The first Queer New York International Arts Festival was quite an experience for Zvonimir Dobrović and me to conceptualize and organize. Our biggest drive in putting together this queer festival in New York, which people often say is the center of queer expression, was to provide a different perspective on what queerness might be. We used some of the artistic and aesthetic impulses that were questioning this very "centrist" hegemony on understanding queerness. Even the fact that our festival was curated from and modeled after a festival in Croatia, which is so removed from New York, means a lot, even if only to us. Over the past 10 years what has developed in Croatia is a much wider and permissive understanding of queerness as anything outside the norm, without the strict relation to gender and sexuality. This wider understanding of queerness is what caused the greatest hiccup in our reception in New York. Nevertheless, that wider understanding is where all the strength of queerness lies.
Therefore, one of our most explicit goals was to get people to question their preconceived ideas of both the term "queer" and the artworks associated with it. We think we succeeded in that, through presenting works that involved other queernesses -- works born out of other sociocultural environments, other ways of expression, other backgrounds. We understood from the start that things we presented under the queer umbrella might not be immediately recognized as queer. Fair enough. Moving on.
We welcomed the challenges thrown at us by audiences, art critics, and even some of our partners. That was, after all, the point of the festival. Among the most repeated questions: Do artworks need to be named "queer" to be queer? Is queer art always representational of actual queer life, with all of its joys and struggles? Could queer art be about shared feelings and points of view between queer people and other individuals? What are the ethical obligations of arts presenters who work under humanistic umbrellas like feminism, multiculturalism/racial struggles, and queerness, amongst others? All of these are questions that we ask ourselves, and they're far from the only ones. We like to experiment with queerness and expand its understandings. And we like to bring people who are also interested in these questions into the discussion.
Now let's face it in a positive way. The queer arts scene has been blessed with a very significant DIY/indie culture. And that really is great: people taking matters into their own hands and solving issues of representability, expression, and even, I dare say, social justice. However, we feel that at some point along the way, queer art got so associated with the DIY/indie culture that works that received the approval of arts institutions and festivals sometimes got their queer meanings consciously erased, to say it strongly, or overlooked, to be more diplomatic. Does anyone who presents Raimund Hoghe or Jérôme Bel ever use the term "queer" when they contextualize their work? Do dance critics ever see it through that lens? It is easy to say that the work of Annie Sprinkle is queer, or the work of Keith Hennessy, or of Antonia Livingstone. But present Marina Abramović in a queer context (and understand that it does not reduce the work), because queerness comes just as naturally to her as it does to Vaginal Davis, if only we allowed ourselves to see it. In doing that we would be doing the same thing that the establishment does: hijacking and renaming. And renaming something "queer" is a very ethical thing to do.
Going back to Raimund Hoghe: His work is very queer. In Boléro Variations, for example, he took the boléro rhythm (a rhythm traditionally associated with a very macho way of dancing, in which the man dominates the woman and, well, she appears to just love it), and Raimund made it queer by deconstructing it. Raimund taught me queerness through this piece. However, not one single presenter of this piece named it "queer" until the queer festival in Croatia did. Raimund was very happy with his piece being called "queer," not because it limited the interpretations of his work but because it resonated with the very origins of the work's creation itself. We were unable to present him in New York at our queer festival, but he is going to be in New York in October at the Baryshnikov Arts Center with a beautiful love story Pas de Deux, featuring a young Japanese dancer Takashi Ueno. When it premieres, I challenge you to find the word "queer" in reviews, or in announcements of the show, for that matter.
I suspect that by now you are wondering what feminism and Marina Abramović have to do with anything. Marina Abramović has repeatedly said that she is not a feminist, first at the MoMa 2007 feminist symposium, and then, very recently, in a New York Times interview. Most people would agree that famous people have an ethical responsibility to support causes that, in the end, will benefit all of us collectively -- which is the very definition of ethics. Alexander Geist, a queer artist, told me that he thinks that non-feminists are less worthy than feminists. I wholeheartedly agree with him, and his opinion matters to the festival and to me because he is one example of an indie, queer artist who has been fighting the arts system and who has fought societal expectations about himself in the most daring ways. His work builds on the long queer tradition of drag performance, while itself being a reinvention of the genre and a very contemporary blend of music and performance.
However, I think that Marina's declarations only mean that she is not a feminist activist, not that she does not believe in women's rights. And I can relate to that. While I myself am an immigrant, I am not an activist for immigrants' rights (just as she does not work for women's rights), though I fully support finding solutions to immigrants' struggles, as I understand she does regarding women's struggles. This is not about splitting semantic hairs but understanding people's words and not spinning them out of context. Marina does not need my defense, and this not intended as one, but I think that her saying that could also be seen as a queer statement. The Times interviewer specifically pointed out that Marina's boob job did not follow the feminist traditions of performance art. That puzzled me. When did performance art become something about traditions? I was under the impression that it would actually be the opposite.
As I understand it, the Times interviewer asked that question because he himself was puzzled, because the person he met and interviewed did not fit within the societal roles collectively expected of her. Marina was put in a position in which many queer people find themselves, though for different reasons. Queerness, in perhaps its barest and most basic concept, is about breaking the rules, shaking things up, and challenging preconceived ideas. Right? In that line of thinking, was her statement -- shock! -- queer, then? I think it was! She said she was "just an artist" and to stop romanticizing about it: An artist is someone who took up as his or her profession the elaboration of complex symbols that have their multiple meanings scrutinized by other professionals, such as art critics and art historians, and by audiences.