Queering the Discourse


One day when I was working at Performance Space 122, maybe in 2006, I was going through a pile of DVDs and happened upon a video of a show called Lili Handel by Ivo Dimchev. I don’t remember how we got the DVD but I was transfixed. I started asking around to see who know about this Dimchev character and if he’d ever been to the U.S. I hounded everyone I knew to see if we could get him here. But alas Culturebot was only three years old, I hadn’t even curated PRELUDE yet, and so my entreaties fell upon indifferent ears. As one does, I let it go and tucked Lili Handel into the back of my memory, to wait for better days.

Better days came in 2011 when curator Zvonimir Dobrović brought his Perforations Festival from Zagreb to LaMama.

Zvonimir was already a bit of a legend. In 2003 he had started the Queer Zagreb festival, described as “an empowered new concept of queer as a wider platform for excellence in arts, capable of tracking, discovering and interpreting new trends while daring to speak openly about the norms that constitute society and artistic practices.” This idea is ambitious under any circumstances, but for an openly gay curator to make queerness visible in culturally conservative and politically volatile Croatia, to build a whole festival around the idea and then invite artists and audience from all over the world, was an extraordinary act of both bravery and defiance. It paid off, and Queer Zagreb soon became a recognized and respected platform for truly groundbreaking, challenging and artistically excellent performance. Dobrović had started a revolution – at least of the mind.

In 2009, Dobrović  started a new festival in Zagreb, Perforations, with a slightly wider frame but the same aesthetic and political ambitions. This festival, too, became internationally recognized for its daring programming, intellectual curiosity and radical politics.

So in 2011, by some miracle (and the generous support of the Trust for Mutual Understanding), Perforations came to LaMama. My Culturebot partner-in-crime at the time, Jeremy M. Barker, had met Zvonimir somewhere, (here’s their interview) and arranged for us all to meet for a drink before the festival. I was surprised to find him so down to earth and affable, smart, funny, friendly and approachable. And then I wasn’t surprised at all. It only made sense that it would take someone of Zvonimir’s expansive spirit, lively intellect, generous sense of humor and appetite for mischief to make a festival that causes trouble even as it creates possibility.

I finally got to see Ivo Dimchev’s Lili Handel and was even more delighted and amazed than I could have hoped. I got to see new work from Croatia’s BADco. (who I first met when they performed at PS122 in 2003) and was introduce to the work of a slew of other artists from the Balkans.

Shortly after Perforations at LaMama, we heard from Zvonimir that he and his partner in life and art, André von Ah, had plans to bring Queer Zagreb to NYC and, lo and behold, in June 2012 it finally came to pass. It was a bumpy start – June is Pride Month and Dobrović and von Ah’s vision of “queer” doesn’t fit neatly into the American LGBTQ narrative. All sides learned how much they had to learn about building common vocabularies before you can queer the discourse. It isn’t easy but it is worthwhile and now The Queer New York International Arts Festival is back – harder, better, faster, stronger – and a little wiser from experience.

It feels appropriate to note that, as is often the case in queer life – all of life, really – the excitement, exuberance and joy of this year’s festival are tempered with sadness. André von Ah, co-founder and curator of QNYIA passed away on September 11, 2013 – he was not yet 30. This year’s edition of the festival is dedicated to his memory, a research and development grant supporting queer art has been established in his name and a performance tribute to him, created by Raimund Hoghe, will be presented on October 25 at New York Live Arts.

While the reality that all joy contains within it sorrow is universal experience, it seems that it is particularly and keenly present in queer life. Even in the age of marriage equality in the West, there is widespread persecution throughout the world, and the shadow of death looms large, particularly in the arts. Just read Perry Brass’s recent essay, “Did AIDS Kill New York City Opera?) Contextualizing queerness is as important as making it visible and performing it. So it is fortuitous that the festival begins on Wednesday, October 23 at 8PM with the U.S. premiere of Ivo Dimchev’s P-Project and continues the next day with a 3PM screening of David Weissman’s extraordinary 2002 documentary The Cockettes, both at Abrons Arts Center.

Dimchev, who has only been the U.S. twice before, once with Lili Handel at LaMama and once with Som Faves at Dixon Place, is a phenomenon not to be missed. Selected as one of the best theater performances for 2012 by Nachtkritik-Theatertreffen, P-Project is an interactive performance based on “P” words such as People (i.e., police, painters, prostitutes), Piano, Poetry, and Poppers. Dimchev is an extraordinary performer, edgy, confrontational and unpredictable, while also delightful, charming and witty. The press release says, “With this work, Dimchev confronts taboos surrounding money, value, and content authority, inviting audience participation and testing the audience’s creativity and desire for risk-taking.” Sounds amazing, I would recommend checking it out.

The Cockettes has long been one of my favorite documentaries. It is WAY too much to go into here, especially as I’m on deadline, but if you want to know the real, true story of the 60’s in SF, understand the aesthetic differences between NYC and SF that mostly continue to this day, the origins of radical queerness situated in anti-capitalist, countercultural revolution, and so forth, you must see this film. From the press release: “The Cockettes is a feature-length documentary about the rise and fall of the legendary San Francisco theatrical troupe of hippies and drag queens, from 1969-1972. Co-directed by Weissman and Bill Weber, the film has reached cult status as a must-see for the queerly inclined. Weissman will  be in attendance for a post-screening talkback. Also don’t miss.

I Skyped with Zvonimir a week or so ago and he told me the contextualization of the festival was very purposeful. “We are exploring queerness not only as about gender, orientation or sexual practices, which is one notion of queer, but also as a position from which to ask questions about society, politics, economics, aesthetics – a wide rang of things that can be approached from a sense of otherness.”

I asked him how this kind of expansive, queer “container” notion was expressed through the program, as it seems like he is, in some way, trying to queer the festival form itself.

“Yes, we are. We are presenting artists, some of whom are not ‘queer’ in their orientation or sexual practices, but are very much queer in their art and aesthetics. It is challenging because it is common for the idea of queer to be instrumentalized, or compartmentalized. With more familiar forms of identity or body art, it is easy for people to say ‘Oh, well this goes over there’ – we are trying to resist that. Identity art can be easy to dismiss. So we see the festival not as a way to have the answers, but as a way to delve into something that you’re not sure what it is.”

One of the examples of how the frame of queerness can be used beyond gender and sexuality is the immersive experimental circus C8H11NO2 created and performed by Room 100 from Split, Croatia. “Split is a very rundown, druggy town, with no hope for youth,” Zvonimir told me. “Life there is very difficult, there’s just a few months of tourism in the summer and the winter is just depression. And in a way, Room 100’s work could only be made in Split. It is all about a realistic aesthetic and complete abstraction, asking very difficult questions about archetypal power structures, what is healthy or ill, what is acceptable or unacceptable.”

C8H11NO2 is the chemical name for the neurotransmitter Dopamine and the performance is drawn from the experiences of the mentally ill brother of one of the artists. A mixture of contortion, dislocation, butoh and break dance is performed to dark ambient music, creating a disturbing psychotic funhouse environment where the audience is placed inside the experience of queerness through being an outsider among the neurotypical. The performance unfolds with a series of visual illusions, a series of Rorschach tests with bodies, Foucauldian strategies to challenge accepted notions of who’s in and who’s out, who has power and who doesn’t.

Also queering the discourse from a different perspective is Brazilian performance and visual artist Gabriela Mureb, whose work questions some of the fundamental assumptions around labor and productivity. Dealing with themes of failure, and with repetitive actions that are meaningless and sometimes horrifying, her work portrays the refusal of conclusion, and the rejection of goal-oriented society “Gabriela’s work has never been presented in a queer context before,” said Zvonimir, “but it actually makes a lot of sense. Gabriela is interested in questioning how society values ‘being useful’ and what that really means. So she counters that with useless utility – Sisyphean endeavors. She has created a repetitive action machine that makes a hole in the wall in the gallery.”

From Italian-based artist collective Sineglossa, to CHOKRA from the UAE and German choreographer Antonia Baehr, from Poland’s artist collective SUKA OFF and Antoni Karwowski, Eisa Jocson from the Philippines to Colombia-based installation/performance artist Guillermo Riveros, The Queer New York International Arts Festival offers many opportunities to engage with a diverse set of voices. Queering Globalism.

At the same time, this year’s festival includes a number of American voices including Daniel Duford from Portland, Oregon who will be conducting a three-day performance and workshop called Ringing the Temple Bell and Dan Fishback’s musical comedy The Material World, in a staged reading at Joe’s Pub featuring Broadway actress Sarah Stiles, performance artist Erin Markey, cabaret sensation Molly Pope, and Tony-nominated Yiddish theater legend Eleanor Reissa.

On Saturday, October 26th at 2:30PM there will be a panel at The New School entitled “Creating Queer/Curating Queer”, featuring Carla Peterson, Tere O’Connor, TL Cowan, Susana Cook and Dan Fishback in conversation with Zvonimir Dobrović about creating, curating and “reading” queer work.

Running from October 23rd to November 3 and featuring a diverse slate of performances by more than 20 international artists, plus American performance artists and the musicians in La MaMa’s Queer Art New Music Series, the 2013 Queer New York International Arts Festival is redefining the queer arts festival for a new era. For the full line-up with dates, times and venues, visit www.queerny.org.

QNYIA 2013 is presented in partnership with the Abrons Arts Center―the festival’s hub—with additional performances and events at Grace Exhibition Space & Gallery, The Invisible Dog Art Center, Joe’s Pub at The Public Theater, La MaMa, ETC., Leslie Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, The New School, and Participant INC.

QNYIA 2013 is presented with major support from the Alphawood Foundation. Additional support is provided by Abrons Arts Center, Amat-Associazione Marchigiana Attivita Teatrali, Art Matters, Croatian Ministry of Culture, City of Zagreb, Montenegrin Ministry of Culture, Nationales Performance Netz, Oregon Arts Commission, Petrobras, and Zagreb Tourist Board.

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