Filed under: art, Dance | Tags: 20 rue jacob, burlesque, charli brissey, courtney harris, gender, genderqueer, left of canvas
On May 22-23, I was part of an event called 20 Rue Jacob which was conceived, choreographed, and directed by Courtney Harris and Charlie Brissey. It was a multi-media event that was simultaneously a live performance, an art exhibit, a dance party, and a contemporary salon, featuring dance, video, installation sculpture, text, and burlesque. You can read more about the event here; in this post, I want to reflect a bit on my own choreography and performance, and share the text that I wrote for the solo that I performed.
Inspired by the work of painter Romaine Brooks and the famous salons hosted by Brooks’ lover, writer Natalie Barney, on the Left Bank of Paris in the 1920s, 20 Rue Jacob was intended as a contemporary reimagining of a queer past, the communities and spaces in which gender and sexuality, their fluidity and performance, have been explored. Since Courtney and Charli first invited me to be a part of this project, I knew that I wanted to create a piece that referenced the culture of an intellectual salon while also drawing on my own work as both a scholar and a performer. The piece also emerged from a kind of characterization, if not a character: last year I performed in a short film entitled Left of Canvas, also directed by Brissey and Harris and also inspired by the life and work of Romaine Brooks. In that film, my role is intentionally ambiguous. I am an unnamed figure at a kind of historical queer dance party, a femme-androgynous person who moves promiscuously through those in attendance, exuding sensuality and eroticism through glances, touches, brief dances, lingering embraces, roaming hands and tender kisses. In the film, I am all desire and desiring, drawing close and closer, drifting away, and coming back again. For 20 Rue Jacob, I wanted my characterization to retain both the ambiguity and effluence of eroticism that I perform in Left of Canvas—which was projected in a series of video installations throughout the Hoffheimer Building where 20 Rue Jacob was staged—while also embodying the hybrid figure of a genderqueer scholar and burlesque dancer. The foundation for the piece is a spoken text, something between a manifesto and a lecture, the kind of text one might hear from a philosopher at a salon sharing provocative or innovative ideas about society and culture. The text was also an exercise in articulating the fairly complex critical theory of gender and sexuality that I study in a relatively succinct and accessible format. In doing so, I wrote a series of statements, my own words, without quotations or direct citations—while also carrying the undeniable influence of scholars and writers such as Judith Butler, Kate Bornstein, Susan Stryker, and Sandy Stone.
During my delivery of this text, I moved around a central space surround by elegant antique seating within a huge ballroom on the second floor of the Hoffheimer Building. Dressed in a floor length satin gown, black satin evening gloves, black heels, a brocade shawl and strands and strands of pearls, I walked around the space, making eye contact with the audience. My movements accompanying the text were choreographed, simple, demonstratively gendered gestures abstracted from the self-touching and teasing of a burlesque dancer or strip tease. I say “abstracted” because I think, at the beginning, it was potentially not quite clear that this was a strip tease, that I was or would be a burlesque dancer; in a sense, this revelation itself was part of a “reveal.” As the text developed, I began to remove layers of clothing, first the shawl, then a glove, then the other glove, unzipping my dress, slipping the straps off of my shoulders, then eventually letting the dress fall to the ground. The strip tease was intended to supplement the text and also provide it with dimension: these spoken words are not merely “theory.” I am talking about real lives, real bodies, the living flesh of my own body. My presentation of my genderqueer body was there alongside and beneath my words; receiving the gaze of the audience as I undressed, it could also be overwritten, re-dressed by the text that I spoke.
There were also moments of interaction in the piece. During one line, I approached another performer, came up close, pressed my body against his as he wrapped his arms around my waist. During another line, I approached another performer who—at very specific moments—slapped me in the face to punctuate the reality that dissenting from the gender binary risks punishment, even violence. At the end of the piece, the performer who slapped me—John Domborski—retrieved my dress crumpled on the floor, brought it to me, then helped me as I got dressed there in front of the audience as the next performance began, with a text written by Gertrude Stein. These fleeting interactions introduced to the piece that the ideas delivered through the text are not only theoretical and not only liver by real bodies; they are also social, relational, entangled with intimacy and conflict, desire and disdain.
I hope to provide photo and video documentation of the piece at some point, but for now, here is the text that I wrote/spoke, annotated with descriptions of the choreography:
[Entering the space, I pause and pose at the center of the ballroom: elbows back, shoulders down and very slightly twisted to narrow my silhouette, leaning into one hip, my hands lying lightly on my chest. Posture is integral to gender presentation: how I stand, how I move, how I hold my arms and shoulders and hips are all mechanisms that participate in what will or will not be perceived as feminine. When I begin to speak, I move through a series of gestures, stroking the satin and skin of one arm with my fingertip, my arms swiping seductively across my body.]
“Gender is an activity, something we are given to perform and that we continue to perform repeatedly over time.
[I repeat this series of gestures in three directions as I speak, moving with the text and also moving through silence. Each gesture takes all of the time it takes, luxuriating in the air and lingering across my body. The sustained pacing invites anticipation. With each gesture, I allow my shoulders and hips to push and pull in counterpoint to each other, a continuous tilting and twisting to produce postures that seem to sink into repose.]
By performing it constantly, gender appears to be static, stable, or fixed. It is not.
[I face the fourth direction and slide my hands lightly, sensuously down my bosom, my waist, my hips, my groin.]
No one was born a woman or born a man. These are roles we are assigned.
[I spread my arms wide, opening my shawl, letting it drape across my back, and then fall to the floor. I walk towards the audience, each step careful and measured, crossing one foot in front of the other, and my eyes lock with a man I do not know in the crowd.]
Any person who is called a man performs an approximation of an idea, an approximation of an ideal, an approximation that has already failed.
[Peeling off my left glove as I speak, sliding my hand across my chest, I hold his gaze with mine, knowing that while my gesture is potentially seductive, my words are an indictment. As I speak the word “failed,” the glove snaps softly off of the tips of my fingers.]
Any person who is called a woman performs an approximation of an idea, an approximation of an ideal, an approximation that has also already failed.
[Moving around the edge of the audience, my eyes meet those of a manly woman. I peel the glove off of my right hand as I speak and hand the gloves to the woman.]
Gender categories are aggregates of characteristics—behavioral, physical, chemical, sartorial, choreographic.
[I move back towards the center of the space and pose with each word: miming putting on makeup; stroking my hands down the front of my body until I am bent over, fingers at my ankles; sliding my fingertips back up my body; pressing my hands into my hips, my elbows forward, my belly concave, a model in the pages of Vogue; leaning forward slightly, my left hip jutting back, draping my right arm overhead like Nijinsky in Le Spectre de la Rose.]
The more characteristics correspond with a given gender, the more successful the approximation of the category. The more the code does not add up, the more the approximation fails.
[I turn and face another direction, repeating the series of poses.]
These gender codes do not stop at the skin. Biological sex is the attribution of a set of meanings to a body. When we say, “It’s a boy!” or, “It’s a girl!” we are saying: we have already decided what your body means, and that set of meanings will constrain and enable what you can do, how you can live, how you can desire, how you can love. Or be loved.
[Here my voice gets louder as I walk in long strides perched precariously atop six-inch heels around the edge of the audience encircling me. On this line, my voice and presence feel rallying, more like a suffragette than a lecturer.]
Yes, gender is also a matter of desire: Who or what would you be if you found yourself desiring someone whose gender is ambiguous or shifting?
[I approach one of the other performers, Nikolai McKenzie. I look into his eyes, our faces almost touching, then turn, press my back against his front as he wraps his arms around my waist. As I say the word “shifting,” I take a few steps forward, and his arms drift open, trailing behind me as I move on. I turn and walk towards another performer, John Dombroski.]
You can fuck with the codes, but do so at your own risk. Those who dissent from the gender binary are usually punished. [When I say the word punished, he hits me, open palm, across my cheek. I stumble under the force for a moment, recover, then stand back up and look him in the eye.] Repeatedly. [He hits me again, this time with even more force, and I have to pause to recover myself. When I speak again, it is now with a near manic brightness, the voice of a person trying desperately to behave as if everything is completely as it should be.]
What if the codes were to break down? What if bodies refused the codes? In a society built on a gender binary, in which bodies are made to live within one of two mutually exclusive categories, all for the benefit and privilege of—let’s not forget—one sex, what would happen if gender and sex were made matters of not one or two but many?
[As I speak, I waltz back into the center of the room, stepping beneath myself, turning, waltzing around myself, to come to face a stranger. I slowly unzip the back of my dress, revealing the flesh beneath and the hint of a black g-string.]
As a body comes into view, remember that what you see is already overwritten with what you have been told it means, how that body, its gestures, its pieces and parts are allowed to signify.
[Slipping my arms out of the straps of my gown, I hold the top of the bodice with my finger tips, leaning forward and shimmying my shoulders as I speak. Finally, I lowering the dress, sliding the satin down my body, and letting it fall in a soft heap on the floor. Standing, wearing only black pasties, a black g-string, strands of pearls and black heels, I lift one fist high into the air, a rallying gesture, as I lean into one hip, cross one knee slightly in front of the other: a feminine posture.]
What if when assigned one of two genders, our collective response was: My Body Does Not Mean What You Say It Means.
[During one performance, a woman in the audience stood up and lifted her fist into the air in solidarity. I felt like we were sharing something, a gathering force, the seeds of a revolution stirring in this sophisticated salon, amidst the twinkling lights and sparkling wine.
After a moment of stillness and silence, I cross to the edge of the circle. John brings me my dress and I step into it; he zips it up. This is for me the most intimate moment in the piece: stripping is a performance, a show, a spectacle. Redressing is always in the aftermath, after the clothes have come off, after whatever stage show or tryst, perhaps the same night, perhaps the next morning. There’s a kind of exposure in dressing oneself in front of others, and it felt necessary to share that tender moment with the audience as a counterpoint to the density of the text, the confidence of the strip tease.]
[text by Michael J. Morris]
Filed under: culture | Tags: fragments: a cartography of moments on a gender terrain, gender, genderqueer, queer, storytelling, tea time: a queer storytelling event
A few weeks ago, on November 19th, I shared a piece of writing at an event called Tea Time: A Queer Storytelling Event co-sponsored by Queer Behavior, the OSU Office of Student Life’s Counseling and Consultation Services, and the OSU Office of Student Life’ Multicultural Center. It was a really lovely event, full of people sharing stories about their own experiences with gender—often as it related to family, sexuality, religion, intimacy, and so on. Since then, several people who were not at the event have asked if I could share the story I read, and a few people who heard it have said that they would like to read it again. I’ve been hesitant to post the writing itself; I wanted to honor the fact that it was an oral storytelling event, an oral performance. So I finally sat down and recorded it. You can hear the story, entitled “Fragments: A Cartography of Moments on a Gender Terrain,” here:
Filed under: culture | Tags: 29 effeminate gestures, backlove, beauties, david gere, gender, generous narcissism, GODDESS Press, grief, intuitive self, joe goode, judith butler, kaddish, mehron abdollmohammadi, micah jones, mourning, narcissus, rage, tea time: a queer storytelling event, trans day of remembrance
I am attempting to collect my thoughts on this week, and my thoughts seem to be resisting collection. I’m thinking about the vigil for the Transgender Day of Remembrance last night at King Avenue United Methodist Church. I’m thinking about my students and our discussion yesterday about gender as a performance that is performative. I’m thinking about a storytelling event in which I participated Wednesday night; I shared a piece of writing about my own gender and listened to the stories of a group of other people, all discussing their experiences with gender. I’m thinking about Beauties, a book of drawings by Micah Jones published by GODDESS Press, with a dazzling foreword Mehron Abdollmohammadi. I am thinking about grief and rage—and by saying that I am “thinking about” all of these things, of course I also mean feeling them.
At Tea Time: A Queer Storytelling Event, the theme is “Gender Inflexibility,” and anyone who wants to tell a story puts their name on a slip of paper in a fishbowl. Harry draws the first name and it’s mine. I tell my story, and I realize that I don’t usually stand in front of a room full of people talking about myself. I teach, I present my research at conferences—once I gave a presentation about being a conjoined twin at a queer studies conference, but that was an exceptional moment of self-disclosure. I perform, I dance, I get naked on stage. But this feels vulnerable: talking about myself, my experiences of gender, in front of many people I don’t even know, and quite a few I do. I hardly look up from the page. I talk about playing dress-up with my grandmother’s clothes growing up, coming out to my parents and my mother calling me “gender confused,” spaces in which I have felt invisible and spaces in which I have felt recognized. I talk about love and relationships and fucking. I talk about Judith Butler.
I say that biological sex is itself an effect of gender.
I say that I worry that no one will be proud to be with me, that dissenting from the gender binary makes me unlovable and undesirable.
I say that sometimes where you feel the most loved becomes the place where you face the most jeopardy.
I say that maybe my body doesn’t mean what you think it means.
I listen to story after story; some make me smile, and during others I feel rage curling in my fingers. Almost every single person talks about religion. Sexuality and relationships and love come up in almost every story. It seems that all of us are describing processes, journeys, migrations of gender and bodies and feelings and perceptions, no fixed points. I feel very honored to share this space and to hear these stories.
Once a semester in the writing course I teach, I have a class meeting specifically focused on gender. Gender is part of our conversations throughout the semester, but on this day we watch Joe Goode’s 29 Effeminate Gestures and read David Gere’s “29 Effeminate Gestures: Choreographer Joe Goode and the Heroism of Effeminacy.” I ask questions, offer provocations, but mostly let the students’ comments and contributions direct the flow of the conversation. There’s never enough time during this class meeting. Yesterday, the students talk about what it means for Gere to suggest that gender is a choreography: it is stylized, it is repeated and repeatable, it is received from elsewhere, it is about bodies. They talk about hierarchies and the unequal distribution of power. They talk about how threatening it is for men to wear women’s clothing when it’s “cute” or “fashionable” for a girl to wear her boyfriend’s clothes (and I note that we’re somehow talking about “men” and “girls,” and how curious that discrepancy is, not to mention how heterosexuality has worked its way into the conversation by way of the “boyfriend”). We talk about the fear that we might fail at performing our genders correctly, an anxiety that we all have or have had, and that if gender is something that we can fail, then it isn’t automatic, intrinsic, or natural, and that all of us—even my twenty-four self-identified cis-gendered undergraduate students—live with-and-in-and-as a system under duress. We all face the threat of failure. I ask what is at stake; what are we afraid will happen if we fail? The students talk about rejection—social, romantic, sexual; they talk about risks of unemployment; they talk about the threat of feeling called into question, unrecognizable to oneself; they talk about bullying and harassment; they talk about threats of violence, abuse, and murder. I remind them that today is the Transgender Day of Remembrance, that while we all live under this threat, that there are people who suffer more exposure to violence. I remind us that this has always been a question of life and death.
I’m sitting in a pew in a church for the vigil, and I am deeply uncomfortable. I don’t go to churches; I have a long, complicated, abusive history with churches, from childhood through college, and when I sit in a pew with a giant cross hanging above a stage and hymnals and bibles level with my knees on the back of the pew in front of me, that history becomes more present and potent. And yet this feels transgressive: this bold church is hosting a vigil for transgender people who have suffered violence, some who have survived and many others who have not, and so my abusive history with churches and the function of this event stand for me in radical juxtaposition.
The service is difficult for all kinds of reasons. It is both difficult and necessary to sit and listen to the reading of names, how old these people were, how they were murdered, and where they died. It is a violent litany for an ugly world. I feel sorrow and rage that this continues to be the world that we are living, in which people are murdered because they fail to conform to or approximate gender categories, in which gender polices life and death, propelling some people to kill and others to be killable. I am grateful to be sitting with Eileen and Noah and S. And I’m critical: why are vivid descriptions of violent murders more important for me to know than anything else beyond a name, age, and country? While we remember and commemorate, why do these violent acts receive more of our words and attention than anything these people did or gave to our world? Most of the names are trans women. Four were in Ohio; a staggering majority were in Brazil. What the fuck is happening in Brazil? Why aren’t we talking about this?
I take a deep breath and return to grief and rage and gratitude: I am grateful for this vigil, for the communal act of public memory, for creating a space to sit and recognize and feel together, and I decide that this event is doing something important even if there are other important things to be done.
As the crowd files past the table set up at the front of the sanctuary to light candles in remembrance, I am struck by what a beautiful crowd this is. There is so much difference here, different ages, different skin colors, more gender expressions than I can count, and I start to tear up because I think: the world could look like this. It doesn’t, but here we are and here, in this moment and place, it does. Whatever else this vigil is doing, it is also an opportunity to practice this kind of community, this kind of society, embracing this swell of difference. Trans people and genderqueer people and gender-non-conforming people and people who look very much like women and other who look very much like men and older people and younger people and people of many different colors: most meaningful to me is being able to sit here, a part of this, and see this glimpse of this world.
GODDESS Press recently published a small book of drawings by Micah Jones entitled Beauties, with a foreword by Mehron Abdollmohammadi.
Every time I type “foreword,” I almost type “forward,” and Mehron’s text is both forward and backward, twisting to the side, bending over, and standing tall.
Writing with Narcissus and tarot and Jones’ drawing, Mehron’s text is both poetic and critical. It makes a splash, an exuberant cascade of sparkling droplets, each one a tiny curving mirror, each line glittering like a search light, somehow suspended in midair: where they will land and what they will show us when they do has not yet been determined.
I keep thinking about terms that Mehron introduces:
“Generous narcissism as I’ve terms it is a practice of mutual and excessive attention that worries the very notion of excess: an emotional carry, a carrying community. Extra, but never enough. Generous narcissism is what happens when Narcissus, reaching out to touch his image, soft and impossible, feels something, someone, touching back. Generous narcissism is what happens when one insists on finding substance in what we’re told is only shadow … Generous narcissism is a resistance to scrutiny, a reorientation of obsessive attention, from the Other that would threaten the full expression of one’s intuitive self, to the self toward the Self.”
“Intuitive self: she may not even be here now, but she is me and that is all you need to know. This is very important.”
“Backlove: the love I have for what you see of me, for what of me there is in you. ‘Me, in you, in me.’”
“Mourning has to do with yielding to an unwanted transformation, when neither the full shape nor the full import of that alteration can be known in advance. This transformative effect of losing always risks becoming a deformative effect. Whatever it is, it cannot be willed; it is a kind of undoing. One is hit by waves in the middle of the day, in the midst of a task, and everything stops. One falters, even falls. What is that wave that suddenly withdraws your gravity and your forward motion, that something that takes hold of you and makes you stops and takes you down? Where does it come from? Does it have a name? What claims us at such moments when we are most emphatically not masters of ourselves and our motion, when we lose certain people or we are dispossessed from a place or a community? It may be that something about who we are suddenly flashes up, something that delineates the ties we have to others that shows us that we are bound to one another and that the bonds that compose us also do strand us, leave us uncomposed.
“If I lose you under the conditions in which who I am is bound up with you, then I not only mourn the loss but I become inscrutable to myself, and this life unbearable. Who am I without you? I was not just over here and you over there, but the ‘I’ was in the crossing, there with ‘you’ but also here. So, I was already decentered, one might say, and that was precious, and yet, when we lose, we lose our ground. We are suddenly at risk of taking our own lives or the lives of others. Perhaps what I have lost on those occasions is precisely that sense that I can live without you, even if it turns out that I can live without that specific ‘you’ that you happened to be. Even if I was surprised to find that I survived when survival was unthinkable. If I can and do live without you, it is only because I have not as it were lost the place of the ‘you,’ the one to whom I address myself, the generalized addressee with whom I am already bound up in language, in the scene of address that is the linguistic condition of our survivability. This apostrophic ‘you’ might be this you or that other one with another name, but maybe also some you I do not yet know at all, maybe even vast set of you’s largely nameless, who nevertheless support both my gravity and my motion. And without you—that indefinite, promiscuous and expansive pronoun—we are wrecked and we fall.
“If the life that is mine is not originally or finally separable from yours, then the we who we are is not just a composite of you and me and all the others, but a set of relations of interdependency and passion. And these we cannot deny or destroy without refuting something fundamental about the social conditions of our living. What follows is an ethical injunction to preserve those bonds—even the wretched ones—which means precisely guarding against those forms of destructiveness that take away our lives and those of other living beings and the ecological conditions of life. In other words, before ever losing, we are lost in the other, lost without the other, but we never knew it as well as we do when we do actually lose … we are already in the hands of the other, a thrilling and terrifying way to begin. We are from the start both done and undone by the other, and if we refuse this, we refuse passion, life, and loss. The lived form of that refusal is destruction. The lived form of its affirmation is nonviolence. Perhaps nonviolence is the difficult practice of letting rage collapse into grief, since then we stand the chance of knowing that we are bound up with others such that who I am or who you are is this living relation that we sometimes lose. With great speed we do sometimes drive away from the unbearable, or drive precisely into its clutches, or do both at once, not knowing how we move or with what consequence. It seems unbearable to be patient with unbearable loss, and yet that slowness, that impediment, can be the condition for showing what we value, and even perhaps what steps to take to preserve what is left of what we love.”
–Judith Butler, “Speaking of Rage and Grief”
“You know, in Judaism, there is this prayer, the Kaddish, which is said over the dead, and it’s actually an interesting prayer. It’s partly Aramaic, partly Hebrew…and I always thought that the Kaddish is the moment at which you remember the person who is gone, or you focus on who that person was to you, and you recover what that bond was. But actually, what the Kaddish does is celebrate—praise—celebrate and affirm the world. And I thought, ‘Well, why is that the mourner’s prayer?’ And it is the mourner’s prayer because there is an understanding that radical loss can take us with it. Right? So that the most important thing you can do for the person who is in grief is to affirm the world with them. And it’s a collective prayer. And the point is to sew the person back into community, to relationality, and affirmation. Now, it’s part of grieving, that affirmation, and that collectivity.”
-Judith Butler, “On This Occasion,” response to an audience question
Filed under: culture | Tags: antony hegarty, appearance, carmen carrera, drew deveaux, eileen galvin, eva hayward, fashion, gender, gratitude, jack halberstam, james darling, jiz lee, justin vivian bond, kate bornstein, laverne cox, recognition, sex, susan stryker
I sat down this afternoon at the local cafe and started to write about gratitude, specifically gratitude for the array of public figures that bring diversity to the public sphere, specifically folks who identify their genders in ways that do not conform neatly—or at all—to clear, discrete binaries of masculine/feminine or male/female. I am grateful for so many folks: musical performers like Justin Vivian Bond and Antony Hegarty, porn performers like Jiz Lee, Drew Deveaux, James Darling and a whole community of queer/trans/genderqueer porn performers who I admire, burlesque performers like Eileen Galvin, scholars like Eva Hayward and Susan Stryker and the whole trans studies initiative at Arizona State, people like Jack Halberstam, public figures like Kate Bornstein, Carmen Carerra, and Laverne Cox. People in academia and different modes of public performance who are actively reshaping how we see and think about gender and sex.
And then my thoughts on gratitude drifted, and I found myself scribbling out thoughts on appearance, recognition, vulnerability, and courage. It is not a formal essay, but the start of some thoughts. Not the start, actually, because this thinking follows closely so much that I’ve learned from Judith Butler, Hannah Arendt, Bobby Noble, Shine Louise Houston, and Brené Brown, among others. I won’t be offering formal citations in these scribbled thought, but they are certainly indebted, built with and from the work that each of these people have done:
The space of appearance is fundamentally a social space: to appear is to appear for someone or someones, to be made available for others, with others, and to be apprehended within that availability. Society and social norms then come to condition that space of appearance, structuring how it is that bodies and people can appear, can be made to appear, can be made not to appear, can be made to disappear. To appear in ways that do not conform to such such—or refuse to conform to such norms—is to insist on a different social space, a different society that depends/relies upon different structures of visibility and recognition. Dissident appearances or appearances that dissent from the dominant norms exert force on such norms to adjust, adapt, and make space for appearing otherwise; for such norms to make space, the society that enacts—or is enacted by—such norms must become otherwise as well.
Of course, it is possible that such insistence will be intolerable, will not be tolerated, and will be punished or eliminated in order to maintain the existing norms that regulate who can be visible, who can appear, who can be recognized, and how. This maintenance can take any number of forms: subtle social pressures and insidious coercions, self-policing that takes the place of the policing of behavior that we have experienced or that we have witnessed, a look or posture from an other that registers one’s unintelligibility—a stare that communicates that you are seen and apprehended as incoherent, or even unapprehendable because of one’s incoherence; it can take the form of harassment or threats of violence; it is possible that one’s appearance will render one invisible, a kind of invisibility that accumulates in a space from which people avert their eyes, away from which people turn.
To not appear in ways that align with the norms that condition and regulate the social space of appearance—norms organized according to sex, gender, race, ability, and any number of other dimensions, indeed, norms of appearance that in part shape what is understood as sex, as gender, as race, as an able or disabled body—is always a risk. It is to risk invisibility, incoherence, discrimination, harassment, and violence; it is to risk the compromised sense of self that can result from any encounter with another in which the self that one appears to be is reflected back to that self as invisible, incoherent, or the cause for discrimination, harassment, and violence. And to not appear in ways that align with such conditioning norms must not be figured as always a choice, as if those who do not appear or appear incoherently, or whose appearance results in harassment or violence, could be said to have chosen such an existence, or to have chosen otherwise, as if such person could have chosen to conform to the social expectations for appearance. This is not, or even often, the case.
And yet, whether dissident appearance is or is not chosen, it is courageous. It is courageous because it is a risk, and the stakes of the risk are certain unavoidable vulnerability that make up what it is to be embodied with-and-in a world of others. To be is to be among others, and to be among others it to be physically exposed to them, to their words, to their gaze, to their touch, whether their words or looks or touches are caring or abusive. We are all [and here “we” and “all” are not only human] exposed to one another in any number of ways, and that exposure constitutes both the risk and the requirement of social existence. It is because of our shared vulnerabilities that we are already given over to one another; we require one another’s care, one another’s protection, one another’s assistance, one another’s nonviolence. Butler writes that we are already obligated to nonviolent coexistence because of this pervasive exposure and shared vulnerability. And all that we require from one another depends first on our having been recognized by an other.
When recognition requires appearance, and when appearance is regulated by exclusionary norms such that it becomes possible to not appear or to appear in such a way that renders one unrecognizable, or to appear as such an aberration of the norms of appearance that one is made into a target of violence, appearance then carries the risk of misrecognition or not being recognized or recognizable, making appearance a question of survival and livability.
These are common vulnerabilities, the risks that accompany appearance and recognition for everyone. But these vulnerabilities are taken for granted, overlooked, or even repressed when appearance closely approximates the normative expectations that enable and constrain recognizability. When society appears in ways that are homogenous and consistent, when those who appear maintain the effect of norms as natural, the stakes or cost of appearance are less apparent. When how one appears is how one must appear in order to be recognizable, the risk/cost of appearing otherwise cannot be obvious.
Thus, to appear in ways that resist or do not align with such norms is not courageous only because to do so exposes one to vulnerabilities; rather it is courageous because it exposes those vulnerabilities that might otherwise remain unappreciable, precisely when doing so also risks some degree of duress or suffering.
And: such appearances are also courageous because in the face of this all, they insist on the possibility—and livability—of such appearances. They insist on a society or social existence in which it is possible to appear and to be recognized in ways that exceed the available norms—of sex, gender, race, or ability. If such appearances or recognitions are to become possible, intelligible, even in their incoherence, it will be only because of the pressures exerted on the norms of appearance by those who appear otherwise, who courageously insist on public visibility.
Today I am grateful for the world that is given to me by those who insist on appearing otherwise.
Afterthought: Although dissident appearance is not always a choice, it can be a choice, a courageous choice, to appear otherwise. To produce more incoherence within available norms. To dress or present oneself in ways that do not confirm the expectations of one’s given sex or gender, to explore more diverse performances of self, more unexpected styles of movement and behaviors, to try out fashions or looks that introduce more diversity into the social space of appearance. To wear things that other than how they were intended to be worn. To wear clothes made by designers who are pursuing design into unexpected places, designs that reshape how we look at bodies, that reveal bodies differently. To make choices about one’s appearance—hair, make-up, no make-up, shaving, not shaving, tattoos, piercings, other surgical interventions, how you carry yourself, how you take up space—in ways that are intentional, thoughtful, and resistant to what you feel like you should do. I am not saying that these strategies alone are what makes or unmakes bodies, sexes, genders, races, etc., but I am suggesting that the more difference that we introduce to the social space of appearance, the more difference that social space will be expected to absorb and make space for. These are small activisms that are available to all of us, in our presentation of self, our production of self, and our production of the shared spaces in which we live.
Filed under: culture, Dance, dance review | Tags: abigail zbikowski, baker & tarpaga dance project, beautiful struggle, d. sabela grimes, dante brown, esther baker-tarpaga, gender, king arts complex, nick fanscher, olivier tarpaga, peggy phelan, race, siobhan b. somerville
The Baker & Tarpaga Dance Project’s Beautiful Struggle premiered at the King Arts Complex Pythian Theatre on 13 April 2012. While my interest is to write about the piece itself—choreographed/directed by Esther Baker-Tarpaga in collaboration with performers Abigail Zbikowski, Danté Brown, Olivier Tarpaga, and D. Sabela Grimes—I feel I must first address the title and framing of the piece. Beautiful Struggle is said (by way of promotional materials and the program) to ask “audiences to think about the visibility and invisibility of race and privilege and how violence and love live on in the body’s memories.” It is important to me that when directed towards such complex issues as race, privilege, love, violence, visibility and invisibility, the ideas of “beauty” and “struggle” are not reduced to an antonymic binary. Beauty is not the opposite of struggle, but rather, struggle conditions a very particular kind of beauty. It is a beauty that does not come easily, and it is a beauty that is never entirely accomplished, victorious, at rest. It is a beauty that is necessarily vigorous, necessarily in tension, most likely in conflict. These conditions must not compromise the possibility of beauty; rather, I would suggest that in titling this work Beautiful Struggle, we are being asked to reconsider what is capable of being found beautiful—recognizing that “beauty” itself is never a neutral aesthetic assessment, but that aesthetics are intrinsically entangled with values, with an appreciation of a particular kind of world, and that those values take on social, political, and ethical valences. I do not feel that the title asks the viewer to be on the look out for how struggle obstructs or gives way to beauty, but rather asks us to consider the ways in which ongoing, unresolved conflict and struggle can, perhaps must, be found beautiful. This is the disposition with which I approached this work.
The piece opens with a figure crouched on table in dim light, facing away, tied to the table with ropes. Gradually the figure begins to move, and rises. The figure tied to the table (Baker-Tarpaga) struggles, but not with full force: a light trashing, a trashing that seems self conscious of is own futility. The trashing blends into undulations, swinging arms, stomping and stepping, and I begin to catch glimpses of what can be identified as citations of African dance forms. I am faced with a body—a body that seems visually legible as white and female, a body which is described to us (via spoken text in the soundscore) as a mother, as white, a body produced for us as white and female—being performed or coded with African movements, African culture. The transnationality of this body begins to appear across the surface of this body’s movements, and while nationality itself does not dislodge race—or gender for that matter—this kinetic appearance begins to gesture towards a history of formation that is not immediately legible on the surface of the skin.
The ropes constrain the movement; the body’s action is bounded from the beginning, and as the movements grow, they take on more impact. I see when they strike the limits of their range, with the ropes allowing each gesture to proceed no farther. Certainly there are complex semiotics being introduced in this image—the restraints and the table call up associations with auction blocks, execution scaffolds, go-go boxes at nightclubs, and museum pedestals; the ropes call up centuries of heretics and slaves and the bodies that were taken materially captive under such signifiers—and imagery and visual semiotics are an important aspect of this production. On first encounter, the piece seems in places more concerned with images and the visual that with movement itself. The citation and circulation of recognizable visual markers for race and gender—and in places, sexuality—provide points of departure throughout the piece; however, if the familiarity of these images holds my attention, it is because of how the choreography abandons these images for the less familiar and the less recognizable moving surfaces of the bodies on display.
The piece is predominantly bodies dancing in solo choreography, often in the company of other dancers. This brings attention to the individuation of these bodies, and perhaps, by extension, the formative histories of these bodies. Despite whatever superficial visual identifications I may make—white women, black men, for example—the solos function as a reminder that the stability and consistency of these categories depend on the reduction of bodies to one or two surface dimensions, specifically the visual (I might say, the “stationary visual”), and that such reductions are also elisions of other surfaces and dimensions along which these bodies take on complexity and differentiation. In these solos, the unique ways of moving that define each body, that make visible—however fleetingly—its training, its socialization, its cultures, remind me that these “white women” or “black men” are not merely “white” or “women” or “black” or “men,” but that each of these categories are always already run through with difference, revealing them as contingent and only ever partial. I do not mean to suggest that the complexity of racial or gender categorization can be escaped or abandoned through attention to movement or kinesthetic identity; rather, my suggestion is that in a production that so pointedly set out to address the visibility and invisibility of race, privilege, violence, love, etc., the solo movements of these dancing bodies are one strategy through which individual differences—some of which rupture within the smoothness of racial and gender categories—are made visible.
One such instance of the solo making visible a rupture in the smoothness or stability of what might have been previously ascertainable comes in a solo danced by Danté Brown. What begins as smooth, cool, and groovy moves on the dance floor dissolves into a spoken exchange at the front edge of the stage, calling out to “girls,” presumably in the audience. The monologue dissolves into a more sensuous two-step, a curving sway of the hips that eventually take Brown upstage to pose with the table now turned on its side. This moment of posing, gesturing towards sultry centerfolds and vogue balls, has a feminizing and queering effect on Brown’s body. Suddenly this is a body that no longer comfortably resides in the normative categories of “man” or, arguably, “black” (for a more comprehensive discussion of the intersection of race and sexuality, see Queering the Color Line: Race and the Invention of Homosexuality in American Culture by Siobhan B. Somerville). These categories are not fully abandoned through this queering; Brown is still legible as a black man. However, the visible has been amended, and the invisible—here, a latent femininity, or queerness—has surfaced along the curves and swish of his gestures.
Yet the choreography does not become solipsistic; these bodies move through solos, but throughout the choreography bodies find alignments with other bodies through shared vocabularies, shared timing, and shared space, suggesting ways in which bodies of difference are held together, sometimes along visible lines of race and gender, and sometimes across such lines in ways that dance other groupings of bodies. What these shared choreographies accomplished is different each time, sometimes using bodies to demarcate space, sometimes creating presumably unlikely alliances—such as a strip and femininizing duet between Baker-Tarpaga and Brown that then dissolves into some kind of combat—and sometimes functioning more formally, simply showing different bodies moving together.
The demarcation of space is another way in which visibility is lent to that which is invisible. For instance, early in the piece, Brown and Zbikowski’s perform a rapid horizontal shuffling around the stage, marking off an arbitrary parameter. This is not the only time that the motions of bodies will be used to demarcate space, to trace an invisible parameter. Bodies walk in circles; they divide the stage in grids and on diagonals throughout the piece. I resist reading these instances as symbolic; I am not concerned with what it might represent that bodies are used to coalesce invisible parameters and borders on the stage space. Rather, my interest is that I as a viewer am made to see such invisible forms, patterns, and parameters, and that is accomplished through the movement of bodies dancing together. These spatial figures construct arbitrary and fleeting appearances of “insides” and “outsides,” one side and the other side, and the residues of these barely-visible geographies of the stage aggregate over the course of the choreography, showing that what was “inside” might now be “on the other side,” what was “over there” might now suddenly also be “out here.” There is a multiplicity to how space is demarcated and organized through the movements of bodies dancing together, revealing that these sorts of spatial dimensions are a positional production; they are in no way fixed, and over time intersect with other [sometimes paradoxical] positions and orientations. This is not visibility that is given in a single image, but rather that accumulates over time as an invisible residue of the visible.
Perhaps the most demonstrative performances of making visible something that does not lie in plain sight is through the use of impact throughout the choreography. Impact is first introduced in the opening scene of the dance, with the ropes tying Baker-Tarpaga to the table creating the concrete “edge” of her dancing; the source of the force of the impact is visible and concrete. Yet impact proceeds as a dominant movement motif throughout the piece, often with invisible sources, circulating through all of the performers at various points. What I mean by impact is multiple: first, I mean the force with which the movement stops, as if hitting an invisible surface. This surfaces in movements that strike suddenly, the collision of movement with the strength and control of the body. By impact, I also mean the illusion of the body being struck, performances of feigned combat throughout the piece. By “feigned,” I mean only that in these instances there are no visible opponents; the combat is an effect of a single body’s motion. I do not mean, however, that the force or even violence of these impacts is diminished for having been feigned. On the contrary, the is a poignancy to the extreme force with which bodies box with invisible opponents, jerk and thrash as if struck, and are sent tumbling and rolling across the stage space as if tossed by someone much larger in size and strength. One of the most memorable of these moments is a solo performed by Abigail Zbikowski, lit only by a floodlight handled by Baker-Tarpaga. Zbikowski begins to move with undulating, smooth and circular movement, as if her body is continually curving and sliding around itself. However, as Baker-Tarpaga approaches her with the hand-held light, her body responds violently, as if struck repeatedly from all directions. I want to emphasize that while this violence is an effect of the performer’s body on itself, this does not make the violence of these actions any less real. These sudden contractions, these rapid impacts and blows, while effected by the body also affect the body, live on in tissues. I begin to speculate about the physical costs of performing; the sometimes inherent violence of choreography—imposing, even consensually, movement on an-other body; the ways in which choreography/performance produces the body, participating in the formative history of the individual; and finally, the internalized force of social choreographies such as gender and race. It would be a stretch to say that all of this is directly addressed in these physicalizations of impact, but what can be said is that Zbikowski’s solo, and similar movement throughout the piece, show the force of the body acting on itself, a force whose source, unlike the ropes at the start of the piece, is never entirely visible.
Finally, the image that lingers with me the most as I live with my experience of the piece over the last several days is the use of the light and the front edge of the stage, both of which seem to be principally concerned with visibility (the light illuminating what can be seen a directing the viewers attention, the front edge of the stage being the precipice between the audience seeing and the performers being seen). Both elements are used almost as weapons throughout Beautiful Struggle, the bodies of performers being sent tumbling across the stage into the floor and the back wall of the stage. Both seem to suggest a physical violence to being or becoming visible, that what is or can be seen acts forcefully upon bodies. These images raise questions, even concerns, about visibility, almost a suspicion of the visible. I am reminded of Peggy Phelan’s Unmakred: the politics of performance, and her struggle with the ideology of the visible. She writes: “It is assumed that disenfranchised communities who see their members within the representational field will feel greater pride in being part of such a community and those who are not in such a community will increase their understanding of the diversity and strength of such communities. Implicit within this argument are several presumptions which bear further scrutiny: 1) Identities are visibly marked so the resemblance between the African-American on the television and the African American on the street helps the observer see they are members of the same community. Reading physical resemblance is a way of identifying community. 2) The relationship between representation and identity is linear and smoothly mimetic. What one sees is who one is. 3) If one’s mimetic likeness is not represented, one is not addressed. 4) Increased visibility equals increased power. Each presumption reflects the ideology of the visible, an ideology which erases the power of the unmarked, unspoken, and unseen” (7). Phelan attempts “to find a theory of value for that which is not ‘really’ there, that which cannot be surveyed within the boundaries of the putative real…. attempting to revalue a belief in subjectivity and identity which is not visibly representable” (1). This seems to be the Beautiful Struggle engaged by Baker-Tarpaga and company, a discrepancy between what is seen and what is unseen, between the urge to increase visibility and the tangible apprehension of the violent power of visibility. The piece struggles between the restaging familiar tropes of visible identifications, making visible the often invisible or elided complexity of such identities, and preserving the importance of an orientation and attention to what cannot be seen, what does not lie smoothly on the surface.
Beautiful Struggle does not resolve, not should it. To resolve would suggest that resolution of the issues it addresses is possible or achievable, and such resolution does not seem to be possible, at least/especially within our current historical moment. However, this production does not grieve the unresolvability of this struggle; rather, it stages the beauty of such struggle, the aesthetic and ethical value that is possible only through sustained engagement within difference, conflict, contradiction, the visible, and the invisible.
Filed under: culture | Tags: annie sprinkle, bodies that matter, crash pad, crash pad series, daily writing practice, gender, heavenlyspire, james darling, judith butler, madison young, porn, pornography, queer porn, quinn valentine, sex, shine louise houston
I was recently inspired/challenged by one of my faculty (Dr. Harmony Bench) to begin a daily writing practice as a method for not only developing as a writer, but also in preparation for the intensive writing I will be doing for my candidacy exams and dissertation. I will not post everything I write from this daily writing practice here on the blog, but what I wrote today is something I want to share:
I am enamored with Shine Louise Houston’s work, on both her Crash Pad Series project and on her more recent endeavor, HeavenlySpire.
“HeavenlySpire is a Shine Louise Houston creation for the purpose of masculine appreciation. HeavenlySpire focuses on masculine beauty and sexuality and how it manifests on different bodies. Following the same vision as Houston’s previous projects HeavelySpire focuses on capturing genuine pleasure with a unique cinematic style.” This work is personal and intimate in ways that is traditionally considered to be antithetical to pornography. The performers are introduced as people: they discuss themselves, their sexual predilections, their appreciations of their own bodies. They set a context of individual and aesthetic appreciation in which they then display their own bodies and sexual behaviors. In a sense, it functions as portraiture. This work functions as a kind of “docu-porn” (other work with which I am familiar that would fit into this category includes Madison Young’s Fluid series and Annie Sprinkle’s Linda/Les and Annie, the first FTM trans love story/sex film, in which the re-presentations of bodies/sex/sexuality/sexual behaviors operate within the framework of personal identities), and emphasizes what I consistently consider to be one of pornography’s potential virtues: a public archive of human sexual behavior, responsible for both the documentation, preservation, and re-presentation of bodies, sex acts, and sexual (inter)subjectivities, and for the production of sexual subjectivities in the virtual and actual experiences of the spectator of pornography. Porn records and produces the ways in which people perform and understand sex, and thus themselves as sexual subjects.
HeavenlySpire as an archive does something more: in the interview segments, the performers call attention to erogenous and erotogenic zones and surfaces that exceed genital sexuality. They call attention to their forearms, their eyes, their chests, their legs, their asses, their nipples, etc. They introduce themselves in their own languages, and we are then given access to some sense of how they consider themselves as sexual beings as we encounter their displays of their own sexuality. Heavenly Spire is also radical in its treatment of gender/sex (the two being perhaps not as discrete as they may seem): in these videos, we are introduced to cis-men and trans-men, those who identify outside of the gender/sex binary of man/male/woman/female. We are asked to consider bodies both within and outside of these binaries.
Last night I watched a video featuring James Darling and Quinn Valentine. It blew my mind. It is elegant and a little campy, and one of the most illuminating artifacts of human sexuality that I have encountered in a while (although I would say that the illumination of the range of human sexuality is a mission furthered actively by Shine Louise Houston, Madison Young, Courtney Trouble, and the plethora of directors, performers, and producers in the “queer porn” genre).
In the video, the boys introduce themselves, and James confesses that he’s been checking Quinn out for a while, online. Quinn says, “You had a picture of yourself in sparkle unicorn drag, and I couldn’t resist.” They laugh. James say, “Yeah, you were the most sparkly, femme cis-boy I’d ever met, and I was just enamored immediately.” They talk about the first time they hung out (a “really fun time” in James’ shower) as “the beginning of something amazing.” They talk about what they love doing to one another: James says that he loves fucking Quinn, that he’s really into Quinn’s cock, but that he really enjoys fucking Quinn in the ass, and the sounds Quinn makes when he’s cumming; Quinn talks about going down on James—“I could get lost in your junk for days …”—and holding James while he fucks him, feeling the movement of James’ muscles; James’ facial expression; his chest. The way they look at one another while they’re talking is the way that I look at someone when I am so moved by their beauty that I can no longer contain my desire to touch them.
The scene starts in black and white, both wearing bowties, Quinn wearing fairy wings, with white feathers falling and floating in the air around them. An old time-y piano song in playing in the background, and there’s something tender and nostalgic about the romance being staged.
The music fades out as the scene saturates to color.
These boys kiss long and hard, and the way that their lips press and linger is both calm and electric, a stillness full of activity.
I won’t go into a detailed description of the video (Buy a membership to HeavenlySpire to see the video. Support queer porn.). But I do want to give attention to one moment in their scene, the moment when James penetrates Quinn. A cis-guy being penetrated by a trans-guy is something that I have never seen re-presented in a pornographic archive. Having spent my week reading Judith Butler’s Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex” (for the third time), I can’t encounter this scene without recalling Butler’s discussion of “the phallus” as the imaginary position characterized by its own uninhabitability. The phallus is a position of privilege and power, considered to be the ultimate signifier, the form by which the intelligibility of objects and subjects are understood. It would be easy to read the phallus as symbol of the penis, and in doing so attribute this privileged position of power (and its form) to the position of male bodies in social economies. And yet the male position is characterized (for Freud and Lacan) by the fear of castration, the anxiety of losing the phallus, an anxiety that exposes the reality of the phallus having never been fully possessed to begin with. The phallus, then, is never fully attainable, always transferable. Butler even suggests that the phallus is the very principle of erotogenic transferability, the capacity for other bodies and other organs to take on the erotogenic potential ascribed to the phallus. When James Darling dons (what looks like) the Feeldoe dildo, taking it into himself as [part of] himself, and penetrating/fucking Quinn with it, my morphological registers are disrupted. I see both of their cocks, and both organs are taken out of this penetrative configuration. The dildo functions in a way that recalls some of what I’ve read of Beatriz Preciado’s philosophy of “dildonics” which substitutes the “dildo” for the “phallus,” casting this privileged signifier not only as a commodity, but one which can be exchanged, taken in/taken on, a prosthetic device in the construction (and deconstruction) of cyborg bodies (and in our post-human era, all bodies are cyborg bodies, always already composed of [biological, psychical, cultural, social, etc.] pieces and parts in machinic systems that we stabilize/treat as stable in our reference to their corporeal coherence. Cyborg is not a secondary/compromised position of bodies that are somehow less than whole; instead, it is a position that seeks to expose the never-whole/always-open-to-completion condition of all bodies, whether they be trans or cis, whatever their range of ability, etc. Elizabeth Grosz has also written intelligently about the inherent openness of biology to cultural inter-constitution). The significance of the penis (an idealized significance that might be considered consistent with the notion of the “phallus”) is here displaced from organic material and transferred into the synthetic. Bodies become denatured in a way they liberates them from the sexed specificity. Organs lose the clarity of their significance, and in becomes free to become more ambiguous surfaces of intensities (I’m here reaching towards an understanding and application of Deleuze, a theoretical frame to which I am attracted but with which I am only familiar in a fleeting way). This sex act reconfigures bodies, giving them significance that exceeds their normative boundaries, borders that it simultaneously displaces/disrupts.
When Quinn cums, I am drawn to the noises that he makes, having been told that those noises are part of what is hot to James. As Quinn cums on James’ chest, Quinn’s appreciation of that chest is part of what makes it hot. These bodies (bodies in general?) are not only remade by re-presentation of their sexual behavior; their sexual behavior is given [part of] its significance by the exposure of its personal meaning for the performers. Through this docu-porn format, I am offered new personal experiences and understandings of sex and bodies to inhabit in my spectatorship, and in my willingness to do so, I allow this information to participate in the materialization bodies, especially as they materialize in/as sex.
This is a rough first draft, but ideas that I wanted to share.