„Only the Strong Stay Soft“

Christa Benzer on S_P_I_T_ 2019
 
© Belén Resnikowski 
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S_P_I_T_ Stefanie Sourial © Marija Šabanović 
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© Belén Resnikowski 
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Christa Benzer on S_P_I_T_ 2019

In the scope of S_P_I_T_, the Queer Performance Festival Vienna, which took place this year for the second time, the term queerness was charged with decidedly political content: the discussions and performances repeatedly revolved around “vulnerability” – a concept coined by Judith Butler, who has identified a potential for resistance in vulnerability.

“I strike”, Stefanie Sourial said in the Artist Talk on the opening night in answer to the question of how she deals with racist or sexist attacks on herself or other people. She had been a target for a long time on account of not wanting to label herself as a man or a woman, she remarked, now her skin colour is the focus of attacks.
Austria in 2019, one and a half years into the conservative/right-wing coalition: Considering what moderator Yo Kaiserin brought to light with the uncompromisingly forthright questions she put to performers Eric Abrogoua, Maque Pereyra and Stefanie Sourial, “striking back” soon seemed the most logical of all reactions.
At the beginning of the discussion, the moderator asked the artists for their preferred pronouns and then raised a much more difficult question: “Who are you?”
That’s a question no one can answer, right? The level of reflection apparent in the answers suggested that the question has always been important to the three artists as well as the moderator: “You constantly have to decide whether this emotion or that is actually appropriate, because you can only create your own self-image through permanent self-questioning”, Yo Kaiserin concluded.
By way of the open exchange of experiences right at the beginning, it soon emerged that the organisers, Denise Kottlett and many fellow-campaigners, add decidedly political content to the currently overused term queerness: “What was your most severe trauma?”, the moderator dared to ask in this “safe space” at some point.
Without going into detail here, the answers – which all told of the high potential for violence against trans people in Bolivia, France and Austria, too – lent additional intensity to the evening and the watching of the performances.

Denise Kottlett took up the subject of “vulnerability” (in her case, above all, her exhaustion) right away in the opening performance. An important element in the piece was exposure – not so much that of her body but rather of her “façade”, her face, from which she washed off the make-up with a wet sponge – only to start the procedure all over again: making herself up, rising to her feet, smoothing her skirt and carrying on. This is a possible interpretation of her performance, which was distant at first, behind various smiley masks, before she welcomed the audience with a sexy dance.

The greeting was followed by one of the announced highlights: Ah-Mer-Ah-Su, a black transsexual musician, gave a lecture performance that delved even more deeply into the subjects discussed earlier. The US American artist started her career in a homeless shelter. From there, her passion for music took her via Hollywood (Ellen Page was among her sponsors) and Peaches to the most notable music-video choreographers.
Her screening of selected video clips was peppered with political statements: she chose Portland, Maine, the whitest of all US-American cities, as the setting for the video for her song Meg Ryan – representative of all the white women who can make it in the world without any skills. In fact, Ah-Mer-Ah-Su is also skyrocketing with her music at the moment, but, according to herself, she only gained access to this world as a result of playing a role well.
Critical statements – including on white feminism, which never really included black women and transsexuals – served to bring the audience back to earth repeatedly from pop-musical heights during the lecture performance.

In contrast, the most apparent feature of Maque Pereyra’s performance was clearly suggestiveness: nine participants of her workshops danced together with the Bolivian performer, who invented Yoggaton – a hybrid of yoga, reggaeton and meditation that aims to release sexual energies through ecstatic movement of the pelvis and bottom.
It helped her to survive, Pereyra had said in the preceding conversation, which was still buzzing in my mind – including the fact that, as a result of her coming to terms with her trauma both legally and artistically, a new law on child protection was passed in Bolivia.
Her live performance on the first day was bathed in artificial smoke and flashing strobe light, and you could practically see the immense energy of the dance as it passed to the audience – just before Ah-Mer-Ah-Su’s concert at Fluc…

Pereyra’s performance on the second day was no less energetic. It was in line with the festival’s motto “Only the Strong Stay Soft” insofar as she commented: “Ticklish memories need a gentle massage to get softer.” In a way, Pereyra performed the term “healing”, which had already been used repeatedly in the earlier discussions, live: dancing to a reggae beat, pelvis thrusting, she managed to create a kind of feel-good atmosphere, and then, in the dark with a single light source, she emphasised the part of her body that was the source of her personal pain. In a silent monologue, she outlined a group therapy session before using a dildo to reaccustom her body to sensual touching.

This was quite different from the beginning of the second evening, when Stefanie Sourial showed highlights of her performance trilogy “Colonial Cocktail”. The artist, who, incidentally, describes herself as absolutely peaceable (so much for the beginning of this text), took the audience on a colonial historical trip on which she went in search of the origins of mixed drinks and strong liquors – in the given case: cola and rum. At an overwhelming performance speed and with great dramatic talent, she created links between sugar and a white man – Christopher Columbus, to be precise – rum and the slave trade. From cola she went on to coca leaves and the coca plant and on to Vienna at the turn of the previous century, where Sigmund Freud prescribed the ingestion of the distilled alkaloid from the coca plant three times a day.

After Sourial’s brilliant performance, it came as no surprise that she has also featured in Katrina Daschner’s films for many years, of which “Powder Placenta”, “Pfauenloch” (Peacock Hole) and “Plum Circus” were shown, selected from a series conceived as an eight-part project based on Arthur Schnitzler’s “Dream Story”, in which Daschner queers the original. The three visually stunning collages of emotions between fear, horror and lust are made up of stirring colours, art-historical knowledge, surreal settings, suspense-generating tracking shots and fantastic actors.
The films passed their live acid test with flying colours in the scope of the festival – the cheering of the actors present certainly helped. In any case, the film images displayed an impressive performative power in comparison with the live acts.

Eric Abrogoua brought the body back to the stage in a superb manner. In the opening discussion, he had left no doubt that the concept of “vulnerability” plays an important role both in his day-to-day work with his kids and in his artistic multimedia projects.
His exuberant performance “Ain’t got nothing on rouge Boo!” was about the meaning of the colour red in various social and cultural contexts – he negotiated eroticism, sex, passion, blood and violence. In the best sense of mobilising “vulnerability”, Abrogoua also expressed anger, pride, dignity, glamour, an impressive body awareness and awe-inspiring self-confidence with great dedication.

 

Christa Benzer is a member of the editorial board of the art magazine springerin and works as a freelancer for the daily paper Der Standard; she lives in Vienna.

 

 

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