Philip Huang – Our Poison

I had been publishing short stories and freelancing for magazines for a decade when the bottom fell out of my writing career.  I spent a year in a deep funk.  Then I woke up one day and decided I was going to do a show.  I’d never performed before.  Khalil Sullivan came on as my director.  I thought I was going to do serious drama, but the rehearsals went nowhere.  Then Khalil suggested I try comedy.  I resisted the idea.  That’s not art, I told him.  But I wrote a few jokes and hit up a comedy open mic in March of 2008.  It remains one of the scariest things I’ve ever done.  About two people in the audience fell out of their seats laughing.  Everyone else sat in stony silence.  But I got hooked.  I made four full-length shows in my first year.  I’d do a show, rest a month, then plunge into making another show.  I can’t even imagine working at that pace now. Kirk Read saw my first show in my bedroom and began telling folks to book me.  Joe Landini started booking me regularly at the Garage.  That’s where I met Laura.  Then Keith booked me for SUSTAIN and Too Much, and I met a whole mess of folks in the winter of 2009.  Those were crazy times.  I was suddenly hanging with the most awesome performers, me, this weirdo who was doing bedroom shows.  I was just out for lulz.  But we all met, and we all became friends and colleagues.  Laura launched SQUART, I launched the Home Theater Festival, and Brian Dini was rolling out Queer Autonomous Zone, all in the same period.  When people talk about the Renaissance, that’s where it started.  We were all a bit naïve, and SQUART, HTF and QAZ were all critiques of the status quo in one way or another.  I still feel a bit strange in this scene, because I’m not really dance, and I’m not really drag, and I’m not really performance art.  I’m just retarded.  I love shit like “Adult Swim” and Lisa Lampanelli.  I love being super racist and offensive and retarded.  If you can say the worst thing possible, the rest of the conversation is easy.  But I do think the honeymoon is over.  We’re settling into different schools, and we’re rubbing against each other, sometimes uncomfortably.  As prickly as this process feels, I think it’s ultimately for the better.  If we don’t challenge each other to firm up our positions, who will?

Here are some random thoughts about art in general and queer art in particular:

“Where’s the poison?” Leigh Bowery liked to ask.

A thing without poison can occupy space and time but never communicate.  Violence and sex are not enough.  There must be a violation in the work, and a target. Otherwise, it might as well not exist.

Being queer is a violation.  This is our original sin, and it is a sin we must renew again and again in our work.

To quote Alice Munro, “To be a femme fatale you don’t have to be slinky or disastrously beautiful.  You just have to have the will to disturb.”

Lydia Lunch had this advice for new bands: “If you don’t have a vision, don’t give it a sound.”

Those who fear that we will destroy life as they know it are right to fear us.  We are here to destroy what they cling to.  We are here to grant them the freedom they crave but don’t know, or can’t admit, they crave.  Look at the evidence.  Everyday decent Christians and Muslims are destroying themselves with promiscuity and violence and addiction.  They are more committed to destroying their way of life than we can ever be.  But they project onto us what they do.  Alright.  We accept.  To be the object of projection is to be chosen.  One projects out of pain.  It is a pain of wanting to be free.  Let us be the monsters they need us to be.  Let us enact the shadow selves that so crave to be seen, and in their enactment, free society from the burden of illusion.  This is our sacred duty, and it is not to be taken lightly.

If curators and arts administrators and publishers don’t fear you or think you’re a pain in the ass, you’ve failed.

Art presented in spaces dedicated solely for presenting art is already dead.  It’s taxidermy.  At best it’s a petting zoo, full of neutered beasts safe for the public.  Art is wild.  Queer art is wildest of all.  It’s the wolf roaming suburban lawns, snatching children and dogs.  It’s the wilderness encroaching on the un-wilderness.  It’s the wild safari, where spectators are faced with the real threat of ideological violence.

I want queer artists to break out of the petting zoos.  The HTF is part of that.  If artists can do shows in their livingrooms and garages, they’re that much closer to bringing their work to the streets.

Political art is not poison.  Political art is boring.  The real poison is retardation, complete and utter retardation, that muddles the mind and safely delivers the needle.

Sometimes, compassion is the greatest poison of all.

Whose work are you paying attention to?  Whose work would you want to see more of and why?

I always pay attention to what Brian Dini’s up to.  She is, of course, one of my daughters, but I can’t lay claim to her brilliance.  She’s brilliant and agitating and drug-addled and insane and frequently incoherent–she’s also among the most prolific and hard-working artists and curators I know, mounting spectacle after spectacle, month after month, with an almost fatalistic drive, and she’s the only young artist I know dedicated to mining our inheritance from our queer ancestors for a new generation.  In this queer clam we all live in, Dini’s the sand grain that continues to agitate and irritate.  Not to mention she has, I believe, the most incredible band of performers in her service (Kallisto, Krylon, Ben McCoy, etc).  These are gurls who might be arrested or dead of an overdose, and they bring all of that lifeforce and death drive to the stage.  QAZ and League of Burnt Children are what the downtown kids, the Dark Room and Aunt Charlie’s kids, the anarchists and the punks, pay attention to.  Dini’s work bristles with danger and ecstasy, a direct lineage from Leigh Bowery and Wojnarowicz and Todd Haynes and Derek Jarman and Bruce LaBruce and Jack Smith.  I just hope she makes it to 40.  Hell, I’d be happy if she makes it to 30.

Best 10 moments of queer performance in the last year are…   (and why)

Rachael Dichter’s naked deer-torso dance for Laura Arrington.  A moment of complete insanity and beauty.

Fauxnique‘s eerie resurrection of Maria Callas.  This performance roused me from a months-long depression.

Kirk Read breaking into tears onstage at Perverts Put Out.  Just simple, true emotions.  My hero.

Keith Hennessy‘s saliva’ed, nude rapture beneath a freeway overpass.  Talk about risk?  Keith practically invented the word.

Jorge [de Hoyos] and Macklin [Kowal] doing anything as the French Girls

Lil Miss Hot Mess‘ gospel anthem at Tiara Sensation.  If you were in the room that night, you felt alive.

Krylon Superstar pulling dried leaves out of her face at QAZ.  I whispered to Keith, “We can all quit now, because the most beautiful thing that anyone can ever do has been done.”

Yosefine Tinkleman at QAZ on Union Square.  The skies opened during that performance.

Kevin Seaman and Derek Schmidt and and Danyol Leon‘s retarded show for the Home Theater Festival this year.  So few people do retarded well anymore.

Ronja Ver with that knife in Minna Harri‘s kitchen for the HTF.  That whole show had me breathless.  Minna shows me that less can be more, infinitely more.

Lily Taylor, Sasha Baskina and Theo Knox in Lily’s garage for the HTF.  It reminded me how lovely something made with love can be.

Chrysalis Hyon‘s hypnotic performance in Kyra Rice‘s livingroom.  It’s a performance that will haunt me on my deathbed.

Christraper‘s disco moment at Honey’s HTF show.  Who knew?

Kyra Rice and Michael Velez‘s simple duet on Union Square for QAZ.  No music, no gimmicks.  All lovely.

Phatima Rude at Tiara Sensation.  I still can’t figure out what the hell she was doing, but holy shit, I wanted more.


Philip Huang is the founder of the Home Theater Festival and the author of A Pornography of Grief.  To see Philiips work visit:



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