Queering the Unspectacle

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #12 in August 2012]

I’m backstage.

Standing as a soloist atop a dark carpeted floor. It is stained with the foot crossings of time and performing bodies like mine in wait. Here, I am simply clad. Face lightly beat, feet unadorned, and hair braided in functionality away from my face. I leave the ends free – my gesture at flair. I stretch. Drop my head toward my toes. Exhale. Inhale to rise, opening my senses to the room around me.

I seem not to fit.

Click clack. Click clack. Click clack.

A glittered, perfumed performer saunters from one side of my periphery to the other. Heavy black traces their eyes, bountiful blue shadow hugs the lids thick, like the stockings upon their legs. Not far behind follows a young woman dressed as Rapunzel and an unrelated quartet of a horse, opera singers, and emcee.

“I’m a tranny robot.”
“Where’s my glitter brush?”
“Oh Girl. Those shoes are sickening!”

I don’t fit?

And simultaneously I do, because I do not.

The question becomes when the aesthetic of the spectacular is normalized, what is made of the art by communities whose socio-political histories require a critical consideration of the spectacular body? And what of an audience who is curated to a monolithic (or dominant) understanding of queer aesthetics?

Coco Fusco turns to the words of literary critic Hortense Spillers to describe the early performance of the black body in the New World. She states that “the sexual and political formation of the black subject cannot be equated with that of whites because of the racial divisions at the root of the sociopolitical order of the New World. Spillers describes the Middle Passage as the dehumanization, ungendering, and defacing of Black persons that was enacted on the bodies of the captives, a process that leads to a literal and figurative marking of colored flesh as a commodity.”1

This statement calls into question the effectiveness of aesthetics that resituate the body as a commodity, particularly by People of Color. The spectacle’s seduction – and success–is largely based on its positioning of bodies as objects, and often times conversely, critiquing this objectification. It is an aesthetic that is not and cannot be unilaterally applied–what would be spectacular about that anyway?–and its pervasiveness and mainstream dominance create an assumption that it is not merely a queer aesthetic, but the queer aesthetic.

Rebecca Schneider offers, “late capitalism appropriates, incorporates, and consumes transgression into fashionable chic at such a rapid pace that the subversive impact of transgression has become impossible.”2 The spectacle is largely based on and revered for its ability to transgress and aims at reforming socialized notions of the body, a tactic that has been important to queer and political movements since the 1960s. However, I ask what is left of a queer eye after it is commodified as “the queer eye”?

I do not seek to minimize the complexities of the spectacle nor the legacy of queer artists and artists of color who distinctly employ and have pioneered such strategies as political and artistic tools. To that effect José Esteban Muñoz’s text Disidentifications, is an important text to mention. I do seek, however, to challenge the normalization of the spectacle aesthetic as the primary or dominant representation of a queer aesthetic, and the artistic and political ramifications. I turn to two contemporary artists of color who offer alternatives to the alternative in this dialogue.

Love conjure/blues, a Text installation by award-winning theater artist Sharon Bridgforth and Hoo Haa (eat this remix) by dance artist Darrell Jones are critical works where Western concert theater and dance traditions along with popular notions of queerness itself are disrupted. The stage reflects a series of sacred circles wherein the Black body is (re)made/remixed. Performers in their works are conjurers, spirits, who journey transformation (physically and metaphysically), with the command of their bodies. Queerness is not subject. It is a decisively methodological resource, a critical state of being, and particularly Black. Here, there are no spectacles for spectators. There is magic to be witnessed.

Sharon Bridgforth and Darrell Jones replace the spectacular in these works with the magical, supernatural, the cosmic. Their deconstructions of ritual in jazz theater and dance respectively undo the trappings and problematics of mainstream queer aesthetics. Bridgforth and Jones’ artistic parlayance into the sacred affectively (re)places queer aesthetics within an Africanist cosmology.

In Hoo Haa Jones’ dancing bodies activate the shadows and sonic elements of the dance space. Literally commenced by the sound and flame of a lighter ignited, the all-male trio begin standing, gathered in concentrated stillness on their feet around a flame. The investigation into “Feminized Ritual Theater” begins. Sound erupts the quietude emitting dialogue of a vogue ball. While the dancers traverse the stage and poly-rhythmically toss poppers onto the bare floor, the sound of the ball is heightened as well as the fact that it is strategically not seen. It is certainly not “scened” by the trio. The performers’ dance in and out of lighting designed to highlight shadows and darkness, which positions the dancers as ghosts, as vessels of memory of a space. They do not perform the ball; they deconstruct and disassemble, charged to reveal the spirit of what once was/is.

Bridgforth situates her solo performer as diviner in love conjure/blues. The performer (Omi Osun Joni L. Jones) collaborates among “celluloid cast members”3 projected onto three large screens, the echo of digital voices, her body and spoken text, and the audience. The elements create a polyphony of narratives, all significant, at times existing in isolation, or synchronicity, at other moments, intentionally not. Joni L. Jones’ ritual is simultaneously transparent and elusive, the celluloid bodies that surround her stand, dance, drum, and sing; spirits, ancestors, community.

The performer speaks a series of I Am declarations. “I am my ancestors returned. I am the dead and the living. I will carry on. I will come back. I will be more powerful. I will remember. I am the one we have been waiting for. I am conjurer come back to love. Remember. Remember.” In the center of the stage projected largely behind her, is a dance in a wooded area. Three dancers in white, and one seated drummer fill the screen with the continuous movement of percussive feet, sway, hands pushing through air – reminiscent of West African dance. The dancers’ energy is felt. Their moving bodies are seen, and with the film’s muted audio, are strategically not heard. We are left with the magic of the drum, dance and voice; charged to reveal the spirit of what once was/is.

So what is unspectacle about all that?

Everything. And nothing at all.

The notion of the unspectacle is a critical investigation of queerness that offers a theoretical undoing. Within a hegemonic adoption of queer aesthetics, the unspectacle is the new subversive, an aesthetic with many articulations; to these artists, it just is.

Bridgforth and Jones exemplify ways in which artists of color continually subvert the subversive, and reinvent the radical. Ritual jazz theater and dance offer an alternative for the need to transgress, because it exists beyond the subversive, and while steeped in African diasporic performance cosmology, calls for a revised historical narrative. Made unspectacle, the performers in these works are only bound to the universe of their creation. The notion of queerness as an active alternative to the status quo – theoretically, ideologically, and sexually – is challenged by ritual performance and necessarily turns the critique in on queerness itself.

1 Fusco, Coco. The Bodies that Were Not Ours: And Other Writings. London: Routledge, 2001. Print.
2 Schneider, Rebecca. The Explicit Body in Performance. London: Routledge, 1997. Print.
3 Bridgforth, Sharon. “The Love Conjure/blues Text Installation.” Sharon Bridgforth.com. Sharon
Bridgforth. Web. 16 May 2012. <http://sharonbridgforth.com/s/bookscdsdvds/publications/bookscds/love-conjureblues/early-workns-of-the-text-installation/the-love-conjureblues-text-installation/&gt;.


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