Working On Gender: Paul Soileau/CHRISTEENE/Rebecca Havemeyer and the Artifacts of Identity
(Or, All The Questions I Was Too Shy/Chicken To Ask At The Just Like A Woman Long Table)
I attended a few of the events of Just Like A Woman, a weekend of performances, talks and art events at Abrons Arts Center because my work as an artist/thinker/writer always delves into questions of gender, gender performance, feminism, and queerness, and I was really excited that the program included all different kinds of live events with artists thinking through similar questions in public. It’s taken me a while to process what I experienced and write something about it, though, because the encounter gave me a lot to think about, and also I may have only just recovered from the severe bout of shyness that overcame me as I endeavored (and largely failed) to participate in the more social parts of the program.
Some context: the weekend was part of a years-long process undertaken by the London-based Live Art Development Agency under the auspices of their multi-year Restock, Rethink, Reflect projects. This, the third iteration of RRR which has been underway since 2013, takes on live art and feminism (RRR1 addressed live art and race, and RRR2 focused on live art and disability). Though the invitation to join in the process over the weekend was earnest, I had the feeling of walking into a meeting already well underway, where everyone else has been talking together for a while and I am playing catch up. Which makes sense, because that was pretty much the case — this was the third presentation of RRR3 Just Like A Woman, the project has already yielded a study guide for LADA’s reading room in London as well as a catalogue of a live performance archive, re.act.feminism, and there are more performances in London slated for the upcoming months.
So, feeling like I was just barely touching the surface of all this work, I went to a panel discussion, a performance lecture, and a Long Table forum that were all (like all the events of the weekend) Working On gender in some way. Working On [ ], like thinking about and processing [ ] all the time, holding onto it and keeping it close like your favorite t-shirt – that’s a turn of phrase that helped me situate the weekend that I’m newly invested in thanks to CHRISTEENE, the feral witchy clubkween drag persona who showed up at the end of Austin-based artist Paul Soileau’s performance lecture about the creatures inside us that we materialize and enact in order to exercise/exorcise all that stuff we’re made of that’s hard to articulate.
“We” the audience were met by Rebecca Havemeyer, Soileau’s other drag persona, whose daffy charm welcomed us to be silly and familiar, despite the academic specter of the “performance lecture” designation. This melange of serious form and campy content prefaced an encounter that would invite an enrichment and enlivening of whoever and whatever we might include in “us”. Soileau shared his process in a deceptively simple and poignantly straightforward way, with what he called “winning ignorance”. After Rebecca buttered all of us up with vivid descriptions of her gigs as Austin’s finest bingo hostess, and bringing full camp with a rousing rendition of “Your Son Will Come Out Tomorrow”, Soileau put Rebecca away — taking off the blond wig, the floral dress; wiping off the blue eyeshadow and sensible heels; putting down Rebecca’s microphone. He told us of how Rebecca came to be and what she means to him, and how he came to his other drag persona, CHRISTEENE, all while letting her take come into focus in front of us, putting on smeary red lipstick, electric blue contacts, a ratty black wig, a halter top made from old tights, dirt smudged in all her crevices. By way of a history of the objects that make up her look, her attitude, Soileau recounted events in his own life that he has held onto as he has formed his art practice and life practice.
(I just can’t stop watching this amazing video, and every time I do, I learn something new about living.)
When CHRISTEENE finally took shape and took over, she sang this amazing song she wrote called “Working On Grandma”, that had audio from Soileau’s actual grandma embedded in the track. He had been talking about how CHRISTEENE and Rebecca connect him to the women who really shed some light on this business of living, especially his grandmothers. In the song, CHRISTEENE Works On grandma the same way Soileau worked on CHRISTEENE’s outfit: putting moments, memories, wisdom on in a kind of mirror and seeing how they look, remembering where she got them, holding them a little closer. In framing these expressions of self through their particular material artifacts, whether they be recorded audio of a passed loved one or the old beige purse that CHRISTEENE brings to shows and has people sign, Soileau illustrated how the things we keep remind us of who we are, how their wear and tear reflect our transformations and frailties, and how we can fashion and refashion our work in many different images. Or something like that. There’s so much more I could say about it. I just really liked the performance lecture so much I’m getting sappy.
I came back the next day to take part in one of Lois Weaver’s famous Long Tables, where some guests and mostly curated artists from the weekend chatted about the themes that had emerged in response to Weaver’s given prompt: Unfinished Business and Gender Performance. The discussion ranged from personal struggles around aging, productivity, and burnout; narcissism as a performance framework; gender dynamics in rehearsal environments. As I listened, I furiously calculated and catalogued questions that arose for me that I wanted us to Work On together, working up the courage to take a seat at the table. When Aaron Wright, LADA’s program coordinator, brought up their mission to cultivate audiences for queer and gender exploratory work, I wondered how that project might be a corollary for cultivating public or mainstream consciousness around queerness and gender expression? I wondered how we track paradigm shifts in artistic performance in relation to the political reality of identity performance, as many artists over the weekend were using personal experiences of violence, trauma, otherness, and precarity as the generators for their work. Nando Messi, another artist who had performed earlier in the weekend, spoke at about how he felt left out of the mainstream trans conversation, as the motivation to read bodies and experience codifies them and erases the exciting and transformative possibilities that come from misalignment of gender and expectation. I wondered, how is art performance making the contours of gender expression visible, and how is that different from making them legible? How can illegibility serve as an important kind of political resistance in art and gender performance?
Alas, the conversation came to a close before I mustered the nerve to enter posit my questions, so, with my LADA study guide in hand, I’ll keep Working On them at home.