PORTLAND, Oregon — Pepper Pepper went crowd surfing at her recent drag ball. Declaring to the crowd that it was all about collectivism, she dove out into the sea of hands with a large set of balloons attached to her back. As the audience passed her along, she burst her confetti-filled balloons en route, raining sparkles over her supporters. It was a chaotic, glittering, high-energy moment; the crowd surged as this artistic drag queen levitated above us like a mystical witch.
Critical Mascara, “A Post-Realness Drag Ball,” was organized and hosted by Pepper Pepper to bring a night of drag to the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s Time-Based Art Festival (TBA). That “post-realness” was a hint that the performers were less invested in passing for women than they were in creating looks that are “critical,” which means challenging complacent sensibilities, expanding what gender-bending performance can encompass, and making a queer avant-garde energy incarnate and bewitching. The floating Pepper Pepper (formerly known as Kaj-anne Pepper) set the bar high for other queens, both locally and globally.
It was also a playful moment of East Coast/West Coast rivalry. Bushwig recently celebrated a similar “alternative drag” sensibility in Bushwick, but whereas punk and grunge reigned supreme in Brooklyn, rejecting Manhattan’s high glamour, the Portland set was more focused on phantasmagoric costume and feats of performance. Bless Brooklyn, but Portland’s queens were out-funking and outshining Bushwig’s. With the punk approach getting a bit worn out, this ball refreshingly showed that there are other ways to look critical and edgy, like Ivanaha Fushionn’s clowning reinterpretation of the Queen of Hearts (see photos below).
Pepper Pepper offered a prize of $666 to the queen who could pull off the most critical look at the Drag Ball. Although no one else levitated, contestants presented stunning looks in four categories to a panel of judges: Fierce 1st Time at a Ball, which welcomed fierce looks by first-time performing drag queens; Shapeshifter Fantasy, which encouraged body paint, head-to-toe metamorphosis, and costumes galore; Next Level Femme, which challenged contestants to redefine and reimagine femininity; and Dance/ Sweat/Vogue, which invited contestants to vogue.
At a TBA public talk with Madison Moore two nights later, Pepper Pepper spoke of drag as a “dose of medicine” for the spectator, offering a more shamanistic lens for understanding this performance genre. Some dismiss drag as smoke and mirrors or playing with fashion’s whims; others champion it but don’t offer explanations beyond saying, ‘non-normative queerness is awesome.’ This medicinal level that Pepper Pepper alluded to takes us back to the classics, to how the Greeks understood Dionysus and the role performance played among the pagans.
Dionysus is widely known as the god of wine, and his festivals set the stage for the development of Greek theater. But another of Dionysus’s names was Lyaeus, the god of releasing people from worry. Although scholars debate how outlandish the spectacles became at ancient Dionysian festivals, the crux was that upending conventional gender and sexual roles in theatrical revelry felt freeing, offered performers and observers catharsis, and left everyone feeling less anxious. They didn’t have Xanax back then, so they had to make it work with ritual.
And why not? Isn’t there a psychological release in beholding something simultaneously unfathomable and gorgeous? Isn’t it reassuring to find joy outside those tight boxes of gender, race, and age that cramp everyone’s style? The Critical Mascara drag ball’s wild energy granted the this type of release.
After several rounds of judging and competition, voguer William Joy took home the trophy and prize money. But many looks did justice to the Dionysian impulse to unravel in a moment of awe.
Fierce 1st Time at a Ball
Next Level Femme
Critical Mascara, “A Post-Realness Drag Ball,” took place September 13, 10:30pm, at the Works at Fashion Tech (2010 SE 8th Ave, Portland, Oregon) as part of the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s 2014 Time-Based Art Festival.