Armed Guard Garden || In Mouth
By Cassie Peterson
“Dear Mom, I hate the world so much it’s making me queer…”
(Jen Rosenblit’s informal artist statement during the making of In Mouth)
On Wednesday, February 15th, Vanessa Anspaugh’s Armed Guard Garden and Jen Rosenblit’s In Mouth will premiere at New York Live Arts. In addition to being a frothing-at-the-mouth fanatic of these two dance-makers, I have also been working as a conceptual collaborator on Vanessa’s piece and I will be hosting the pre-show conversation on opening night. In preparation, I’ve been exploring, with both of them, ways to speak about their work without reducing their visions or spoon-feeding audiences. What has ensued is an on-going dialogue and investigation into the ways that Jen and Vanessa identify as young, queer artists and how their relationships to queer inform and shape their respective works.
Before I dive headlong into the details of their art practice/process/production, let me take a moment to try to contextualize queer…
Ultimately, queer is an elusive and indefinable Poststructural paradox because its task is to actually deconstruct definitions and identifications. It sort of folds in on its self and reveals the shortcomings of our current language practices. To queer something is to both expose and disrupt the ways in which heterosexual norms achieve a naturalized, unquestioned, and privileged position in society at large.
Queer has had an interesting semiotic evolution. It derives from the German word, quer, which means across or diagonal. It entered the English language in the 16th century and was used as an adjective that meant odd or strange or suspicious. Historically, queer has referred to something being out of normative alignment and it became a derogatory and oppressive slang-term that was used to identify and describe “homosexuals.” But since these early, hateful deployments of the term, queer has also been linguistically re-appropriated by many sexual minorities as a source of great power and pride. The term was initially reclaimed by members of Queer Nation and ACT-UP, during the height of the American AIDS crisis. Since that time Queer Theory/Queer Studies has become a very well-known and legitimate theoretical framework within the Academy and supports critical thinker and writers like Judith Butler, Judith “Jack” Halberstam, and Jose Esteban Munoz, just to name a few.
When reclaimed, the word queer represents a kind of pluralistic (un)identity that works to undo the oppressive limitations of fixed, binary sexual and gender identifications. Instead of adhering to stringent and essentializing social categories, queer embraces its ambiguous “otherness” and opts for a discursive home on the fringes and in the margins. Thus, queer rejects a legacy of dominance and (hetero)normativity, and works to protect alterity in all of its multiple, irreducible manifestations. In this way, queer is an anti-normative consciousness that is a very purposeful departure from a more mainstream, assimilationist gay and lesbian agenda.
Queering… In Mouth
Jen Rosenblit is intense. Complex and multiple. And hilarious. I can’t help but laugh at every thing she says and love everything she puts in front of an audience. Both she and performer, Addys Gonzalez, agree to meet me at Yale University on a Friday evening. They are performing a sneak preview of their new show for eager graduate students in a small theater on campus. We meet before the show in the Yale bookstore, which is actually Barnes and Noble, which is actually Starbucks. Every part of the Ivy League campus is locked, creating a distinct separation between Yale and the rest of New Haven. We feel strangely like criminals even though we’ve technically been invited here.
One of Jen’s primary characteristics as a dance maker is her rigorous investigation and her ability to thoughtfully challenge some of the basic principles of performance and dance. Specifically, in the making of In Mouth, her desire was to challenge the expectation that dance always have some kind of underlying “Structure.”
Jen: Choreographers that I respect are always talking about the “structure” of their pieces. Well, I wanted to know… “Can a piece be structure-less and if so, how? What does it look like? Feel like?”
Throughout the process, Jen experimented with different ways to subvert arising structural realities. For instance, she and Addys spent many hours in unorthodox kinds of “rehearsal” spaces. Their task was often simply to share the space of their regular, domestic lives and to call it “rehearsal.”
Jen: My primary intention was to find ways to make a dance without rehearsing.
It was like domesticity for art-making purposes. We would sweep the floors and say, “Okay, this is what I am thinking now.” Or we would do the dishes and report back our “findings.” We drank wine and watched bad television, all the while thinking, “This is what I’m doing and this is what it’s making me think and feel.” All year long, we were just trying to find new ways to activate parts of ourselves that had already been activated.
What came up for both Jen and Addys in this domestic rehearsal (anti)structure were the ways in which they are conditioned to think of themselves as the “makers” of work. Within this dominant construction of the “artist,” art making exists as a labor and a responsibility that resides inside of a singular self. In an effort to deconstruct this notion of the self-owned creative act, Jen and Addys would imagine that masses of people where in “rehearsal” with them, pushing their bodies and the work forward. Jen envisioned ways to make the (anti)structure of the piece more about allowing one’s self to be moved by the material, rather than having to produce it.
Jen: We tried to think of the work as carrying us, instead of us carrying the work. We were inspired by the Occupy Movement and this idea of a mass of bodies taking up space in resistance. This was completely exciting and inspiring to me.
Addys: There was a kind of hidden collaboration in the work. We were constantly, internally calling upon all the people in our lives and in the Occupy Movement to help us in rehearsal. Our intention was to feel as though there is a whole community, an entire mass of people behind us and behind every movement choice. Your body has to do less when there is a mob of people behind you. A singular body has to do so much, internally and externally. It has to carry all the responsibility.
Queering Bodies & Relationships…
Though it formally and “structurally” appears to be a duet, In Mouth is simultaneously working to disrupt dominant notions of duet, in multiple ways. Jen’s body of work is renowned for being consciously engaged with the politics of the body and the relationships between them. She identifies as a non-conforming body in multiple ways and understands the complex reactions that arise when she puts her queer body next to Addys’s queer body, in front of an audience — a strange juxtaposition of two very different bodies, intimately relating in space, in a way that is not easily identifiable or familiar for many audiences.
Jen: People will always say,” That’s a really beautiful duet except that Jen is…. too fat… or gay…. Or Addys is black and you are white…” or “They look so strange together”… or whatever it is. There is always something that seems to put us “outside” of what people expect from the duet form. Its as if people always put a weird asterisk next to our work, like “**It would be a beautiful dance if it weren’t for these things…” These “things” of course, being our actual bodies.
At the beginning of the creative process, Jen played with people’s perceptions of their bodies by having she and Addys performing a kind of exaggerated, beastly dumbness. They clunkily lumbered around in space, inviting people to attach clichéd characteristics to their bodies. But then, somewhere in their process, Jen decided that she also wanted to give them permission to embody beautiful and sexy and elegant because a queer body knows no bounds.
In Mouth is a beautifully moving piece. It embodies a kind of austere and precise intensity…
In addition to the overt queerness of their actual physical bodies, In Mouth is also a challenge to the conceptual expectations embedded in duet forms. There are implicit expectations of duet as a kind of energetic intertwining – an ebbing in and out of the space of self and into a unification with the other. In fact, “duet” often becomes a metaphor for “relationship,” as if it is the only way to relate – both in dance and in society. In this dominant idea of the duet, the duo becomes the dance’s focal point and every other kind of relationship becomes peripheral or even illegible. But Jen was determined to disrupt duet. She accomplished this by exposing the realities of “back-stage” and incorporating the tech and production crew right into the real-time realm of the performance. She also involved objects and audience into the sphere of primary and legitimate relationships.
Jen: What about our relationship to the audience? What about our relationship to the objects in the piece? And what about our relationship to ourselves? I think its funny that we see two bodies moving together and we automatically call it duet and then from there, we have certain expectations connected to it.
There is a section in Jen’s piece where she and Addys perform a kind an internal strip tease/peep show for one another. They take turns watching one another. And the audience watches each of them watching the other’s solo. In this, they are exploring the multiple ways to relate to each other, to the audience, and to all the objects on the ground. Every time they touch or use an object, they give it the same attention that they have generously been offering to each other. Thus, there is no privileging of certain “kinds” of relating in this piece. There is unequivocal regard for the cloth on the floor, the production crew, and for the people sitting in the audience. We are all asked to relate in a way that de-centers the primacy of the duet and of the “couple.”
I’m struck by how these disruptions of the duet mimic alternative, queer kinship patterns. Queer kinship patterns maneuver outside of the normative expectations of the married, romantic couple and the corresponding nuclear family arrangement. Queer kinship models do not subscribe to the same markers of social appropriateness. They are often bloodless and lawless relationships that redefine lover/friend/family/community. They privilege love and pleasure over power and position. Queer desires cannot be regulated. Queer affections cannot be legislated. I feel this relational multiplicity when I watch In Mouth.
Addys: Yes, exactly. To me it’s the multiplicity and possibility of relating that makes it queer… Can objects be in a duet? Are the fabrics in relationship to each other? Are we in relationship to the object? We’ve investigated multiple ways to access relationship with ourselves, with each other, with the audience, and with “other” things.
In this deconstruction of the duet, Jen and Addys successfully re-arrange kinship and reconstitute notions of belonging. They do this while also making subtle and abstract, visual references to the marriage institution. At one point in the performance, Jen is standing next to Addys. They are arm-in-arm and she is wearing a veil-like fabric over her face. Later in the piece, Addys puts on a wedding dress-like train and walks across the stage. He is perhaps the most beautiful bride I have ever seen.
Jen (laughing): Yeah, this was not an overt commentary or a concerted effort to politicize the work or make it topical, but “Gay Marriage” images would organically arise. It’s just a singular reading on what was happening.
But In Mouth does, in some indirect way call into question Marriage and comment on it as a heteronormative ideology. Marriage is a container that makes a request for a particular relational outcome. And when people fail at it, these failures are not embraced or celebrated. Jen Rosenblit wants to embrace the failure to arrive at specific situational outcomes. Queer celebrates failure.
Queer makes failure look so good.
Jen: Sure, let’s pass that law so that we can actually start talking about how fucking weird marriage is….
Amen sister. Amen.
Queering… Armed Guard Garden
Being perpetually locked in/out of Yale University reminds me of Vanessa’s piece, Armed Guard Garden because of the ways in which the piece explores our compulsive need to create and protect borders, boundaries, and territories. We organize ourselves around lines carved out in material and psychic spaces that work to include and exclude, depending on what side you find yourself on. A locked gate on a college campus or a beautiful garden in a gated community construct simultaneous realities – the promises the inside vs. the fate of the outside.
Queering Ways of (Un)Knowing…
Working on Armed Guard Garden means that I occasionally step into the rehearsal process and tell Vanessa what I think I’m seeing. We eat a lot of meals together and try to make sense of whatever it she is making. Vanessa is a very intuitive investigator and movement maker — making choices first and then finding ways to name and understand them much later in the process. Vanessa’s art practice is an example of a queer epistemology – an alternative process from which to “know” the world. Throughout her process, Vanessa resists conditioned ways to “know” or understand the world(s) that we create and inhabit.
Vanessa: I am a queer human in the world. Anything I shape is going to be molded by a queer way of knowing. The work doesn’t have to be about “queer” things to be queer. It’s less of an identity and more of a process. To me, queer is an identity-less identity. I like to play with identity-less-ness in my work.
The relationship between her and her work is happening on a different register — a different line of latitude that is not legible through a normative lens.
Vanessa: I like to think of queer as a religion of sorts — not in a repressive, normalizing way, but rather as a guidepost. It’s the willingness to entertain a radical and expansive consciousness and to have enough faith to let my work originate from these places. That’s how I try to approach my creative process – with an open, unknowing stance. I don’t want my work to be essentialized as one kind of experience. I want to facilitate multiple realities — a welcoming rather than a singular or controlled entry point.
Perhaps queer is the method to Armed Guard Garden’s madness.
If Jen’s piece is sparing and severe, Vanessa’s piece is busting at the seams with a kind of bizarrely wild, Technicolored melo-drama. Armed Guard Garden is a different world entirely. Utopian. Extraterrestrial. It houses unfamiliar sounds and beast-like human forms moving in grotesquely violent and erotic ways. There are protagonists and antagonists and they are constantly exchanging positions and purpose.
Vanessa constructs “the garden” and the “guard,” rendering a dual reality – each part made from shared material and only coming into being through its contrast to the other. In this way, Vanessa’s piece is a commentary on the ways that we violently put boundaries around the world in order to make sense of it.
Armed Guard Garden works to construct and then disregard these insidious binary identifications and dual notions of reality.
At the beginning of the piece, five badass performers – Aretha Aoki, Niall Noel Jones, Molly Leiber, Lydia Okrent, and Mary Read – mark up the theater in grid-like gestures. They produce literal lines and divisions on the walls and the floor. They create these divisions with chalk and flour and then spend the rest of the performance skewing the lines in the most exquisite and grandiose fashion. They roll around in their own ephemeral boundaries — disrupting them, blurring them with a total abandon and taking unabashed pleasure in their demise. The dancers queer the lines that they themselves have drawn, making a beautifully depraved mess of themselves and the space. It’s an ecstatic refusal to be bound — and a celebration of the parts of self & other that can only exist in the queer, in-between spaces that arise when The Known crumbles.
Armed Guard Garden resonates both on a sociopolitical scale and delves deep into the micro-politics of the interpersonal moment. AGG explores the dehumanizing effects of a militaristic society and is an embodied commentary on War as a dominant, normative practice. Interpersonal power relations mimic and mirror international relations. We learn how to relate to each other from the world we live in. Thus, how does war live inside of us? Between us? Vanessa positions bodies in opposition to one another and then in a moment, has them join and unify in a kind of inexplicable tenderness. It’s a meditation on the desire to connect and the desire to destroy. It’s a meditation on the instability of power — oppression becomes resistance and loops back again.
Vanessa: It reminds me of being at Wall Street protests and being faced by walls of police with cameras recording every face they could for their surveillance purposes. Simultaneously the protesters were filming the cops filming them, creating a feedback loop. The video screen was also split in half to show a live feed of the protestors watching the trial –watching themselves – watching themselves being watched. How does power move through this loop? Who has it? Who loses it? Gains it? And how does it shift?
Vanessa does most of her movement research through collaborative improvisational practices between she and her dancers. In this process, the performers translate the realties of the external world into the microcosmic world of her dance. She works to create a political “container of now” as a way to gather and metabolize the external world. It’s a kinetic transmission.
Vanessa: The language of improvisation is political. It’s not didactic but it’s always politically relevant. The performers act as filters – bringing the world into the work through improv. Rehearsal space is alive and active and connected to the larger context of the world. Armed Guard Garden is interdependently situated within everything that happened this year. We would all go to rehearsal after being at the protests and the power of that massive movement translated into our own singular movements in the studio.
A queer politic is not topical per say. It, like the Occupy Movement cannot be distilled to a singular demand. Rather, it is an investigation and an interrogation of the entire system and its inexcusable power arrangements and discrepancies.
Queer – movement out of stasis. Out of status quo.
Both Armed Guard Garden and In Mouth hold the tension between what is expected and what is really happening. Each piece incites a sense of a traversing and transgressing something. Everything.
For Vanessa and Jen, it is clear that queer is a kind of embodied resistance. Queer is a reference to process and practice, more than explicit content. These artists accept and employ this constellation of principles and make work that transmits it. Queer is kinetic. A queer body is a body in motion.
Vanessa: Making art with body, bodies unedited — this is queer. Bodies are always bleeding outside their own form. They get dirty and sad. They bleed and shit all over the place. They are never what you expect them to be. Bodies in motion is a radical queer politic.
Jen: Maybe modern dance is already a queer act? Modern dance is very political. In its historical context, it is a very young form of a hyper-political movement, based in radical resistance.
Addys: The performing body is a political ground. Everything we experience as people, as queers, is present in the body. You don’t have to make a piece topical to be deeply political or queer because it’s all there anyway. So in a sense, we made everyone queer with this dance… if you’re moving, dancing, you’re already embodying a queer politic.
There is no essential queer object or subject. Queer is not an objectifiable identity, domain, or dwelling, but is rather produced as a contrast against which normalcy is produced and codified. Hence, queer never is, it never fully arrives. It is always, disrupting, refusing, and resisting the ever-shifting power of (hetero)normativity and dominance, in an effort to carve out more psychic and material space for everybody.
Jen: I really wanted the ending of In Mouth to be a tangent. I don’t want it to be understood. No certainty or conventional conclusion. I want to acknowledge that it’s confusing that things end.
Cassie: Yes, it is confusing. How should we end this?
But what does that mean?
I don’t know….
Cassie Peterson is a New York-based writer, thinker, activist, healer, & lavender menace. She works as a psychotherapist by day, and moonlights as a dance/performance conversationalist, consultant, and critic. Her extemporaneous musings and inqueeries can be found on her blog, Self & Other.