This text was first published in April-May 2014, in The Lifted Brow 22.
1. IN WHICH EPISTEMOLOGY IS DISCUSSED
The Critic always saw theatre from the first-person point of view, because there was no other way. Perhaps because, as a woman, she never felt she was able to assume the universal point of view. The idea of it – that she could see the world unmarred by who she was – felt impossible. The Critic saw beautiful, young women on stage, often in various states of undress, and could see that these were erotic stage images, but not for her. She saw hysterical women, men who would sooner commit suicide than admit an error, she saw manly banter and regret, she saw many things the meaning of which she knew, but did not feel. Theatre being theatre, she also saw many extremely rich people treat servants or people of colour badly, while they themselves revelled in relatively trivial problems, and sometimes thought about how those servants or people of colour represented her ancestors more than the protagonists, how the story of her people was only ever told on the margins. The Critic, in other words, always knew that the theatre was not meant for her, that her eyes were not the bull’s eye of the audience target, even when the message arrived. Even when she was greatly moved.
Why did the Critic like theatre, then? Why did she make it her life to see theatre three, four, five, sometimes even ten times a week, if she felt like an intruder? Because the Critic, like many – perhaps most – women, felt like an intruder in most discursive social situations already, and had become accustomed to feeling like she was sitting slightly to the left and down in the audience – a feeling that did not disappear in those prestigious, central seats. Sometimes she was elated, or crushed, sometimes her life changed while sitting in those seats; but it was an expected gift, because she had not been the target audience, because the magic that was done on her was done almost by accident.
It is said that privilege is marked by assuming that your views are representative of everyone’s. Speaking with various male critics after shows, ready to judge always slightly faster, the Critic often asked: “Why are you so sure that your opinion is the right one?” It was a strange question to many. “I know what I like,” they sometimes answered, tautology imperceptible to them.
“But you aren’t everyone”, the Critic might offer, uselessly, because in a certain sense they were everyone: they were the bull’s eye, the eye that mattered, the eye to which the art was offered. Oh, the Critic was able to pontificate with the best, argue her opinions, be sometimes insistently praising, sometimes cruelly harsh, but it was qualified intellectual bravado, always aware of where fact ended and personal opinion began.
It was with great relief that the Critic found Nataša Govedić, European dramaturg and performance critic, writing: “I think that the critic-as-a-simple-observer has never existed. The critic is always biased, has always held values, ideology if you prefer – and there doesn’t exist, not has ever existed, a neutral critic. Therefore, it is only fair to honestly admit which values we uphold, and why we believe in certain processes, and why we participiate in them.”
It is paradoxical, then, that the Critic had studiously avoided having opinions on supposedly ‘minority’ arts, such as Melbourne’s Midsumma Festival of LGBT arts, considering it and her mismatched. They were, of course, but less than feared. The queer audience arrived to the theatres with the same layered thinking, palpably so – everywhere around her the Critic could feel a suspicious, reserved energy of distantiation, of mistrust. ‘Is this work going to hurt me, or will it finally say something I can agree with?’ To the extent to which the audience mood can read, this is what the Midsumma audience seemed to be saying.
2. IN WHICH PERSONAL OPINION TAKES OVER
There is less fact in arts criticism than commonly suggested. What most closely resembles fact is, on second view, something like collective agreement, a commonality of response that is often the product of a shared experience. Observe any artform long enough, patiently enough – six months should suffice – and you will come to know the trends, understand the conventions, recognise the innovations. The benchmarks for ‘good’, ‘bad’ and ‘passable’ were often simply the converging expectations of a small number of theatre-goers – perhaps a few thousand in a regular, mid-sized western city – and the expectations of an even smaller number of critics, fed the same steady diet of local theatre. Invest six months, and you will be able to separate the wheat from the chaff in a way that nobody will strenuously contest.
The Critic thought about this often, especially when enduring an obnoxiously long, racist and macho piece that half of Europe considered a masterpiece; or when fidgeting in her seat, waiting for an opportune moment to walk out of one of those sentimental, likable shows that Australia produces. There was, in a certain sense, no point in having a personal opinion on works like that, because they were products of simple trend mathematics.
But this is not why she went to the theatre; and what gave her perseverance was the belief that nobody went to the theatre for it, not even the contented audiences. What made the experience of art worth anyone’s while was rather more personal: the possibility of that moment of short circuit – intellectual, emotional, both – like a remembrance of a deep trauma that a certain artwork triggered at a certain moment, a sudden head spin, a moment spent entirely beside oneself.
Take, for example, The Worst of Scottee, a visiting production by British performance artist Scottee, which toured Melbourne’s Midsumma and Sydney’s Mardi Gras before its official London debut in February. Many things in this production were praiseworthy, from Chris Goode’s sensitive direction and the multimedial concoction of video and set, to the details of narrative effects: each short autobiographical vignette shifted in tone only ever slightly, so that, while weeping at the end, one could remember only with confused disbelief that the performance started rip-roaringly funny. But the performance touched a nerve in the Critic for details that other audience members, who may spend more time around drag performance than she, perhaps took entirely for granted.
First, as the vignettes unfolded, the dramatic personal of Scottee was gradually stripped of his camp, showy, bitchy attitude, of glitz, frills, gestures, and vocal work, until the fierce femme was showing long, thin, white scars of hurt and trauma, which mark the lives of so many queer people of a certain age as to be entirely expected, but which are still rarely, rarely admitted. The Critic had some good and gay male friends, and the bridges that they built over mutual misunderstanding were robust and many. And yet she had never become used to the quick retaliatory reflex they always had towards her, the readiness to strike back, and it took many years and much observation to realise how much hurt they carried inside, how much mistrust, and how she would always again have to prove her friendship.
After the performance, a colleague – a twenty-something man who had grown up in a Scandinavian country – wondered aloud about the plausibility of Scottee’s story. Why would a teenager, after some confusing but nonetheless consensual gay sex, accuse another of rape? The group, consisting largely of gay Australians in their forties, was taken aback by his surprise. The Critic realised she might be getting old. Wasn’t this common knowledge, that straight people sometimes engage in gay feelings and engagements, only to later unravel with violent, untethered, blaming, confused, and unpredictable responses?
Only a few months prior, one of her best friends, Nico, a beautiful man not much past 25, suddenly called. It was Sunday afternoon, and they shared a beer on a bench by the river, while he told her how he went home with a stranger the night before, at the end of a party. In the morning, the amorous stranger had a meltdown before they even got out of his hotel bed: he wasn’t gay! He had a girlfriend back home! Why had he done this? What did it mean? How could he? The crying, the crisis, the remorse, the confusion, and Nico’s attempts at consolation, had lasted for hours, and eventually Nico had to say: “You do realise that this is also difficult for me?” The man became angry and wouldn’t hear of pursuing that line of conversation: Nico had left the hotel room and, slightly disoriented, came straight to the Critic.
They sat by the river for a long time, Nico shaking quietly, his fine fingers sprinkling cigarette ashes in all directions: “He should have said he was straight. I don’t think he once thought about what it feels like when someone is crying for hours because they had sex with you. And talks about feeling dirty and sinful and wrong, without once thinking about how this feels to hear, to the person who is hugging him, trying to console him…” He never once cried, or raised his voice, Nico, he just sat there by her side and spoke with so much consideration, so much measure, like his insides were held together with piano strings.
The hurt that a confused person can inflict on a gay person is immense and under estimable. One of the 40-something men asked: “Do you know that gay panic is still an acceptable defense for murder in many places, including Queensland?” The logic behind ‘gay panic’ is that the defendant found the (real or perceived) advances of a gay person so offensive and frightening that it brought on a psychotic, violent state. In 1997 in Queensland, a man was successfully acquitted of murder charges, sentenced only for manslaughter, because the judge thought that the victim’s unwanted approach “represented a provocation of a very grave kind.” “Any ordinary man in his position” would have reacted the same way, thought the judge, for gay panic of the violent kind happens largely between men.
It had never occurred to the Critic that Midsumma may belong to her, too, because the Critic had dated only men for most of her adult life. Her attendance was provoked by a confluence of social encounters: friends in audience, friends among the theatre-makers, her friend June was in town. But there was a moment, in The Worst of Scottee, in which the performer, in the plainest language, talked about having to describe his first sexual encounter, days after it happened, still a teenager, “in front of my mother, father, judge, and child abuse officer, in graphical detail.” And at this point, the Critic suddenly remembered the prolonged self-destruction of an intense, romantic friendship that marked her teenage years, with a girl who had a sudden about-face after their relationship turned sexual.
The break-up (for it was a break-up, even if this word felt like it had to be claimed) involved parents on both sides, a real psychotherapist, lots of crying and strangely shaped distances, conflicting versions of reality, unreliable descriptions of feelings, and large numbers of adults demanding to know the details of everything, large numbers of adults arbitrating a teen romance. It had been her first erotic experience and, as such, indescribably private. The trampling of adults through something so precious felt like an unspeakable violation. Looking back, the Critic realised that perhaps this had been the sole reason for so many boyfriends. Dating a man for the first time, she was astounded at the resounding silence of being left alone. Nobody seemed invested in asking grand epistemological questions (how do you know you are in love?, do you even know what love is?), even though falling in love in one’s early twenties is a matter universally marred by ignorance, delusions and blind guessing.
The Worst of Scottee was not about girl romance. It wasn’t even specifically about how gay lives and loves, as luminous and delicate as any other lives and loves, are so readily invaded by medical sciences, forces of law and religion, and the most violent incarnation of bon ton. If anything, it was more about how a vulnerable person, often prised open for no good reason, learns to be open and closed at the same time, the same way in which Nico knew to ask for a shoulder to cry on, but then didn’t quite know how to cry. But nonetheless, it was this dormant memory of a seventeen-year-old girl that it had aroused, and the Critic wept in the auditorium, partly out of self-pity, partly out of sympathy, and partly because she had never properly mourned this relationship. After its traumatic ending, it was never again mentioned by any of the many people involved, and remained suspended like a haunting, neither remembered nor forgotten.
3. IN WHICH WE TURN TO WOMEN
Those who thought that criticism was about knowing what one likes were always dismissive of the notion that one should see oneself represented on stage. This question was particularly annoying when it was women, or people of colour, or queers, demanding to see themselves on stage, because – well, good lord, isn’t art about universal truths? Wasn’t the experience of Scottee able to make the Critic cry because it transcended gender?
In late Januarz, a few days after the premiere of Gary Abrahams’ production of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant at Theatre Works, Melbourne theatre community was scandalised by an incensed review. Herald Sun was a tabloid whose sparse arts coverage, printed thinly between the newspaper spine and the horoscope, was a secret to most of its readers, and which never seemed invested in fostering a conversation about art. Nonetheless, Byron Bache’s review was long, detailed and not inaccurate. He wrote: “These are caricatures; the interior lives of women as men see them. But they’re not the nuanced grotesqueries of Pedro Almodovar or the vulnerable connivers of Jean Genet. The film, which focuses on the co-dependent, sadomasochistic relationship between Petra and Marlene, is a camp idiot’s conception of lesbianism; all furs at midday and cognac at 10am.”
While theatre professionals were united in publicly dismissing Bache for unrelentingly harsh tone, the review was nonetheless circulated quietly and approvingly, almost with relief, because it articulated rather well the fury with which many left the theatre.
Fassbinder, an openly gay man, wrote Petra von Kant as a play before turning it into a famous 1972 film. The story never moves out of an opulent bedroom, in which Petra, a famous fashion designer, divorced and with a teenage daughter, is introduced to Karen, falls in love with her, seduces her, and is abandoned when Karen’s casually mentioned estranged husband returns to Germany. Karen is a social-climber, a gold-digging urchin, who accepts Petra’s advances, hurts her, and leaves, all with the same blank, passionless tone. Petra’s faithful assistant Marlene watches over, silently, painfully, while Petra cries her bitter tears by the telephone. Marlene is in love, too, a fact which Petra cruelly acknowledges and simultaneously ignores.
The Critic’s date was June, an old friend and a woman who identified as a minority of almost every kind, while still coming across as quintessentially white, straight, middle-class, a fact which made her practically invisible until she spoke. June sighed as soon as they left the theatre: “You know, it’s so nice to see stories about lesbians at an LGBT festival. Usually it’s just boys talking about their childhood. But…”
The outraged consensus was first articulated by Liz, a queer performance theorist, a wonderfully highbrow, serious person. Her appearance at Midsumma seemed entirely a consequence of an oblique, negotiated sense of belonging. “I really wanted to like this. It was meant to be for me. But I just can’t, and I feel I’m betraying the piece by not liking it.”
“Perhaps because they weren’t really women.” the Critic suggested. “They were men in drag.”
Fassbinder had based the play on his own experiences: Marlene, specifically, was modelled on his own assistant. The gay men in the audience had found the production very satisfying. When Liz started to dissect her own inability to relate to the story, two or three men immediately jumped: “I related a lot! Isn’t it a universal story of lovesickness? Of the ridiculous lovelorn suffering we inflict on ourselves?”
Well, the Critic wondered, is it really? If love stories are indeed universal, why would it be so important to have gay love stories at all? Wouldn’t we all be perfectly happy seeing ourselves in Romeo and Juliet, Rhett and Scarlett? What would be the use of queer art, if all love was the same? What would be the point, more specifically, of opting to be gay, if one could have the same universal love with the person of the opposite gender?
The problem that Petra von Kant represented for lesbians was analogous to the way in which the word ‘gay’ is an umbrella that sometimes covers lesbians, and sometimes doesn’t – the way gay women sometimes feel represented by the term, and sometimes insist that the lesbian experience is different; but also the way in which lesbians are so often thought of as a sub-category of ‘homosexual’, which, invariably, denotes a universal, but a universal imagined as male.
Women are socialised differently to men. Even if we may be all one universal human being, we are socialised, to paraphrase Simone de Beauvoir, to become women and men. Relationships between women and men are thus different from relationships between two men, which in turn are very different from those between women. And, whatever universality there may be to love, nobody experiences it as anything other than highly specific, related to distinct, unique persons.
Daughters do not relate to mothers like sons do to fathers: female friendships are different from male bonding: lesbian loves are no exception. Women, socialised to be caring, learn to build relationships, to read and respond to minute details of people’s behaviour, and learn feelings of guilt when they hurt someone, and feelings of pride when they help and nurture. They also learn that women are lesser than men, that women may be hurt with less punity, that women have obligations towards others that men are largely exempt from. Much of what men perceive as excess emotion between women, adoration that easily slips into cruelty, may be, the Critic thought, a direct consequence of the high expectations women have of themselves and other women to be, if not approaching perfection, at least constantly striving for it. In their readiness to punish themselves when they fall short of various ideals lies the seed of the nastiness they could mete out to other women.
Even the ‘gay panic’ of confused straight women had a different timbre from that of confused straight men: they were less prone to violence, more to guilt. The Critic had never seen a woman treat another with the distant, cold meanness with which Karen demanded money from Petra to fly to Frankfurt and reunite with her husband. Obtuse neglect, conscious shutting off of empathy, is not something she had ever seen a woman do. Men, yes, many times. It was one of the simplest weapons in the emotional arsenal of men, a gesture that said: “I don’t think we need to be having feelings right now, do we?” Women were too fluent in feelings to feign ignorance. Even when they consciously hurt one another, they rarely pretended not to recognise the pain they were provoking: they sometimes combined violence with extreme expressions of guilt, and sometimes barbed their cruelty with justifications of a knowing therapist: “I know it hurts, but it’s for your own good.” Most relationships between women, as a consequence, happened through extremely detailed emotional stimulations and resonances, almost imperceptible to a non-empathetic observer.
The entire story of Petra von Kant, based as it was on wanton cruelty, rang false. While it may have been true to the large emotional distances in male interaction, homosexual or not, it had very little to say about women.
Of course, gay men are not the only ones who dress male characters in drag and call them women. Some years ago, in 2008, , the Critic saw David Williamson’s comedy Scarlett O’Hara at the Crimson Parrot at Melbourne Theatre Company, ostensibly about an aging, single woman still living with her mother. The central relationship was a dysfunctional interaction between a mother and a bruised, withdrawn yet raging, homicidal son, just de-framed and re-framed, translated and costumed, and finally presented as a relationship between mother and daughter. The mother would ask what is wrong. The daughter would shout back, her lines running something like “leave me alone, you old hag!” This kind of masquerade was frequent, and explained why women were prone to forming major cults around narrative works that dealt with women with anything approaching verisimilitude: My So-Called Life, The L Word, Orange is the New Black. In any case, while Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant may have said something about the universal suffering in love, it said nothing at all about women.
4. IN WHICH DRAG IS TREATED WITH SOME SERIOUSNESS
If there was one topic that the Critic and Nico studiously avoided discussing, it was drag queen performances (not drag kings, though – being female, therefore a non-universal sub-category, were understood to be a non-issue). Nico had a passion and a talent for drag, an ability to recognise quality, and a knowledge of the artform’s history and stars. The Critic knew very little other than that it involved an impersonation of women in a narrow range of stereotypes. She had always found it vaguely insulting, the procession of divas, in exaggerated make-up, vertiginous heels, grossly sexualised, in stock roles, often almost naked. It seemed to her that drag queens condensed in their performances every method of oppression and humiliation that patriarchy had thrown at women, confusing it for essential femininity. Nico had no answers: it made for some very tense silences.
There was more to it: the entire male gay culture sometimes seemed to have place for only one kind of woman, the kind that feminism was invested in burying. Nico would sometimes excitedly show her music videos for Madonna’s Girl Gone Wild or Lady Gaga’s Alejandro, insisting these were fascinating interventions into representations of gender. The Critic would demolish them for the way they represented women: blonde, thin, toned, sexualised, barely dressed, heavily made up, alone among men, unearthly, fabulous divas. Nico would go quiet. These were short, hurtful conversations, and they harmed their friendship. But they were looking at different things. The Critic was dissecting Madonna Ciccone and Stefani Germanotta; Nico was looking at the high-heeled Kazaky dancing in the background. It was only much, much later that the Critic started to understand that drag was not about women at all. Perhaps while being violently shoved aside in the testosterone-saturated mosh pit of Stonewall Hotel on Oxford Street by men trying to get closer to the drag show on the corner stage, the Critic realised just how unimportant real women were to the entire business. Drag queens did not perform femininity. They were taking back entire vocabularies of gesture, voice, couture, that had been banned from the palette of expression allowed to men. It was emancipatory indeed, but it was a male project, not directly related to women.
5. IN WHICH THE HIPPIE ERA MAKES A SHORT, BUT SIGNIFICANT APPEARANCE
After much crying, raging, and drinking, Petra von Kant has a sort of epiphany: “I didn’t really love her. I just wanted to possess her. That’s all over now. I’ve learned my lesson.” She finally approaches Marlene, apologises, promises her equality, freedom, and fun. After treating her assistant as less than a worm, she says: “Tell me about yourself.” The play ends here. But in the film, and in Abrahams’ production, Marlene at this point quietly walks away from Petra, packs her bags, and leaves the apartment.
The acting in Fassbinder’s film is extremely stylised, slow and static. The women compose their bodies into ever more languidly elegant poses; their costumes are operatic; Petra changes wigs in each scene. Lovers Petra and Karen interact with the passion of two mannequins. Paradoxically, it makes the film less offensive, because it amplifies the metaphor inherent in drag performance: by not pretending to present real women at all, it becomes easier to relate to the truth behind the metaphor. It even seems to boldly suggest that we all play extreme roles, roles which severely restrict our emotional vocabulary.
Abrahams’ production failed by being realistic on the surface, all the while keeping the overstatement in plot, character, and dialogue. It worked neither as metaphor nor as realism: it became an ordinary melodrama that made only men cry.
Liz was particularly offended: “It was not at all… queer, I guess. It was just… straight… theatre. No norms were subverted, it wasn’t transgressive. All the myths remained intact.”
The director seemed genuinely surprised when Liz rattled off a list of tropes that underpinned his production: “the pathetic older lesbian falls foolishly in love with a younger woman, loses her mind”; “the lesbian cannot resist a man, because only sex with penis counts”; “love is a battle for power: there is no equality or care, just winners and losers.” While the former two were specifically offensive to the queer women in the audiences, it was the latter that the Critic found the most riling. It seemed so insidiously 19th-century, while posing as avant-garde. It came so close to the worldview that said that all people were inherently incapable of generosity, enlightened self-interest, or sound moral judgement, and that only strictly policed laws kept our civilisation going.
What was the point, the Critic wondered, of a century spent fighting for the rights to vote, divorce, abortion, contraception, kindergartens, maternity and paternity leave, gay marriage, sex change, legalised prostitution, recognition of the essential non-harmfulness of kinky but consensual sex, and various forms of free love—all fundamental appeals of queer culture—if the queers then lined up to celebrate a view of relationships as bleak as Fassbinder’s? Concerned citizens had always howled that the right to everything above would destroy the society, that humans had no ability to self-moderate. Each time they were proven wrong: we learned to internalise the ethics of care and decency, even without the threat of execution or prison. Women didn’t abandon families in droves just because they could divorce and work, nor did they abort endless children for the sheer fun of it.
It seemed to the Critic that a crucial aspect of progressive political movements in general was the belief that humans were driven by something other than power, and blind, short-term self-interest. The most deadening aspect of Petra von Kant, like other Fassbinder’s works, was that it seemed unable to imagine a relationship based on equality, respect, freedom, one that would not collapse into exploitation. Strip away the detail, and there was little distinguishing Petra from Strindberg’s Miss Julie, another 19th-century play in which romance was depicted as a battle that the weaker had to lose. And the weaker, Liz pointed out, was usually the woman.
Did it matter, in the end? Was it good art? Could it be good art? Did it matter if a play about women said nothing about women? If a theatre piece at an LGBT festival was not queer at all? Was it possible to say that Fassbinder’s intention lay elsewhere, that Abrahams’ intentions lay elsewhere too? The Critic did not know, genuinely did not know. But she had felt nothing in the theatre that, nothing but a heavy disagreement.
6. IN WHICH THERE IS ANOTHER KAREN, A REAL ONE
It was in the middle of the queer season, between Midsumma in Melbourne and Mardi Gras in Sydney, and the Critic was dragged to endless queer parties by June, who was making the most of her visit. At one such party, the Critic found herself the object of attention of a girl with big, bright eyes and a gentle, girly demeanour, coincidentally named Karen. Karen was sweet, very interested in taking the Critic home, and heterosexual until that – a combination that may sound contradictory, but had never been very rare at queer parties. Karen was, in many ways, the perfect exemplar of a confused straight girl, flirting gently, through small gestures, offering glasses of water and small change, making her advances step by tiny step, clearly overwhelmed and ready to stress the singularity, the unprecedentedness, of her lesbian desire. The Critic liked her, despite knowing better than to accept the invitation. Perhaps, instead of sex on the spot, they could have a coffee the day after, in the daylight, sober, rested? June sensibly disapproved, but the Critic liked to challenge fate. Besides, the month had passed under the sign of confused straight people: perhaps it was time to attempt innovation.
The day after, Karen did not respond to any of the messages in which the Critic inquired about her state of wakefulness, kinds of coffee, locations of cafes. When she finally did, she was cancelling everything, interrupting all communication forever, admitting to having a boyfriend, and professing irresistible and undying attraction, all at once. Feelings were flushing out of her in heterogeneous clusters: “I don’t want to give you the impression I may leave my boyfriend for you! Will you write to me? Maybe our paths will collide again! Oh, my boyfriend is looking at me from the other side of the table! I feel terrible! Why are you so gorgeous?”
June took a quick read and concluded that all straight people are confused, insane, and I-told-you-so: “At least she didn’t try to kill you.”
“But here is my question,” wondered the Critic, “is this better or worse than Petra von Kant? Which Karen makes women look worse?”
“Does this matter?”
“Of course it does. Art must not be less flattering to women than reality is.”
“That is a contentious statement”, said June, who was not an art critic. “Why did you want to sleep with a straight woman anyway?”
“I didn’t,” said the Critic honestly. “I just wanted to have a coffee.”
The line between perpetuating stereotypes and verisimilitude, or between emancipatory representation and idealisation is sometimes thin. Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013), Abdellatif Kechiche’s award-winning film about a lesbian relationship, was hitting Australian cinemas just as Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant was closing, and wars were fought in the Critic’s social circle over its resemblance to reality. Some claimed never to have had sex as it was depicted – long, sweaty, mechanically complex, silent. Others claimed always to have sex that way. Some argued that lesbian sex was fundamentally different: slower, more talkative, longer. Others complained that lesbian sex was never before depicted as passionate, animalistic. Just like Gary Abrahams was genuinely surprised that Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant had to stand for all lesbian experience, so was an unreasonable weight placed on a small film. Why? Because it had won Palme d’Or in Cannes, and would be seen by many people, who hadn’t seen other films in the small catalogue of lesbian cinema. In both cases, it was futile to argue that these works could not represent everyone’s experience. They would do so, regardless of the authors’ intentions, because of a scarcity of representation extrinsic to the works themselves.
7. IN WHICH WE MOVE ON
Perhaps the only way to answer this question of representation was to eliminate it entirely. As a part of the Mardi Gras celebrations, Performance Space in Sydney threw a three-day durational performance art event, crowned with a party. The guests mingled all throughout the beautiful, large spaces of Carriageworks, a former railway yard. In the corners, short queer performances were starting and stopping, and party guests would swarm around single performers, then disperse again. Some were cynical: burlesque supernova Lillian Starr danced in a glass box in the wall, taking selfies and posting them on Instagram. Others predictably invoked gender-swapping tropes: men in drag, women in drag. Liz was there, feeling too old and too insufficiently promiscuous to stay long, annoyed because she had been refused an academic position of one kind or another. It happened often. But, before she left, they spent a long time lying on the floor with headphones on their ears, watching a video wall of female heads head-banging to cocky heavy metal songs. The group was called Hissy Fit, the performance Episode, and it clearly commented on the dismissal of female rage as insignificant, laughable. The wall was immense. The three performers appeared in person, at one point, and banged their heads, whipping the air with their very long hair, dressed in fabulous black combat suits like three female Robocops. It was immensely satisfying.
“You know where I last saw women being angry in a way not condemned as hysterical or crazy?” Liz asked on her way out. “The L Word, in 2005. Makes you weep.”
Martin del Amo had a wonderful, short dance in which he fell, folded his body into itself, twisted wrists and hips, tried and failed. It wasn’t drag. It did not depict any gender, any situation. It was simply a male body, twisted outside of a narrow expressive range that it was allowed every day. Some people cried.
The evening closed with Frances Barrett’s performance Flagging. It was an elaborate joke on the many secret signals the gay community developed to signal sexual preference without attracting violence from the outsiders. Barrett appeared, ceremoniously, bare-breasted, backlit, strong and solemn, holding two semaphore flags. Her short statement, a kind of ceremony of opening and closing of each day, said:
This is a performance
a visual code
an embodied language
Where time is black
and space is red
I am becoming a signal
My body is a trigger
I want to be a gun
to be the impossible
the ecstatic act
fired towards a crowd
This is the sound of flagging
Genesis at the beat
gnawing into the future
This flag heralds
a time for movement
a time for action
Fused bodies alight
It took 15 minutes to perform this in flag language, by which time it had become pure, meaningless, an event: a bare-breasted woman waving flags. There was no emotion in it anymore, it was pure action, pure effort. It could not be accused of misrepresentation, because it did not represent. Afterwards, June and the Critic danced for a long time, surrounded with people who didn’t know much about performance art, who were there because it was summer, it was Sydney, it was Mardi Gras. For a short amount of time, they too were pure presence, dancing to beats without lyrics, without talking, without meeting people, without flirting, without discussing boyfriends. It was better that way.
As they were leaving, sweaty, silent, tired, a text message arrived. ““I am sorry for being such a coward. Would you still like to have a coffee?”