Performatorium: Festival of Queer Performance
by Jon Davies
Taking place in the middle of a Prairie winter, the 2015 Performatorium festival’s theme of “Making It, Difficult” held the promise of buckets of blood staining the Regina snow red. In fact, it was much warmer that weekend than anyone could have anticipated – a balmy 2 degrees – and while some of the performances that unfolded could be called “difficult” in terms of their intensity, duration or content, the word aptly described many pressing off-stage realities as well. The economic precarity of sustaining oneself as a performing artist, the struggle not only to communicate but also to claim and articulate one’s place in history – these things are difficult. Difficult people, difficult choices, difficult situations – but difficult to whom, and why?
Curated each year by founder Gary Varro, Performatorium 2015 cultivated intimacy: all events took place in close proximity and the schedule was structured around mid-day talks followed by evenings of multiple performances at the Neutral Ground gallery and the Artesian performance space, a former church. Gathering a small group of performance artists together for three days established a provisional community, where something resembling a shared language connected artists with very different approaches, contexts, aesthetics and reference points.
Legendary Los Angeles-based artist Ron Athey magnanimously reigned over the weekend. Athey’s oeuvre is the history of AIDS written on the body, from a time where everyone he knew was dying, to settling into the so-called Lazarus syndrome, where those destined to die unexpectedly keep surviving and have to deal with the difficulties of simply living. I have been following Athey’s work since the late 1990s, and images of his highly theatrical performances – drawing on the forms of evangelical ritual, and on the physical violation and transformation of his and his friends’ bodies – are etched in my mind. Athey’s example is profound and far-reaching, from his influence on fellow festival performers Kris Grey and Martin O’Brien, to his close working relationship with academics like Jennifer Doyle of the University of California, Riverside, who places Athey squarely at the centre of her indispensable 2013 study Hold It Against Me: Difficulty and Emotion in Contemporary Art. Athey’s politics of refusal has historically cast him out of contemporary art discourse, but in his radical rigour, he is central to any feminist, queer, subcultural and embodied history of recent art. In an artist talk at the University of Regina, Athey set the stakes high: how do you push through questions of identity and representation, and actually manifest a phenomenon that “changes the room”?
Athey’s presence was also key to Performatorium’s embrace of lineage and influence as means for queer and trans survival, an aspect that J.J. Kegan McFadden highlighted in his Canadian Art review of last year’s festival. Athey named Genesis Breyer P-Orridge and Johanna Went (among many others) as touchstones, while New York-based Anya Liftig invoked William Wegman and Gilda Radner. Once we “burn the family” as Athey nicely put it, to whom do we turn to keep us going and perhaps even understand what we are striving for? I tend to romanticize the kinship structures that cohere even the most toxic art/subcultural scenes, so I found Athey’s “extended family” model of long-term collaboration in work and in life very moving, but artists like Liftig and Regina-based duo Homo Monstrous reminded me that relationships with one’s peers can often be more agonistic, and not in a fruitful way. If Athey was Performatorium’s godhead than Homo Monstrous (Leo Keiser and Jaye Kovach) was its heart. Behind the scenes, Keiser and Kovach ran the festival’s technical operations at the university and Neutral Ground, respectively, working closely with their fellow performers on their pieces. Their performance, How Fucking Loud Do I Have to Yell?, was harrowing, particularly as an outsider watching them here on their home turf, where the toll of day-to-day survival in a hard, isolated city was palpable. In a cover story in Regina’s alt-weekly,Prairie Dog, Kovach noted, “being on the trans female side of the spectrum… you’re in a situation where you’re almost always performing. People look at you and have questions, so it’s way more of a production than it needs to be, as far as just existing goes.” Homo Monstrous blasted the room with trans rage, with Keiser hunched on the floor among the audience – shoulder blades jutting – screaming “I’m going to lose my fucking voice” over Kovach’s righteous noise until the prophesized damage was done. Keiser and Kovach’s wall of noise drowned out their words, the droning sound physically occupying the gallery.
New York-based artist Grey’s Homage saw him standing on a low, stage-like plinth with a calm smile, pierced by thick, four-inch-long needles in a horizontal line, following the scars of his breast removal surgery. His regular, sure breath acted as a kind of metronome. Then, one at a time, he removed the needles, causing blood to trace a line down his body, some pooling between his legs. After a dramatic pause, he dropped each needle. Grey’s stillness and formality suggested the creation of an iconic tableau, and in terms of image-making, I found myself disappointed when some of the punctures did not stream forth the highly aesthetic lines of blood on his white skin. Of course the body will do what the body wants, and therein lies the power of this kind of work, where outcomes and effects can’t be fully planned or predicted. At the artists’ roundtable (which I moderated), Grey spoke of orifices as sites of vulnerability: what comes in and goes out of our bodies is policed. He reverently articulated the potency and sense of agency found in giving oneself new holes.
Toronto-based Jess Dobkin’s holes were more playful and vaudevillian than those punctured by many of her counterparts here. In Flowers, she anthropomorphized her vagina, dressing it up as a crude Neil Diamond to croon a duet of “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” with Dobkin as Barbra Streisand. In Dirty Plotz, she gussied up her ass with a clownish face, forcing it to imbibe and then messily regurgitate the colours of the rainbow – producing an abject queer flag. Appropriately enough, this was all staged to a child’s YouTube version of the hit song “Let It Go” from Frozen, the animated Disney phenomenon deliriously adored by young girls (and some drag queens) the world over. Next to Grey’s stoic bloodshed – which can’t help but carry some bravado – I appreciated Dobkin’s comment in her artist talk (given largely to students) that her experience of giving birth consisted of as much screaming, fluids and altered states as the most “difficult” performances one could conceive.
In The Human Factor, Liftig treated a fish like a lover – singing to it before the relationship soured and she destroyed it with a blender and guzzled down the chunks – and drew out the boiling alive of a lobster to its existentialist limits in Consider the Lobster. Here, Liftig’s slow, deliberate pace suggested an effort to commune with and even become the hapless crustacean before her; her movement exaggerated everyday gestures into a languorous danse macabre. Liftig’s tortured struggle – the gravitas that she brought to the decision to kill and eat her creaturely foil – effectively prolonged its life, postponing the inevitable as long as possible.
In both performances, Liftig regarded the audience with a severe, defiant gaze. I found this potent sense of complicity I felt with the performers to be the most compelling part of the festival. This was often most pronounced when something did not appear to be going as it should, for example the malfunctioning blender and hot plate that Liftig required for her visceral trans-species experiments, or when a shard of spontaneously smashed electric guitar dinged Kovach in the forehead during their set. Athey’s closing performance of Messianic Remains invited a heightened level of audience complicity as we were encouraged to walk up on stage to anoint Athey’s supine body – laid out on a rack of metal pipes, penetrated by a baseball bat – with a lubish gel. Communally, we rubbed his body down – an intensely intimate, tactile form of engagement. Our ministrations seemingly brought him to life as he sprang from the bed for the second part of his performance, an impish invocation of the great Divine from Jean Genet’s transgressive 1943 novel Our Lady of the Flowers.
London-based O’Brien’s performance Breathe for Me kept me riveted throughout its three-hour duration. Leaving the Artesian, even looking away from him, seemed like a betrayal: I had to breathe for him. I haughtily fancied myself an indispensable presence, whose moral support of just being there was required for O’Brien to get through the trials before him. (Conversely, I needed to witness him make it through to the end for my own sense of closure.) O’Brien has cystic fibrosis, which is characterized by the accumulation of excess amounts of thick mucus, causing intense coughing and difficulty breathing. O’Brien risks working in the shadow of the late Bob Flanagan, who produced performance-based work from his raw sublimation of CF pain into wild BDSM experimentation with partner Sheree Rose, wresting bodily agency back from the disease. Rather than eschewing this lineage, O’Brien embraces his corporeal connection to Flanagan; he arrived in Regina from a residency at the ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives in Los Angeles, where he had been collaborating closely with Rose while going through her archive.
Breathe for Me consisted of a series of repeated, ritualistic actions akin to stations of the cross drawn from O’Brien’s experience of CF. He began by using a scalpel to carve the imagined outlines of his lungs into the skin of his chest. He then crawled down a white plastic “runway” to a kind of pillow-altar where he lay down, breathed deeply and rhythmically beat his chest (smearing the blood from the cuts in the process) to loosen the phlegm from his respiratory system, before crawling over to one of many specimen containers flanking the runway. Expelling the sputum into the first container, he crawled back to the altar and started the painful process again. After expectorating into all 30 containers, O’Brien repeated a number of other actions a grueling 30 times each. Skinny knees on wood floor, his crawling was clearly torturous – and O’Brien soon resembled an arthritic dog, even carrying objects in his jaws. The repeated actions culminated in a debilitating march back and forth down the runway with a rubber hood over his head, which both blinded him and limited his breathing even further. O’Brien had to feel his way down the runway to get to the other side before oxygen ran out – he struggled and tripped, occasionally moaning in agony. The performance developed with a sense of inevitability; by repeating each action a set number of times, we count down along with him, while fully grasping how much was left. The end of the performance was extraordinary as O’Brien crawled down the runway once more to open the specimen containers. With each, he dug out the phlegm with his fingers and sexily anointed his body with it; he became a true diva here, playing with the goo, rubbing it in like lotion, even tossing it over his shoulder as if it were a jaunty scarf. By the very end, O’Brien was filthy and exhausted, retiring to his alter in a spent heap. The once-pristine set was now a battlefield strewn with medical refuse, splashed with slime. Like a scene from Caligula, O’Brien struck the pose of an orgy-exhausted emperor as he regained his breath sprawled before us. It was time to exit.
During Breathe for Me, I appreciated that O’Brien was not always “on” or “in the zone.” Dressed simply in a loose jockstrap, his performance persona was workmanlike, and he took breaks from his torments to drink water and eat a snack. He looked up at people who walked in and out, didn’t attempt to stifle any of his unscripted gasps or groans, and stretched his limbs when needed. As with the other artists, I had the opportunity to socialize with O’Brien over the weekend, to share meals and drinks, walks and taxi rides. This proximity further complicated and nuanced the collapse of “self” and “artwork” that occurs in these performances. Spending time with these human beings both “on” and “off,” thinking about difficulty in all its forms – from the most mundane tribulations to the headiest challenges of existence – helped me consider how, here and now, performance rooted in discomfort and duress can forge new aesthetic and affective possibilities.