by Keith Hennessy
TBA 2017 gave me 10 to 14 hours of art experiences each day. I drank it up. With friends, festival performers, and guest scholars we discussed and debated, questioned and re-considered. Certain moments will never be forgotten, including the free outdoor performance by Bouchra Ouizguen’s flock of women in a compellingly repetitious trance ritual of female power and grief. Others will be not so much forgotten as woven into a lifetime of memories of performance viewing and making. Here are a few thoughts or observations I had along the way.
1. Exaggerated version of an exchange between TBA guest scholars Lydia Brawner and myself.
Lydia: I am not a fetishist for live performance over the document. You don’t have to be there.
Keith: I am a fetishist for the live performance. You have to be there. I am a dissident in relation to those who fetishize documentation especially when they deny that it’s what they’re doing.
2. A friend talking to his mom in Florida as Hurricane Irma approached:
Mom, you have to evacuate.
Mom: The goddess will protect me.
Friend: Irma is the goddess.
3. Racial segregation is always happening but it seems that current activist and artist scenes are marked by an increase in temporary separatist spaces – POC only space, Black only space, queer/trans only space. In response there is also a new wave of intentional white only spaces for working through issues of racism and anti-racism without expecting BIPOC folks to do the intellectual and emotional labor, again, unpaid, for white people’s consciousness raising. During TBA I wondered about the limits of our allegedly liberal/neutral but almost always predominantly white spaces as sites for critique and debate of Black art, blackness and anti-blackness in art and art production. When Black and Black queer artists and scholars are more than multicultural tokens (one or two out of 50), another discourse and sociality emerges, where centering Black aesthetics and Black lives is less exceptional, more nuanced, and for some white or non Black folks, more disorienting.
4. Listening to dramaturg Katherine Profeta I thought: Maybe I’m going to add a part time career as dramaturg. Will anyone hire me?
5. Witnessing the panel on Dance Dramaturgy it seemed like I was watching the end of an era, a becoming irrelevant of previous canonical modes of supporting performance makers. The casting of the panel set up a series of binary frames with respect to age, race, gender, and culture. Two middle aged white cis women sat in conversation with two younger genderqueers of color. The former were both trained academically as dramaturgs to ground their work in history and written text. The latter did not identify their specific training but both exhibited a more cultural studies approach, in which their own bodies and experiences of difference ground their critical reading of performance. I don’t intend a totalizing misunderstanding here. Both of the trained dramaturgs resonated with the contributions of the younger artists, who were more intentionally and tactically ambivalent about identifying as dramaturgs, and it was evident that all of the panel are broadly engaged in critical reading, writing, thinking. I wondered how the panel might have been different if there had been a younger person of color with specific academic training in dramaturgy, and/or if one of the older women had been a more post-disciplinary queer outsider. But all these considerations aside, it was like we were watching a polite version of a generational shift characterized by the increasing redundancy of text based modes of analysis, and of white and cis analysts (and historians…), expanding the critical perspectives that emerge only from the participation of Q/POC histories, bodies, readings.
This is just one of the thoughts I had during KP’s talk and the following panel, both of which were smart, generous and generative. Other insights and points of departure:
Research in the tension between library and laboratory.
The artist as professional mourner.
The invisibilized gendered and racialized labor of everyday dramaturgy in situations of white supremacy and anti-blackness (sidony o’neal).
The problematic potential of foregrounding not knowing or not fully knowing, especially for white liberals who can’t distinguish cultural appropriation from intercultural inspiration.
Write with your whole bod (Suzan-Lori Parks).
If we’re fucking, and reading or seeing work together, when I’m working on a new piece, then that person is also a dramaturg (sidony o’neal)
6. Fragments from Morgan Bassichis’ Daily Meditations
• Ex’s, a growing community.
• We want you, even when it’s hard.
• A song:
I know you’re scared.
look what we can do
7. At the very beginning of Notes of a Native Song, a musical theater performance by The Negro Problem, Stew came out on stage, sitting at the edge as close to the audience as possible, and said something like, “If you’re sensitive, please take this time to move to the aisles so you can walk out with disturbing anyone else.” He waited. No one moved. One man called out, “I’m not going anywhere.” Later some people in the audience clapped when Stew said (or sang), “This isn’t a safe space.” I’m troubled by these moves and what they mean, aware that they don’t mean the same thing to different people and from different social positions. Since Trump’s election I’m acutely aware of how distinguishing oneself from the politically correct, from the politically “sensitive,” is a point of pride and identity. I wanted Stew to find another way to say that he was pissed about certain critical readings of his work, or that he wasn’t going to soften his positions just because they might challenge or offend someone else’s. Instead he affirmed a Trump-ist practice that eschews criticality and nurtures macho tribalism. The terms “sensitive” and “politically correct” are primarily used to dismiss and ridicule critical challenges grounded in anti racist, queer, and feminist activism. How is it not obvious that “sensitive” (as a qualifier of someone’s political position) is misogynist and/or anti-gay?
This is not a review of an otherwise complicated and generous performance in which an artist works through his ambivalent relationship to the legacy of James Baldwin, especially within Black communities. The song tribute to Trayvon Martin was particularly poignant, troubling, righteous.
8. There were so many good moments in the conversation between Lydia Brawner and Will Rawls that I’m tempted to transcribe all of my notes. I expect that PICA recorded the conversation and will make it available online or at least to those who ask. Most of the following was said by Will, or something close to it.
What is time?
Why be precious (about your life)?
I am an unstable material.
How can this malleability be present.
Performance is work.
The racialized history of (dance) labor in this country.
How do I put the mark of my body in a mechanized process?
How do I reveal my hand in the work.
I was horrified. Then I almost started crying. I thought, this is the end times. This is the end of the performance. Was this the political part?
How to die on stage?
How to die by one’s own choreography?
I would like to choose how to die on stage
All choices are political.
Jump the gap.
9. Following the extraordinary communal expression of Critical Mascara (a post-realness drag extravaganza!) on Saturday night there was a beautiful and inspiring conversation hosted by madison moore, featuring an all QPOC panel of vogue and ballroom artists from Portland and Seattle. Critical Mascara founder and diva host Pepper Pepper gave a brief intro to the project and then gracefully bowed out. Pepper’s 5 year (etcetera) contribution to the underground queer, drag, trans, and ballroom scenes in the Pacific NW is the stuff of legends.
Critical Mascara has been a gateway. It exploded a fire inside myself. (Brandon Harrison, Father of House of Flora)
If you’re not going to get vulnerable you’re not going to grow. That’s just the T. (Yuko)
Ballroom and vogueing saved my life. I owe a lot to the culture. (Jade Vogelsang)
How to help?
1. Teach financial literacy.
2. Help transwomen access healthcare and health insurance, traversing the landscape of survival.
3. When a transwoman is broke, give or loan her $20.
4. Makeup is expensive and some of us need it for survival.
5. Show up. Buy a ticket. Don’t be disrespectful.