Kissing is in the air, and not just because it’s spring and my allergies are attacking my face to death.
No. Led by Tino Sehgal‘s “This Progress,” which opened at The Guggenheim back in January and featured “Kiss”, where exclusively male-female couples made out on the rotunda of the museum for like, all day, kissing has made a comeback of sorts, mainly because there still seems to be a lot of confusion about the politics of the action, and for that matter, representations of publicly expressed sexuality in general.
Long story short, Brennan Gerard and Ryan Kelly of Moving Theater Company got their hands on a casting call for Sehgal’s work, which was explicit in its request for “male/female” couples. In response, Brennan and Ryan have created “You Call This Progress?” Right now, it’s being discussed over at L. Ro’s WNYC blog, and I was originally going to post a comment there, but it turned into this state-of-the-union-length post, so I thought it would be better to just post it here. (Prepare thyself: from here on out–and for better of for worse–the language gets all academicky….)
I love that Brennan and Ryan have created this work; this constructive response to a gut reaction.
I think, through exploring their subjective reaction (as gay men) to seeing the public lionizing through performance of an exclusively male-female couple embraced in a kiss, they are getting at something essential to any argument about the human experience of/encounter with gender and sex, and therefore, sexuality: That gender and sex is always positive and subjective; and so sexuality and expressions of sexuality are also always positive and subjective.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the body, and I keep fixating on this idea of body-positiveness. We have this regard for the body as either complete (“Yep, all ten fingers and toes!”) or incomplete (anything less). But this way of regarding the body is predicated on an expectation of what the body should be, or should become. I would argue that a body can never be “incomplete”, since it is itself a totally positive manifestation of living matter: all living matter has “grown,” has “developed,” has one direction that is positive. If you remove a part, that does not make the total body that is left “incomplete”, it merely makes the body smaller and changes its shape, but the remaining body is no less positive. Maybe more broadly, one might say, EVERYTHING THAT IS, IS POSITIVELY.
In this same way, gender–particularly as social performance, and in the case of Tino Sehgal’s work, as performance art–is always positive. Gender, when gender is present, cannot be negated; like skin color cannot be negated; like height cannot be negated. We humans have this annoying habit of “looking past” things. A habit that stems from an avoidance of already “not looking” at things we find inconvenient to look at; i.e. social privilege for men, for white people, for heterosexuals, for the “fully abled”, for Christians, for English speakers, for the wealthy, et al. And so to keep ourselves from looking, we invent this idea of “looking past”, or “looking beyond” (usually expressed this way: “I don’t see you as [insert minority description].”), so that we never in fact have to confront the subjectivity of our own gender, race, or any other majority characteristic which we may be and/or express.
This false ability to “see past” essentially positive and immutable characteristics of the human body/experience (whether naked sexual characteristics, or the socially/personally constructed characteristics of gender, religion, political party, etc.), allows us to make all kinds of ridiculous arguments claiming that the body characteristics of the dominant group (maleness, whiteness, heterosexuality, “fully abled-ness”, Christianity, the English language, wealth, etc.) are simultaneously “ideal,” “universal,” and “objective.”
This tethering of “idealism,” “universality,” and “objectivity” is the necessity of any dominant group politics. It enables the dominant group to maintain an assumption to unlimited and exclusive privilege. It positions them as the designers, adjudicators and beneficiaries of power and justice. It allows the rampant, excessive representation of their own subjectivity while excluding and suppressing the representation of “other” subjectivities. It allows artists like Sehgal to argue (even via here-say, you have to imagine some form of this argument must exist in his reasoning) that the representation of a minority characteristic within a work that is attempting to be “universal” will “complicate,” or “politicize” a work, or make the work suddenly “subjective.” The only complication homosexual subjectivity would deliver to “Kiss” would be the unraveling of a violent, homophobic assumption to heterosexual privilege. Which would be a good thing.
And this is precisely the double-bind heterosexual supremacy (or any kind of political supremacy) enacts upon homosexuals (or the dominated group). Homosexuality is politicized by homophobia; in fact, the more homosexuality becomes visible and socially acceptable, the stronger the push is to politicize the behavior by the passing of laws that restrict the rights and freedoms of gay people. So when gay people speak up against these offensive (and offensive) maneuvers by heterosexual supremacists, they–the homosexuals–are portrayed as “being political,” when in fact they are being compelled into political action out of survival by a dominant group that has enacted a political movement against them. But because our culture is dominated by heterosexuality, the political agency of heterosexual supremacy (and of exclusionary heterosexual performances like Sehgal’s) literally “ISN’T SEEN.” It is invisible, because, well, of COURSE, heterosexuality is “objective,” “universal,” and “ideal,” none of which apply to the definition of politics.
To find an illustration of this absurd principle, one need only look at our judicial system. During Justice Sonya Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings, she was repeatedly grilled by white lawmakers about whether or not she would be able to exercise “objectivity” in cases that involved racial politics. The racism inherent in such questions was unabashed, if ultimately–and thankfully–impotent. But the principle governing such questions is still in place in common discourse regarding majority/minority politics and justice.
The question is always whether a justice of a racial, gender, or sexual minority will be able to be “objective” about cases involving race, gender or sexuality, respectively. In this question is figured a presumption that only white, or male, or heterosexual justices can be truly “objective” in these instances. Thus, laws created by whites, or males, or heterosexuals against non-whites, or non-males, or non-heterosexuals, are only able to be “objectively” adjudicated by members of the very group that made the discriminatory law in the first place. Sounds pretty fair, right?
In majority/minority politics, “objectivity” is always the privilege of the dominant group. I even heard a friend once argue that Anderson Cooper shouldn’t “come out” because he needs to be able to remain “objective” about “the issues.” As if his coming out would “politicize,” or “make subjective” his reporting on every possible issue, not just the gay ones. It is really sinister how pervasive these feelings are in our culture, going so deep that a liberal person who would vote for gay marriage would still be able to feel that all news anchors need to be heterosexual or closeted homosexuals in order to report objectively on anything. (OMG, we could probably spend another few thousand words on Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s argument that The Closet encompasses straight people as well as gays who are not out, but that is for another day or drunken evening…)
Seeing heterosexuality as objective is an illusion of privilege. Tino Sehgal’s “Kiss” is not objective. And Brennan and Ryan, in a stroke of genius, expose the subjectivity of “Kiss” by engaging language simply to describe what one is seeing at the Guggenheim. In the audio track accompanying the performance of “You Call This Progress?”, you hear them speak out what they observed in “This Progress.” They say things like “her right hand on his left shoulder,” “his left hand on her small of back,” “her right hand caresses his left chest.” All it takes is this rudimentary process of describing what is happening to show up the pretense of Sehgal’s “uncomplicated” vision. It also resonates brilliantly with one of Gregg Bordowitz’s scrolling questions, read aloud at the Burning Bridges performance of “You Call This Progress?”: “How is art a description?” How, also, is experience a description?
I was on the train the other day, and two black kids, maybe nine or ten years old, were playing a game, a version of Twenty Questions. One of them would pick out a random person on the train, and the other would ask questions in order to identify which person had been selected. The kid who was questioning would rattle off a preliminary course of dichotomous inquiries that went something like this: “Man or Woman?”; “Light or dark skinned?”; “Straight or curly hair?”; “Tall or short?” You get where I’m going. Our experience of bodies–and thus, our entire awareness of social order–is always accompanied by the tacit and necessary function of description. And the answers we receive are subjective and positive. We learn to understand the world by describing it. We know our place in the world by knowing our descriptions. To suddenly claim that subjective description of gender, or race, or sexuality is irrelevant to the experience of human interaction is to betray our history of understanding people only to service a purely conceptual maneuver of aesthetic sanitization.
Now, I am not arguing for the tyranny of description; of labels. But, whether we like it or not, we exist within this tyranny. Pretending that description doesn’t matter only strengthens the tyrannical grip of language over our bodies by playing into the privileges that language constructs.
And so we go back and forth between deflecting language’s/description’s limiting force upon our lives, and also employing language to affirm immutable characteristics of our bodies and of our identities.
I recently co-created a “Kiss-Out” with my collaborator Todd Shalom in response to a recent gay bashing that took place in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. We organized about sixteen people (of which, Mr. Kelly was one) to kiss at the corners of two street intersections near where the attack had taken place. The people were organized mostly in groups of two; mostly male-male couples, with one female-female couple, and one corner where I think two males and one female alternated configurations of two.
In one of the online discussions that followed (and in some cases, preceded) our action, an argument came up that suggested because we included male-female couples within our action, which was an action in response to homophobia, that this heterogenous makeup “negated” gender subjectivity altogether. The person who wrote this comment was trying to say that, essentially, if all sexualities are represented, then no sexualities exist.
I wholeheartedly disagree with the slippage from regarding sexual orientation as positive only-in-the-context-of-opposition/exclusion to regarding it as negative in-the-context-of-togetherness. Bodies are not like pigment, in the sense that when all pigments are present, we see white, or, the illusion of no pigment. Rather, when you see a straight couple and a gay couple expressing affection together, even in solidarity, there is no way of perceiving either action as negative or negated: They are both happening, and they are both happening positively. Likewise, excluding one from the other–as Sehgal’s work does, and as Brennan and Ryan’s work also does (which they call themselves out on)–does not strip either from their essential subjectivity.
I think what many of us are agitating for goes much further beyond a limited and perhaps ineffectual idea of “breaking down barriers,” which are usually understood to be the barriers of labels, or description, or language. Rather, we want to eradicate prejudice and privilege within the arena of description, so that both a heterosexual kiss and a homosexual kiss are seen as positive, not as oppositional. We also want to eliminate compulsory participation in descriptions that do not apply to our sense of identity. Because I do not identify as “heterosexual” does not mean I want to identify as “nothing.” If “heterosexual” is a construction that is at odds with any other configuring of sexual orientation, then I am happy to apply any secondary and following class of labels that all fall under the category “non-heterosexual” to myself. However, I would rather understand heterosexuality as a positive iteration of human sexual possibility that is equal to and co-existent with other positive iterations of human sexual possibility, whatever we end up calling those.
And we also want to forge an at-will relationship with identity. Maybe today I feel like “a man.” Maybe tomorrow I will feel like “a woman.” Maybe the next day I will feel something in between those two categories. Maybe I am currently in a homosexual romantic relationship, but maybe there will be room for a heterosexual relationship in the future, or, as Brennan and Ryan seem to argue for, a relationship outside of the structure of the couple.
But to understand any of these possibilities, which are exciting, and which seem to present an amazing opportunity to use language as constructive, but not as restrictive, in determining individual or group identity, we have to be able to call out the illusionary offspring of prejudicial identity politics and the teetering house of cards that is built upon its upward spiraling shoulders.
And now that I’ve pretty much resigned to using the Counter Critic as a platform for advocating for all things gay–for the time being–I’d like to share with y’all a Fan Page I started that is dedicated to drawing attention to and discussing the ideas in Sarah Schulman’s groundbreaking book “Ties That Bind: Familial homophobia and its consequences.”
In reality, this site has always addressed queer issues. C.C. has never shied from nor apologized for, well, being gay. Steady readers would figure out pretty quickly that the man behind the mask is a big homo. And the more I really consider the world and its parts, the harder it is for me to separate in any real sense homosexual politics from anything we experience in our culture. The fact is that “the homosexual” has been politicized by society, and this politicization (via suppression, oppression, and repression; pick your favorite) is evident in all aspects of culture, from works of art themselves (their content, their context, their reception) to how these works of art are produced (who’s making them, who’s curating them, how they are being written about), and that we can observe this as an injustice in virtually anything we experience. So, I guess I don’t think that using this site to explore homophobia is really a departure. And I hesitate to define the choice as an obsession, or a higher concentration of explicitly queer subjectivity. I’m more inclined, if anything, to feel that this lean would actually be more representative of the actual world in which we live, make work, and experience art. And I don’t believe in the neutrality of the critic, since gay critics have to repress their own gay subjectivity, while straight critics enjoy the privilege of not having to worry about it. (I suppose this begs for a whole other article about critics and the closet. Good idea!)
At any rate, what difference is there really between our experiences of art and life? Art is part of life. And vice-versa. So now I’m giving you a full fusion of my art (CounterCritic) and my life (Facebook) and some ideas that are pertinent to both, since it is all the same fucking thing.
Thus, here’s is a topic of discussion that I hope C.C. readers will find interesting. And if you haven’t read “Ties That Bind,” please do so now:
I’ve been thinking more about the case of Brian Burke, and it seems more and more to represent to me how limited our conversation on homophobia is, namely, that homophobia need only be addressed and confronted once a homosexual person in our lives is identified. That is, that we don’t need to worry about our homophobic tendencies as long as we don’t think there are any homosexual people around.
Quick note: Mr. Burke has chosen quite bravely to speak out about his life and his relationship with his son. It is in that spirit of openness and discussion that I’m writing out these ideas. I am not callous to his situation, or to the awfulness of his loss. I hope he would appreciate my interest in his story, and my willingness to engage in conversation.
That said, it struck me as worth considering at more length the way Mr. Burke reflected on how he raised his son after his son came out to him. His immediate conclusion was that he “never told his children that there was anything wrong with homosexuality.” For the record, and coming from a family that did exactly the opposite, I think that’s very commendable.
But I’m curious about how not teaching that being gay is wrong is somehow equated with or understood to include teaching that being gay is good. In actuality, these are not the same thing, and one can easily do the former without doing the latter.
I would posit that if there were actually no homophobia at play in Mr. Burke’s family, then his son would never have had to come out to him in the first place. If families were really not homophobic, and were really open to seeing for their children all the possibilities of future happiness, they would create for their children, from their very earliest age, an environment in which the homosexual potential was equally celebrated as the heterosexual potential.
An example. When a three year old boy would tell his mother, “I want to marry a boy,” instead of either correcting him erroneously by saying “boys can’t marry boys”–because they can in several places in this country and in the world–, or instead of freaking out and changing the subject, or leading her son toward looking at girls instead without explicitly saying there is anything wrong with wanting to marry boys, the non-homophobic mother would instead say, “Oh, good. Which boy do you want to marry?”
But this doesn’t happen, does it?
From Neil Genzlinger’s review of “Yank!”:
“Yank!,” with music by Joseph Zellnik and book and lyrics by David Zellnik, his brother, of course has an added resonance because of the current debate over whether to repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. But this is hardly a political show. Its subtitle, “A WWII Love Story,” encapsulates its main aspiration: to depict a same-sex couple as so many heterosexual couples have been shown over the years, struggling to capture the elusive thing called love against a backdrop of grand events.
If by “a backdrop of grand events” Genzlinger is referring to the social pathology of homophobia that unfairly punishes gay people for being gay and uses the mechanism of government to manipulate gay people’s lives, to deny their very existence, and to prevent them from even developing loving relationships with the people they want, then NO, SO MANY HETEROSEXUAL COUPLES HAVE NOT BEEN SHOWN THIS WAY OVER THE YEARS. OR EVER.
This “hardly political” love story literally cannot exist outside of politics. It takes place within a political system. And it is a condition that is enforced on gay people by heterosexuals who participate in the homophobic establishment. Am I taking crazy pills? If not, please point me to the nearest pharmacy?
So yeah, business as usual around these parts. And, of course I’m chiming in on something gay-themed, as has been the pattern of recent.
So, umm, I don’t know if y’all read Patrick Healey’s little piece on the “NEW GAY THEATER”! Look out! Apparently, it’s not political. And it’s also about how the gays are exactly the same as the straights, and also totally not.
For the sake of brevity, I’m just going to re-post a comment I made on the Facebook page of the Gay & Lesbian Review (which, btw, is a great publication you should all read; that includes you too, straights). So here goes. Have fun. And comment if you feel like it:
OMG, this article is very problematic. It argues that these new gay plays are showing us that gay love (and all which that implies) is “no different from their straight variations,” but then quotes Daryl Roth as saying he wanted to produce “The Temperamentals” because “I’ve always wanted to learn more and understand more about gay life, and think others have the same curiosity.” If there is no difference between the gay and straight experience of love, then where does this “curiousity” come from? While the experience of love may be essentially universal, the experience of love in the world is not necessarily universal. It can be different, and it is quite different for gay people. Gay love is political–whether we like it or not–because it occurs within a world that suppresses it. That’s kind of the bottom line, isn’t it? I’m “curious” to know what others think.
BTW, the title of the photo from The Times–that is, the title their photo editors gave it–is “23gay-yank-popup.” So subtle, and also sounds fun!
Holy shit. Over the next 6 days, NYC will be experiencing a non-stop barrage of queer performance. Trust me, this shit isn’t for the faint-of-heart, or crossed-of-leg.
First up, TONIGHT, Earl Dax is throwing down another edition of the infamous PussyFaggot party at the Delancey, this time hosted by queer vet Penny Arcade and Sophia Lamar. The lineup is fudge-packed, and teaming to the gills with queer NYC nightcrawlers, including Kenny Melman, Jeremy Wade (on loan from Berlin), and Glen Marla. Not to be missed is a special screening of artist Ryan Trecartin‘s “P.opular S.ky”.
Friday night, queer qrooner Nick Hallett curates Rhizome’s “New Silent” at the New Museum (which seems to be getting queerer the closer we get to nation-wide marriage equality) featuring Big Art Group and Cinemafury. Expect balloons.
New avenues into cabaret are in the air. On Saturday, you can swing by MonkeyTown for one of the last times EVER, where Nick Hallett (“Yay!”) is hosting Chateau de Chic, a “multi-media cabaret” with Katie Eastburn, Shana Moulton, Nicklcat, LSD and Ben Coonley.
Then Sunday, art colab. Magnetic Laboratorium brings us another installment of Magnetic Cabaret at Bubble Lounge. Masterminded by Marisela La Grave and hosted by Shasta (aka, Glen Rumsey), whose days dragging it up at Baracuda are legendary.
Monday, Penny Arcade revives to host a launch and “gala” for her book “Bad Reputation” at (Le) Poisson Rouge, with special guest including Deborah fucking Harry, among others. Rumor also has it that queer diva and guiding light Sarah Schulman may make an appearance.
And Tuesday–deep breath–fucking M. Lamar is throwing down a party for the release of his new album “Souls on Lockdown”. Guests include fucking Justin Bond, and fucking Novice Theory. If you haven’t heard “White Pussy,” you have no idea what it is like to live in the 21st century.
Christ. If you can fit all of that into your schedule, you’re even more flexible than I…
Management for downtown dance-theater/performance artists (we really may need to just make up a term that covers this; suggestions? I guess Na’vi is already taken…) is not a simple thing. It’s obscure, there is very little money in it, and in a financial climate that threatens both artist funding and the capital that goes into keeping New York’s handful of downtown venues in operation, the future just doesn’t seem very bright, or steady.
But one man is about to take up the torch of what often feels as much like a social cause as it does an artistic industry. Ben Pryor (full discloser: we’re kind of BFFs…), who has been working to represent artists with Pentacle for the past two years, has decided to strike out and start up his own management endeavor, tbspMGMT. Yay!
Pryor’s first act/action as an independent rep. is AMERICAN REALNESS, a curated festival of contemporary dance artists (Gelflings?) that is being held at Abrons Arts Center (a venue that now can be counted on to present New York City’s edgiest artists), which coincides with APAP and The Public Theater’s Under the Radar (UTR) festival, a festival that has built a solid reputation for presenting excellent emerging theater work, but one that has also drawn criticism for under representing NYC’s dance community.
For AMERICAN REALNESS, Pryor has managed to assemble what The New York Times’ Claudia La Rocco might term “the cool kids” of downtown dance (Uruk Hai?), including Jeremy Wade, Miguel Gutierrez, Jack Ferver, and our very own Ann Liv Young. Specifically, though, these artists all seem to share an outlook that engages the body in performance in ways that are gritty, explicit, passionate (or its opposite, dispassionate), and generally queer.
I emailed Pryor about American Realness and his decision to go it alone as an artist representative, and these are some of the things he had to say…
Counter Critic (C.C.): What the fuck are you doing?
Ben Pryor (tbsp):
Re Defining American Contemporary Performance
trying to sell the work of these artists who are pushing, reshaping and erasing the boundaries of dance and theater.
Starting my own management entity with a bang.
Showing some amazing work, and maybe some tits and ass.
C.C.: How are you doing it?
By the seat of my pants.
Blood sweat and tears
C.C.: Need more info about AMERICAN REALNESS.
I love under the radar, which has been the best platform for contemporary work during APAP, but it doesn’t show dance. It became a dream of mine to create an “under the radar fordance”, if you will.
I am marketing the whole thing as a festival because it is a better way to put the work out there than a showcase. The goal is selling the work, but I am also trying to reshape international perception of american work. somehow they don’t really know the contemporary stuff is happening, not in a big way. I am trying to give attention to that. I am also trying to challenge american presenters (outside the 10 that do present contemporary work) to get with it and show some good shit!
This is also sorta the launch of tbspMGMT. I haven’t clearly established relationships with everyone, but I am trying to make it an organic progression.
Why these artists?
Cause these artists give me chills when I see what they do.
I love the way they think.
That they are reshaping contemporary work and it is not being seen outside new york and that is CRAZY.
Cause who doesn’t like calling out a whole industry of your peers for being lame and old fashioned.
Cause I like making a splash and so do these artists.