Queer Practice

Editorial by Manola-Gayatri Kumarswamy*

[These queer artists] are all making works about themselves, and that’s one of the hallmarks of queer performance. And we’re here to honour that.


Greg Thorpe, Interview with Alyson Campbell, Meta Cohen and Stephen Farrier from ‘Locating care in curating queer performance in Belfast and Manchester: An interview with Gemma Hutton and Greg Thorpe, Belfast, November 2019′, this issue of Interventions. 

This Interventions edition, ‘Queer Practice’, complements the Special Journal Issue of CTR: ‘What’s Queer About Queer Performance Now’ which I have co-edited with Alyson Campbell and Stephen Farrier. Throughout the issue we have placed  investment in having more space in the academic field of queer performance for practitioners to speak about their work and Interventions offers the opportunity to extend the focus on this discourse. Interventions further complements the written articles by expanding speech to the audio-visuality afforded by the online format. ‘Queer Practice’ includes three contributions reflecting on queer performance practices by practitioner scholars Andrew Sutherland, Emma Lockhart-Wilson and Íbrahim Halaçoglu and include visual work and complete creative texts.  It also includes an original monologue of an 18th Century Chinese fictional figure by Hongwei Bao and an article by Bao on contemporary Chinese drag culture; and an insightful interview on contemporary queer performance spaces in Belfast and the Manchester with Gemma Hutton and Greg Thorpe by Alyson Campbell, Meta Cohen and Stephen Farrier.

Hongwei Bao’s evocative script,The Passion of the Rabbit God’ marks 2023 as the Year of the Rabbit in the Lunar Chinese Calendar. It is a delightful monologue scripted by Bao for the fictional character Hu Tianbao, a clerk who appears in a short collection story of Qing Dynasty Chinese scholar Yuan Mei. This dialogue with Chinese literature from the past sits alongside Bao’s article on drag in contemporary China. In ‘Fanchuan and Bianzhuang: Ways of Doing Drag in Contemporary China’, Bao identifies two categories of drag: fanchuan and bianzhuang.  He notes that fanchuan is ‘drawn from traditional and historical Chinese theatre’ while bianzhuang, on the other hand, appears to be coming from ‘global drag culture’. This interesting piece speaks deeply to the difficulties in nomenclature across difference and how ‘drag’ becomes the umbrella term for diverse non-Western performance cultures that involve cross-dressing and other nuances of gender, cultural and spiritual performativity.

Years ago, I watched Israeli performance maker Idan Cohen’s contemporary take on Swan Lake in Delhi. It was hilarious, blunt and was read by me as also a queer feminist critique of classical dance body politics. While Cohen’s work subverted classical content in imaginatively contemporary ways, what Andrew Sutherland’s performance work Swan Twink does is markedly different. It subversively uses the iconic, almost mythical, status of the classic Swan Lake to create a queerly intimate, personal and vulnerable performance, using a fragment of the music and glimpses of the performer in training. In the contribution for Interventions, Sutherland offers us an artist-scholar’s context for the performance work and shares the performance text with us. It explores nostalgia, aspiration, vulnerability and fantasy in one layer and invites us to recognise intergenerational mentorship and collaboration, while provoking us into both presence and fantasy through the performance text. Towards the end we are invited to find and listen to a version of Tchaikovsky’s score for Odette’s solo in Act Two of Swan Lake, while reading the closing lines of the text. Sutherland offers his experience and fantasy as an invitation for us to enter our own realm of personal fantasy. It is a tender invitation. 

Looking at an image from Emma Lockhart-Wilson’s article,’ Searching in the Shadows: Queer Aesthetics in Performance Lighting’, we might find ourselves asking: is that a giant squid, floating phallus or disintegrating popsicle? The article presents a narrative interwoven with illustrating images of Lockhart-Wilson’s scenographic work. It invites us to attend to each photograph as an aesthetic and ponder how light in theatre and live performance can be read as queer. Lockhart-Wilson posits strategies of subversion, fluidity and drawing attention to bodily labour as ways to explore queerness. This examination of the lighting designer’s reflection on what might be queer in her work is refracted through three images from three different performances. In one of the works that squid-phallus-popsicle, or human-jellyfish in neon rainbow translucent colours, raises questions of the posthuman. Anthropomorphic imagery, which has a long history in sculpture, painting and performance, is presented in live performance here to open up a consideration of co-existence and ecological survival, constructing a playfully queer celebration of the potentials of queer embodiments.

Íbrahim Halaçoglu’s ‘An Autoethnographic Reflection in 4 Repetitive Titles: On The Blend Of Auto and Fiction In Where My Accent Comes From’ is a powerfully poignant decolonial gesture through a critically perfomative text. Halaçoglu invokes the idea of the meddah, or a traditional storyteller and mimic, for a self-reflexive critical monologue on migration, freedom and identity. It doesn’t take easy routes but confronts the bittersweet confusion of arriving, leaving, losing, learning and relearning all at once. His work also offers a nuanced attention to the Middle Eastern body, as the shape-shifting figure of ‘Accent’ navigates conversations and encounters in Melbourne.1 This video work is also self-aware and embraces the transformation of the traditional meddah story teller into a digital meddah. Technological challenges invoked by the difficulty of making work in lockdown are transformed into aesthetic possibilities, such as the irksome clicking-sound of the camera being re-perceived as evocative of the sound of the traditional meddah’s stick. This could be a metaphor for what Halaçoglu does in this work in many ways: challenges are meditated on and mediated into new possibilities. It is a work about robust and creative survival in new worlds – a queer survival, openly bearing marks of loss, that through a gentle auto-eros touches the skin of the ‘othered’ self.

The works in this edition are written by or with queer practitioners, exploring and articulating what makes their work queer or how they practice queerly. In their interview with Alyson Campbell, Meta Cohen and Stephen Farrier, ‘Locating care in curating queer performance in Belfast and Manchester’, Gemma Hutton and Greg Thorpe speak passionately of their investment in the emerging artists they work with and their commitment to a queer ethics of curation and care. The interview highlights the cost of creating work about oneself and the need for self-care throughout the spaces and practices of queer performance. One of the rich pleasures of this audio contribution is in allowing us to draw insight from the ‘here and now’ utterances of spoken language. This is particularly useful for the ways that we are invited to understand and interpret pauses and sentences that Hutton and Thorpe complete together:  in the recording you can hear the soft tones, wryness, defiance, wit and camaraderie as they expressed themselves in choice of phrase and dialect, in prosody and laughter.  It is in these tonalities as much as the content that we get a sense of the peer and intergenerational holding space that they are building in their respective communities. 

Drawing on personal experience, intergenerational legacies, scholarship, theory, critical reflexivity, performance training and creative experimentation, these queer practitioners articulate their lives through their practice, and their writing and talking about their practice. Amidst different vocabularies, embracing of difference and diversity, queer practice plays with the past and future, drawing on traditional and experimental ideas and forms to imagine new becomings. As noted earlier by Thorpe, queer performers accept the difficult task of explicitly offering creative innovation and political insight from their personal experiences.  As I read of the passionate plea of the Rabbit God in Bao’s piece, wonder about the swan in Sutherland’s practice and look at the beautiful jelly-humans in Lockhart-Wilson’s work, the sense of anthropomorphism as queer refraction emerges. Is there something about the breaking of boundaries, or making fluid the boundaries between species, in an embodied queer sense? While intergenerational exchanges can be challenging and provocative in useful and difficult ways, we also see here exchanges marked with gratitude and affection. There is care for the other and the self. Bodily vulnerability through sickness, poverty, sexual fetishization and risk is held respectfully with care and consideration in all the works. While the world at large has seen a turn towards care through the exigencies of the pandemic, I am tempted to consider an aspect of tenderness and love present in queer care that is protective of longing, fantasy, desire, pleasure and unknown possibility. Through all kinds of trauma and challenges, queer practitioners continue to passionately protect journeys of desire, knowing that these journeys lead to all kinds of becomings –rabbit gods, popsicles, swan twinks, digital meddahs and also holding space for queer kin and others. This is queer practice – invested in the journey, invested in the becomings.

* I thank Alyson Campbell and Stephen Farrier for their detailed notes, input, editorial support and mentorship. I also thank Broderick Chow for the additional support and work getting this edition online.

Manola Gayatri Kumarswamy (PhD, Jawaharlal Nehru University) is Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at Mount Carmel College Autonomous, Bangalore and Research Associate at Wits School of Arts, Witwatersrand University, Johannesburg. She works through Depth Psychology, somatics, dream work, Group Relations, performance as research, poetry, decoloniality, theatre, queer performance and is interested in transformational pedagogy and reimagining restorative justice for ocean life. She completed two postdoctoral research fellowships in the University of Pretoria and University of Witwatersrand. She cofounded writing collective, Scribe Rites and is founder of Matrixia Moya Consultancy. She formerly convened IFTR’s Performance as Research Working Group and recently edited CTR’s What’s Queer about Queer Performance Now? with Alyson Campbell and Stephen Farrier.

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  1. This reminds me too of Mwenya Kabwe’s provocative comparison of her own work Afrocartography with Shailja Patels’s Migritude. See Kabwe, M.B. (2015). ‘Mobility, Migration and ‘Migritude’ in Afrocartography: Traces of Places and all points in between. In: Fleishman, M. (ed) Performing Migrancy and Mobility in Africa. Studies in International Performance. Palgrave Macmillan, London. https://doi.org/10.1057/9781137379344_8

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