Twenty years ago, on March 13, 1997, Frank Rich penned an op-ed, “Lesbian Lookout,” in support of the NEA, which was under threat. The Watermelon Woman (Cheryl Dunye, 1996), which I produced and acted in, and Yvonne Rainer’s MURDER and murder, were that year’s perennial NEA whipping boys.
When it comes to a fixation on lesbian sex, even Howard Stern is a poor second to Pete Hoekstra, a Representative from Michigan. Mr. Hoekstra seems to have a curious obsession with sampling alleged lesbian porn financed by the National Endowment for the Arts. In a January letter to the N.E.A.’s chairman, Jane Alexander, he describes how he executed his solemn duty to watch a movie called The Watermelon Woman after ‘reading a review . . . which stated that [it] had “the hottest dyke sex scene ever recorded on celluloid.”‘ (What paper is the Congressman reading?)
The Watermelon Woman has recently enjoyed a twentieth year remaster of our deteriorating print, and a twentieth anniversary re-release, commencing at last year’s Berlinale, moving on to MoMA, enjoying a week’s theatrical run at NY’s Metrograph, and now available for purchase. Supported by $31,500 in 1995 by the NEA, the last year the Endowment supported individual filmmakers, it has gone on to be a valued enough piece of American filmmaking that our remaster was supported by film culture stalwarts like the UCLA Film & TV Archive, Outfest, and the Toronto International Film Festival. It has remained valued for many things, including its art-world famous “Fae Richards Archive” of 82 images by Zoe Leonard re-enacting the life and contemporaries of our fake star, otherwise known as “the Watermelon Woman”; for its contributions to the sub-genre fake documentaries, of which I am also a scholar; for its place in history as the first African American lesbian feature film; and for its intelligent, disarming, honest depictions of the relations between owning and controlling imaging technologies and history, memory, and truth (also the focus of all of the #100hardtruths I pen).
It is true that some recent re-reviews have noted the political artfulness of the depiction of lesbian sex in the film, but everyone knows that salacious sex is not really the film’s primary preoccupation (Dunye’s more heady interests in identity, self-reflexivity, film history, experimental form, and the political power of archives have contributed to its ongoing attention by scholars, as was demonstrated in the recent academic conference that was part of its anniversary). We understood the #hardtruth that bigots used its lesbian sex scene as a smoke screen for their much more prurient commitments to censorship, racism, sexism, and homophobia.
There are many haunting truths to be told about our experiences twenty years ago associated to past efforts to defund the NEA. As is true for many real statements about fake things, I hope our place within a previous generation’s successful defense may be useful for those working today to hold off this administration’s sorry attempts. Some of what actually happened now plays as phony as the claims trotted out against us, but as many of the facts of our place within the history of the annals of the NEA reflect tactics, and players, that stay true to this day: speak truth to power; fight for the right for the least-seen to speak truth to power.
- For the most part, white men were our strongest champions as the Congress used our little picture for bigger aims. Frank Rich wrote on our behalf, and Alex Baldwin spoke for us on the steps of Capitol Hill. Having made a film about black women and lesbians’ lack of access to capital, media, and power, it still came as a shock that Cheryl never got to speak on her own behalf.
”We’re in the ‘no bullwhips, please’ phase of Federal funding for the arts,” Mr. Baldwin said after his two-day excursion here. ”I would love all art to be funded, for the Federal Government to spend $1 billion on the arts, and for the N.E.A. to be restored to what it was. ‘But the political facts of life are that funding anything that this Congress considers obscene will enable Dick Armey and the Republican leadership to dynamite the entire N.E.A.” (“Lobbyists Fight Cuts on Arts Day in Capital,” 1997)
- But in the end, a congressional bill to defund the NEA by $31,500—staged as political theater to shame our film, and other attempts of American self-expression—was voted down on the floor of congress due to the simple and true words of one of our strongest champions, Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, from Texas. “Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Democrat from Texas, took up Dunye’s cause in the Congressional debate, informing House members that ‘I’ve seen the film, and I think Cheryl Dunye is doing a wonderful job. Can we just say we have a difference of opinion?'” (“Can ‘Community Standards’ Apply to ‘Watermelon Woman,‘” 1997).
- The National Endowment for the Arts
- #148milliondollars, Paul Weston
- “Five Best Art World Protests Against Trump,” Ilana Novick
- www.neafunded.us, Tega Brain
- F is for Phony: Fake Documentary and Truth’s Undoing, Alexandra Juhasz and Jesse Lerner
- #100hardtruths-#fakenews: a primer on digital media literacy
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.