Matthew Milo Sergi – “Common Slippage”

Common Slippage
By Matthew Milo Sergi

If a performer is queer-identified, does that mean her work is queer performance?

If a performer is not queer-identified, can she still produce queer performance?

The ways that Robert Avila and his interview subjects employ the term queer in April’s SF Bay Guardian article on the “burgeoning queer performance scene in the Bay Area” are representative of a common slippage between queer performance and queer identity, a slippage that has frustrated me a lot this year—as an artist (who performs) and as a person (with an identity). So I’m using this space to review and reflect on some of the different usages of queer that emerge in the article.

As quoted by Avila, Philip Huang calls on all queer artists to be non-professional, to “scare the shit out of people,” be “monsters,” be “shadows,” be “grimy,” and above all be anti-institutional, and makes clear that the degree to which we do not do these things is the degree to which we are not queer artists. Huang’s queer artist sounds like someone I definitely want to be, am trying to be, maybe even am. It also sounds a lot like David Halperin’s negative definition of queer from Saint Foucault, which is the first thing you see when you load the webpage of THEOFFCENTER (one of the groups that Huang primarily means to criticize): Queer is by definition whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant. There is nothing in particular to which it necessarily refers. It is an identity without an essence. “Queer,” then, demarcates not a positivity but a positionality vis-à-vis the normative.

That sense of queer as non-normative (and nothing but non-normative) works as part of the acronym SQUART, at least when Laura Arrington, via Avila, describes it as “stripping away the traditional hierarchies… There’s no time to do anything else. It can be a big mess; often it’s a really beautiful mess.” Like Huang and Halperin, Arrington presents a queer that is defined only by its resistance to definition (nothing more, nothing less—it refers to “nothing in particular,” only a positionality). The only thing that all SQUART performances have in common, because of Arrington’s rules and constraints of time and structure, is that they resist (or should try to resist) taking anything too seriously (see Halperin’s use of “the normal, the legitimate, the dominant”) or falling into any hierarchic structure (see Halperin’s “positionality vis-à-vis the normative”). And, as with Halperin’s definition, SQUART has nothing to do with personal identity. I’m a habitual SQUARTer now and can report back that no element of the funfest, not at least in my presence, has much to do with its participants’ personal identities—not in the marketing, nor the criteria for admission of participants, nor the criteria for judging. Even the performances rarely engage with anything personal about the participants (thankfully), a sign, I think, that Arrington’s model of queerness truly does create “an identity without an essence.”

But Avila makes sure to tell us that SQUART participants are “an alternative community, low- key and self-assured, the majority queer-identified.” Not that we identify as queer performers, but that we identify as queer. It is difficult to read that assumption as anything but a reference to our own genders and sexualities. I wonder: who did he ask? I wonder: how many “I identify as queer” answers did he get before he declared it a majority? I will not commit the party foul of assuming that any member of my SQUART team, whose performance Avila dwells on for a while, does or doesn’t identify as queer, but I count up the wedding rings in the room and wonder: would he have actually found that much of a majority among us? I wonder: if he didn’t, would the tenor or title of his article have changed?

I wonder: what would my answer have been? Am I queer-identified? Maybe I would have said: “I used to be, but now I’m not sure I understand the term. I keep trying to have an intelligent conversation in an idiom that is hemorrhaging meaning. Whenever a non-performer or newcomer asks me what I mean when I tell them I’m involved in ‘queer performance,’ I don’t know what to say. I keep hearing that queer can mean ‘whatever it means to me,’ but if that’s true, then the question of whether I (or the majority of SQUARTers) becomes absurd. A word’s denotation cannot differ from individual to individual, not without falling into nonsense or solipsism. What I really want is to get at the fundamental consensus that drives the concept of queer, because meaning relies on informal agreement within a linguistic community.”

Maybe Avila would have responded: “Yeah, I’ll just mark you down as ‘queer-identified.’” And then he would have his majority. And then he would have established a norm.

Avila’s article also includes a nod to the Too Much! queer performance marathon. It was during our performance at Too Much! that the questions I’m asking here started burning in me and in my wife, SQUART teammate, and primary collaborator Ara Glenn-Johanson. Ara and I discovered that we shared our Too Much! bill with artists whose aesthetic and compositional approaches had little to do with queer performance as we understood it. We saw, for instance, a good few monologues. Just folks sitting in chairs talking (or sometimes reading) dramatic anecdotes in dramatic ways. A form of performance which, regardless of its content, can hardly be said to conform to Halperin’s ideal of being “at odds with the normal.”

What, then, was the governing idea behind the festival? If not part of the same artistic movement in form or approach, if not anti-normative in any real way, what did all these pieces have in common, so that the Too Much! curators (including THEOFFCENTER) chose to include them in a queer festival? A slippage had occurred. Suddenly our curators were not looking for queer performance, but for performances by queer-identified people, or more specifically by LGBT people. Some of them were angry monologues, too, taking shots at any and all things heterosexual. Which would include my relationship with Ara. (I’d go as far as to say that angsty autobiographical monologues on gay content are, at this stage, normative in the extreme.) That vision of queerness has nothing— nothing!—to do with what makes SQUART so innovative. Avila only weakly yokes the two together with his passing assumption that most SQUARTers are ourselves queer. Ara and I found ourselves wondering if we really belonged at Too Much!, or wanted to. It was not the first or last time we had felt that way at such a gathering.

Because the difference between queer identity and queer performance is not a negligible one. Not to me. According to Avila, the Bay Area DIY movement is “predominately [sic] queer, but genuinely inclusive.” Consider the implication here: without the DIY folks’ unusual openness, this predominantly queer movement would probably exclude non-queers. Should Avila perhaps be saying “this predominantly LGBT movement”? It’s clearly what he means. Otherwise, how can you exclude a non-queer from an movement without rendering her queer, and the movement non-queer (because queerness is a positionality with respect to the dominant)? Because, to return to Halperin’s definition— isn’t “predominantly queer” an unresolvable oxymoron?

And worse, doesn’t the conflation of “performance by queer-identified people” with “queer performance” shift the meaning of Huang’s polemic, implying that all queer-identified (read: LGBT) performers in any genre, not just in the movement described by Avila, should be monsters, non- professionals, grimy shadows?

Underlying the uneasy and often deliciously opposing theoretical stances of the group of performers that Avila and THEOFFCENTER identify as “queer” is an aesthetic commonality, an artistic movement, a way of composing and performing and critiquing. That commonality, that movement, requires a word that artists can use to refer to it. I want to remain part of that movement. I want to continue to compose and perform and critique like the other artists covered by Avila do. I want to continue to feel that I am part of that artistic community of artists and appreciators of art that are currently presenting work that uses this set of tools and techniques that so embodies Halperin’s ideal.

Yet I keep finding that the term the movement has chosen for itself—queer—suffers from slippages whose lack of specificity pulls out the rug from under me as an artist, offering up inspiration, and then pulling it away matador-style, sending me running—where? If queer performance can just mean “being gay and making performance about it,” then please tell me: I will politely excuse myself. Regardless of whether I myself am queer—since I am no longer able to even answer that question, since the meaning of queer identity has become so denatured—I’m super-certainly not interested in performance that is normative in form but that just happens to be on gay themes.


Matthew Milo Sergi is a logophile and philologue.  Inspired by the history and future of words, he generates performance, poetry (especially for use in performance), playscripts, and scholarly publications. BFA: NYU/Tisch (Drama and English, Minor in Applied Theatre). Ph.D.: UC Berkeley (English and Medieval Studies). Soon to be an Assistant Professor of English at Wellesley College, Sergi is in the process of turning his dissertation (recipient of the Medieval Academy of America’s Schallek Grant) into a book on medieval religious drama.  Sergi is a founding member of Front Line Theatre; he is now resident poet and performer for Front Line’s newest text-and-movement project, RARE EARTH, part of CounterPULSE’s Summer Special (early July, SF). Sergi’s previous play, GLORY GLORY, received the Fort Mason In Performance Grant for production in the Northside Theatre. Meanwhile, especially in collaboration with his partner Ara Glenn-Johanson, Sergi has contributed (as a textmaker and performer) to a series of short dance-theatre performances in the SF Bay area.



  1. what cannot be overlooked in this conversation is the deep, contradictory, revelatory, radical and resllient history of the word queer. to contextualize the word, i don’t think you can talk about queer without talking about AIDS, Act Up, Queer Nation and the direct action tactics used by the group in the 90’s. it is the spirit of Queer Nation that moves me into performance as activism and as a way to place queerness front and center. it’s also important to recognize that the word queer has been re-defined and co-opted by the dominant culture and mainstream media since it was first reclaimed by Queer Nation. as a queer identified person, i am continually resisting definition and appropriation of who i am.

    to position queer front and center I leave you with a quote from susan stryker, historian, author, and co-editor of The Transgender Reader.

    “…Queer Nation favored short-term, highly visible, media-oriented actions, such as same-sex kiss-ins at shopping malls. Their political philosophy was succinctly summed up in the now-cliched slogan, “We’re Here. We’re Queer. Get Used to It.”

    A signal accomplishment of the group was to reclaim a set of positive associations for an old epithet, “queer,” and to assert that queer people had a right to take up cultural space–right here, right now–with no apologies and no arguments.

    Just as importantly, “queer” became an important concept both socially and intellectually, helping to broaden what had been primarily a gay and lesbian social movement into one that was more inclusive of bisexual and transgender people. Rather than denote a particular genre of sexual identity, “queer” came to represent any number of positions arrayed in opposition to oppressive social and cultural norms and policies related to sexuality and gender. The lived political necessity of understanding the nexus of gender and sexuality in this broadening social movement in turn helped launch the field of “queer studies” in higher education.”

  2. Language and identity slippage is perhaps more queer than a well-defined and defended queer identity.

    Too Much! attempted to present queer(ed) performance. The 10-hour marathon depended on slippages – of identity, of expectation, of performance and theater, and of how queer was referenced, mobilized or embodied.

    We – the curators Julie Phelps and Keith Hennessy – picked some works and artists that we had seen before. Most if not all of these works would challenge Sergi’s dreaded norms of gay monologue or normative theater. Additionally we set up situations for working that we hoped would inspire non-normative performance experiments, durations, framings, and collaborations. There were many queer experiments and delights responding to these situations. We were surprised, however, by how many people wanted to recreate a normative theatrical experience but we didn’t (in most cases) think it was our job to police or protect a particular style or approach to queer, or as we often wrote it, queer(ed), performance.

    We received more proposals than we could program. And many of these proposals mobilized queer differently. Some projects referred to queer content but not form or process. For others queer referred only to the performer’s identity. Despite a curatorial emphasis on queer as a tactic or perspective rather than on LGBT or queer as gender and sexual identities, we recognized the limitation of using any one version of queer to define our selections. In both the 2010 and 2011 Too Much! festivals, we intentionally invited hetero and no-longer-gay-or-lesbian artists. Most of these non-LGBT artists participate, at least part time, in queer performance contexts, including drag and club scenes. Simultaneously we intentionally invited some people because they identify as L, G, B, T or Q. Valuing diversity, we considered demographic statistics of race/color, age, gender, sexual preference or identity, and artistic genre. This mix of concerns – from demographic diversity to queering modes of art – produced further slippages in how queer was understood, used, or exploited in contradictory or dissonant ways.

    If you want to influence the 2012 Too Much! please contact us. Thanks.


  3. Many thanks, m.a. and Keith, for your comments. My time is limited right now, but I want to respond the best way I can, to both of you at once.

    First and foremost: an apologia. Keith, I couldn’t help but perceive a miffed tone in your comment (“Sergi’s dreaded norms,” “please contact us. Thanks.”) and I wish it weren’t so, though I think I understand why it is. Too Much! maybe comes off in my blog post as a kind of scapegoat, but that effect is absolutely unintentional — only a result of my limited space to write, limited time to write, and limited ability to make the best use of either. I only mean to offer up my experience at the festival as one example of many similar experiences which had provoked the questions — questions, not complaints — that I submit here. Too Much! as I saw it was, overall, a highly effective, aesthetically fabulous, and thought-provoking (as here) marathon.

    That said:

    Keith writes, “Language and identity slippage is perhaps more queer than a well-defined and defended queer identity.” I just feel like this is kind of an easy answer. In that it can step in as an answer to any critical question that might be asked of queerness. Moreso in that it prevents any answer from ever really being wrong. If there is no ability to provide a wrong answer, or to adjust an answer to something that is “more right,” then critical discussion is hindered, which is inherently oppressive (because we stop relying on common reason as an equalizer, emphasizing instead individual inspiration — and, with a limited space for discourse, those individuals will be the already powerful, or the majority, or the loudest, or the last to speak). My response back to Keith here could just as easily be “Well okay, slippage is queer, but positioning myself outside of that slippage by demanding solid answers is more queer still,” and then we end up in a loop that is really just navel-gazing, I think.

    I have no interest in conflating “queer” with “slippery” or “sloppy.” I think that deprioritizes solid meaning shared a within a community (i.e. communication), and instead prioritizes meaning held by an individual for herself (i.e. solipsism). And I think it’s a bad move to imply that definitions and rules are the same thing as norms. Why in the world should they be? Which leads me to…

    “We were surprised, however, by how many people wanted to recreate a normative theatrical experience but we didn’t (in most cases) think it was our job to police or protect a particular style or approach to queer, or as we often wrote it, queer(ed), performance.” Why “police”? Why, elsewhere, “defend”? To define is not to defend. Not all lines drawn need to bind. But you can’t have language without lines, and you can’t have a movement without language. Is it an inherently oppressive act to curate with respect to “a particular style or approach to queer… performance,” as the word “police” clearly implies? [(IMPORTANT!!!) I am now speaking about the theory related to the festival, not about the practice of what the festival actually produced/produces, which is supergood stuff. I just want to know more about the infrastructure of thought that inspired it, because I find it richly problematic.] At any rate, I’m not asking that the curators restrict the festival to a particular style or approach to queer performance — only that, if the festival is to be a “queer performance” marathon, that they restrict it to “queer performance” (unless it is to be a queer “performance marathon,” not a “queer performance” marathon, which would also be good, but which would in theory include a production of Falsettos, or Torch Song Trilogy, and I love those pieces, but I would be confused, I think, to be featured in the same festival). Which leads me to…

    My post never attempts to define the word “queer” with respect to sexuality, as good as m.a.’s historical info here is. The history m.a. provides is a history of queerness-as-sexuality in performance. My blog post, on the other hand, only attempts to parse out the relationship between “queer performance” and “queer sexuality,” which must (as I try to argue) be items that are distinct from each other, if closely related to each other, especially historically.

    The “deep, contradictory, revelatory, radical and resilient history of the word queer” extends far back beyond the examples you give, m.a. If early usage is any measure of importance (which is a normative idea anyway, as are all linear histories), then it is worth noting that the *earliest* usages of the term meant, in a simple, unprecious way, essentially the same thing that Halperin attributes to “queer” in his quote. The Oxford English dictionary finds its earliest use as “strange, odd, peculiar, eccentric,” possibly connected to early German “quer” (“transverse, oblique, crosswise, at right angles” — think “positionality vis-a-vis the normative”). There are two sister etymologies separate from but attached to the term: one, disturbingly, meaning “bad; contemptible, worthless… counterfeit” (origin unknown); the other, comfortingly, from Latin “quaerere” (“to try to find out, to seek, to ask, to inquire”). I love how all of those come together in queerness from the very start. What’s notable is that the earliest and latest definition — a positionality opposed to the normative — adds a layer of beautiful poetic meaning to “We’re here. We’re queer. Get used to it.”

    Still, thinking of the word that way forces me even more to ask not what the word meant then, but what the word means NOW — that’s the point of these blog things, at least. Not in the 1990s, not in the 1390s, but now. I believe that Avila’s article, and THEOFFCENTER’s banner Halperin quote, and THEOFFCENTER’s very name, and most importantly the works of queer performance we’ve been discussing, are signs of a sea change in the communal meaning of the term “queer performance” certainly, if not of the word “queer” itself.

    We have nothing to queer but queer itself.

    I want to say again, perhaps too provocatively, that I think linear historicization — this begat this begat this — is a most fundamentally normative (and thus least queer) acts. For instance, m.a. writes: “i don’t think you can talk about queer without talking about AIDS, Act Up, Queer Nation and the direct action tactics used by the group in the 90’s.” Yes, I can. Watch me. I do in my blog salon post, right here. m.a., you do too, in your blog salon post, which I really like.

    I mean, rock music, which used to be called rock ‘n’ roll, was once called “race music.” That was the Billboard Chart category from 1949 to 1958 (forgive me for only citing Wikipedia). And then it became untethered from race — it emerged as a style, as its own aesthetic, its own thing. And I kind of feel like if there were better, more careful language going on, that process of co-option would have been a lot less racist and oppressive.

    That does not mean that there can’t be queer history (Carolyn Dinshaw for the win), but it does mean that for there to be a queer history (as opposed, yes opposed, to an LGBT history), the historiography itself must be queered (not only that the subjects treated must have engaged in same-sex acts). Which leads me to…

    Yes, the work discussed in Avila’s article (for instance: Hennessy, Arrington, Hewit, Huang) is historically descended from Queer Nation and Act Up, not to mention Theater of the Ridiculous and Jack Smith (with reference to Keith’s comments in the Avila article), for what that kind of normalizing genealogy is worth. That genealogy, if we insist on drawing one, though I wonder whether we should necessarily, is ALSO split between two too-slippery notions of the word queer. In one, what connects all this art is its positionality with respect to the normative: and, frankly, what makes the art so fucking good. In the other is the fact that all of the practitioners themselves identify or identified as queer, if not gay. The two notions are interrelated. To be queer-in-sexuality creates community, and these artists came to know each other (in one way or another) quite possibly because of their shared identity/community. And the artists often work their identities into their work. But their work is not the same thing as their identities. The Impressionists were all Parisian, and influenced each other because of that proximity, and worked Parisian scenes into their art, but being Parisian is and ought to be a distinct thing from being an Impressionist: you can be both, or just one, or neither.

    In short, I don’t mean to open a discourse here on what queer-as-sexuality means or does not mean — frankly, because I wouldn’t dare. But I do hope to free queer performance from queer-as-sexuality by providing a vocabulary by which the two may be distinguished. Because I think that this movement involves Paris, but it is about way more than Paris. I am more interested in the art than the artist, in the tale than the teller, and I hope other readers are too, because if they’re not then go read their bios and give me the tickets to the show itself… and while you can never really separate the one from the other, if you can’t distinguish the two at all, then the art is hindered considerably. And the art is what I care about.

  4. Oh shit, also, I forgot to say some of my favorite moments of queer performance from the past year, or who I’m watching now. Um:

    All of The Lily’s Revenge, but my favorite moment in it would be Taylor Mac’s extended “applause” monologue;

    The final few minutes of Keith Hennessy’s Crotch (redone at the Ashby Stage in November — and the first time I saw it — and that was on my list well before I read Keith’s comment, above);

    Philip Huang’s Eat, Pray, Tron (probably my favorite moment was Ellen Fu’s “And I Am Telling You That I’m Not Going”, or the “makes my dick limp” speech, but honestly, everything Philip Huang touches is gold and everything he says is honey);

    Evan Johnson’s conversation with his teenage self at Too Much!;

    Every time Laura Arrington’s white-deer-thingy has been used: not just the stunning close to Hot Wings, but the parody at her birthday party, because parody establishes convention and that is extremely interesting to me in terms of all this;

    Loren Robertson nursing countless bodies at SQUART;

    Jesse Hewit’s laugh in I Want Your Love. Jesse says “I think that queer manifests itself in performance by yielding work that challenges signifiers and assumptions of meaning” and I really like that and think that IWYL applies in a particularly interesting way;

    I’ve seen various bits and pieces of Minna Harri’s ongoing piece, Toxic, and because of the nature of the piece it’s hard to pick a favorite moment. I just like what they do with shapes.

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