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Transgressive Queer Art, Tinged with Nostalgia

The crowd for the Dirty Looks event at Participant Inc. (all photos via Dirty Looks NYC on Facebook)
The crowd for the Dirty Looks event at Participant Inc. (all photos via Dirty Looks NYC on Facebook)

Today’s New York art world is painfully nostalgic for the 1980s — a time when rent in the East Village could be paid on tips, syringes littered the streets, and social forces challenged artists to create astounding works. Creativity crackled in the air, as did the impending trauma and transformation of the near future. Social spaces existed before social media supplanted them. It was a time — “post-disco, pre-house,” according to performance artist Jack Waters — when you could both dance and talk in clubs, and those clubs weren’t just filled with $12 cocktails and bridge-and-tunnel riffraff, but exciting creators building a community.

Two weeks ago, Dirty Looks, a queer interventionist art program, tried to bring that spark back to downtown with a program called “Significant Others,” which featured a screening of two rarely seen films, David Wojnarowicz’s Beautiful People (1988) and Carl George’s 6 Feet, Dancers That I Know and Love (1991), plus a panel discussion moderated by Esther Kaplan, editor of the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute, with some choice Downtown veterans.

Beautiful People unearths an unusual kind of expression for Wojnarowicz: the silent, black-and-white half hour film that portrays a young man (played by Jesse Hultberg and living not too far from the Participant Inc., where the screening was held) transforming into a drag queen is more diegetic than most of the artist’s film and video work. As the quotidian scene of a man drinking coffee out of his ABBA mug (we all do that in the morning, right?) slowly escalates into a fantasy of hyperfemininity in a very ritualistic way, the film offers a solid plot mixed with whimsy only seen obliquely in the late artist’s other work.

One shot in particular, of Hultberg’s muscular, hairy inner thighs, shows Wojnarowicz’s characteristic mixture of gay sensuality and feminine fantasy, said thighs being covered by opaque stockings. The gritty reality of homosexuality is transposed with the aesthetic perfection of drag.

A clip from David Wojnarowicz, Beautiful People (1988), Super 8 on digital video, 34 min

The ending adds an experimental twist, with the film taking a Wizard of Oz–style turn by transitioning to color when the Queen, who has wandered into the woods of Rockland County, dips her hand into a lake. The scene immediately bursts into color, and the Queen descends into the water, wig floating, never to be seen again.

There’s a strange tension between humor and melancholia in Beautiful People, signaling a slightly more tender side of the artist (who became famous in recent times for the censorship of his work at the Smithsonian) that the public hasn’t generally witnessed before.

The second film, 6 Feet, Dancers That I Know and Love by Carl George, employs a liberal use of montage and other visually and sonically assaulting techniques. Less plot-driven than the first screening, the film incorporates Hellenic Pagan references juxtaposed with glittering scientific exploration, Broadway music and imagery, and a cornucopia of cultural references from places ranging from Africa to Japan.

Though less impactful in some ways than the Wojnarowicz piece, 6 Feet, Dancers That I Know and Love amped up the queer presence at the event and provided a useful counterpoint. Certain shots within the filmic collage are strikingly beautiful, and the incorporation of different cultural elements makes it rich with layers, especially as compared to the more traditional composition of Beautiful People. At times, though, the scenes are too haphazard and lack focus, weakening the piece.

Panelists Jack Waters, Esther Kaplan, Rayya Elias, and Cynthia Carr (click to enlarge)
Panelists Jack Waters, Esther Kaplan, Rayya Elias, and Cynthia Carr (click to enlarge)

The panel, consisting of Cynthia Carr, Rayya Elias, and Jack Waters, waxed nostalgic about the creativity of New York in the ’80s. They spoke of arson and drug trafficking with solemnity peppered with glee. It was scary, it was sad, but they survived to look back fondly on their exciting past. New York back then, they said, was precisely what an urban space should be: a dangerous jungle that challenges its denizens and facilitates an excitement to exist and create within.

Cynthia Carr, author of Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz, reminisced about the time when she was new to New York City, moving into Alphabet City in the late ’70s in an unsafe environment, with landowners burning down the buildings next to her apartment to collect insurance settlements at the expense of neighbors. Jack Waters, a visual and performance artist, spoke of the performance spaces and poetry clubs he frequented, where he made creative connections. Rayya Elias, a musician and performance artist, described stripping telephone poles for electricity to hook up and practice music with until the cops came, and spoke of tunnels dug between adjacent buildings on Avenues A and B to escape the law.

All of the panelists described how AIDS and crack-cocaine infected the urban landscape simultaneously, hurling them into adulthood when they least expected it. Their friends and colleagues died suddenly, and the atmosphere changed permanently. Some lost heart, some were inspired to carry on people’s legacies. For better or for worse, that’s a motivator we have less of these days.

There’s a certain idealism present in the current, ongoing revival of transgressive, primarily New York–based ’80s art (or derivatives of the style) that Dirty Looks is mounting. I’m reminded of Woody Allen’s recent film Midnight in Paris, which takes up the desire for an idealized artistic past, only for the creator to be deflated by the realization you get after throwing your second theme party: it’s all been done before. The work is mostly new, but are the ideas?

In my discussion with NEA Four member and political arts pioneer Karen Finley, I brought up the point that some people in my generation felt the 1970s and ’80s in New York were a time of artistic community and radical expression, and how we pined for those times again. She responded that she was much more interested in what was happening now and could only see hope and promise for artistic development in the future. The past was filled with the heartache of Reagan, AIDS, and other social savageries.

Carl George, "6 Feet, Dancers That I Know and Love" (still) (1991), 16mm, 23 min
Carl George, “6 Feet, Dancers That I Know and Love” (still) (1991), 16mm, 23 min (via visualaids.org)

So should we live in the past or take a hand in changing the future? In my eyes, Dirty Looks is doing both. Though their thesis seems reactionary on the surface, they’re making great strides in penetrating the New York art world superstructure with queer art that’s both aesthetically and politically charged. Especially after Pride month, when I’m torn between feeling politically relevant and happy for my existence and soured by the corporatized celebrations that are seemingly supposed to represent me, I’m happy to see such gritty representations of the queer art community pulsing beneath the radar. I look forward to seeing what will unfold in their programs this summer; yesterday, for instance, saw a welcome mounting of Narcissister’s fabulous work.

Hopefully this will inspire young artists to push themselves to their limits and create not only impressive works of art, but works that challenge the status quo that we’ve all become too consumed with, whether we like it or not.

The Dirty Looks “Significant Others” screening took place on Thursday, June 20, 7 pm, at Participant Inc. (253 East Houston Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan).

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