CHAPPED LIPS

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.

Leggo My Bel Canto

normaOn Friday, Anthony Tommasini took a moment, in a hot piece on new technologies in opera, to parenthetically lament the current sate of affairs at The New York City Opera: (Remember the good old City Opera, nearly dormant and badly struggling right now?)

Never fear, T-Bone. CC is here.

Since my announcement, I’ve received some fabulous feedback from readers, both trusty C.C. supporters as well as a few colorful detractors, and have made an important revision to one of the points of the original twelve-step program I proposed.

Step. 5 – RE: Bel Canto

This seems to have been the most controversial point of my proposal. (No one, I repeat, no one came to the defense of The Board…) Continue reading

C.C. for New York City Opera Directorship

Yes we can!

Yes we can!

Counter Critic for the Directorship of The New York City Opera

“A Key-Change We Need”

[Update: WATCH VIDEO]

Preamble

I hereby announce my candidacy to assume directorship of The New York City Opera.

In these uncertain times, artistic organizations need stalwart leadership that will provide vision, direction, and most importantly, thought that isn’t lodged in the dark recesses of somebody’s ass.

As the New York City Opera continues to flounder in the murky waters of economic recession and general disregard, without a willing captain at the helm, it is imperative that someone who actually gives a damn about the institution be put in charge of leading the behemoth to safe and prosperous waters. (Yay, maritime metaphors!)

C.C. is that captain.

As Director of the New York City Opera, I propose to institute the following 12-step course of action:

1. Assemble a crack-pot para-advisory board of cultural thinkers

Like Obama, I will surround myself with a menagerie of “the best and the brightest” thinkers in the arts and culture. L. Ro., Andy Horowitz and Earl Dax (oh, and La Cieca) are def. on the short list. Maybe RoseLee, if she gets her act together. I’m open to suggestions, but the important thing is that more than just one ego will be involved in this process. Think of it as one ginormous mega-ego of ideas. [Updated here.]

2. Rout the Board

Boards are notoriously over-committed and under-concerned groups of people who constantly need to be coddled, have their asses kissed, and virtually begged to in order to fulfill the basic commitments they agreed to when they accepted their positions.

All Board members are subject to review, upon which time, if their behavior and past activities as a board member show sufficient benefit to the New York City Opera, then they will be allowed to stay, while also doubling their annual give-or-get commitment. (Yes!)

If a Board member’s performance has been sub-par, resistant, or complainy, they will be summarily dismissed without further adieu.

Institutions don’t need to cow kowtow to lazy, annoying, or creepy board members. There are NICE WEALTHY PEOPLE out there who would donate their money and efforts to worthwhile institutions. They only need to be found. So let’s find ‘em!

3. Umm…get some productions going!

Without delay, bring up some old and trusty productions out of the basement. Some opera is better than no opera at this point. Let’s keep the musicians and stage hands employed. Hey, we might even get an audience!

4. Commission no less than four new operas a year

It’s bullshit that Mozart got to compose like a new opera every year practically, and our living composers are relegated to writing maybe ONE per lifetime. To make new opera a viable contender in contemporary culture, it needs to be newer, faster, smaller, and have a constant presence in the world.

Hey, I’ll write them all, if that’s what it takes. That’s how committed I am to making The New York City Opera a better place… Continue reading

Proposition 8 Remainders: All this backlash is giving me whiplash

So…

First, Proposition 8 passed and there was a wave of gay-friendly outrage, most of which was aimed at the Mormon church, and some of which was, apparently, leveled at the African American community. Now there’s a backlash at the gays who have appeared–to some–as a pack of wild, fornicating racist assholes. The back and forth is a somewhat unprecedented, and due mostly to the fact that other than Will & Grace and the handful of TV shows and movies that have featured gay characters (or gay themes, like Project Runway and America’s Next Top Model), America has not yet had the BIG GAY CONVERSATION. Even after AIDS, our country has a lot of growing up to do in terms of our discussion of queer politics. Although, it may actually be happening, like right now.

If feel obligated to revisit the issue of gays and race since part of the inspirational email I blasted out to my friends (and posted here) addressed the supposed “Obama factor,” which was a theory that the high turnout of African American voters who would turn out to support Barack Obama would generally, and to a larger degree than the general population, oppose gay marriage, which would have spelled disaster for Proposition 8.

Here’s what I wrote in my missive:

Ironically, it looks like the big African American turnout in California hurt gay rights. We cannot ignore the fact that the community overwhelmingly voted for the measure. But this should be looked at as an opportunity to really ramp up outreach within the black community, not as some kind of inevitable factor that can never be overcome. It only points out how much work there is to do to solidify equality for gays in all American communities.

I can’t see anything factually wrong with what I wrote. There was a big African American turnout in CA, and many of them did vote for the proposition, and at a rate higher than the total average. Although, I suppose my wording, “the African American turnout…hurt gay rights” [ital new], suggests blame, or at least may have led one to believe that I was trying to say that Prop 8 wouldn’t have passed without the black vote. In no way did I intend this as a scapegoat. I included this as a note of interest that reaffirmed what I already thought I knew about queer politics and race, which is that minority communities are said to be less tolerant of gay individuals within those communities (we’ll get back to this). I’m also pretty sure my conclusion was that our response to the perceived statistics should be one of responsible outreach, not divisive blame, and that we should not succumb to a belief that change within the black community is not possible.

Since I wrote this, one friend sent me this link to a response from Kathryn Kolbert, President of People for the American Way, who warns “white gay activists” against “blaming” African Americans for the passage of Prop 8. Then statistical superhero Nate Silver posted this. And now everyone’s like, gays are just pissed off and looking for people to blame. Continue reading

One Word: LAME

Some of you may wonder why I haven’t written a damn word about last week’s news that the New York City Opera and Gerard Mortier canceled their wedding.

Basically, I find it depressing. I don’t even want to write about this. The New York City Opera is said to be “the people’s” opera. And the people just got screwed.

Mr. Mortier will go find his next gig. Fine. But with him go his two commissions: Charles Wuorinen’s Brokeback Mountain and Philip Glass’s Walt Disney bio opera. Whether you thought these would actually be great opera’s or not is beside the point. For a city that brags about being the cultural center of the world, these kinds of losses are a serious rebuttal.

What’s more disturbing is that no one knows WTF is going to happen to the company; not even La Cieca. It could just implode, leaving a very serious hole in New York City’s cultural landscape.

And I just think it’s lame that neither party saw the need for resolution here; or didn’t see it enough to compromise and avoid what could be a situation that leads NYCO into a self-immolation, Isolde style. Is that really what The Board wanted? Is that really what Mr. Mortier wanted?

I also find it disappointing that the City Opera couldn’t capitalize on The Met’s fairytale success and drum up enough support to turn the company into a rival house. It just sounds like both parties adopted a “my way or the highway” attitude, which simply amounts to two lonely people walking in two opposite directions. Oh, and the kids are left alone sitting on the side of the road; cold; shivering; and without a gay cowboy opera premiere in sight.

A Measure of Change: Or, What “Sleeping With The Enemy” and Goat Island’s “Lastmaker” have in common with the election of Barack Obama

sleeping-with-the-enemy-posterIf this election cycle has had any single theme that has dominated all possible themes, it was without a doubt: CHANGE. Not only did Barack Obama’s campaign coin it and stick to it, but John McCain’s campaign co-opted it in an effort to portray the McCain/Palin ticket as the real agents of change. It is clear, now, who the majority of Americans believed could actually effect change. Now, what exactly “change” will be, specifically, in Barack Obama’s presidency, remains to be seen as his administration unfolds. But already there is a powerful sense of change, for many of us, that has already taken hold, and shapes our view of the world with each passing day. What is this “change”, and how can it be measured?

Wednesday, I was watching Spike Lee give an interview on one of the cable networks, and at one point, he proclaimed that from now on, America’s history will be measured as “BB” (or “Before Barack”), and “AB” (“After Barack”). (The obvious pitfall of using “Obama” in this scenario is that “Before Obama” comes up as “BO”…) At first, I was skeptical of the idea. It borders on the verge of hubris, and is too analogous to how the world’s history is divided between before and after the birth of Jesus Christ: the last thing we need is more unfortunate Obama=Jesus parallels.

But then, last night, as I was walking to meet C.C. BFF Claudia La Rocco at PS 122 to see Goat Island’s final production, “Lastmaker” (a really excellent piece that I enjoyed but didn’t really understand), it occurred to me that it was the first time I had seen Claudia since Barack Obama won the election. I also realized that “Lastmaker” would be the first performance I’d seen since then.

When we met, Claudia mentioned this feeling as well. It is strange. Neither of us was really a crazed Obama supporter (if anything, my own support for Barack Obama stemmed from a strong reaction against Republican leadership in general, although I am optimistic–with a healthy dose of skepticism–that Obama’s presidency will have a largely positive impact on our nation), and yet Claudia and I were both moved by this inexplicable knowledge that something had changed and we had not yet shared an experience with each other since that change had happened. This seemed to be a clear measure of change.

As we discussed this before the show began, I mentioned to Claudia that there is one other moment that changed my life in this way: Coming out as a gay man. Interestingly enough, this sense of change manifests itself through cinema.

Here’s what happens: Continue reading

Note to Democrats: MAN UP

Before I begin, let me say that I am not registered as a member of any political party. I like my independence in many forms, and politics is not exempt.

Granted, the Democrats generally appeal to my tastes on many issues, even if their official platform tends to be a little watered down from my own concentrated, borderline libertarian ideals. But one thing that has been sooooooo annoying since Barrack Obama won the Presidential nomination for the Democratic Party, and further fueled by the Sarah Palin bombshell (in all its gloriously tragic manifestations), has been the “woe-are-we” attitude that registered Democrats all up in my inner circle are expressing every time I talk to one of them about the election. It’s like they think they’ve lost already, or at the very least, they’re convinced that Americans, by and large, are falling for the Palin small-town-girl-with-small-town-values act (because it’s a total act: she’s as cut-throat, duplicitous, and power-hungry as any NY businessperson, man or woman. Maybe we should sick Martha Stewart on her, and show her what real bitches are made of. That girl did time, and managed to redecorate the prison and teach the inmates how to crochet tea cozies!).

So it was with great relief that I came across Gail Collins’ op-ed in The Times, “Misery Love Democrats.”

It loses a little of its bite near the end, but for the most part, it’s a wonderful shot in the arm for these crestfallen Dems who are just totally crumbling under the Palin hype.

I think I’ll laminate the piece and carry it around with me. If I have to explain what “hope” is to one more Democrat, I just might have to switch my allegiance to a party that, even in the face of being the worst governing party in power that any living human American can recall or imagine, still believes they’re the hot shit and that they deserve to be running things.

Come on Dems: Man up, and win this thing.

On A Musical Note

I thought I’d send y’all out into the weekend with a thought about the debate that’s been simmering on these two posts. Some of the comments concern this idea that atonality is unnatural, and therefore, illegitimate in some way. Bernard Holland’s recent comment that serialism is “made up” represent this notion that there is something essentially plastic about twelve-tone composition.

First of all, it’s important to recognize that all methods of composition are made up. If Holland understood what it took to learn the skill of writing 4-part harmony with “correct” voice leading, he would know that the music of Mozart and Brahms adheres to a rather strict complex of rules that, while lovely and truly a marvel in terms of human aesthetic achievement–have not always been the rule. It’s a relatively recent notion that parallel fifths are incorrect. In fact, western polyphony began by simply doubling a single melodic line with the higher fifth. It was a hot new technique that was all the rage at the time. But now, when you enter a conservatory program in composition, you learn quickly that parallel fifth are a big no-no.

Yet parallel fifths still remain very natural to the ear. That’s why most young composers have to have parallel fifths beaten out of them before they can return to them with a more complex approach. Perhaps, one could say, parallel fifths are too natural to the ear (after all, it is the second partial in the harmonic series and the second most important degree in the hierarchy of diatonic harmony). Continue reading

C.C. PSA

Ok girls and boys, we normally don’t do this sort of thing, but here’s a cause that C.C. is definitely getting behind. Click, watch and learn. Doesn’t matter who you are, information is information, and you never know when you or someone you know will decide to throw caution to the wind and have some gay male sex. And when that does happen (cuz you know it will), you’ll need to know what to do, and how to do it safely. Yay safe gay sex!

Don’t Need No Hateration

Here’s more evidence of the campaign to oust atonality from the concert music scene. Bernard Holland reviews a concert of new piano music at Greenwich House. He writes:

…something seemed to be whispering in my ear that the Dark Ages of postwar atonality were over and tentative reconnections to the past were under way.

To call post-war atonality “the Dark Ages” is so entirely retarded, I’m beside myself. If anything, post-war serialism (which is probably what he really means to target), exposed more light on what music was, is and can be, and was nothing short of a cultural revelation. Post-war atonality made today’s taste for oblique tonality possible. It’s like women today who disparage the hard-core feminists of the 60s and 70s, even though today’s women are reaping the benefits that those unsightly, nail-spitting bull-dykes risked social derision to gain.

And, to evoke the spirit of one of my favorite hard-core feminists, Susan Sontag, to use military metaphors to excite the aesthetic politics of music–Holland writes, “The 20th century liked to use the piano as an assault weapon”–is morally irresponsible.

Can the haters of atonal music please get a grip and stop practicing this kind of retroactive snobbery? Atonality and serialism are not inherently “dark”, nor do they service militaristic metaphors, particularly since most of the music that is written for militaristic purposes is strictly tonal and generally written in major keys.

If we’re truly living in an age of open eclecticism, then let’s be just, and take atonality for what it really offers: a method for achieving alternative musical expression.

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