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September 17, 2004

STRING OF PEARLS: Queer of Color and Diasporic Performance and the Question of Documentation

Queer of Color and Diasporic Performance and the Question of Documentation

For queers and subject of diaspora, the question of documentation cannot be approached without considering the ways that we have historically, strategically avoided being documented. This is to say how, when faced with a dominant culture bent on our regulation and negation, the histories of queer cultures have often been sewn together not by disappearances, but through carefully executed acts of concealment. How to say �I love you� or �I want to fuck you� openly to your object of desire in a hostile, phobic social sphere? It�s a game we play, how to do so without giving up the secret that sparks excitement in this affective and erotic exchange. This is the green carnation of Oscar Wilde�s premiers, the public secret worn on your lapel. It�s the carefully averted gaze of the majority of Brassa��s subjects in his photographs of gay and lesbian clubs in 1930�s Paris. A look away marked by shame or pride, as if to say, �this look is reserved for someone else.� It makes it difficult to document an act that was structured to exist in a �hidden place�.

Matthew Reason explains that behind arguments for archival authority, �The value of the archive is in the action of archiving, in halting disappearance and preserving for the future� (Reason 84). I catch myself tripping on this sentence (I think Reason does as well) but not only because of the subjective danger posed by the archivist filling up the empty space with what he, she, or more frighteningly the ubiquitous �they� determine worthy for inclusion. We need not rehearse Benjamin�s argument about the danger of the construction of historical narratives, I�ll simply gesture in his lost direction and move on. Instead I trip on the notion of documenting for the future that which never meant to be recorded at all or that which only has an incomplete memory of itself.

This last statement runs the risk of saddling my concerns to Peggy Phelan�s theory of performance as tied to disappearance that defies documentation. I do not agree with Phelan when she says that �Performance�s only life is in the present� and that famous paragraph that follows this sentence has always made me uncomfortable (Phelan 146). Recent engagements with Phelan by Miranda Joseph and Jos� Mu�oz appeal to me because of their attention to the material labor of the audience that is engaged with the performer. Resisting Phelan�s reading of the audience as that which is subjugated by the performance, Joseph states: �Phelan discounts the work of the audience; their productive consumption of the work, their act of witness is for her the memory of something presented by somebody else� (Joseph 64). Mu�oz, citing Joseph, suggests: �performance�s temporality is not one of simple presence but instead of futurity�. This futurity, the seed of possibility, may plant itself in the body of the audience and is more than just an echo, but what Freud would call (and I am inverting Freud on purpose here), �a [constructed] vision of the future modeled on the past� (Freud 29). In artist Theresa Hak Kyung Cha�s performance "A Ble Wail", the light of candles flickers against mirrored and canvassed surfaces, bouncing off the exhibition space reducing cinematic experience to a few of its fundamental elements: light, spectator, and projection. Cha once said of her performance where, dressed in white robes she moved slowly around the room unfurling black and red cloth, �In this piece I want to be the dream of the audience� (cited in Lewallen 3). This dream, this critical vision may be a projection of where we want to see our selves, how we might exist in a future radically different from the present or the past while sewing together all three of these temporalities with light as a thread, with threads of fabric wrapping themselves slowly around us. In a sense, we carry the performance with us as we use it to dream both the present and the future differently.

I return to Reason (must we always return to reason?) who warns that while memory may carry a performance into a future beyond its flickering few moments on the stage; the individual circumstances of memory are unpredictable. This uncertainty threatens to corrupt a performance if misunderstood by the audience member. Ippolito�s variable media approach attempts to seek information from the work�s creator to develop modes of preservation and display for the works reflecting the artist�s desire. This approach opens up preservation/display from a prescriptive exchange to collaboration between artists and curators/preservationists. Ippolito cites Felix Gonzalez-Torres� "Untitled (Public Opinion) (1991)" as a work that may be replicated through the act of ordering duplicate material, what Nancy Spector called �the coexistant reproduction of the same thing� (Spector and Gonzalez-Torres 95).

When considering Ippolito�s approach, I find it useful to note that Gonzalez-Torres included a contract with each piece that specified the �ideal weight� of a piece, or the materials to be used and from where to procure them. The contract recognized certain material realities: a specified type of candy may cease to be manufactured, a manufacturer may close its doors and in such circumstances the owner of the work bears the responsibility, as deemed by the contract, to improvise a solution: approximate the candy, find a new manufacturer. In all cases this same person(s) bears the responsibility of determining how the work is to be displayed and maintaining it (in the case of the paper stacks or candy spills) as the audiences take it away piece by piece. As such, Gonzalez-Torres� contracts moved a step further than Ippolito�s by defying the authority of the author and asking the audience to take equal responsibility for the creation of the work, to dream the work into reality along with him. This obsessively organized boy likes Ippolito�s approach, but I am reminded again that endurance by �remaining variable� must still brush up against the reality that very little in this world is meant to endure.

The chain of responsibility from artist to owner to audience member demanded by Gonzalez-Torres� work and implied by Cha�s suggests an embodied practice of the collective process of cultural production. In using the word �collective� I do not necessarily mean to imply communal, but simply to point to the multiple people who may or may not be connected to each other than through their relation with the art piece. As distinct from �collective�, Diana Taylor�s discussion of the archive and the repertoire is concerned to a great extent with the communal. Taylor specifically seeks to rectify the deployment of linguistic privilege to suppress �non-verbal practices� that long sought to preserve a sense of communal identity and memory [that] were not considered valid forms of knowledge� (Taylor). Although I may not agree with Taylor�s assessment of the geneaology of deconstructive practices in relation to language, Taylor�s observations illuminate �the rift� (as she calls it) between the enduring archive and the �ephemeral �repertoire� of embodied practice/knowledge�.

Taylor�s move to expand our sensibilities concerning the various types of knowledge and the ways that such knowledge is transmitted is an incredibly valuable one. But as Joseph argues, community is a complicated and varied construct that may reify the social formations central to the means of capitalist production (and exploitation): race, gender, sexuality, or class. The transference of a repertoire, then, presupposes a community in which such ephemeral knowledge may be transmitted. This transference is difficult for many queers, however, who have been cut off from the units of transmission (the family, the community) precisely because they were unable to interpolate themselves into the social drama of heteronormativity. The communal, then, becomes a site not of transfer but of rupture. Even within the formations of, for example, a �queer community�, temporality and trauma may engender the disruption of such a transfer as evidenced in the following moment from Douglas Crimp�s classic essay on �Mourning and Militancy�. Crimp recalls a moment when the generational rift between his (the Stonewall) generation and the generation that followed surfaced at a screening of an early �70�s film at a gay and lesbian film festival in the late �80�s: �The young man was very excited about what seemed to me a pretty ordinary sex scene in the film, but then he said, �I�d give anything to know what cum tastes like, somebody else�s that is.� That broke my heart, for two reasons: for him because he didn�t know, for me because I do� (Crimp 139).

Might we read Crimps broken heart as the affective dissonance produced from the inability to transmit experiences across generations ruptured by the trauma of the AIDS crisis? By queer rifts between Queer generations. This lack of vertical community poses challenges to notions of communal knowledge transfer calling for new modes of knowledge production. In a different sense, for subjects of any variety of diasporas, transference is often violently interrupted by the social and economic conditions of cultural and geographical excision. For many nissei, for example, Japanese was a forbidden tongue and Japanese traditions forcefully repressed by an elder generation that understood the dangers of incomplete assimilation. Dangers, it turned out, that could not be avoided as we witness when we recall the internment of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War.

Taylor, Reason, and Ippoloto generously suggest a variety of approaches that seek to broaden the possibilities for performance documentation. For me, a Performance Studies that seeks to produce scholarship about performance rests on a dangerous foundation. The heterogeneity of a dream can rarely be safely stored in a jar let alone touched by what Langston Hughes once called �the too-rough fingers / of the world� (Hughes 45). I am drawn to scholarship that engages with performance, scholarship that draws that kernel of potential into itself as a string of pearls �carbon by carbon� traces through the temporalities of past, present, and future. Queer of color and diasporica performativity and performance often situates itself in multiple sites spatially and temporally (let alone culturally). It may leave traces, boldly over-announce its presence and suspend itself between the overt and the hidden. For many of us, we sneak into the archive late at night and we seek out traces not so much to tell us where we came from, but to piece together into a vision of where might be able to go. The performances that I am drawn to and the cultural performativity that I am interested in, no � that I love - these often flow with an impulse that seeks to carry forward the past, survive the present, and imagine a future that might critically rectify the injustice of the now. As with Gonzalez-Torres or Cha, they are performances that seek out acts of collective responsibility as a means not of enduring into futurity, but harnessing the promise the future can offer us today. I dream, then, of promiscuous methodologies, methodologies that are a little slutty, willing to shift positions depending on the lovers and what they want from each other, open to desire and exchange rather than penetration and command. One, also, that is conscious of the responsibilities exchange and desire incur and the surprises these acts might surface.

Crimp, Douglas. Melancholia and Moralism: Essays on Aids and Queer Politics. Cambridge, MA/London: MIT Press, 2002.

Freud, Sigmund. The Uncanny. Trans. David McLintock. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.

Hughes, Langston. The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. Eds. Arnold Rampersad and David E. Roessel. New York: Knopf, 1994.

Joseph, Miranda. Against the Romance of Community. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2002.

Lewallen, Constance M. "Introduction: Theresa Hak Kyung Cha-Her Time and Place." The Dream of the Audience: Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (1951-1982). Ed. Constance Lewallen. Berkely: University of California Berkely Art Museum: University of California Press, 2001. 1-13.

Phelan, Peggy. Unmarked: The Politics of Performance. London/New York: Routledge, 1993.

Reason, Matthew. "Archive or Memory? The Detritus of Live Performance." New Theatre Quarterly 73 (2003): 82-89.

Spector, Nancy, and Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Felix Gonzalez-Torres. NY: Guggenheim Museum, 1995.

Taylor, Diana. The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003.

Posted by at September 17, 2004 3:42 PM