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.

Regarding Michael Jackson…

I’m sure you’ve all been wondering what the hell I think about Michael Jackson and his death. (Really?) At least friends and family last night seemed to be wondering. So, here I go, trying to formulate what feels for me something difficult to talk/write about, not because of any kind of grief, but more for what I don’t feel (and haven’t felt) for the once living-legend of popular music.

In short, for me, Michael Jackson passed a point of usefulness long ago. I say this selfishly. He had not put out music of the kind he did in his golden days for basically over a decade. His public appearances simply grew weirder and weirder, as did his appearance. I’ve always responded negatively to his child-like approach to love, global hand-holding and minor bed-sharing. He had a personality that read both megalomaniacal and cartoonishly coy. He failed, though his life now be cut short, to come clean with the public (even to Oprah, for Christ’s sake) about his heinous plastic surgery history, and, I assume, about the complete nature of his attachment to young boys. He became an artist who was shielded by money and fans (including family and friends), and who failed to transcend the flat-line of substance that befalls many who land in that most chaotic and vertiginous of public spaces: Celebrity.

To be fully transparent, I never really loved Michael Jackson. While I’ve enjoyed certain of his music and his music videos (“Smooth Criminal” has to be my favorite), I have never bought one of his albums, nor downloaded any of his music.

While many around me seem to regret his death as some loss from our childhood, it is a loss I can sense somewhat, but feel no great impulse to allow to subtract anything from what, for me, was already a wild-west of events and understandings that far outweigh any emotion I may have reserved for him or permitted to tether with my experience of youth, save remembering how, in third grade, a girl sitting next to me had Michael Jackson stickers all over one of her notebooks with “I love Michael Jackson” written all over it, and I couldn’t help but wonder why anyone (boy or girl) would have sexual feelings toward him.

There is “Thriller,” I suppose. But largely what I remember about that is its controversy, its dark unfolding into an inescapable community of zombies, and its prefaced disclaimer that reassures audiences that Michael Jackson did not believe in “the occult.” The song still confuses as to what it’s about in the first place.

His death does not resonate for me because, in a very palpable way, he had already died, and had already reached a sort of status of immortality that could not be eclipsed by even a sudden death, as we have now. Whether or not Michael Jackson would have died yesterday or in twenty years, the world would still have remembered him with the same amplitude of awe and sentimentality. This explains why my very first reaction to hearing of his death (via text message, of course, as I was purchasing a ticket to [auspiciously named] Lewis Forever at the New Museum) was, I guess I thought he would never die.

And, just to throw you all a curve, there’s a place of distrust in my regard for Michael Jackson,—wholly laid out by the King of Pop himself—that has created a void into which a sinister thought has slipped: This could all be some immaculate hoax.

His behaviors, his beliefs, his cryogenic chambers, his mask-wearing and veiling of his children, his known curiosity for mischief, his inability (seemingly) to be honest, his desire to remain a child forever in a “neverland” of no consequences and unflagging fandom, compounded the facts that he was virtually broke insolvent (he had lost the ranch and all of its (his Neverland Ranch “narrowly escaped foreclosure”, and some of its contents were nearly auctioned off earlier this year) and his face was literally crumbling to pieces before his (and our) very eyes—how much of a stretch is it to assume that this defeated and haunted star would do anything to escape his life (no longer private, and it utter ruins) even by staging (the grand showman that he was) a sudden and unexpected finale and triumph over his obsession to wage a lifetime campaign between his image and his public and the mechanizations (money & media) that brought them all into a grotesque endgame where everybody involved both loses and wins; i.e. we lose him but gain his legend; he loses his life but wins the game of control.

For the record: I don’t believe this is a hoax. I don’t actually believe that. But the doubt is there, nonetheless.

I won’t—and can’t—take away anything from him as a performer. He moved and sang with an idiosyncratic virtuosity that has been imitated (hi, JT!), but will probably never be replicated.

But, contrary to the verdict already being rendered by television news, he will—sadly—not just be remembered for his music. His life was too damaged and too public to leave any collective memory of him pristine; only selective memory (which posthumous memory can be, more often than not) would imagine Michael Jackson as only an artist with a generosity of heart and talent who inspired millions and whose life was cut all too short. The Michael Jackson circus has been around for a while, and I don’t see any reason why it would stop now. Like Elvis, like Marilyn, he has a bright and glaring future in tabloids and video retrospectives for generations to come. Not exactly the neverland he wanted, but it’s the one he’s going to get.

(Here’s also, my second favorite, with Janet, and cameos by Warhol and Magritte…)

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

Is Alex Ross trying to tell us something?

heartbreak.jpgSo I was catching my daily dose of A. Ro.’s notoriously demure blog, Le Rest c’est Noise, when much to my dismay, I came upon this earth shattering phraseology that has C.C.’s heart breaking and her fingers shaking:

“…In the past I’ve posted pictures of our cats …”

…Wha?…Our cats?…Our cats?…Wait, wait. You mean, like…”our cats” in the sense that animals belong to the world and thereby they belong to all of us? Or, or, I mean…are you using the royal tense? Cuz, you know, you’re cool enough to do that now that your book is selling out all over the place…or…or…There must be some other explanation!…Maybe joint custody with a lesbian couple?!….Damn! I can’t deal with this kind of news…Not before the Holidays!…Not now…Not like this…

Not like this…

Par example

Just to wrap up any more confusion about how to post a Counter Comment, check out this one from Shervyn at Dartmouth, who almost totally disagrees with our review of Iphigenie en Tauride. Hot. Notice how she doesn’t attack us personally. She says she disagrees, then goes on to say what she thought, and not once does she intentionally try to hurt our feelings. Awesome.

Apologia

Dear Faithfull C.C. Readers:

We’re sorry you had to see Daddy get mad the other day. It wasn’t anything you did. You know we love you and we would never do anything to scare you…intentionally.

We just wanted to let everyone know that a lot of time, effort, and pain goes into the things we write on this website. Countless hours of laborious scrutiny go into the decision to call someone a “douche” or a “retard.” We don’t take this job lightly. And we just wanted to make it clear that if y’all decide to send in comments (which we encourage!), that they be thought out, articulate, and witty–a sense of humor is always welcome–but never mean, inane, or totally stupid.

We will always love you. Keep reading. Don’t be scared. But the main thing is don’t be stupid. Did we already say that? Yeah. Okay, good.

xoxoC.C.

To An Anonymous Commenter

This a public response to an anonymous comment Counter Critic received regarding our “Piggy Back” Review of The Brooklyn Philharmonic’s production of Tan Dun’s The Gate last week at BAM.

Dear Anonymous Moron:

I can’t post your comment, because it isn’t worth posting.

1. You look kind of foolish for incorrectly writing that my post was anonymous. Simply clicking on the “About Counter Critic” tab at the top of the website would lead you to answer any question you might have about the post’s authorship.

2. You chose to post your comment anonymously (leaving a false email address), which puts you in a decidedly hypocritical position.

3. You also seem to feel like opinion is some kind of researchable fact, implying that if I had “done my research,” I would suddenly learn that Mr. Christie wasn’t hammy, and that the video projections weren’t awful, and that the puppetry wasn’t boring. This is just stupid.

4. I actually did understand that the puppeteer’s role wasn’t meant to be traditionally sung, which is why I called it “sprechtstimme.”

5. You seem more bent on attacking me personally than engaging in a serious conversation about the merits of the work in question, which I am most certainly sure you participated in, either directly or indirectly.

Thank you for correcting my mispelling of Hua Hua Zhang’s name. I always encourage readers to point these things out to me.

However, the next time you decide to waste my time with a mindless stream of non-critical, poorly written and blatantly biased nonsense, please, DON’T HIT SEND.

The Counter Critic

R. Kelly Responds…

Ryan Kelly, that is. Here’s his response to C.C.’s recent review of Ann-Liv Young:

My responses are entirely derived from my reading of the Counter Critic’s thoughtful review of Ann-Liv Young’s The Radio Show. I did not attend a rehearsal or performance in the gallery earlier this month, though I did see the seed of the work at Young’s performance at the Kitchen last season.

I agree with the Counter Critic’s identification that what may be both transgressive and aggressive about Young’s work is her approximation of reality, or more finely put by the Critic, her “reality aesthetics.” What unsettles us as a public is the same equation of elements that unsettles us about Britney Spears’ debacle of a performance at the MTV VMA this past Sunday. [Aw yeah...he goes there!] Continue reading

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