Downtown Icons, Non-Consenual Relationships with Ghosts, & Passages

Downtown Icons Panel at La MaMa – Susana Cook, Karen Finley, Maura, C. Carr, Kate Bornstein & Holly Hughes Photo by John Issendorf

Someday, if the Earth survives this oligarchy’s drive to suck the life out of her and us, historians, archivists, and survivors will share stories of the work being made in “this era.” This past Sunday I co-moderated, with former Village Voice writer C. Carr, the “Downtown Icons” Panel at La MaMa with trans pioneer Kate Bornstein, NEA 4 legends and righteous artist/professors Karen Finley and Holly Hughes, and Argentinean writer, director, and self-identified butch lesbian performance artist Susana Cook. Susan’s show is currently running, and Karen and Kate both have shows coming up this season. All of these women witnessed and worked through decades of waning federal support for the arts and some of the discussion focused on that era. Karen was insistent at not getting nostalgic about “the old days,” but I, as one who did not experience downtown NYC in the 80s wanted to hear about it, not as a glorification but to understand how one fights or “tends and befriends” or handles the stresses of something like the Culture Wars and comes out still kicking. I wanted to know what the real day to day grind was like and, yeah, okay… maybe I’m just trying to get someone to tell me “we’re gonna be alright” cuz all I hear in my head is “mercy, mercy me.” But, the thing is… everyone wasn’t alright. And, everyone’s not going to be. Everyone hasn’t been. In fact, there is no everyone. We weren’t “everyone” for Civil Rights or the Black Power Movements or Vietnam War protests or women’s liberation or Act Up or the Culture Wars… or… or… or…  The haze of neoliberalism has lulled our country into an acceptance of free market dominance and the importance of the individual over human rights. As the truly radical icon Angela Davis says in her latest collection “Freedom is a Constant Struggle”: “It is essential to resist the depiction of history as the work of heroic individuals in order for people today to recognize their potential agency as a part of an ever-expanding community of struggle.” We’re going to have to keep on keeping on, but (like a space alien opening a time capsule sent into orbit) I am curious about the daily normal during times of great change. Because this-here-now is the new normal for the young, my young won’t know how steeped they are in “insidious capitalism” and sitting amongst those 4 intrepid, insightful and inspiring women reminded me that my post-80s madness has never been able to approach theirs because my normal was a Madison Ave cooptation of the underground – the revolution wasn’t just televised, it was branded, bottled and sold as an energy drink.

Susana Cook could detail how the normal of her youth abruptly changed.  A survivor Argentina’s “dirty war,” which disappeared nearly 11,000 intellectuals and other enemies of the state, she has been like the prophetess Cassandra warning for years of fascism’s steady approach with the rise of a “war on terror” and “family values.” She detailed watching her father burn their books as a teenager. Having just watched her production of Non-consensual Relationships with Ghosts (running tonight, tomorrow and Sunday in The Club), we could see how studied she is in the evolution of tyrannical rule. The work is both highly relevant to our current moment, there is a bitingly ridiculous King Baby scene, and an absurdly delightful departure from it. We will recognize the commentary, but the commentary in Susana’s work has long been pointed because, as she said during the panel, the playbook for authoritarian rule has been well established, studied, documented, repeatedly followed around the world, and POINT BY POINT being enacted in the U.S. So, while King Baby is establishing an oligarchy for himself, his grim reaper whisperer and congress continue their march towards fascism. The show slides in commentary about abiding and normalizing things that are noticeably distressing:

  • Hector:            There’s a light coming out of your mouth
  • Michael:          That’s okay.  That light is supposed to be there
  • Techelle:          No, it’s not.  I’ve never seen that light before
  • Simba:             You’ve never seen it maybe, but it was there the whole time
  • MarieChris:     How is it called?
  • Jenni:               I don’t know, I think it’s called “ mouth light”
  • Mista:              I hope this is not affecting my thoughts
  • Michael:          You are fine. don’t worry…
  • Mista:              As long as we all have it  (the one with the light says this)
  • All:                  We do
  • Simba:             No, we don’t!  Don’t lie to her!!
  • Drae:               You are such an old school human!!  This is what we do now!  We have lights coming out of our mouth
  • Michael:          I swear Humans didn’t have this light before.  There’s something weird happening
  • Jenni:               Humans always had lights

As they all begin walking in a military parade with their mouth lights, the conformity, amnesia and militarization converge in a bizarre and poetic picture.

Ganessa James and Maria Bauman Photo by Charles Rice Gonzalez

When we do recall this particular moment, it will be to recall the exquisite grandness that love plays in surviving every struggle. And, the struggle that love requires in order to survive its own ebbs and flows. In choreographer and dancer Maria Bauman and songwriter and musician Ganessa James’ Passages, at BAAD! Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance on March 18 as part of the 17th annual BAAD!ASS WOMEN FESTIVAL, the challenge of change remains a constant in this sumptuous work. It was a gem, briefly offered, precious and rare, a special gift of song, hearts, souls and dance. As the two faced off in variations of the duet form, the vulnerability of exposure and attempting new pathways is considered and returned to in soft and antagonistic moments, at one point Ganessa holds her guitar like a bayonet. There is no resolution only a continuance. Life doesn’t roll credits after a fight, nor after a sweet song, it just keeps on and so do these two powerful artists who give one another the space to tread the path of the other in moments of reversed roles, like when Ganessa dances while Maria sings. The work is amplified by dancers Courtney J Cook and Sanchel Brown who join for powerful sequences including a trio that resonates with the multiplicities of an individual’s experience. The need to be in community and harmony is heightened by the blend of voices and overlap of bodies. The assertion of self in a relationship comes through with word, melody and rhythm. There are sensual embraces – a subtle caress to the thigh and sweat, sweet sweet sweat. From the front row, I enjoyed an uninterrupted binge on the unabashed physical and vocal strengths running rampant in this work. Maria, Courtney and Sanchel mobilize from some serious power stances, the upper to lower body integration is like a charging alternating current, and Ganessa’s is a voice to fall in love to and with. 

Ganessa James, Courtney Cook, and Maria Bauman Photo by Charles Rice Gonzalez

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