Queer Body Politic is a web-based project curated by Aaron Pollard and produced by Studio 303 in 2020, through its Curator-in-residence program.
Initially conceived as an evening of performance embodying generational memory through the lens of queer history, this project now offers commissioned video-performances, interviews, and an essay. Enjoy!
Queer Body Politic offers up a grouping of new video-performances by a small cross-section of queer-identified Montreal artists along with interviews that I conducted with the help of Abi Stushnoff. The video-performances are by 2Fik, Karen Fennell, Winnie Ho, Phoenix Inana and Justin de Luna. The interviews are organised into thematic capsules, each covering a particular question related to the queer body politic, and include archival video excerpts collected from Studio 303’s thirty-year history of presenting queer performance. The interview subjects are 2Fik, Alex Tigchelaar, Alexis O’Hara, Andrew Tay and Justin de Luna.
This project is driven by my interest in generational memory, particularly as it applies to queer subjectivity. I wanted to explore Studio 303’s archives in search of works that speak to memory, history and bodies, and to investigate emerging practices by younger artists so as to underline the importance of collective memory in nourishing queer culture as a social and political entity. My interest in perusing Studio 303’s archive was in the service of selecting artists for an evening of performances that speak to a queer body politic, comprised of artists of different generations and backgrounds who were already affiliated with the studio. As the project progressed, the archives began to take on more prominence and I imagined activating Studio 303’s entire space with projections of interviews and archival material, along with live performances as the core component for the event. The Covid-19 pandemic led to the cancellation of the scheduled performance. If the project were to continue it would have to take on another form.
For performing artists, who count on the gathering of groups as a primary component of their practice, the current state of affairs is devastating. Under Covid-19 measures, the trend to embrace online formats for performances and concerts is understandable but troubling. At best it seems a necessary stopgap measure. At its worst it becomes a coercive cultural policy. Live performance is a thing unto itself. A streaming event is something else entirely. One cannot replace the other. There is an intrinsic value in physical gatherings that cannot be replicated online. This is why I have opted here for a Web presence that is categorically different than a live performance.
Rather than offer livestream versions of theatrical performances, I have asked these artists to create video-performances, available for free, on-demand viewing on a dedicated web page. Each artist has risen to this challenge in their own unique way, under the isolated and limiting conditions that come with physical distancing measures. These works speak to the here and now but they also provoke contemplation of the past and future. Their format and grouping invites the possibility for reviewing, mixing and matching with each other, with this text and with the interviews.
Along with this writing, the interviews are here to provide a backdrop and a context for the five video-performances featured in this virtual space of contemplation. The questions asked are intended to provoke reflection over the fragility and resilience of queer cultural production in Montreal, and how Studio 303, in particular, has nurtured this activity since 1989. Due to Studio 303’s unique status as a hybrid centre that supports dance and interdisciplinary practices, I address broad concepts concerning queer culture and specific concerns related to the body, movement and gesture. These conversations help flesh out less visible, implicit particularities of Studio 303’s history and mandate, with an aim to keep a space open for present and future instances of queer cultural activity. It should be noted that the words queer, gay, lesbian or trans appear nowhere within Studio 303’s mandate. Nonetheless I would argue that the organisation’s mission statement and manner of functioning are fundamentally queer.
Each video-performance speaks to current states of confinement, be it circumstances provoked by a pandemic or the more enduring social detachment that is endemic to surveillance capitalism. While these artists playfully deploy popular cultural motifs associated with social media - such as portrait mode video, confessional address, the static single take, and the performance of intimacy – they also resist and critique expectations around the meaning and place for “user content” that circulates within the confines of the monetized platforms to which they refer. In spoiling popular assumptions*, these artists’ works may have more in common with queer and feminist avant-garde film and video from the 1960s and 70s than they do with Youtubers and Instagrammers of today.
With Sorry Not A Match, 2fik portrays Ludmilla-Mary, his hijab-clad feminine character, drawing an analogy between gay dating apps and a tennis match. The visual references in this video suggest Grindr, though the left/right matching mechanism is ubiquitous to many apps of this kind. The appearance of each text bubble is accompanied by the sound of a racket hitting a ball. On the one hand, the sports analogy invokes playfulness but with that there are the more sinister elements of elitism, ruthlessness and even violence that come with the game. 2Fik’s strategies seem to be firmly rooted in a long history of performances by visual artists, whereby social interactions are documented and examined then put on display. The video consists of a series of nine text-based conversations that all degenerate into a volley of insults. 2Fik’s exposure of intimate personal interactions, along with his unpacking of islamophobia, femme-phobia and racism is reminiscent of some powerful works by feminist artists such as Adrian Piper, Valie Export and Lynn Hershman Leeson.
Karen Fennell is a contemporary dance artist in a long-term relationship with the practice of creating and interpreting works of live performance. Since 2019 she has been engaged with a body of research that investigates notions of identity, authenticity, intimacy and queerness in relationship to the performance experience. 'and you were here' is a tangential exploration of some of the text and themes that she is currently working with, created under the particularly limiting conditions of pandemic confinement.
Resplendent in yellow, Winnie Ho presents us with The Third Tit. Despite the close framing there is a sense of expansiveness here due to the ample sunlight reflected on a tarp billowing in the wind. The artist performs for us a ritual of breath, gesture and feasting, dressed only in a pair of yellow shorts with a matching jabot fashioned out of yarn. The neck-ware is also strung over the artist’s eyes and under the nose and chin, calling to mind a pair of space-aged glasses, a breathing apparatus, or the outline of a facemask or beard. The Third Tit refers to the shape and appearance of a Chinese confection that is actually fashioned to resemble a peach, a celebratory bun to signal such things as the birth of a child or the arrival of a new year. Alone in this eccentric universe of their own making, Winnie Ho poses with these buns placed suggestively between her breasts, single-handedly consuming these pastries that were intended for large gatherings. The constant sound of slow, laboured breathing invokes something that seems to be at once deadly serious and entirely playful: a kind of sacred whimsy that is reminiscent of Jack Smith and the Cockettes.
Phoenix Inana’s practice is rooted in cabaret and burlesque. Her video-performance Qalam Queer is imbued with a cabaret sensibility though it is ostensibly an ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response) video. Like a cabaret performance, Qalam Queer presents itself in a familiar digestible form. Though somewhat niche, ASMR videos are widely known as antidotes to the outrage and acrimony of 21st century online life, a respite of whispers and crackles intended to soothe nervous tension. Phoenix Inana maintains this pretext throughout her performance, keeping her voice to a whisper and punctuating her speech with the soft clicking of jewellery and accessories. However, in the grand tradition of cabaret performance, there is a tension between the sugar-coated form and the agitating message carried within it. The artist presents a simple list of words in Arabic. In doing so she also provides an object lesson in etymology, history and colonisation, underlining the assumptions that are built into language and undermining the notion that queer history and expression the exclusive domain of western culture and ideology.
Justin de Luna
I’ve fallen into a hole and we’ve been here for hours is the name of Justin de Luna’s Paean to influencers and YouTube stars. Within this kaleidoscopic cooking show/fashion parade/softcore porn/Zoom dance party we see a liberal mixing and matching of formats, set to a dizzying playlist of danceable pop reaching from now back to the 1970s. After declaring “We’re here! it’s the new now!” de Luna tries on genres as quickly as he changes clothes but there is a critical method to his madness that can be found in the cadence and syntax of his cuts from moment to moment, scene to scene, as we witness a breakdown of an individual as he collides with the confusion of isolation with a combination of irreverence and sensitivity that seems particular to someone born into the 21st century. Though de Luna borrows images and sounds freely and frequently from a variety of sources, his core strategy is direct address to the camera. De Luna sums it up himself when he notes that he’s wearing “50 shades of gold.” Dare I say, it’s like a mix of Paris Hilton Martha Rosler, Cardi B and Lisa Steele.
When I initiated this process I was thinking about the recent resurfacing of the term, intersectionality, and about the cyclical nature of history**. In thinking about this new wave of enthusiasm for queer theory, crip theory, feminism and post-colonial thought through the lens of intersectionality, I was reminded of my own excitement while reading Cornel West’s treatise on “the new cultural politics of difference” back in about 1990, along with a host of post-colonial, queer and feminist scholars and activists connected to emancipatory cultural and social movements of that time. I inevitably moved on to thoughts of the turning of the tide; to those moments when the excitement I felt for identity politics seemed to arouse suspicion in others; onward to the dissipation and dissolution of so much of the energy and passion driving the intersecting queer, feminist and post-colonial movements and discourses that emerged about 30 years ago. Small gains that were made within the academic circles and in the cultural sphere where I was working began to stagnate and even evaporate by the mid-1990s.
Calls for an end to systemic power differentials based on race, gender, class, sexual orientation or ability are often met with derision, but in the mid-1990s, contempt for the grievances of the marginalized seemed to come crashing in from all sides as the end to the Cold War summoned Third Way policies and administrations that boldly declared an end to national borders, the political Left and Right and a host of other ideas deemed antiquated within a multinational, increasingly connected world. I recall having this uneasy feeling as “political correctness” – a rhetorical weapon embraced by right-wing pundits – gained popular usage and was even accorded its own television show***. Thinking on intersectionality today inevitably brings me back to my own brutal awakening to the so-called post-feminist era and my own passage through an intellectual and creative desert where opportunities were few and far between, even for a cis, white male such as myself. With this in mind, I started to consider the obstacles and imminent backlash that younger and more marginalized queer artists were likely to experience. In contemplating all this, I began to wonder if there was a way to engage my own memory to the service of something good. I want to reach out to queers of different ages and backgrounds and to generate some kind of discussion that spans generations while acknowledging and respecting our differences.
Since I arrived in Montreal in 1993, Studio 303 has provided me with a space to contemplate a “queer body politic” as an audience member, as an artist, and now as a curator-in-residence. My hope now is that carving out this little bit of cyberspace provides a psychic place for the contemplation of generational memory and its implications for those of us whose very existence troubles normative ideas of kinship, reproduction and legacy.
* I am borrowing from Alex Tigchelaar here and her definition of “queering” as “spoiling or ruining prevailing narratives” concerning an individual, a group or a particular topic. See the accompanying interview capsules for more on this idea.
** The term, intersectionality was coined by black feminist scholar, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw in 1989. It is a theoretical framework for understanding how aspects of one's social and political identities (gender, race, class, sexuality, ability, etc.) combine to create unique modes of discrimination.
*** Here I am referring to, Politically Incorrect, an American late-night, half-hour political talk show hosted by Bill Maher that aired from 1993 to 2002.
Curated by Aaron Pollard, in collaboration with Abigail Stushnoff
Video-performances by 2Fik, Karen Fennell, Winnie Ho, Phoenix Inana and Justin de Luna.
Interviews with 2Fik, Justin de Luna, Alexis O’Hara, Andrew Tay and Alex Tigchelaar.
Interview capsules include audio-visual material collected from Studio 303’s thirty-year history of presenting queer performance. Included artists are 2Fik, Alexis O’Hara, Andrew Tay, Dayna Mcleod, Gambletron, Jess Dobkin, Johnny Forever, Jordan Arseneault, Justin de Luna and Francesca Chudnoff, Karen Fennell, Kevin Jesuino, Lili la terreur (Eliane Bonin), Marijs Boulogne, Nate Yaffe, Nathalie Claude, Newton Moraes, Phoenix Inana, Sara Porter, Sarah Seene, Sarah Williams, Simon Portigal, Stephen Hues, Susana Cook, T.L. Cowan, and Winnie Ho.
Website design and coding: Christopher Willes.
Produced by Studio 303, supported through its annual residency for an emerging performance curator. The residency provides a framework for developing ideas through research, discussion and practice.
Are props quintessentially queer? Interviews with 2Fik, Justin de Luna, Alexis O’Hara, Andrew Tay et Alex Tigchelaar.
"and you were here" is a tangential exploration of some of the text and themes with which Karen Fennell currently working, created under the particularly limiting conditions of pandemic confinement.
How do LGBTQ+ themes, gestures, politics inform your practice? Interviews with 2Fik, Justin de Luna, Alexis O’Hara, Andrew Tay et Alex Tigchelaar.
How has studio 303 been a space for queer expression? Interviews with 2Fik, Justin de Luna, Alexis O’Hara, Andrew Tay et Alex Tigchelaar.
Phoenix Inana provides an object lesson in etymology, history and colonisation, underlining the assumptions that are built into language.
Could you define queer gesture or affect? Interviews with 2Fik, Justin de Luna, Alexis O’Hara, Andrew Tay et Alex Tigchelaar.
Resplendent in yellow, Winnie Ho presents us with "The Third Tit". The artist performs for us a ritual of breath, gesture and feasting, dressed only in a pair of shorts with a matching jabot fashioned out of yarn.
Within this kaleidoscopic cooking show/fashion parade/softcore porn/Zoom dance party we see a liberal mixing and matching of formats, set to a dizzying playlist of danceable pop reaching from now back to the 1970s.
How do you picture yourself within or outside of a queer trajectory at Studio 303 and beyond? Interviews with 2Fik, Justin de Luna, Alexis O’Hara, Andrew Tay et Alex Tigchelaar.
With Sorry Not A Match, 2fik portrays Ludmilla-Mary, his hijab-clad feminine character, drawing an analogy between gay dating apps and a tennis match.