Sunday, December 12, 2010

Queer Performance Art Redux, or, It's 1990 All Over Again

A somewhat churlish (but mostly positive) review of Tim Miller's most recent solo show, Lay of the Land, in the New York Times this past Thursday ("Is anyone a performance artist anymore?" is how it begins), coupled with a reference in the same review to Miller's shout out to fellow queer performance artist and NEA Four cultural blacklisting victim Holly Hughes (whose new show, Let Them Eat Cake, is currently running at Dixon Place), and the growing brouhaha over the removal--at the urging of Catholic League President William Donohue--of the David Wojnarowicz video "A Fire in My Belly" from the National Portrait Gallery show Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture in Washington, DC (see Holland Carter's article in the New York Times on the scandal), not to mention the failure of Obama's attempts to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," has got me thinking that it's 1990 all over again.

It's also got me thinking about my moribund research project on "Solo Performance and Sexual Citizenship in the United States, 1984-2004." This project, which originally began as a comparative one also considering solo performance during the same period in Canada, has continued to evolve as I have been interrupted in my thinking by other ideas and projects. However, at the core of my research remains a desire to contextualize--and historicize--the development of solo performance (in theatre and performance art, stand-up comedy and concert films, video and dance) in the United States from the re-election of Reagan to that of George W. Bush, paying special attention to how much of this work, in its reflexive foregrounding of the queerly gendered body, comments on flashpoint debates relating to sexual citizenship in that country (from AIDS and gays in the military to reproductive politics and same-sex marriage) over the past 20 years.

A key question structuring my investigations is how the radical potential of AIDS activist politics in the 1980s and early 1990s, which seemed to offer a new way of thinking about citizenship and kinship outside of normative models of family and coupledom, morphed into the virtually wholesale adoption of same-sex marriage as the do-or-die cause of the current mainstream LGBTQ movement in the US. To this end, the larger project will likely have to bring the historical narrative up to at least 2008 (and likely beyond) and the fight over Proposition 8 in California that served as the backdrop to the election of Barack Obama. Prop 8 is in fact the subject of Miller's Lay of the Land, and his previous show, Us, was also preoccupied with marriage rights for the LGBTQ community. Ditto, it seems, Hughes's Let Them Eat Cake, which, according to the show's website, is about "the wedding nightmare your mother warned you about: a gay marriage gone wrong that asks the guests to salvage the situation by interrogating what it means to be married, single, gay, straight, commitment-phobic, a joiner, included or jeering from the outskirts." Even post-porn performance artist Annie Sprinkle, who exposed her clit to audience members in the 1980s, has embarked on a seven-year performance art wedding project with her partner Beth Stephens (see

What's going on? And how might Karen Finley, the "straight" member of the NEA Four (the other was John Fleck, who seems to have all but disappeared, most recently seen in a bit part on the TV show Weeds), help us to see more queerly about this apparent embracing of mainstream normativity artistically and politically? I offer the following excursus, from a paper drafted in the very early stages of this project, as one possible explanation for why the past week has, to me at any rate, felt like deja vu all over again.

Towards the end of The Constant State of Desire, the solo performance piece that Karen Finley premiered at The Kitchen in New York City in the fall of 1986, and that together with C. Carr’s provocative exposé of Finley’s “taboo art” in The Village Voice earlier that summer, helped put her on the radar of both uptown cultural impresarios and critics and uptight politicians like Jesse Helms, Finley follows a particularly harrowing description of sexual abuse and “unrequited [father] love” with the following encomium to Ronald Reagan’s butthole:

… I saw Mr. Reagan on TV. There is a TV camera up his butthole looking up his asshole for polyps, for his colon cancer. He is so obsessed with what not to put up the butthole. So obsessed with what not to go up, up the ol’ shithole. Had to sit with Rather/Jennings talk about yo’ old polyps every day. Boy, I call your disease a metaphor. I call your disease your personal metaphor of being a fuckin’ pain in the butt. I’m puking, man, on your liberty, your state of the union. (151)

Plus ça change. In her most recent play, George and Martha, a two-hander that opened at New York’s Collective Unconscious shortly after the 2004 Republican National Convention, Finley interrupts her Albeesque dissection of the kinky sexual relationship she posits between George W. Bush and Martha Stewart with a similar scene of political scatology. George, played by Neal Medlyn, awakens suddenly from a fitful sleep, convinced that Osama bin Laden is inside him; consummately professional and ever-prepared with handy home remedies, Finley’s Martha promptly grabs a flashlight, orders George down on all fours, and proceeds to inspect his anus for trace signs of the Al Qaeda leader.

Much has been made of the kinder, gentler, post-9/11 Finley, the Finley who, following the collapse of her Supreme Court case against the NEA in 1998, entered Jungian analysis, packed up her bags and left New York for LA, worked through her political and personal demons in Shut Up and Love Me (1999), only to return with a new, hyper-theatrical, multi-character, and giddily empathetic performance style in Make Love (2003); here, Finley trades her former focus on the stripped, naked and exposed “I” who speaks of individual suffering, for a series of lavishly made-up, bewigged and laméd “Lizas,” whose unresolved childhood traumas and ongoing family dysfunction become the means to work through issues of national mourning and collective healing. But to the extent that the family, as an “unhomely space,” has always served as a metonym of the nation in Finley’s work, that, for her, states of desire are always contingent upon and circumscribed by the state of the union, and that, as my opening excerpts in part attest, fathers, foodstuffs, and anality have repeatedly been used by Finley as performative signifiers of national and sexual abjection, there is, I would argue, more continuity than discontinuity between Finley’s early 1980s brand of Artuadian theatre of cruelty and her more recent Ludlamesque experiments in ridiculousness, particularly with respect to questions of sexual citizenship.

That is, taken as a whole, what Finley’s two-decade corpus of mostly solo work illustrates is that both the sexual terrorism and the terror of sexual difference that she explores in works ranging from I’m an Ass Man (1984) and We Keep Our Victims Ready (1990) to The Return of the Chocolate Smeared Woman (1998) and Shut Up and Love Me leads directly to the national (in)security state dissected in Make Love and George and Martha. As Liza #3 (played by Finley) puts it at one point in the former work—which, I would argue, works more or less a solo performance piece—“In our expressed collective grief we can now without guilt express our own personal childhood terrors of abandonment and abuse in the safety of disguise known as national mourning…. America was built on and grows from fear…. Our projections as a nation of living with fear. Our leaders. Our fears heightened with national security so we are in national bondage, our country is a national S and M torture chamber” (60).

Finley’s persistent focus on the literal embodiment of otherness (what hasn’t she ingested, poured over herself, or regurgitated while on stage?) foregrounds the sexed, sexual, and sexualized stranger as the unassimilable, abject limit that both constructs what is known and familiar about the citizen’s identity and what threatens the very stability of that identity (cf., as well, in this regard the images to emerge from Abu Ghraib). The processes of incorporation and expulsion highlighted in the excerpts above, not to mention the visceral, often physical, reaction audiences frequently have to Finley’s performances (even, and maybe most especially, if they haven’t seen them), illustrate, among other things, how participatory regimes like liberal democracies formally deny certain bodies and communities full membership in the national polity through a paradoxical process of anxious identification and reluctant estrangement, the labelling of someone as not like you (a pronoun that appears almost as often as “I” in Finley’s solo works) being necessarily premised on an unspoken acknowledgement of similitude, of the uncanny possibility of being just like you.

I'm not sure I even know all of what I'm on about here; however, I do think the question of embodiment is what continues to link Finley's work with that of Miller and Hughes and Sprinkle--past and present. These artists are putting their bodies on the line for us (dear Tim does so love to get naked). For that reason alone, and no matter the content, the work remains relevant--and queer.


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