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.