4.25 / From the Archives: Worse Than Queer

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By Christina Linden October 22, 2012

Image: Charles Atlas. Hail the New Puritan, 1985–86 (still); single-channel video with sound. Courtesy of Electronic Arts Intermix, Inc., New York. © Charles Atlas.

Charles Atlas’s mock documentary film Hail the New Puritan (1985-86), made with dancer/choreographer Michael Clark and fashion/costume/artistic designer Leigh Bowery, presents a performative ease I’ve always wanted to imagine possible in real life. It takes viewers to a place just beyond longing and imagination where, like in a good piece of musical theater, the protagonist—and sometimes also the accompanying crowd—break into synchronized song or dance without pausing to account for audience, transition, familiarity, or perhaps most importantly, costume.

Ostensibly charting the progress of a day–in-the–life of Clark, Hail the New Puritan opens in a messy, dreamlike sequence in which the choreographer and his company dance or perform in multiple, simultaneous, quick tableaux. With a painted-on Lederhosen costume, one dancer plays patty-cake with himself while others strike poses. Balletic moves thread together the otherwise disjointed scene, even as the dancers cross and occasionally collide with Bowery and his cohort, who walk to and fro from the set to a display of chicken and bananas near the camera, picking and eating as they go.

The scenes that follow this one depict Clark and his troupe in various studios, apartments, or stages waking, walking, practicing, performing, filming, cavorting, dressing, sleeping, and sleeping together. Interspersed throughout these displays of stunning, provocative choreography and outlandishly original costumes are breezy meanderings through the gritty urban post-punk 1980s London cityscape. After night falls, Clark gets ready to go out with Bowery and guests, ducks out for a date, and then arrives at the club to be greeted with kisses and embraces from a progression of fans and collaborators. He takes the stage and leads the crowd in a perfectly synchronized dance—a looping series of gestures executed in concert. At home around dawn, though, Clark ends the day with a solo dance in plain underwear to Elvis singing Are you Lonesome Tonight: “You know someone said the world is a stage, and each must play his part.”

It is the seamlessness between such private gestures and public performances—the voyeuristic lens we have into spaces where they unfold—that provoke questions about an opposing conceit: dressing strategically to be the object of attention, especially in moments where we strive to flip deviance from a negative assessment applied from the outside into a positive and self-generated opportunity for creating agency and movement.

In her 1998 essay “How to Dress for an Exhibition” Irit Rogoff parses out views on performativity, participation, and exclusion from within a late nineties rubric in which “general cultural politics of difference” meet with “Diffèrance.1 Rogoff develops an argument that disavows the type of participatory work (i.e. relational aesthetics) that causes viewers to become directly, if unwittingly, caught up as players in a game. This minor strain in her argument doesn’t resonate strongly from our contemporary standpoint, which places an ancillary emphasis on creating a clear dialectic around approaches to representation. But her main thrust, that “an inquiry into the possibilities that exhibition spaces might provide in order to accommodate the proliferation of performative acts by which audiences shift themselves from being viewers to being participants,” still holds water and finds purchase in encountering a film that tracks the performance of subjectivity fabricated across scenes of rehearsal and presentation both on and offstage. In vacillating between a description of the film and a description of my own encounter with the work, which takes place simultaneously within the fabrication presented on a screen and in a museum gallery, my intent is to reflect on the several layers of experience that mirror each other in order to accommodate the proliferation of participatory acts in imagined and (thus) real constitution of subject and affect.

Atlas’s film was included in the recent exhibition Stage Presence: Theatricality in Art and Media at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where it was cleverly arranged so that the projected image of the looping film was visible through a window between its dedicated screening room and the main exhibition galleries. I watched from the main galleries for a few minutes until— despite my intentions to breeze through the exhibition on a busy day—I found myself lured to the other side of the window. Entering a black box room with matching black beanbags strewn at its margins, I settled in to watch a short section of the eighty-five minute film.

Charles Atlas. Hail the New Puritan

Charles Atlas. Hail the New Puritan, 1985–86 (still); single-channel video with sound. Courtesy of Electronic Arts Intermix, Inc., New York. © Charles Atlas.

It was the Star Trek wallpaper of one particular scene that held my interest the longest. In the opening shot of this scene is a brief close-up on a picture hung on the wall in an ornate gold frame. The image is hard to read and the shot quickly cedes to a more general view of the room, but not before I registered the briefly legible elements that make up the pattern of the wallpaper behind it.

In the room a blond figure preens bent over in front of a large mirror. Bowery enters in blue face paint wearing a flowing robe-like frock as the woman, Rachel Auburn, asks “What do I look like tonight, beautiful?” Bowery answers back with the same question and they read each other, exchanging gentle insults. The footage is edited to create small, slightly jarring jumps and like their sparring banter, keeps us a little on edge. The scene’s staged quality make it feel less natural than the preceding scenes of troupe members strolling around on the streets at twilight, but it’s still far more awkward and less choreographed than the seamless rehearsals and performances from sequences earlier in the day. Everyone here is familiar and belongs, clearly, but the question of whether each is properly dressed remains up for constant debate. In a second round of outfits Leigh quips, in response to a compliment, with some doubt: “Well I don’t know, is it today?” They all keep changing, searching for the right today outfit.

One might imagine a similar quest—for the right today outfit—on the part of those preparing to visit the 1995 exhibition Black Male curated by Thelma Golden at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Rogoff describes the results of this search as her primary inspiration for “How to Dress for an Exhibition.” The majority of subjects in the visiting crowd reflected the subject matter named in the exhibition title, or at least a disproportionately larger number of African American men were present, in Rogoff’s view, in comparison to the visiting public of most mainstream museums in the United States. As she notes, “There was every variety of clothing from the round caps and flowing sashes of traditional tribal kanti cloth to Armani suits, to meticulously coordinated and elaborate sports garb, to the black leather favored by the gay scene to the tight dresses and fantastic make up of the transvestites. Every outfit was fully thought out, perfectly presented, and very strategically placed.” The scene made her self-conscious about how her own carefully selected “austere, minimal, German suit” was clearly out of place in this crowd: an unexpected failing in personal performance as an art-going subject used to fitting in. It drew her attention to a “participation that is generated by unconscious strategies of self-staging, be it through dressing, of fantasizing, or fictionalizing.”

My attention for the film was broken as someone in the adjacent beanbag repeatedly shushed a pair of viewers seated on her other side. They were, I suppose you could say, carrying on with some muffled giggling and a few exchanged whispers. But theirs was a sweet, easy moment, and the shushing was far more disruptive than the giggling itself. I shifted a bit in my beanbag and became aware of the crunchy sound of Styrofoam beads rubbing against one another inside. I noticed that the couple registered my glance their way when the other woman shushed them, and I wondered whose side they thought I was on. I wondered a little myself whose side I thought I was on.

Perhaps emboldened by my perceived support, the woman shushed again, and the couple laughed aloud before gathering themselves and exiting in a very small camp spectacle. I wished to join them on their museum romp and felt suddenly lonely in my semi-professional garb, dressed to impress for a meeting on one of the days my other work and other identities ceded to that of independent, striving–for–professional curator. The shushing woman got up and left. I looked at the clock on my phone and decided it was probably time to move on myself. No movement in concert, no synchronization or synchronicity, just me and my precarious position at the edge of an identity wrapped up in culture, and exhibitions, and watching for interesting backdrops, backgrounds, or wallpapers on which I might later develop witty comments or commentaries. I wrapped myself in a thin black coat against the chill of San Francisco in August and made my way back to Oakland. “It is the realization that we live out complex, fragmented and incoherent subject positions,” as Rogoff points out, “that often the different strands of our identity—sexual and racial, our education and occupation, our genetic encoding and the diseases our bodies bear, our learned cultural preferences and our secret fantasies—are all at odds with one another.”

Charles_Atlas-Hail_the_New_Puritan

Charles Atlas. Hail the New Puritan, 1985–86 (still); single-channel video with sound. Courtesy of Electronic Arts Intermix, Inc., New York. © Charles Atlas.

On first viewing the getting-ready tableau in Atlas’ film, my attention remained fixed on the wallpaper, despite other elements of the room’s décor that would justifiably steal attention from the camp spectacle of Bowery and friends preening and reading each other. There was a psychedelic table lamp and the service window cut into the left wall through which a friend named Trojan pops his head to take drink orders. The action in the foreground—haughty handsome dancers, dandies, designers, and drag queens getting dressed to go out to the clubs—certainly merits its own attention. But mine remained focused on the Star Trek wallpaper, and on thoughts about queering this G-rated American pop culture motif. I found it distracting in the best possible way.  Near the end of this getting-dressed scene, about fifteen minutes after I first took a seat, the camera closes in again briefly on a few details in the room, including the wallpaper. This came as both confirmation and relief: reassurance that the pattern really did include images of the USS Enterprise, Spock, and Captain Kirk against a black sky, and affirmation that attention paid to the background even in the midst of so much interesting performance might not just be mine alone.

In retrospect, it is only a slight stretch to say that the content of the getting-ready scene in Hail the New Puritan, more awkward and tense than the documentation of seductive dancing that fill much of the film, allowed—or perhaps even required—my focus on the background because it resembled the performative space I find my own character prefers to inhabit. My preference is for something engaging and lively on the wall, or perhaps on a pedestal or stage, which provides a locus for the visual attention of those art-going subjects that otherwise occupy this arena. If our banter and exchange is rarely as witty, edgy, or timely as what passes between the Bowery and his friends in Hail the New Puritans, there is certainly the constant, if much more subtle, reading of one another in relation to this drive to be most contemporary, to know if one is truly dressed for today. In the best of conditions, this reading spurs competition that prompts innovation and a celebration of new positions over the adherence to the predetermined and accepted standards of the field. As Rogoff elaborates in “How to Dress for an Exhibition”:

The reason I would wish to think of ‘art’ in relation to such a ‘space of appearance’ is recognition that when something called ‘art’ becomes an open interconnective field, then the potential to engage with it as a form of cultural participation rather than as a form of either reification, of representation or of contemplative edification, comes into being. The engagement with ‘art’ can provide a similar space of appearance…not by following the required set of interpellated, pensive gestures but rather seeking out, staging and perceiving an alternative set of responses.

I returned to watch the film in the exhibition several times, eventually catching enough segments to piece it together a whole and to catch the detailed interaction and outfits in the getting-ready scene that I’d missed the first time around while fixating on wallpaper.2 As much meaning came from seeing it repeatedly in the black box of the screening room as from within the film itself, as I contended with the contrast and comparison between the exuberant, confident display of the choreographed dance and the crunchy, shifting sounds of trying to remain comfortably seated on beanbags. Moreover, there was the desire and attempt to gather a familiar intimate crowd in a local context around shared interest and specialty without creating an environment in which ever-shifting subject positions come to resemble one another too closely and to be policed along the lines of a prescribed set of gestures. The collective desire to move our fragmented subjectivities towards a better expression of that which is really most contemporary happens, it seems, at least as much in the gallery as on the wall of the gallery, at least as much in the audience as on stage.

 

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NOTES:

1. All quotes from Irit Rogoff, “How to Dress for an Exhibition,” Stopping the Process? Contemporary Views on Art and Exhibitions, ed. Mika Hannula (Helsinki: Nordic Institute for Contemporary Art, 1998).

2. The video is also available for viewing, along with the rest of Charles Atlas’ oeuvre, at Electronics Arts Intermix for those in New York. Hail the New Puritan is also at http://www.ubu.com/dance/clark_hail.html

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