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.

About The Bacchae

The Public Theater's "The Bacchae" - Photo by Damon Winter, for the New York Times

The Public Theater's "The Bacchae" -Photo by Damon Winter, for the NYT

I know it’s been a while since I threw down a bona-fide review around these parts. So I’m breaking silence with some thoughts on The Bacchae, which wraps up its run The Public Theater’s Shakespeare In The Park this week. (Warning: this may fall more under “rant”.)

It’s also been a while since I had been to one of the Delacorte shows. Getting older leaves you less zest for pulling an all-nighter at The Works (now closed (sad face)) and stumbling over to be one of the first people in line on Central Park West at 3am, just to get tickets to see Meryl Streep in “The Seagull”; although, it was totally worth it just to see her do a cartwheel on stage.

At any rate, this year’s Virtual Line made it easy for the old folks (hit “send” when the Mac strikes midnight) to get in, so I drug myself up to Central Park to check out what a friend of mine said he “wished I had seen”. He later clarified that he was just curious about my opinion, and wasn’t really recommending that I see it. Hmm…

Well, I suppose I would categorize this show under the old-artists-got-picked-to-do-a-big-gig-together-and-no-one-pushed-them-to-do-better-work category (I’ve still got my eye on you, Trish). The wafts of arrogance this production exudes is troubling. Not blatant arrogance—although, there is plenty of that in Jonathan Groff’s petulant Dionysus—but the “we’re great artists and don’t we know it, and the public won’t know any better” kind of arrogance; casual; comfortable; like a nice pair of orthopedic shoes.

But when we go to the theater, we don’t want orthopedic shoes. We want riveting ideas, and risk-taking gestures. We want to be pushed (although, not necessarily physically pushed, Ms. Young). We want to know that the artists are pushing us, and themselves, to the level beyond where we are. We want the art to be in front of us, so, by going to it, we are taken to a new place. This production fell far back and behind what we know about theater and what we know about ourselves. It eschewed the central subject of the play with demure stereotyping and philosophical meandering. (In case you’re wondering, the central subject of the play is Dionysus: The god of drinking and fucking.) And along the way, presented us with several examples of exactly how not to use drag and homosexuality in the service of constructing a heterodoxic narrative.

What director JoAnne Akalaitis was thinking when she conceived this piece is beyond me (I’ll get to details when I get to them). For help, I looked to the program notes. Sometimes, you just have to.

In the notes, Nicholas Rudall, who made the translation for this production, is quoted as saying, “The Bacchae is a play rich in themes, and one of its most disturbing is the inadequacy of rational human government in the face of the ecstatic irrationality of Dionysus…The Bacchae is, in the end, a document of human folly. Dionysus lacks mercy. And to assume that human wisdom and human rationality are forces that can resist him is a monumental mistake.”

Umm, wrong. Continue reading

Killing The Family To Build The House

So, crap.

Friday, Dan Wakin reports that our dear Brooklyn Philharmonic has canceled all of its concerts for this season, as well as “all of next season’s subscription concerts”. Ironically, the educational programs will still continue, since they still have funding from the government.

This is the kind of crap that drives me insane.

It’s part and parcel of this idea that the arts organizations have to offer “educational” and “outreach” initiatives, separate from the actual art, in order to receive federal dollars.

To regard education and outreach as separate from art is simply asinine. Art is education. Art is outreach. Great art already imparts knowledge and offers experience. Anyone who has been spiritually and intellectually moved by art knows this to be true.

And how does it make sense to fund education about an industry that the government resists directly supporting, in fact, has allowed to collapse? Sure kids, learn to play the clarinet, but try not to dream about playing for your local orchestra, which may or may not be there when you grow up. It boggles the mind.

Second–and not unrelated–Dan Wakin, on the same day, wrote this piece about how ye olde New York City Opera has pretty much looted one third of its own endowment to pay off past expenses and to cover operating costs, because they have no money.

Umm…didn’t NYCO/Lincoln Center just get a $100 Million gift? Oh, wait, that was a capital gift. So, while it’s fabulous that the State Theater will be a better theater for opera after the Koch-sponsored renovations are done: What good does it do IF THERE ISN’T ANY OPERA TO PRESENT?

Claudia La Rocco touches obliquely on this in her article about small performance venues going into debt to launch capital projects, sometimes at the expense of programming.

La Cieca is reporting that some kind of “uprising” may happen this week at NYCO.

God help them. You know we tried.

“The Christ in Me” and “The Bagwell in Me”: A comparative analysis

Below, you will find a post that I prepared weeks ago but didn’t get around to finalizing. It’s a revisit to Ann Liv Young‘s “The Bagwell in Me.” It’s a kind of mega-rant, full of twists and turns, perversities, theories, doubts, and, as always, criticisms. I know this makes me officially obsessed with her work, but whatevs.

Between writing this text and now, I have had a dream that Ann Liv was trying to be my friend, and I was nervous that she wouldn’t like me because of all the shit I wrote about her work. But, in the dream, she was actually totally cool with it. Alas, it was a dream.

After the following, I’m sure we’ll never be friends. But who knows. If I can call L. Ro. “a dirty old dried up lima bean” and then still wind up solid BFFs, maybe there’s hope for ALY and CC…

Foreplay

So, I’m following up on my review of Ann Liv Young’s “The Bagwell in Me”, for which I delivered a somewhat abrupt opinion, even for little old C.C. This is one of the benefits of blogging, in that I can revisit a review almost immediately after publishing it.

One thing readers of this site may have noticed over in the sidebar to the right, is that the top two posts almost every day for the past few weeks have been the awesomely bad Christian dance team from The Way, and my very first review of Ann Liv Young.

And before I posted the video from The Way, which now seems to be sending about a hundred people a day to this site, my review of Ann Liv at Rush Arts was always one of, if not the top read posts daily. I’d also like to note that this particular review has received over two thousand hits to date.

So can we learn anything from this statistical realities? I mean, what common interest could The Way and the work of Ann Liv Young possibly share?

Some initial observations…

Gawker Nation

First, and most obviously, spectacle. And this is spectacle in the first order, the kind that astonishes, but does not fundamentally impart any real knowledge. When people consume the kind of viral videos that The Way seems to have become, there is a shared sense of agog, or communal ridicule, or, for the more heart-warming viral videos (like the one with the lion hugging those two hippies), shared pathos. But my criticism of these YouTube hits is that they allow people to believe they know more about the world than they actually do.

Take the sensation, “Two Girls and a Cup” (That’s right! There’s a Wikipedia page. Definitely NSFW, and I honestly wouldn’t recommend anyone to watch it, unless you’re actually, genuinely interested in scatological fetish: aka, poop sex). Continue reading

To Do: Shameless Self-Promotion

Ten years after coming out, composer/performer/writer Ryan Tracy has one more thing to come clean about: His songwriting. Since 1998, Ryan has written over a dozen songs that chronicle his pursuit of the big gay life. But for inexplicable reasons, these songs have remained trapped in the closet: Until now!

BIG RELEASE

Original songs by Ryan Tracy
(Ryan will be singing, dancing, monologuing, and even playing the piano!)
Featuring Chris Woltmann on guitar

Assistant Director, Jeremy Laverdure

THURSDAY, AUGUST 14, 2008 – One night only!
8pm
Dixon Place
258 Bowery (below Houston)
Click here for tickets, or visit www.dixonplace.org, or call 212.219.0736

ON CHINA PART 1: Three strikes…China’s out. Oh, and take NBC with you.

I’m taking a cue from L. Ro., who has this great post about Olympic culture on her WNYC blog. Because, I too, in theory, am a fan of the Olympics. I think, as a mechanism for global interaction that celebrates the feats of the human body, while fostering sportsmanship and appreciation of cultural differences, the Olympics have the potential to do real good in the world.

However, these Olympics games, at every step of the way, are being undermined by the Chinese government’s insistence upon manipulating perceptions of their country. The lengths to which they seem to go to in order to foster illusions of perfection are really astounding. And annoying.

Strike 1: There was the digital insertion of fireworks into the televised broadcast of the games.

Strike 2: Then we find out that the little girl who was passed off as “singing” the special I-want-to-fuck-my-country theme song, was actually pulling an Ashley Simpson. And the little girl whose voice everyone heard has probably been shipped off to some mardi gras bead-making factory because she wasn’t cute enough to represent all 1billion of her countrymen.

Strike 3: And this is the one that got me, last night, as I was watching the American girls gymnastics team (and every other girls team except for China’s) put their heart and guts on the line, competing fairly and honestly, against a Chinese team that cheated by letting girls under the age of 16 compete on their Olympic team. It’s obvious. It’s obvious. It’s obvious.

Now, ok, fine. Who’s to say that other teams aren’t trying to cheat in other ways. It’s always hard to prove.

But, it’s really beginning to wear–not even a complete week into the games–always having to deal with China’s endemic practice of artifice-making. And NBC’s complacent, even apologetic attitude regarding such issues is so blatant. They paid almost a billion dollars to have the broadcast rights, so there’s no way in hell they’re going to criticize the host country. It’s pathetic.

Furthermore, what’s passing for sports journalism is really coming off as “tales from the tourists.” The immaturity, caution, and non-critical Disney wonder at China and its culture is just getting to be too much for me.

At one point last night, one of the commenters–I wasn’t sure if it was Bob Costas or the other guy cuz they were cutting to a picture of the Chinese girls–said something to the effect of, “These girls are taken away from their families from a very young age…err…you know…not kicking and screaming or anything like that…”

Excuse me, but any government that takes little girls away from their families in order to serve the government and doesn’t allow the girls to see their families except for once a year, SUCKS. And for our news casters to constantly apologize is simply hypocracy at its lowest. There is no journalism here. There is only damage control, which is complicity, which is playing into the manipulative activities of the Chinese government. Ergo, NBC’s reporters are working for the Chinese government.

What we need, and what we won’t get, is a critical view of China that, while allowing the Olympics to move forward, does not flag one iota in holding China up to the light. These games are coming off more and more as a ruse, and a giant PR campaign.

It makes sense though, that China and corporations invest similarly into their images. In the next post, we’ll take a closer look at why, and why the Greek concept of Eros has everything to do with fake fireworks and lip-syncing.

Read Part 2

Yay boundaries!

L. Ro. invites readers to join in a few different threads of confab over on The Culturist. One of them is on something I had written about the Murakami exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. My comment was that “Art, by definition, is false,” and to me, Murakami’s art was too real, or too much part of popular culture to be a comment on or representation of popular culture.

I’ve elaborated my position, which I will include below (or you can check it out on The Culturist). But I’m finding that by writing about art, I’ve been refining my own belief system.

One thing I’m finding more and more, is that boundaries are essential to art-making, and to the consideration of an object or activity as Art. This holds true for my belief in the separation of classical and popular musical cultures; classical being “Art music” and popular being, well, “popular music.”

It’s very en vogue right now to hail cross-over and breaking down the boundary between classical music and popular music. My preference and belief is that keeping the line clear between the two (in purpose; in how they are experienced) will not only save concert music, but will ensure a more diversified musical culture overall.

Read on, if you dare. It gets really hot near the end…

Art (capital A) is a “para” experience; along side what is real. Every Art I can think of exists because of its position that is parallel to the real as real things are defined. Art is either a comment or critique or reference to things that are real in our culture, whether by its materials, its manner, or its physical and/or economic contexts. In this way Art circumvents language as well. Art is not the thing. Art is like the thing. Abstract art is unlike anything, and therefore also stands in a position outside of the real. Continue reading

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