cutting and things.” The charming food stall, along with the cool drinks and the summer heat that slows everything down considerably, combine to create a distinctly relaxed atmosphere. This is what the first hour of the festival is all about: arriving, unwinding, eating, drinking, chatting. It’s lovely, I’m having a wonderful time.
The ushers inform us that it’s time to go upstairs.
The evening’s stage programme starts with a drag opener in Studio 2. According to the curatorial statement by Denise Kottlett and Lisa Holzinger, one of main concerns of the festival is to achieve maximum queer visibility. Being seen, being acknowledged as people and as individuals in all their complexity is a basic need we all share. Some are allowed to experience this more fully than others. The desire to achieve a balance by way of programmatic decisions is understandable. But is increased visibility a good thing in and of itself? Or can it be equated with liberation even? In a social climate where involuntary exposure is potentially dangerous for some people on account of their external appearance, an even higher degree of visibility may not always be desirable. Interestingly, though, it is often precisely the conscious step into the spotlight, onto the stage that offers the best possible shelter. And, beyond that, a chance at self-determined visibility.
Against the background of the severe repression drag queens are currently experiencing even in Austria, since they have recently come on the radar of violence-prone right-wing extremist groups, the curatorial decision to open the first day of the Queer Performance Festival Vienna with a drag act can be considered a clear political statement.
At the beginning of Madame Léa’s (Leandro Barros) performance Madame Léa and the Mask, we hear several radio sequences of queerphobic statements that illustrate this climate precisely. The recordings form the context of the group’s performative resistance. Which is delivered elegantly, in three languages and with utmost technical precision. The sharp claws of the “brown goddess”, as Madame Léa calls herself, sparkle in the blue light of the police siren. She sings: “This is my voice, my weapon of choice”, and I lap it up. Yasss, queen!
Words by the Black lesbian author Audre Lorde from her essay “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action” spring to mind: “I was going to die, if not sooner then later, whether or not I had ever spoken myself. My silences had not protected me. Your silences will not protect you…What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence?”
In her introductory speech, Denise encouraged us, the audience, to be generous with our applause. We didn’t need to be told twice.
And then there’s another intermission to digest all that’s happened so far. There’s a total of 40 minutes for us to talk, smoke, drink, eat and socialise. Then, the festival continues with Off track, where it gets turbid, the performance by Stella Myraf and Theo Emil Krausz. A mobile hairdresser’s washbasin and a few items of clothing have been placed on the stage. The two performers enter the room in an attitude of apparent indifference, taking no notice of the audience at first. They are completely focused on themselves. The first moment that brings a satisfied smile to my face happens during a change of clothes: the two of them stand facing each other, stripped to the waist. One torso is flat, the other has breasts. The person with the flat torso helps the other person put on a bralette. Hmph. The fact that society has such different views on nipples, depending on who they belong to, has long since been a source of irritation way beyond Instagram. Now the person with the flat chest is also being helped into a bralette. I smile and am happy. This is S_P_I_T_, things are done differently here.
The hair is washed and gelled, the clothes are adjusted, everything is mirrored in silence. The execution of the gestures seems almost crude to me at times, but also intimate, as among siblings. BOOM!!!, we have jumped from a hair salon and landed in a club in a flash. It’s loud, the beats are pounding, the light flickers, the two of them really get going. “Running against forces, rage against the machine” (not the band, but the feeling, the strategy) comes to mind. But so does my age, and my energy level. I sit with my tired body on the seat specially provided for me by the Tanzquartier team. Sitting on the floor or the low platform without a backrest – those days are over. Thanks to the seat, I can concentrate on the performance instead of my lumbar spine.
I think the last time I let off steam like that was in the early 2000s on XTC somewhere in a German techno club. I first met a friend of mine at a hair salon. She was an apprentice and needed a free model. We got along right away and went straight from the salon to a club after work. We admired each other’s piercings, talked about the importance of condoms for anal sex and took care that we both drank enough water while dancing to our heart’s content.
Meanwhile, the performers exhaust themselves on stage. Their energetic high-speed movements are only briefly interrupted here and there for one of the many changes of clothes and shoes. It’s a play with androgynous aesthetic that shapes the respective physical expression of them both. I think: “Clothes make people, clothes make moods, clothes make moves.” What remains at the end is a stage set like a teenager’s bedroom, the floor littered with clothes dropped in passing. What do I care today about who I was yesterday?
The history of club culture is not only inextricably linked to queer culture but also to worker culture. As a walker between worlds, I don’t fail to notice that dance and its aesthetics originate from an academic environment; even though it refers to practices and domains of workers here, in an institution of so-called high culture.
After this strenuous performance, there is a 20-minute break. To go outside for a bit, get some fresh air, maybe have another taste of one of the three dishes from Flávia’s stall again, and then on to the last performance of the evening: GLITCHBODIES GAME SHOW by Rebecca Merlic.
The opening scene: A gamer is kneeling on a small platform and grabs the joystick. A group of avatars appears on the large projection screen on the wall, and we are about to dive into each of their worlds. Both virtually and live on stage. All of them are active on Vienna’s queer performance and nightlife scene, and they all appear on the home screen covered in plastic foil, as if shrink-wrapped.
There are several things that fascinated me about this unusual work. I’ll start with this: collaboration is far from being the standard in Vienna. Collaboration across institutions, across scenes is rare. In her “queer and feminist futurist digital space” Merlic demonstrates that it doesn’t have to be this way, and how cool the results can be. While we enter at different levels on the screen that represent Viennese initiatives such as Haus of Rausch and Wer ist dichter?, performers Annemarie Arzberger, Alexandru Cosarca, Susie Flowers, Marie Luise Lehner, Danielle Pamp, Tony Renaissance and Sheezus appear one after the other, delighting us with their solos. Parallel to the individual performances on stage – mostly songs and poems, some in drag, others not – the gamer takes us through the respective (inner?) virtual world. Each and every one is enchanting. I am particularly touched by Marie Luise Lehner’s text. Watching a landscape of heaving chests and nipples, we listen to a kind of autoethnography of Lehner’s breasts.
Motherly care is one of the keywords in the short description of Merlic’s work that I read afterwards. Completely detached from gender assignment, care, for me, is the keyword that describes the atmosphere of this first evening of the festival. And community. Thank you for that.
Julischka Stengele lives in Vienna and works internationally as an artist, creator of performances, producer of texts, curator and teacher.