When I arrived early on opening night of this year’s MIX NYC festival at a former manufacturing space in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, I heard a rumor that there used to be a panty factory there. It seemed too perfect that an LGBTQ experimental film and art festival would take place in a former underwear factory. As it turns out, it was too perfect.
When I spoke on the phone with Thomas Smith, Vice President of Sales at Jonden Manufacturing, he confirmed that in fact it’s their Jonden by Linda Leal line that was assembled in the MIX NYC space. But a clothing line inspired in 1981 by “the popularity of Spandex pants” might be just as good a fit. It’s a fool’s errand to ascribe any notion of universality to queer fashion, but it’s safe to say that thin, stretchy, synthetic material has long been a cornerstone of many a queer wardrobe.
As in years past, textiles — many of them just as accommodating as a Spandex pant — are in abundant display in the MIX Factory space. Faux black velvet benches, large shiny pillows, enormous white and black drapes, purple yarn and knitting, and a number of installations constructed with generous amounts of fabric abound. Although, for anyone who has attended MIX in recent years, the 2015 iteration feels sparse in comparison to the seething textures and installations of years past. There was much talk of funding in the pre-show speech on opening night, so it’s not hard to imagine that changes in grants and support are part of why things feel scaled back this year. But considering MIX has always been an all-volunteer operation, what they do manage to pull off each year remains impressive.
Since 2007 — with the notable exception of 2010, when the festival was at Theater for the New City — the organizers have opted to rent out large, relatively raw spaces and quickly transform them through the sweat and nascent know-how of any and all willing volunteers. (You can look back at some of this year’s build-out by scrolling through Instagram.) Because they’ve been seeking new spaces each year, that means the real estate fates demand migration. Out of curiosity, I mapped the locations of all the MIX festivals that have happened since 1987. With a decided southerly turn over the past four years, the map shows a trajectory pointing toward Coney Island if things carry on in the direction they’re currently going.
But despite the precariousness of a temporary, all-volunteer space in today’s New York, people go to MIX NYC the art and the company. This year the art, beyond the array of films, includes 13 installations ranging from an homage to Felix Gonzalez-Torres by Nicholas Vargelis to an enormous cottony pussy cat whose asshole you can slide into.
One of my favorite pieces is “E L E M E N T S,” an installation by Ba Na Na (Drew Denny & JD Samson) near the center of the sprawling exhibition and gathering space. The work can be experienced from two different vantage points set up on opposite sides of a billowy projection surface: a simple approximation of a car’s front end or a pair of camp chairs. Both seating areas include a plastic bag of potting soil with conspicuous holes in the top of each, evoking an array of possible meanings — a desire to possess, touch, and smell nature but only in contained and mediated package, along with allusions to penetrative sex and glory holes. The view from the car simultaneously feels like being in a peep show booth, a Flinstones car, and an extremely low-budget movie set, complete with tiny wind machines for effect. The camp chair view feels a bit more exhibitionist, with a bigger bag of soil and a new dirty hole to fondle, the flickering of moving images in front all the while, like an abstract, clown version of those television channels that continuously play burning logs. To me it read as humorous and conversational; pairs of people seemed to linger in the inviting sets of chairs. And it felt like there were layers of meaning around obsessions with experience, exhibitionist desire, and what values and problems are at play when we manufacture natural illusions.
Among the short films I saw during the opening night program and the Wednesday screening series put together by Queer Rebels, The Fight For Home, there were some standouts and also some that didn’t work quite so well, but such is the nature of festivals. A big part of the reason I go to MIX is that most of these films aren’t being shown anywhere else in New York. These aren’t generally the polished internet videos or glossy features that are so easily digested online or in cinemas today; many are rough or brief efforts by filmmakers still mastering the form. For me, it’s a reminder that one of the key ways you counter a lack of queer narratives in the wider culture, particularly narratives by trans and genderqueer artists, artists of color, and queer women, is by supporting people as they build and develop their craft.
When Stephen Kent Jusick, the festival’s current executive director, tromped out in the middle of the opening night screenings to set up a platform and hoist the 16mm film projector onto it, a grumpy older man seated behind me chortled to his companion, “This is what you call professionalism.” But he wasn’t complaining when the second 16mm film being shown was Barbara Hammer’s Dyketactics, he was awkwardly humming along to its ringing, atonal soundtrack.
To my mind, it’s precisely MIX’s resistance to professionalism that makes it invaluable. Sure, it can be uncomfortable and slow at times, and the seats don’t always kiss your backside in quite the way they do at the multiplexes back in the city, but these idiosyncratic events, which have very low admission prices and provide key platforms for artists, are the real arts incubators. This is where you can try something out without risking everything, and those spaces are few and far between in this city. And while I can attest that there are plenty of people who cast themselves somewhere in the LGBTQ rainbow who have more than their fair share of access and resources, there are plenty who do not. And so, I’ll see you at this MIX fest and whatever points south it travels to in the years to come.
MIX NYC 2015 continues at 155 26th Street (Sunset Park, Brooklyn) through November 15.
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