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Were you smitten?

Do you find me sexy: queering space and feminising time

· live art,university,explicit performance

Photo taken by Gillian Dyson-Moss

On Tuesday 6 December 2016 i completed my first performance assessment for my MA in Performance - a 30 minute live art piece called Were you smitten? [working title] or Do you find me sexy: queering space and feminising time, for my Artist Project Minor module.

Me in conversation with the woman i left behind in Aotearoa New Zealand. Did you think it was to an ex-boyfriend? I have not had one of those in a while, and i am interested in the heteronormative reading that my performance yielded, as one of my explorations was to Queer space and (eventually) Feminise time. I made aesthetic choices and real-time compositional decisions to juxtapose a feminine body (multiple feminine bodies?) in a patriarchal space.

Performed by Tom Steer and myself, with "that damn chair" in the smaller courtyard space in the Northern Terrace building, Queens Square, Leeds Beckett University City campus.

Were you smitten? [working title]

or Do you find me sexy? queering space and time with the extremities of femininities

Me in conversation with the woman i left behind in Aotearoa New Zealand. Did you think it was to an ex-boyfriend? I have not had one of those in a while, and i am interested in the heteronormative reading that my performance yielded, as one of my explorations was to Queer space and (eventually) Feminise time. I made aesthetic choices and real-time compositional decisions to juxtapose a feminine body (multiple feminine bodies?) with a patriarchal space.

There is a history to this work and how it is situated within my performance practice. It is a new work as of October this year, but it is not the first time i have performed for, to, or about, an ex. In 2013, a heart-broken mess of me performed an explicit-body movement and live art piece for explicit:implicit, a performance night as part of The Porn Project, Karangahape (K-) Road in Auckland. I cried about her afterwards: i had had my heart smashed in to a thousand pieces only 3 weeks previously by my first ever real relationship. This performance was the first time i had performed solo for longer than 4 minutes, and rehearsed so little. I relied on the rawness of my being to real-time create.

[Play a snippet of the video https://vimeo.com/105755254]

I have made a performance piece for an ex, each year since then, for a new ex on each occasion. 2014 saw It’s my period party and i’ll bleed if i want to - again in Auckland, again on K-Road[1], for to and fro exhibition at Artspace, this time featuring me as a recovered heart-broken mess rediscovering my sexual presence. As was becoming important to my practice as a whole, this work featured text and explicit body performance. [Show image].

In 2015, i performed a pole dance routine for a Women’s Refuge New Zealand fundraiser cabaret night in Wellington, called She’s not your toy. I impressed the audience with my Barbie shoes, i impressed myself performing a coy fuck-you to my latest ex. And most recently i performed the first iteration of Were you smitten? for the October edition of NEWK, at Live Art Bistro Leeds, containing similar elements that you saw last week - explicit body performance, pissing, spoken word, and the use of pre-recorded music and short choreographed movement phrases.

What is the point of performing to an ex? None of them have seen any of these performances, but nor are they meant to. I engage in live art performance practices[2] as a way of taking an audience on my emotional journey, as well as investigating the woman’s body as a surface for representation and as a site for political and social change, which seems utterly relevant as a queer woman navigating sexual relationships.

Research approach

I make explicit body performance art about the mundane.

As Jack Halberstam puts it in the Queer Art of Failure “I believe in low theory in popular places, in the small, the inconsequential, the antimonumental, the micro, the irrelevant; I believe in making a difference by thinking little thoughts and sharing them widely. I seek to provoke, annoy, bother, irritate, and amuse; I am chasing small projects, micropolitics, hunches, whims, fancies.” (2011, p.21)

I love those descriptors: i approach creating work from whims and fancies, from a song i think deserves a bit of something something, to a tiny facet of contemporary politics that pisses me off and deserves some discomfiting airtime. This has meant anything from lip-syncing Katy Perry songs to talking to a wall for two hours to demonstrate the hypervisibility of women but our relative silence.

I worked with Keith Hennessy in 2011 on Turbulence - a dance about the economy at ImPulsTanz in Vienna [show image] and his way of working has informed how i make performance works such as Were you smitten? He utilises the “[c]ontemporary art of proposing…where there’s lots of inquiry, a lot of self-reflection” (as cited in Potter, 2012). This means playing with multiple ideas, images, actions around a central theme. He does not work with a score[3] as such but he has a list of performance ideas he shares with his dancers. I tend to establish a loose score to give myself a structure to fall back on, but i prefer to formulate this close to performance time to allow for freshness of performance presence, and to not miss “out on the chance to be frivolous, promiscuous, and irrelevant.” (Halberstam 2011, p.6). I spend my rehearsal and research time collating an array of performance snippets and ideas.

For this performance:

I played with costume - sartorial choices around androgyneity to explore gender in a visual and embodied sense. Hence men’s trousers and layers of bras.

I blocked my eyesight. I have recently completed a series of performances under the banner of “How do i look?” - investigating the male gaze and the gaze i turn upon myself. Using sunglasses, balaclavas, and theatrical lighting is a way for me to mess with where and how i am looking, and can look, in performance.

I allowed myself the option to piss. For me, this referenced fear and shame, as well as the relationship of the clitoris (a sexual organ) with the urethra (for excreting urine).

I had a conversation with someone who was not there. Words about them and to them that they are never meant to hear but possibly should? Emotions were a free-for-all.

I framed my work in an industrial space through the sharp geometry of large windows. I roamed in a circuitous fashion to counteract that.

I pre-selected music, a mix of a story-telling mash-up i made several years ago, and chip tunes music by a friend’s band from Wellington. I left it up to my real-time performance as to when and how they were played.

This performance did not need to succeed. I desired existence in space and time. A delectable array of ideas that this queer person used to queer her space. As Schmoop said about val smith’s work THIS CLOUD IS QUEERING! (2016), i attempted to “examine [my] own life and make life decisions in whatever order seem[ed] best.”

This performance did not need to be read in a particular way. I explored ideas of gender and sexuality, of the explicit body, a woman’s voice, a man’s presence. I placed my audience on the outside looking in, though they were inside and i was out.

The extended body - taking up space

In exploring elements of the extended body, my extended body, for the various elements of Were you smitten? i sourced the skills and material i developed in workshops in this module by Jaye, Lydia, Sophie, and Gregory. In writing stories and recalling all the minutiae to mine comedic potential in our own memories, Lydia’s approach enabled me to consider subtle details of movement i may have otherwise dismissed.

Gregory’s use of somatic exercises showed me how simply being present with my body can yield a powerful performative presence. Sophie’s use of Dada tasks to investigate methods of becoming invisible lead me to consider how our bodies can take up more space when trying to take up no space. Finally, it was Jaye’s use of an object to relate memories of loved ones that began the process of considering my ex. I do not have that many objects with me from New Zealand, and the furry green pen Ange gave me as a joke gift before i left somehow made the cut.

My research enquiries considering the extended body ultimately lead me to the body taking up space. To extend my body across distances, through walls, around and toward people, to go beyond physical mass and take up aural, visual, and political space. Tangible and intangible.

This is a mash-up i made of Diamanda Galás screaming Baudelaire’s The Litanies of Satan and Die Antwoord’s rave track I Fink U Freeky. It is a pretty great way of women taking up aural space. I enjoy the process of creating and selecting soundtracks for my performance works as a way of me, women’s voices, something potentially feminine being inescapably present.

Women are well used to being looked at, ogled, scrutinised, contemplated, beheld. We are quite often not even there. Nor does it mean we are politically seen. How can we take up more than intangible visual space, not just the woman in the painting? (Though there is nothing wrong with the woman in the painting). I put my body in your line of sight on purpose, sometimes sexualised, sometimes simply there, in the hopes of becoming more present.

I have included an image here [show] of Vanessa Beecroft’s work VB35 as her use of female bodies as objects in space divides critics - as Roll discusses in her 2014 dissertation, critics cannot decide if her performances are sexually charged or diminished of erotic effect. I am not sure why they consider this an important decision. I am well aware of the related problematics of women engaged in explicit body performance and the part that my work plays in this. In her discussion of my 2012/13 work The Lady Garden, Amelia Hitchcock addresses my complicity in pandering to the male gaze by my use of potentially sexually-charged body-based performance practices: “the question of whether one is playing into dominant hegemonic representations and furthering the objectification of women, or challenging, exposing and denying those structures, remains up for debate” (2014).

I do not wish to treat the male gaze as omnipotent, however, as Laura Kipnis posits in Ecstasy Unlimited (1993), because the choice to not have agency over how and where my body is seen for fear of those who look continues to give those who look power. It also means potentially the male gaze cannot be undermined. Therefore, i am yet to stop flashing my bits around. In fact, the more anxiety this causes the general public, the more i am interested in pursuing this line of enquiry. How i take up space visually should not be up for debate, especially if those looking inappropriately are not called into account.

To this end, i have placed Were you smitten? in my new performance series MORAL PANIC, performance works exploring how during times of social upheaval and political uncertainty, women’s bodies were used as a site for transference or projection of symptoms of greater social disorder. In her 2000 publication Posing a Threat, Angela Latham uses women’s bodies as a reflection of social tensions in the 1920s, focussing on flappers, and how women’s bodies were then used as a site for control. Women’s agency was a threat to be contained, so clothing and public behaviour were monitored, complained about in newspapers, and legislated against.

There are clear parallels with our current political climate such as repeals against abortion law, continued political discourse around legalising sex work, and even the failure of capitalism to eliminate poverty and unemployment being blamed on immigration and the refugee crisis (not gendered in this case, but raced, still it is an example of a vulnerable group being used as a scapegoat rather than tackling the actual problem).

[Show MORAL PANIC website]

I use my voice in performance - for actions as frivolous as lamenting a former relationship - to take up space. To remind you that i am here and that i am to be heard.

I use my body and my ideas to take up more than just visual space, my body is a site for political performance and social change.

I take up tangible space, i will not shrink away. I will #ladyspread if i have to. Do you find my undies embarrassing? I wear them every day and i will gladly show them to you. My knickers are a radical performative act.

I intend to take up ALL THE SPACE, or at least entertain the option to.

Shame on your victim shaming. Release the pearls you clutch and the hands you wring. Explicit body performance, whether it ‘succeeds’ in empowering women, in making spaces safer for us, is nonetheless a useful tool in taking up space in the discourse.

The marked woman

You may have noticed that i have not discussed Tom.

I do not work with men often. This can be seen as a problematic choice due to my earlier discussion of the hypervisibility of women, as i am unpacking how we look at women by making an audience look at women. But by putting a man in my work, i am creating a specific kind of narrative. A token man who distracts, a queer man subject to the male gaze, the uncertain and fragile boundaries of masculinity and femininity, the dominating of physical space though not visual space.

For this work, i consider the following competing, yet parallel, perspectives of women.

Peggy Phelan believes in the unmarked woman, the male being “marked with value; female is unmarked, lacking measured value and meaning.” (1993, p.5). This is familiar territory with respect to the Other, as she further articulates “He is the norm and therefore unremarkable; as the Other, it is she whom he marks.” What does it mean to be marked by men? How can i counteract that? I took my performance space and inserted a man. I marked the space with his presence.

In the same year, for The New York Times magazine, Deborah Tannen discussed the unmarked woman, referring “to the way language alters the base meaning of a word by adding a linguistic particle that has no meaning on its own…Endings like ess and ette mark words as “female.”” (1993). Woman is not the default, as the Other she must be further defined. Have i invited the neutral ‘man’ into my ‘neutral’ space? I attempt to layer meanings on to myself first, and the presence of a man, the pathway he takes, his relationship to an object within that space, are all added marks.

I made the decision for his pathway to be linear, to be forward-looking, and for his movements to be repetitive. This bows to the ‘rationality’ of conventional masculinity. I roamed around him, i compromised my space to allow for him. But then i dictated his pathway and his movements. I risked his body pulling focus with the decisiveness and familiarity of his movement amidst my relative chaos. His presence in the space therefore could be read as passivity, and so, according to Laura Mulvey, the act of looking at him feminises his actions (1989).

I was in charge of that space. I made real time decisions, and he could not deviate from the directions i gave him. I marked the space, myself, and him. I even marked my territory.

Extending the body: taking up more space

Where to from here? What can i do with this work? Firstly, i am going to keep performing it, or versions thereof, amongst the other performance pieces in development for MORAL PANIC. It is a lot of fun, right?

val smith’s work THIS CLOUD IS QUEERING! is an inspiration for how to develop attempts at queering my performance space. They is interested in transforming momentary responses to space, people and objects into movement, not words. Emphasising listening to space, val focuses on “attuning, sensing, waiting. In relation to the concept of queering space - or the politics of living safely and fully in heterosexualised space - val offers the idea of not marking the space (as queer), not impinging on it in any way. For to do so might involve a queer colonisation of space” (Pickens, 2016).

My attempts at performing the queering of space and time is further complicated by Beth Carol Robert’s thesis Neither Fish Nor Fowl: Imagining Bisexuality in Cinema (2013). In it she discusses the temporality required to prove bisexuality: how can a viewer know one is multisexual if they cannot see a series of differently gendered relationships. My question is how to unpack the cisheteronormative or monosexual readings of my performance spaces, in order to be queer on my terms.

Keith Hennessy can provide continued insight in to the queering of performance. He encourages us to “look at what new trends are happening and to imagine they won’t fulfill your dreams. To be queering them or working outside of them.” (as cited in Potter, 2012). This is sufficiently vague i think.

To be honest, i do not know where this work will go. Thus, the beauty of performance-led research, whereby i have discovered the potentiality of my feminised body taking up space. I can expect more; my extended body’s boundaries are endless.

Bibliography

admin (2011) Queer economy - by Keith Hennessy - THEOFFCENTER. Available at: http://theoffcenter.org/2012/02/14/queer-economy-by-keith-hennessy/ (Accessed: 14 October 2016).

Halberstam, J. (2011) The queer art of failure (a John Hope Franklin Center book). Durham: Duke University Press Books.

Hitchcock, A. (2015) Uneasy bedfellows. Available at: http://www.sexualpoliticsnow.org.nz/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/Uneasybedfellows_web.pdf (Accessed: 2 July 2015).

Kipnis, L. (1993) Ecstasy unlimited on sex, capital, gender, and aesthetics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Latham, A.J., Press, [for] W.U. and University Press of New England (2000) Posing a threat: Flappers, chorus girls, and other transgressive performers of the American 1920s. Hanover, NH: Published by University Press of New England [for] Wesleyan University Press.

Mulvey, L. (1989) Visual and other pleasures. 5th edn. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Phelan, P. (1993) Unmarked: The politics of performance. New York: Routledge.

Pickens, R.M. (2016) This cloud is Queering! val smith | culture. Available at: http://www.critic.co.nz/culture/article/5893/this-cloud-is-queering-val-smith- (Accessed: 11 December 2016).

Potter, J. (2012) On failure and fake healing: An interview with Keith Hennessy. Available at: http://www.culturebot.org/2012/09/14541/on-failure-and-fake-healing-an-interview-with-keith-hennessy/ (Accessed: 14 October 2016).

Roberts, B.C. (2013) Neither Fish Nor Fowl: Imagining Bisexuality in the Cinema. Dissertation thesis. New York University.

Tannen, D. (1993) Marked women, unmarked men. Available at: http://www2.bakersfieldcollege.edu/driess/Readings_files/Marked%20Women.pdf (Accessed: 7 August 2013).

[1] Karangahape Road is a road in central Auckland, infamous for its history of sexual deviance, such as strip clubs and queer bars, street walkers.

[2] “Live Art is when an artist chooses to make work directly in front of the audience in space and time…The physical body, even if present in the same space as the audience, is not necessarily ‘performing’; certainly not in the theatrical sense of ‘pretending to be someone else’.” (Sofaer, 2011)

[3] Score = a reference to a musical score, it is a set of rules or guidelines for a performance improvisation. For example, one must exit and enter the space at least 3 times, jump up and down on the spot at various intervals, and spend 5 minutes copying one other performer.

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