Sharing a queer gaze: “Gender/Power (composition II)” at Gibney
We were gathered in a waiting space and then led downstairs single-file into a small white studio, which contained only three black music stands (arranged in a triangle as if prepared for ritual activity) and a visual installation (projection on one wall and three monitors). This was Maya Ciarrocchi’s installation, a presence throughout the performance of Gender/Power (composition II) at Gibney Dance, a collaboration between Ciarrocchi and Kris Grey. It began with portrait-like video of the three performers, Becca Blackwell, James Tigger! Ferguson, and Grey. I took in the room: recordings of the performers standing, turning, or stepping out of frame, letting me get familiar with their almost life-like presences and melancholic demeanors, and the audience – dispersed, standing along the sides of the space. By leaving the space devoid of the performers I would ostensibly see later I became more aware of the video-generated environment, the presence of a fidgeting audience, the “chore” of just standing still, and the emptiness of the center; the black stands stood with a little bit of menace, suggesting a certain ghostliness, as if there should be people at those stands.
The three performers entered after about 10 minutes, and a long mélange of interwoven storytelling began, which often continuously shifted between the three. It was powerful for me as a queer transfeminine person who felt like they “got” exactly where Blackwell, Grey, and Ferguson were coming from – I was in this roller-coaster ride with them as they delved into past experiences of being shamed, being hurt, and struggling to survive as queer people. I heard their stories of growing up being forced to act the wrong gender, being pulled aside at work and other places because of how they dressed or identified, and trying to navigate the terrifying binary of male-female bathroom spaces (What if you’re neither? What if you don’t know?). I couldn’t necessarily tell whose story was whose, as the narration jumped around enough to render their personal stories universal. It was as if I was receiving the lived experience of a collective queerness. During this, Ciarrocchi’s installation shifted and cut out the faces in the videos by interlaying parts of bodies over each other, a visual confirmation of the queered collective space we were inhabiting.
I was struck, and still am, by a particular span of time where the three performers stood still and faced the audience. I don’t know how long this was, but Ferguson was standing still, staring at me, and we held each other’s gaze. It was a mutual queer gaze filled with pain and struggle – this was after he had talked about being abused for years, and a line from earlier was stuck in my head: “staying alive is a durational performance.” For us queers, this statement is more true than many people realize – I also often think that just staying sane is full time work. I cried as we looked into each other’s eyes. It was a mutual gaze not because our stories are the same, but because we share some of the same circumstances; there was a sense of history passing between us. I knew what his presence in that space meant in that moment: that he had stayed alive. His experience visibly marked him as a survivor of a radical shifting of queerness in the 80s and 90s. This moment was shattered by a loud sound and a return to narration, but before he went back to his post at the stand he gave me a quick hug.
I know personally that staying alive is a daily performance for many queer and/or trans people. There is a constant operation of a network of power relations, manifesting in both stopping yourself and stopping others in order to stay alive, and involving your own subjectivity and the subjectivity placed upon you. In this performance subjectivities were created and analyzed through reading the audience – saying to someone, “oh, you’re man, a right? I’m just assuming here – you look like a man.” Or, to me: being read as queer and of gender non-conforming experience. A sense of dissociation emerged (something I know personally and that is often part of trans experience), relayed through staring into space, not looking at each other, and blank looks while speaking. This contributed to a certain alienation, mainly due to my feeling of being transfeminine in a space of primarily transmasculine or cismasculine experience (Grey and Blackwell both talked about being read as men and assigned female at birth, and Ferguson is a “sissygender” man). It’s not surprising that my experiences don’t align perfectly with theirs – the perspectives of transfemininity cast a different light on things like bathroom use or genital privileges. I had the interesting experience of happening to use the bathroom before I went into the performance, and, presenting feminine that day, I chose to use the women’s bathroom (where I got a weird look but fortunately nothing else). In performance, Blackwell related a story of being read as a man in a women’s bathroom and being perceived as a threat. They had the unfortunate experience of having to legitimize their use of the women’s bathroom by dropping their pants and revealing their vagina. In my experience, having a penis is a danger – there’s no “penis privilege” for me there. Revealing my genitals in any circumstance when I present femininely is an invitation to attack.
Despite this sense of alienation, I know that the performers and I share a lot of experiences and identity. I also know that most of the audience viewed these stories from a different vantage point. How can we expect to communicate the feeling of gender dysphoria – of not being in the right body or the feeling that your body is missing something – when the audience doesn’t / can’t know what it’s like? It is frustrating, knowing that something that impacted me so personally passed through other people right into the white walls of the studio. As I started to feel this way, that our encounter had only just begun, the performance drew to a close and the performers continued talking as they exited the studio and left the audience alone. This ending was not concerned with maintaining an illusion between performance and reality. It acknowledged that, for them, this performance is their reality. This is their daily experience; this could very well be their normal conversation. I stood for awhile and then left with a sense of loss as our imagined community and shared experience dissolved into the reality of a wider society and its heteronormative pressures.