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Issue 137

Artefact: Late to the Party
by Genevieve Flavelle

“Time is borrowed and it changes everything.”

Wu Tsang, Wildness (2012)

I’m not sure when I became aware of Wu Tsang’s film Wildness, though it was likely through its wide exposure in 2012 as a work included in both the Whitney Biennial and the New Museum Triennial. I was enamoured by the descriptions of the film’s namesake – a weekly queer party at which performance artists, drag stars and experimental musicians were exalted. What drew my interest the most, however, was the unlikely main character, the Silver Platter, the long-standing Los Angeles gay bar where Tsang and a collective of young artist friends chose to host Wildness. Rather than narrating the story of the party, Tsang gives the bar its own voice, in Spanish. I didn’t get to see it at the time, but I became convinced I needed the film, compelled by the wisdom that the Silver Platter may have imparted to the young artists.

Despite the various viewing schemes I devised over the past five years, as time would have it, I came to Wildness late, using my status as a writer to finally gain access. This feeling of lateness is common in queer life: each time I have moved to a new city and searched for queer culture I have been told, with lament, of legendary parties and local watering holes that have closed shop, or collectives and associations that cracked under financial, political or personal pressures. Tsang’s instant affinity with the community she finds within the unassuming walls of the Silver Platter is familial, an unexpected homecoming. Her desire to produce a party in the trans “living room” of the Silver Platter is understandable despite her cultural differences from the Silver Platter’s long-standing community of primarily Latinx trans women and drag queens. In the production of queer public culture there is often a strong impulse towards the creation of something new, accompanied by the feeling of participating in something unending. As the narrator, the Silver Platter positions Tsang’s story as one of many young queer creatures who have arrived on its doorstep, idealism brimming in their glitter-speckled eyes.

Remaining with me from my overzealous undergraduate reading of José Esteban Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia is the idea that queerness is glimpsed through moments. Muñoz instructs, “We may never touch queerness, but we can feel it as the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality.”1 I have felt this warm illumination in the presence of others, often while witnessing strange performances or participating in sweat-infused, desire-drenched dance floors. These intoxicating experiences affirmed me and, in turn, fuelled my interest in queer histories and the production of queer publics. My own streak of young idealism and desire to create led me to organize parties, events, art shows and rallies with friends and lovers while attending art school in Halifax. Around the time I learned of Wildness, I was elbows deep in paint and local history, collaboratively reconstructing the Turret, Halifax’s legendary activist-run gay bar, in its original iconic location, which, at that moment, housed the Khyber Centre for the Arts. The experience of connecting to a living history through the activation of intergenerational community enthralled me. It inspired a subsequent exhibition at the Anna Leonowens Gallery in which we constructed a social space much like the Turret but set in an untethered future, a gesture through which we sought to make material our desires for an autonomous queer public place.2

The pollination between what has been, what is and what could be compels Wildness. Inspired by the Silver Platter’s Friday night show, Tsang and her friends begin to produce Wildness as a weekly party on Tuesday nights, featuring performance artists and experimental musicians. In the film, a montage documents week after week of eclectic, strange and wonderfully bizarre happenings. As the party’s renown spreads, tensions begin to play out. While the staff and some of the Silver Platter patrons enjoy the different crowd Wildness brings to the bar, others feel their space is being invaded. Tsang herself becomes filled with concern that the party and the culture it brings to the Silver Platter will jeopardize the safety of the regulars. Care is given to contextualize the physical and social location of the Silver Platter, particularly the revitalization of the MacArthur Park neighbourhood and the threat of deportation and violence many in the community experience daily. The bar proceeds, in turn with Tsang, to narrate the tensions, follies, heartbreaks and triumphs of Wildness’s two-year tenure at the Silver Platter. The most compelling part of the film happens as Tsang hones in on what is at stake in protecting the Silver Platter. She realizes that she cannot control who attends Wildness, or who finds the Silver Platter, and comes to embrace the idea that those who need it as much as she does will find it. As the feeling of truly belonging settles, Tsang begins to collaborate more inside the Silver Platter, working on films and performances with a diverse mix of people who now frequent the bar together. She also works with activists, lawyers and legal scholars to set up a free legal clinic next to the Silver Platter to provide assistance with name changes, immigration and other legal needs for the community. The film becomes a portrait of different yet connected communities actively overlapping and expanding into each other.

Though my experiences of queer community come from different times and places, I felt connected to Wildness. I related to the feeling of connecting with a community that was mine and yet also not mine, the desire to create a space in which to host community and art, the awakening to the politics of place and space, the triumphs and inevitable heartbreaks of organizing, and the dawning realization that what you are creating is always temporary. After becoming entangled in the emotionally messy legal conflict that arose after Gonzalo – one of the owners of the Silver Platter – passes away, Wildness comes to an end. While the documentary depicts the surface pain of this ending, the film itself becomes a testament to the continuation of the relationships Wildness began. In a park, friends from the Silver Platter gather to share a picnic. Illuminated by sunlight, they enjoy each other’s company while Tsang’s voiceover reflects on the flaws and the beauty of Wildness. In parting, Tsang concludes, “I thought that Wildness was about trying to create a movement, I didn’t realize until it was over, that we were already a part of one. It just didn’t fit with the stories I had been told about what we were fighting for.”

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