Observations and visible definitions

Sarma 7 Nov 2002English

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Contextual note
Sarma asked the British performance theoretician and queer theory specialist Martin Hargreaves to visit B-Visible and write some observations. This process of perception and reflection was put on line during the event, and is introduced by a lecture. Hargreaves first states some theoretical ideas he would explore through the documentation of queer B's before expressing his observations. Martin Hargreaves also gave a lecture and wrote an essay, which are available on sarma.

Queering B - B-ing Queer

In The Parameters of Postmodernism (London 1993), Nicholas Zurbrugg proposes that there is a 'B-effect' within postmodern cultural study and practice (deriving from responses to writings by Benjamin, Barthes, B�rger, Bonito-Oliva, Baudrillard, Bourdieu et al.) which establishes a pessimistic sense of 'no future' and a melancholic yearning for an annihilated past. This B-effect attempts to analyse postmodernity as a crisis of creativity and describes an apocalyptic vision of imploding artistic practice. Zurbrugg suggests that there is a counter 'theoretical virus' - the 'C-effect' - developing out of the work of John Cage which finds new modes of creativity and an optimism in anti-art and ante-art. Zurbrugg traces how this C-effect has infected the practice of many performance makers and artists in both Europe and America. The C-effect is distrustful of the authorial voice in its celebration of silence, interruption and collage and its manifestation is largely to be found in works which disrupt hegemonic norms of identity and art.

An important B missing from Zurbrugg's algebraic analysis is Judith Butler, "the reigning Queen of Gender" (the Queen B), whose Gender Trouble and Bodies That Matter became key texts in the emerging field of Queer Theory in the 1990's. Butler's particular strain of Queer Theory seems to exist between the B and C effect in that it celebrates disruption and critiques the author but it also examines the melancholic structures of identity and suggests that gender is a set of compulsory repetitions. Although many have approached Butler's work it generally suffers from a set of B-effect and C-effect responses - either a pessimistic response which argues that Butler forgets 'real' bodies and 'real' differences (a demanding B-real-effect) or a utopian adoption of her notion of performative gender as a form of drag which can be put on and altered at will (an exuberant C-me-effect). Butler's work is more complex than these readings allow and it cannot be easily equated within a postmodern algebra (indeed she refuses to recognise her writing as postmodernist). Her work focuses on compulsory, regulatory discourses of gender which cannot be refused nor subverted from a 'pure' point of resistance but yet stresses that these discourses are iterations that necessarily fail and are therefore open to reworkings. Her work investigates how the present is both a sedimentation of the past and an opening to the future.

Being visible, in these terms, requires an acknowledgement of how we are always already reflected within a specular economy of representations which renders the abject queer as the spectacular frame of the invisible heterosexual subject. Simply affirming visibility therefore risks the reification of this logic and fixes the coherence of a queer 'position' which remains degraded and subject to punishment. As Peggy Phelan has suggested (Unmarked: The Politics of Performance, London 1993), visibility politics need to consider the power of the invisible, what is offered up for consumption and what remains unseen in its control of the visual field. By queering visibility we refuse to be seduced by the promise of representation and instead seduce representation itself, haunting the scene of subjectivity in a play across presence and absence, never fully manifesting but critiquing the process of materialisation and what it might mean to be material.



Observation no.1 - 03.40am 5/11/02


The 72 hours began queerly enough as I was edged out of a room by the inflation of a giant elephant. My first observation is to document the impossibility of documenting B-visible. As soon as it launched I became aware that there were events that, try as hard as I may, would remain invisible to me either through their refusal to become an event, my difficulty in finding them, or from my decision to see one thing over another. Stefanie Wenner's lecture on horizons proposed the overlapping of the visible and the invisible in a zone of potential transformation, by way of David Lynch, Renaissance Frescos and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. It posited some interesting and important questions which provoked a discussion of the problematics of perception and projection. If invisibility, or the blind spot, is the very possibility of sight then the eye functions only through its impossibility to ever receive or capture an entire visual field, or as Thomas Plischke put it; we don't see that we don't see what we can't see. Furthermore what we do see is flagged up by mental 'post-it' notes that ensure the quickest and most efficient neural shortcuts to perception. The question becomes how to reflect upon these 'post-it's in order to queer vision, to see the unseeable - if being is visual (pace Lacan) then how do we b-visible without dissolving the self into psychosis? What strategies are there for renegotiating the machinery of perception which can exploit the ruptures in visibility?


Observation no.2 � 02.15 am 06/11/02


After two hours sleep on the ghostlit stage I attended the first in a trio of workshops directed by Alice Chauchat which explore the transposition of movement from the soft-porn video posing of a female model onto a male performer. In this case Ugo Dehaes was given very careful and attentive direction by Chauchat to variously drop his shoulders, arch his back, put his finger in his mouth and invite a consuming gaze without direct provocation or confrontation. Dehaes followed the instructions methodically without lapsing into drag or parody and therefore the formal elements of the movement were emphasised instead of a symbolic display of a feminine construct. His subdued response gave this transposition an interesting edge as it became clear that he was not attempting to inhabit an alien image but to understand the movement on his own body. Nevertheless the detail and effort that went into Chauchat's recontextualisation of the eroticised feminine spectacle clearly made visible the masquerade of gender which seduces the gaze through repetition of a narrow repertoire of poses and looks. Denaturalising notions of bodily pleasure and display, the workshop thoroughly queered the exchange of desire within pornographic tropes of visible gender as neither Chauchat nor the audience fully adopted the role of voyeur but instead found pleasure in reflexively participating in a deconstruction of spectacular erotics.

Later I delivered my lecture which dealt in part with the notion of a performative break in context but I reflected afterwards that in part my own context and relation to the word 'queer' had not really been addressed. 'Queer' is an English word which has been reappropriated and recontextualised in B-visible to mobilise the metaphoric promises it offers. Queer is, I think, a more ambivalent term for native English speakers because it carries with it the resonances of its use as a term of abuse - for example I first encountered the word 'queer' as an insult directed towards me, as a form of injurious address which sort to cast me out of heterosexual normalcy. This is not to tie it to that usage, nor to restrict the reworkings of the term, nor to posit an exclusive understanding of the word (after all what is most exciting about this event is the very mobility of 'queerness') but to suggest that it is precisely the ambivalence of a word and its history that engages me and in part was the reason for my consideration of the figure of sedimentation in Butler - Queer is a muddy word.


Observation no. 3 � 05.45 pm 6/11/02


Last night in a clash of the Post-It curve-ball champions, Killer Jerry beat Peace Potato while Andy went from A to B and back again via some Gender Trouble. Shedding yellow paper scales as they went, the two combatants left the pitch marked with their presence and hence absence as the match documented itself. On my way to bed at 4 am I encountered some of the interventionists from Claude Wampler's workshop - by morning many had received gifts from these nocturnal visitors - were they good fairies leaving nice surprises or bogeymen delivering bad dreams and nightmare violations? I suppose it depends on your response to waking up with a painted face and arcane body markings, or mysterious letters or tapes documenting someone else's night. Their careful tiptoeing around seemed to complement the eerie twilight that has descended on the Vooruit stage and they were at once both mischevious and mysterious like the ambivalent characters of fairytales.


Observation no. 4 � 06.45 pm 6/11/02


In Visibility Itself Sinisa Ilic and Bojan Djordjev created an impressive photomontage on powerpoint and videotape of images drawn from both public and private visual archives. Canonical images from the twentieth century, from 'art history' and 'popular culture', were collected alongside photos of family members or images which had a particular context within the recent shifts in Serbian history. Although I was unsure of the structure or curatorial discourse behind their presentation, and slightly overwhelmed by the volume of images, there were moments of what Roland Barthes would call 'punctum' where the resonance of the image held me - particularly those of Ilic's relatives, who themselves were surrounded and absorbed in images. The complex interrelation of the personal and the wider cultural visual fields, or the 'desert of pictures' as Djordjev put it, seems to me to be an interesting dynamic. In b-ing queer do we draw on a repertoire of images which have already in some way proscribed the boundaries of visibility and can we deploy these images in order to resignify a queer praxis whilst simultaneously acknowledging that we are always already caught in a gaze?


Observation no. 5 � 09.30 pm 6/11/02


In Performing "performance" Alice Chauchat and Vera Knolle invited us in to the pleasures of the performative through a queering of the wedding ritual that Austin offers as paradigmatic of all performatives. Unfaithful citations, impure speech acts and inappropriate utterances all played subversively with the language of performative theory but we were also drawn to reflect upon the promise of a performance and then humorously shown the scandal of performances ever to fully and finally deliver on their promise as Chauchat and Knolle took a show of hands to poll the success of their piece. Context and ritual were highlighted and, in one of the least likely but strangely convincing transformations I've ever seen, a ceremonial initiation rite evoking trance states segued into a routine to Britney Spears Live in Concert and it finished with a lip-synching sequence which played with the concepts of presence/absence and quotation central to performativity. Since it overlapped so much with my current research I enjoyed its intellectual rigour but also its irreverence and subversive humour, and it negotiated the challenges of speech-act theory and queer enactment with a great deal of insight but in the end it didn't take itself too seriously.


Observation no. 6 � 00:10 am 07/11/02


In the attic I have just witnessed a slaughter. All manner of grisly deaths were met; drowning, hanging, poisoning, car crash, premature burial, flaying, burning, crushing, falling, quartering, shooting, voodoo cursing, suffocation, evisceration, acid burns, staking, shipwreck, battery, electrocution. One victim was even eaten. They were all cherry tomatoes but somehow Eva Meyer-Keller managed to elicit sympathy for them and her methodical massacre perhaps raised questions about capital punishment or our desire for the performance of gruesome deaths - either way we all have some tomato juice on our hands.


Observation no.7 - 14:30 pm 07/11/02


The subject and object of Queer or queerness have continued to escape the boundaries of definition within this event and have led to some flashpoint situations over the past hours. The 'Strategies for Stagefright' video document last night led into several confrontations which I was not part of and cannot write about but I do think that the conflict and ambivalence over this word 'queer' proves at the very least that it has potential. If we all had one common perception or definition of 'queer' then the very force that it wields to confuse and contest would necessarily be weakened. This is not to belittle the perception of betrayal by those who would resist queerness being appropriated for artistic work that has little to do with alternate sexualities but to suggest that the very qualities of ambivalence and recontextualisation are part of 'queering'. To try and close down or fix a singular 'queer' meaning, context or usage I think would be antithetical to 'queer' itself but at the same time I do think these discussions and arguments are a necessary, if sometimes painful, part of queer practice. I think the only thing I would resist is any normalisation of the word - both the conflicts and the convergences of B-visible have I think demonstrated that the subversive promise of queer is not exhausted yet.


Observation no.8 - 21:00 pm 07/11/02


True or false, dream or reality, authentic or constructed, fact or fiction - these are some of the binaries which art criticism despite itself often deploys to judge the quality of a work but Claude Wampler thoroughly subverted them with the 'documentary' film of her workshop. For me this was certainly the most provocative investigations of the event as the delicate notions of privacy and intimacy were queered in order to cause trouble of various kinds. I was totally seduced into believing the images she showed us yesterday of underwear exchanges, victims being sewn to their sheets and other nocturnal violations because I had witnessed that night the painting of nails and marking of hands - even though I recognised one of the participants of the workshop in the role of victim I was so drawn in by the paranoid fear created by the initial images and reactions of the audience that I overrode my doubts to invest in the fictional document. Wampler's strategy of using staged scenes intercut with the 'real' footage not only undermined this division but also, in my case, really made visible my desire to believe in the truthfulness of images. It also took what was already a strange place - the transformed stage - and made it even more ambivalent and unheimlich. Strategies for Stagefright became an appropriate title as the complex crossings and transgressions performed by the workshop panicked the binaries of participant or victim and insider or onlooker, the real thing or imitation.