Queer Joy on the Beach
BOFFO Festival at the Fire Island Pines
August 13-14, 2022
Installation: Joseph MC Shea and Edgar Mosa
Performances: Tess Dworman, Nic Kay, Gage Spex, Macy Rodman, Vinson Fraley, Maxi Hawkeye Canion, Fernando Casablancas, Kyle Kidd, Reed Rushes, Jonah Almost, and Keioui Keijaun Thomas
DJ sets: Sausha de la Ossa, Fashion Labeija, and Bearcat
Text: Devynn Emory
Photos: Nir Arieli
Waves crashed on the sand and ambient beats wafted from the DJ tent. Rainbow flags marked a sacred circle on the beach: beyond the luxurious summer homes and expensive restaurants, a brave queer oasis for experimental art emerged. Throughout the weekend, performances ebbed and flowed in colorful intervals. After a dreamlike afternoon on the beach, I caught up with co-curators Richard Kennedy, Josie Bettman, and Nia Nottage. They chose which questions they wanted to answer; you’ll see their initials beside their responses. Read on for our conversation.
Theo Armstrong: Why Fire Island, and the Pines specifically? What’s the community like- who’s here, and who’s coming?
Richard Kennedy: I went to the pines on a day trip about 10 years ago. At the time, the representation on the island was old school Chelsea gays. My access to the island changed gradually over the years from a really fun but insane experience sleeping in a twin bed with Dosha and Dese (two of my favorite New York icons) and like 9 other people in a TINY hotel room for Westgay to crashing a few nights with friends and finally staying at the BOFFO House for two weeks in 2019. In the little time I have spent on the island over the years I have seen a positive and steady yet slow transformation of the island to be more diverse, yet still very class specific.
Josie Bettman: I’ve only ever experienced the island in the context of my work for BOFFO. From what I’ve noticed, people come to Fire Island when they’re invited, so I’m glad to have suggested that you join us after we saw each other in Katy Pyle’s class. The exclusive mystique surrounding the Pines in particular—the fact that it’s not for everyone—overshadows the reality that it’s actually so close to NYC and fully accessible via public transit. It’s an otherworldly place, but that quality doesn’t rely on these accessibility issues running wild. I think Fire Island can be a place that’s for people who feel like they need it, not just the handful of gays who can afford houses there.
Nia Nottage: I’m interested in an idea of paradise, especially gay paradise, as a haven, which is always a fraught as well as a subjective concept. What does it take to create a like-minded community? Who fought for this gay nude beach? A huge range of people come out here, but due to the luxury speculation, overnight trips are totally inaccessible to most. There are groups out here that are actively having conversations about how to make things more accessible, such as the Cherry Grove DEI Committee of the Arts Project of Cherry Grove as well as the Black and Brown Equity Coalition (BaBEC), and Boys of Fire Island (BoFI). For anyone interested in spending time in Cherry Grove or the Pines, I’d look into these 3 groups and see which one seems like the best fit, then reach out to them for resources! But also it’ll probably take patience/perseverance/gentle persistence, as I know that at least 2 of these 3 are fairly new and run by volunteers.
TA: Explain the selection/curation process for this year’s festival. Why did you choose the artists you chose? And, for the creators in the mix, how did you prepare the performance(s) for the particular site?
RK: I was curating queer performance in NYC/Brooklyn with absolutely no resources for almost 10 years. For me, the curation process was meant to platform the people I came up with in queer DIY spaces and introduce an exciting new generation of time based artist into the legacy of the festival. My goal was to expand the conversation— including queer artists who weren’t presenting work in nightlife spaces with those deeply rooted in club world. The Spectrum was crucial for so many peoples’ development, myself included. I really wanted to bring the community that was formed in the early cultural renaissance of Bushwick into a more expansive and safe environment. I am most happy that this was accomplished. I love my New York queer performance fam the absolute most, it is the community that saved me from being a casting director/stylist, lols. I am so proud to be of this game-changing/genre-defying generation. BOFFO picked the site, we just showed up and showed OUT!
JB: I feel like BOFFO favors a curatorial process that echoes the Fire Island ritual of invitation/initiation. Nominations are an annual routine for the residency selection process, but this year marked the first time that the same method was used for the festival. Artists and organizers of past iterations were asked to nominate their peers to participate this year—Journey Streams and I then researched and compiled a Powerpoint deck offering a window onto the practice of each nominee. This deck was then distributed to the past artists, who cast votes to give us an indication of the artists they most wanted to see perform. Nia Nottage, Richard Kennedy, and I began our curatorial conversation from this foundation, tasked with finding a way to account for this rich data set while also engaging our own aesthetic points of view. It was an intricate process of getting to know one another and constantly grounding myself in the urgent work of these performers, and the urgency of their supporters’ desire to witness them on the beach in Fire Island.
NN: I think Josie explained the nomination process really well! Within this structure, I prioritized artists who haven’t had huge major shows yet, artists with experimental practices who could use this opportunity of having no fixed container to get weirder, and artists who inhabit identities that are less visible on Fire Island.
TA: Tell me more about your curatorial and artistic practices outside of the festival context. Where does BOFFO fit into the larger landscape of your art lives?
RK: I moved to Berlin in the fall of 2019 and Covid hit four months later, which forced me to focus primarily on my visual art practice. I get the most joy from supporting the community and using every opportunity I get to platform and employ queer artists. My art and curatorial practices are deeply linked because my work is done collaboratively— I’ve been working with my writing partner Rashonda Reeves for over ten years and we have a crew of incredible artists we regularly work with (Xander, Alissa, Kyle, Fernando etc). I performed in the BOFFO festival in 2019— it was the last performance I did in New York until this summer’s festival. I am a big fan of BOFFO and I’ve been trying to convince Farris for years to let me curate the festival. It was a bumpy ride, but I am so glad with what we accomplished. It reminded me of the insane capabilities within queerness to transform any space into an otherworldly realm.
JB: I’m a choreographer and performer wandering in underground corridors between nightlife, dance, and performance. The festival strikes me as evidence of a need for more curation that takes this tack, where DJs, dancers, musicians, and performance artists aren’t siloed apart from one another. I found myself taken with the rare texture of the crowd on the beach that weekend, full of friends and beacons of inspiration who inhabit disparate art worlds that only sometimes overlap.
NN: I organize shows, I organize for fair treatment/community awareness/new structures within arts institutions, I do digital archiving, and I’m a media artist who mixes video footage of my friends’ gay lives with found vacation video, popstars, and porn (the cultural archive). As an art worker, I’ve worked projects at a lot of the downtown institutions, especially those that show performance, but as an artist I mostly show at friends’ spaces, small performance lineups, and sex parties — places that are punk or queer enough for the work to be in context. I think I was excited about working with BOFFO because it seemed like an opportunity to put those two parts of my practice in a more visible exchange.
Richard Kennedy, Maxi Hawkeye Canion, Fernando Casablancas, Kyle Kidd, Reed Rushes
TA: What’s been the most enjoyable part of BOFFO? The most taxing/difficult?
RK: The most enjoyable part for me was working with my curatorial colleagues Nia and Josie and witnessing the most beautiful and anointed performances manifest on an infinity beach. I was so excited to learn about new artists with exciting approaches to performance as well; I hated that we couldn’t include everyone we had studio visits with. The list of artists was so brilliant and the future of queer performance is so so bright. The festival/organization is very young, and the lack of resources was a challenge and frustration. I learned so much from the truly insane experience and looking back I appreciate the immense creativity it inspired. I curated the festival, directed and conceptualized a large group project, and I even performed. I needed a safe space to relax and rejuvenate and BOFFO didn’t prioritize this as much as it could have. Hopefully I get the chance to do it again next summer and we all learn and grow from these lessons. 😉 It’s all about building.
NN: BOFFO is a small institution with a lot of heart, but in the 5 months that I was there I saw the leadership put its staff in a lot of really difficult situations. Many of which are hidden from the festival artists and residents.
For my own part, I was hired in March to contribute 5 hours per week to festival planning through the end of the festival on August 13th and 14th. I was set up to make $2500 total but I assumed that with so few hours it would be a super light lift, maybe mostly consulting and I’d be able to chip in a bit and start to get involved— and maybe have a larger role next year. It quickly became apparent that the lift of the role had been misrepresented and I was meant to be the direct contact of a group of festival artists— from studio visits to contracts and protocol to performance concept, materials sourcing, and execution— while fully producing and curating the entire show. The hours I was actually spending managing the workload began to grow to 4 and 5x what I was promised, and for my actual lift I was making well under minimum wage. I rationalized it for a while, trying to make small adjustments on my own, until I finally confronted the administrative team in early July. I expressed my frustration and asked for monetary compensation going forward, and backdated 1 month for all of the extra time, but instead we tried to work out a plan where I would work below 5 hours per week to make up for the lost time and receive a title change. But by then I was finalizing artists’ concepts and trying to make sure their materials were submitted so they’d have what they needed when they arrived to the Island. It felt completely irresponsible and anti-my own ethos to not take care of that, and delegating to someone else who was coming into the situation fresh would have taken just as much time if not more time. So I just spent the extra time tying up loose ends and then left the festival in early August. I’ve expressed that I really wish it could’ve gone differently but I felt used and so exhausted. When I talked to BOFFO and expressed my feelings, they seemed open to talking about different systems and budgeting that could be put in place for next year. I really hope we can pick up these conversations, ideally with some sort of mediator, and that this continues to be the case.
I enjoyed working with the truly brilliant artists in the festival as well as my whip-smart colleagues. If we were all getting paid competitively and could afford proper food and housing, it would be a really tight job.
TA: Describe the intersections between the festival and whatever you’d consider “regularly-scheduled programming”- I hear y’all have a residency out there?
R: The festival/ residency experiences are totally different. As a resident artists are provided with more time and resources and the festival artists get one week. I imagine that BOFFO will secure more resources over time and it will allow the two experiences to intersect more. Time-based art requires support that it rarely gets, but the expectations to deliver are always high. I hope that this summer’s festival illustrated how deserving time based artists are of the same institutional support that people who produce objects and collectible works receive.
Keioui Keijaun Thomas
TA: Watching Keioui perform a set I’d seen parts of at BodyHack a while ago got me thinking– can you say more about the connections between BOFFO and LGBTQIA+ community activism/work in the city or elsewhere?
RK: I think BOFFO is an amazing platform for performance and visibility but not necessarily rooted in activism. The community in Brooklyn and around the world is really strong and increasingly more connected. The global network of promoters and curators supports and uplifts dynamic practices like Keioui’s year-round, and I only imagine that it will develop more over the next few years. Living in Europe for the foreseeable future, this is one of my personal goals. There’s an opportunity for so many new conversations that I hope to be a part of— the ability to listen, speak, and learn from each other is the most valuable. We deserve everything and more.
JB: I’ve never been to Nowadays for Body Hack, though I did see Keioui Keijaun Thomas perform an iteration of her project Come Hell or High Femmes: The Journey of the Dolls at another nightclub (Paragon) the weekend before the festival. Thomas also performed in Cherry Grove earlier this summer with the support of Fire Island Artist Residency. I’m grateful for these opportunities to witness her process, how she composes her choreography, materials, lighting, and sound for each new performance site. In her proposal, Thomas wrote that her project “charts a post-apocalyptic geography” which I felt she conjured live on the beach, in direct dialogue with the ocean, unmediated.
NN: I agree with Richard that this sort of work often happens coalitionally, outside of nonprofits— but it isn’t impossible. All of the artists in the festival have their own robust communities of support and of activism. I think there is a lot of room for BOFFO as an institution to take up and begin to orient itself around LGBTQIA activism, advocacy, and concerns, because of the investment of the artists who move through it. It’d be really cool to see it go this way in the future.
Keioui Keijaun Thomas
- Anything else you want the people to know?
RK: Support the dolls, support artists you like, and go see more performance. What is a performer without an audience, and an audience without a performer? I dream that we as a community find more ways to pull resources in order to start new festivals and institutions. I want people to know that I love them deep deep, and that I will ALWAYS advocate for performance practices to be supported in real and revolutionary ways. . We must take care of each other and protect our brilliant friends who sacrifice it all to reflect reality through performance based art practices. It can be absolutely brutal, and seem like an uphill battle especially in these complicated and dystopic times. I agree with Nia and Josie, interview the artists and let them speak (my response is first but of course I did a last minute edit and just want to acknowledge that this thought originated with my brilliant colleagues) I LOVE BEING BLACK AND QUEER AS FUCK AND I WILL PERFORM UNTIL THE DAY I DIE! <3
NN: Yes! You should interview a group of the artists — about their work and their performances in the festival and their experiences with their colleagues. In this case, there’s so much going on when you center the institution — but there’s also so much going on when you don’t, and it’d be really cool to highlight all of these practices in the artists’ own words— because the performances were all really amazing— and where they’re going next : )
Continue asking questions about curation, accessibility, and anti-capitalist artmaking with these icons and the artists listed above.
Follow them on social media here:
Richard Kennedy @mrrichardkennedy
Josie Bettman @scum_network
Update: February 2023
After this article was written, Nia and a small coalition of 2 other staff members approached Faris Al-Shathir, the executive director and co-founder of BOFFO, in order to discuss steps forward in the process of creating better working conditions towards the areas of labor, wages, sexual harassment, and health + safety. In late October 2022, Faris and Nia (as liaison for the group) engaged in a phone call in the presence of a mediator, during which they agreed that the coalition would be contracted for a small fee of $100 each to come up with a DEI proposal. Following this period, they would then present their finished work to a group of BOFFO’s board members, and would be compensated an additional $100 each for this presentation, which was set to happen before the end of the year. It was agreed that the proposal would create policies and structural provisions that would standardize conditions for both staff and artists, as a means to prevent the events of 2022 from recurring in future years. A few days later on November 1st after checking in with their colleagues, Nia sent an email to Faris, formally accepting the project on their behalf and presenting the previously agreed upon terms in writing so that Faris could generate a contract. The coalition has been waiting for that contract since November of last year — no reply was sent and they were never contacted again.