October 13, 2016
I’ll begin with a shout-out, a dream-out—not a review but a reverie—of Taylor Mac’s “A Twenty-Four Hour History of Popular Music,” an unforgettable opus, atheistic tent revival, and hootenanny that I was privileged enough to attend, for 24 hours, last weekend. So powerful: I dreamed about it again last night (nights later). I could try to give words to the trippy commitment of staying awake together with a room of 650 strangers as jaw-dropping costumes changed in front of us (by the hands of their designer Machine Dazzle, himself always in yet another exuberant, preposterous, marvelous outfit) …
… onto the beautiful almost-naked masculine-feminine body of Taylor Mac who all the while espoused radical analyses of American culture, personal theories of performance, and raunchy and proud depictions of his own political and sexual predelictions and sang so beautifully while his wonderously weird brigade of dandy minions danced among and for us, leading us here and there like hooligan pied-pipers, and the band played, and we were asked to engage together in ever more weird ways and I kept moving, from chair to floor, from snack to sleeping bag. Sometimes I’d talk with people nearby, other times dance or take a little shut-eye.
I’ll dream of it because that seems the best way to process an over-full body and mind experience—much better than writing. Dream of the experience, yes, and in that form try to encapsulate it and own it for myself as my mind turns off. But also there re-engage bodily in how art really can make action, and community, and ideas, and love for a day and even perhaps after, in all that lingers; and how these experiences, coming in the form of a “radical faerie realness ritual,” manifest the best of what this country, and its art and artists, can be.
Instead, I’ll use this place, my blog, one of mostly rational words, to name and ponder one of Mac’s big stated concerns of the night, and how it presses up against my own recent questions about what it means and how it feels to move marginal, or counter-cultural, or radical culture into the ever more normative spaces that graciously invite us there. Over the hours, Mac talked frequently, and at great length about the “cross-cultural translation” work his performances enact: connecting tony theater crowds to the outrageous, lusty, ethical politics and practices of America’s marginal activists (anti-abolitionists, Native Americans, radical faeries and lesbians, suffragettes, civil rights activists, burlesque dancers, gay male bath-house enthusiasts, etc). Mac explained frequently that we were in “mixed-company,” and what this meant for the audience and the show. That is, being in a room where some of the people (in the cast and crew and audience) were members of the counter-cultural communities and causes that the show celebrates, borrows from, appropriates, and learns from, but that many or most were probably not (given the cost of the ticket: $400!)
As the day progressed into night and then later yet, morning, it became increasingly clear to my addled brain that the seemingly straight and white and aged members of the audience were quite able to stay, see and listen to the wildly out-there things that the performance and Mac encompass, including but not limited to the penultimate hour (that is hour 23), that attended with great care to the causes, songs, politics, and wisdom of radical lesbians. Although I had shed a tear a few times over the 22 hours thus far (particularly in the hour for the decade that preceded this, the hour devoted to the ravages of AIDS), I was not prepared for how moved I would be to see this powerful-almost-shattered man, and his amazing brigade of talented artists, attend lovingly to the often-derided, rarely-attented-to (by outsiders that is), people, ideas, culture, pastimes, and wisdom of people like me. I was deeply moved that we were being attended to—in this vast and rather dominant space—with dignity and curiosity: there is something to learn from these strange people … I can’t say the audience went wild, we were tired and lesbian culture remains foreign and unpalatable to many (as indeed it is designed to do), but the audience listened and learned with a heart and mind opened by all that had preceded. And now I think this has to be more than 21 hours of Taylor Mac breaking us down, although that was amazing and intense. There is a larger cultural phenomenon counter-cultural inclusion at this time of which he is one important player.
Because I realized that night that something similar had happened to me only a few days before. Just the previous Monday in fact, when the film I produced, The Watermelon Woman, played at the MoMA, as part of its 20th anniversary remaster re-release. There, too, a different crowd from its original home in marginal queer of color culture, enjoyed, thought about, and learned from the film and our attending cast and crew. And by doing so, in many ways they were only acknowledging what we already knew and had always tried to promote: that the first black lesbian feature film (directed by Cheryl Dunye in 1996) was serious (and funny and charming) cinema about ideas of great import to all Americans—race, sexuality, memory, history, archives—just as was Mac’s.
And when I was on the stage that night, a little nervously looking into the crowd, seeing some recognizably queer or black or feminist faces but mostly not, I felt that everyone there (again, note the price of the ticket) was actually quite ready to attend to our tiny little micro expression of that same 90s feminist, lesbian of color wisdom, humor, style, and outsider mojo that Taylor Mac had also celebrated, and I wondered: why … and how?
And I watch Transparent with a similar haunting refrain: whatever can it mean that our most cherished, carefully tooled criticisms, and the words we have refined to better understand the cruelty and sick reason of our world, can now be available to many more than have lived and defined these positions from the counter-cultural margins? I want to be clear that in all three cases I am not talking about “selling out,” because that is not what this moment feels like from the inside. Rather, inhabiting these new bright rooms and viewing platforms with many others who are clearly unlike myself, the lifestyles, values, ways of living and knowing and loving that have been refined by many marginal cultures look to be becoming palatable expressions of the American experience for many more than I would ever have imagiend. And because this post has gone on too long, and because I haven’t figured it out at all, I’ll end by proffering two initial explanations for a seeming acceptance of radical queer culture in increasingly mainstream spaces:
- one: we’ve been producing representations of and for ourselves that are continuing, expanding, and refining for now so many past several decades that people are getting used to us. We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it!
- and, better yet: perhaps others, outsiders, the different and the dominant, are actually opening to hear us by necessity. For in these vile, racist, misogynist, cruel times, it seems ever more likely that we’ve actually been right all along.
Sometimes things align, but mostly, really, it’s because they are already connected. Such is the case with the showing of Zoe Leonard’s compelling new body of work, “In the Wake,” currently showing at Hauser & Wirth and the cotemporaneous screening of The Watermelon Woman at the Museum of Modern Art: both in New York City, as am I, today.
“In the Wake,” Leonard’s compendium of three related works (sculptural and photographic) reflecting on the photo in/as/against the archive stretches the work she did on a linked set of questions over twenty years ago while making the Fae Richards Archive with myself (as co-producer and actor), Cheryl Dunye (as co-director) and a rowdy, talented, committed group of dykes, artists, and intellectuals from NYC and Philadelphia. That archive now sits and shows, in part, in the film I produced (with Barry Swimar), The Watermelon Woman (Cheryl Dunye, 1996), which is currently enjoying its twentieth year re-release of a beautifully remastered print. As a complementary part of its return, Cheryl Dunye, Marc Smolowitz and I have energized what we call WMW 3.0 art shows where curators of younger generations revisit the film, its photo archives and production ephemera, and mount art shows joining that work with new objects by contemporary artists who are engaging, with today’s urgency and concerns, with the central issues of The Watermelon Woman: the relations between photography and film, archives, memory, self- and community-expression, history, power, and legacy, particularly as experienced by lesbians, queers, people of color and women.
Traveling the world (again) with the film, living in close proximity with its (fake) archive, discussing it with new audiences and our team of WMW 3.0 curators (Erin Christovale, Vivian Crocket, Melonie Green, Melorra Green, Natasha Johnson and Dorothy Santos), and at a recent symposium at SF State, organized by Darius Bost and others, Black/Feminist/Lesbian/Queer/Trans* Cultural Production: A Symposium Honoring the 20th Anniversary of Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman, I find myself in eerie alliance, or perhaps simply ongoing connection or even conversation (from afar), with Zoe’s discussion of her own current work about the past as “the opposite of archiving.”
Since I was in NY, while she was at the opening in LA, Cheryl took and shared with me cellphone photos of the now familial objects (from the fake archive in which my friends and I were first seen, twenty years ago) displayed at a Subtle Likeness and Memoirs of a Watermelon Woman (still showing at the One Archives). In NY, “In the Wake” finds Zoe Leonard also photographing photographs of her family’s partial, haunting, inconclusive archive of post-Holocaust snapshots, in the process turning them, as well, into luminous, reiterative, more-than-precious keys to history’s and family’s unfathomable and always unfindable truths.
The opposite of archiving for so many reasons and in so many ways, Leonard distorts the record with her highly visible photographic processes, multiplies away the value of the archive’s precious objects by replicating them and then showing them again and again, albeit differently, and transforms lowly family snapshots into high art through her refined aesthetic sensibility and masterful developing techniques, beautiful framing and exacting display, and placement in room after room of the toniest of townhouses on the Upper East Side.
The opposite of archiving for so many reasons. For, ordinary life can be and is made into art, not artifacts, sometimes by loving communities in the living of it, and sometimes by later communities in the lasting of it.
Archive’s opposite because the Fae Richards Archive was a carefully, lovingly researched and rendered fake, made by many, because we believed in the telling of the story of someone (Fae Richards, the Watermelon Woman) who must have been true but couldn’t benefit in her time from today’s most obvious, irresistible right and activity: living a life available to the photographic record and its lasting home in an archive.
The opposite of archiving because, thankfully, real people, our lived lives and luscious loves, our full-tilt embrace of experience in community and history and art, will never be fully available to any archive’s or the internet’s quest for total picture control. Rather, we enter ourselves into history and its many archives here again, and as Zoe does and has done before, by celebrating the photograph’s partial, artistic, personal hold on people, truth, and life.
September 29, 2016
I gave a “talk” at the CUNY Grad Center: one of many attempts to document, process, and share this year-plus long project, a multi-temporal, many-sited, process-rich, collaborative investigation of learning, making and living in feminist social networks, no matter how messy.
#ev-ent-anglement considers how or if affect flows within on/offline queer/feminist spaces because I am concerned that many of our current digital practices are not yet as grounded as we deserve. It believes that we can learn from doing, and that we can do better.
Feel free to read more (and cut/paste+bleed at will) on the ev-ent-anglement.
August 14, 2016
I will be giving a brief presentation at the Visible Evidence documentary conference in Bozeman Montana on one of two workshops concerning the teaching of documentary.
Preparing for this, I realize: I don’t teach “Intro to Documentary” (Studies and/or Production), and never have in my twenty-five years of praxis-based collegiate instruction committed to making, historicizing and theorizing activist media practices with my students and related communities. Thus, I decided to use my invitation to contribute to the panel, and its field-centered conversation, to figure out where, in fact, I had and have located my teaching about feminist, queer, activist, AIDS and internet media. My title for the panel, written well in advance, had been “The Axis of Praxis.” This placed- and action-based metaphor still provides a reasonable framework in that the space I have been doing my work in, about, and for is indeed, not really documentary but rather, this place: a media place, a lived place, a practice place at the (always anticipated and endlessly unfulfilled) axis of community, commitment, making, seeing and representation.
That is, the internet, and its wild collections, its multiple possibilities for media (what Helen De Michiel named as “a cutting loose from legacy 20th century production and distribution practices”), its linking and unlinking of networks of self and community, and its breezy possibilities for making and sharing. The internet: with its corporate ownership, neo-liberal paradigms of labor, self-production, promotion, and commodification. The internet: a place we don’t need to go to see.
In my presentation (my power point is here), I will discuss how my work has been situated not in documentary, per se, but rather: between film and media studies by way of documentary, and more particularly activist, community-based media; in DH by way of queer and feminist and anti-racist studies; and in critical internet studies by way of placed-based interrogations of the embodied experiences of communities of practitioners. This inter-disciplinarity helps me to better see this place. At Visible Evidence, thinking about documentary with theorists and practitioners in Montana (for now), I learned, face-to-face about the values of lived embodied space.
Janet Walker‘s opening keynote, “Mapping Documentary,” set the stage for my experience of a series of provocations about documentary, place, and digital technologies, including the internet, that she and her graduate students and fellow faculty members at UCSB have been developing and refining for many years (I have joined them here and elsewhere) and which I then heard across the conference from many others (just a few listed below). She understands documentary “as mapping in and of itself,” by way of geo-locative tools that combine with more traditional media and their linked practices (i.e. documentary) and material, daily, lived experience and knowledge of place. Her reading of how and why these representations move on and off media, including the internet, what she calls “a deep mapping,” is a practice at the axis of praxis.
I’ve also been attempting to do and theorize this kind of engaged, active, seeing, going and reading with my students and others, albeit often by first (creatively/politically) building or entering a digital place, that is always also a material place, that is to say that is one place—the world and its internet; this place—with all the particularities of the local and the global, the material and the digital making it impossible to pin down.
Helen De Michiel‘s presentation on a panel about contemporary participatory media practices, looked to her current documentary practice (on Lunch Love Community) that is “enmeshed in social lived encounters … folded into public settings” and that Patty Zimmerman went on to name as “small-scale media interventions that permeate in and through communities,” at once “digital, analogue, and embodied.” In this panel, Aggie Bazaz noted a set of documentary-linked practices where “films receded into the background of events,” that Reece Auguiste called “a way of being in the world,” that is collectively “for oneself and for others.” What matters most to me here is their descriptions of carefully navigated movements from lived embodied reality to digital/media representation as the most critical part of activist multimedia practices. This is done with care, attention, love, and self-awareness.
These placed based ideas of my colleagues, learned and shared as they were in a place, Montana, have led me to believe that I have not, indeed, been studying, teaching or making documentaries for these past many years as I have been trying rather, to use documentary, and a related series of linked tools, processes and methods, histories and theories, to build with others (often my students) a way of being, doing, and changing in the digital material world that is currently our home. From this, I realize that documentary, like the internet, is simply a set of technologies at hand; certainly one with rules, histories, best practices, theories, communities, and infinite possibilities (limited by many forces). But for me, it has always been the doing towards the living and being and changing that has mattered the most, and I thus am drawn to makers and theorists (in whatever fields) that try to understand this, as much as I am to the texts that inspire it.
Here are links to five such projects of my own, using documentary as practices and theories and histories, to be sure, but along with other tools and ways of being and knowing, that have pushed me to reconsider my place at the axis of praxis of documentary and other fields:
- Learning from YouTube: my class and video-book on and about this site
- Visual Research Methods: my class teaching grad students in the humanities about the legacies and affordances of critical digital making as a humanist and artistic mode of inquiry and writing
- FemTechNet: a place for asynchronous, collective, distributed teaching about feminist views of technologies
- Feminist Online Spaces: a project aimed at researching, teaching, talking about and otherwise building-towards online spaces that are defined by feminist and other progressive principles of community, visibility, discourse, and politics
- Ev-ent-anglement an experiment in digital embodied collective feminist media praxis