Dialectics of Queerness, in and out of the system.
The third and final evening of presentations of S_P_I_T_ Queer Performance Festival, which took place once more at Tanzquartier Wien, opened with a conversation between artists Hyo Lee, Sara-Lisa Bals, and Denise Kottlett, co-organiser and co-curator of the event. The main question proposed by Lee touched on the issue of what “queer feeling” is. The conversation developed elaborating on how queer feeling always questions the circumstances we live in, the traditional social modes of relationships, identity construction, and affects. What followed in the evening indeed discussed feelings, but I would say that, beyond feelings, it explored what I see as two modes of dialectics: a dialectics of domination and a dialectics of comfort. Before I continue, it is important though to comment on the use of dialectics in this context, as it is seen as a mostly binary tool of analysis – and we queers are usually antipathetic to binary structures. Dialectics here will be used to form constellations of contradictory conceptual vectors of power and affects that nevertheless form a relationship of interdependency.
In this sense, it seems already noteworthy that authorship is something that is treated as mostly a tool of individual expression and signature, even if all of the performances that were presented were collective efforts. If queerness – whatever that means, as one of its main characteristics is defying fixed identities, or so it used to be – is in its core dependent on expressions of individuality and subjectivity that defy the social norm, it is also dependent on those very norms to be able to function outside of them, as well on a strong sense of community and a communal network of affections and support. The tidal movements of these communal relationships ideally break the social, economic, and oppressive divisions of gender, racialisation, and class that conform to the system we live in. How important is it, then, to frame authorship within the traditional, systemic, bourgeois mode of individual expression, thus reinforcing the system that queerness traditionally aims at dismantling? “We are not alone” was a statement made by the three participants of the artist talk, but are we then alone when signing the artworks we produce?
Eat Meat Politically, by artist and filmmaker Flávia Mudesto, with the collaboration of artist André Rachadel, proposes that we develop a political consciousness of taste. Appropriating and making a “detournement” (to use Guy Debord’s term) of a text by Jean-Luc Godard that is attached to the mobile kitchen used in the performance, transforming the taste of vegan food seems to be the main point of interest of the artists. The fact that delicious vegan food was distributed for free, though, created the main political stake of the work, especially nowadays, when vegan food is available at every mainstream restaurant and market for prices above its counterparts.
The politics of food has been historically used by artists to deal with issues of communality, but also of class and colonial exploitations. More recently, being produced by women and queer artists, questions of representativity and emancipation of dissident bodies, or bodies that don’t fit the aesthetic impositions of the white, bourgeois, patriarchal system and standards, have also been brought to the centre of the cultural stage. Eat Meat Politically didn’t touch these topics in depth, or at all, but used, for example, the names of the dishes in humorous ways, addressing local culture through effective cannibalistic puns. Why not eat a tasty simulacrum of the festival curator’s flesh?
Leah + Johnny, by Sara-Lisa Bals, Kenneth Constance Loe and Valentino Skarwan was a tale of queer love and longing, set up in a subversion of a western “cowboy” story. Here what I called a dialectics of domination was made clear by the relationship between a “cowperson” and a queer, too-human / more-than-human, humorous horse. If in stories of this genre the “cowboy” establishes a relationship of domination with “his” horse, founded in colonial oppression, here domination is exploded in a myriad of affections that defy vectors of power. This constellation of contradictory feelings – freedom, sensuousness, humour, longing, belonging, ownership –, combined with beautiful, sexy, delicate costumes that relate to the BDSM scene turned sweet and free of gender impositions and power, becomes the perfect expression of what Bals defined as a queer utopia during the artist talk. Nevertheless, if I may contradict the artist, I would call it a heterotopia. Despite the term “hetero” used here – I apologise for yet another pun –, a heterotopia seems more appropriate for the un-definition of a queer space of affection, one that is “other” than the normative, that goes beyond human-human relationships, or relationships based on property, ownership, and propriety. Improper relationships that can actually occur here and now, in these places and times, that are distinct and divergent, resistant and always expanding, impatient about the promise of a utopia to take form.
Helena Araújo and Mzamo Nondlwana’s my gentle wild squirts started as an individual act, with Araújo alone on stage, to develop into different forms of presenting and questioning domination: artist x audience, colonial domination, control and oppression of bodies – bodies of colour, women’s bodies, queer bodies. Araújo wore a t-shirt with a tie-dye design, on which colourful flowers were printed under the word “primitive”. Costumes, all over the evening of the festival, were used as political statements, a fact that must be highlighted, as clothes and costumes are usually taken for granted in society as well as in performance acts. The humorous but strong statement made by the t-shirt penetrated the whole performance: the explosion of desire and eroticism as an animalistic act that defies the frames of language, the expression of uncontrolled desires seen as “primitive”, bodies that dissent from the normative social standard and are seen as “lesser”, “subaltern”, and are thus subjected to exclusion and oppression. Araújo’s use of piss, vomit, and wordless growls in the opening of the performance also diverted from normative relationships of self-pleasure. Nondlwana’s sudden entry as the authoritarian Goddxss brought an inversion of colonial power and exploitation, dialectically developing into an erotic duel between the two performers and the audience.
The action seemed at times strictly rehearsed, at times improvised. This opened its ends to an uncontrolled set. This strategy has been used in performance and theatre outside of the spectrum of queer culture, here the constellation of elements is celebrated by certain queer, experimental, social practices.
Vanitas, the evening’s last performance by Jules Fischer, Andreas Haglund, Ani Bigum Kampe, Julienne Doko, and Kai Merke, also had the costumes taking the central stage. Beautifully styled by Camilla Lind, they nevertheless showed a different side of politics, composed by pieces of designer labels such as Gucci and Maison Margiela. This fitted well with the overall aesthetics of the performance, which seemed to be highly informed by fashion images and choreographic norms, sometimes slightly numb, sometimes questioning, but never quite subversive. It was a beautiful act, but it leaves doubts regarding the politics of queerness: are networks and frames of care and support so important to the survival of queer persons, after all creating an environment of needed comfort, but also of numbness and queer normativity? Are we queers ending up reinforcing systemic elitism? Or does the performance dialectically, ironically address these problems? Is queerness losing its subversive power? Is representativity becoming a tool of the capitalist system and culture?
These doubts should already be much valued in a time when queerness seems to be slowly becoming mainstream in some cultural environments, and Vanitas – consider the title, which brings to mind narcissism and the artistic genre of painting at the same time, designed to remind the observers of life’s transitoriness – definitely touches these issues.
During this evening, the idea of liquidity continuously came to my mind as a metaphor for queer subjectivity. Liquids boil, overflow, lubricate, shapeshift, and hydrate, but might not evade attempts of conforming to their containers. They can also dissolve and diffuse what was a powerful tool for change. It is a good reminder that fitting into the containers in a quest for comfort can bring its opposite, a form of normativity that may again start reproducing exclusion and oppression, in and out of the queer spectrum, and eventually in the system we so eagerly need to dismantle.