Some of the questions I was most asked when talking about the Queer New York International Arts Festival (QNYI), of which I am one of the curators with Zvonimir Dobrovic, was why were we doing a queer international arts festival in New York. Aren't we over that sort of frame yet? Haven't we come a long way? Isn't everything already so queer?
The works we present in the festival strongly challenge and broaden the current normality of 'queer.' It redefines queer as anything outside of the norm and creates a context to present artists that challenge norms, whether or not these artists would otherwise be perceived as queer in the more traditional sense. The festival's program includes internationally recognized contemporary names, such as Marlene Monteiro Freitas, François Chaignaud & Cecilia Bengolea, Tadasu Takamine, Ricci / Forte, and others. These artists are presented by some of the most important arts institutions, venues and festivals around the world, such as the Festival d'Avignon Festival d'Automne Paris, Montpellier Danse (France), Kunstenfestival (Belgium), HAU (Germany), etc. And to include them in the context of a queer festival is something that none of those institutions, festivals or venues have offered to them and their work. QNYI adds another prism to these artists and allows the audience to see it and think about it through a different perspective.
Zvonimir Dobrovic, with whom I am co-curating QNYI, has been running the Queer Zagreb festival in Croatia for ten years. He often says that from his yearlong experience of producing a queer festival he has the understanding and perception that art critics, opinion makers and curators often think of what is commonly labeled as 'queer art' as "an overcome artistic expression." In other words, something that does not matter, or that when it matters it does so within a very specific context and to very few people or either. "Overcome" here may have many meanings and interpretations. I will look into two meanings that are important for our context of putting on an international queer arts festival in New York.
The first is that what is commonly presented as 'queer art' uses artistic expressions that may not anymore be considered interesting from contemporary arts points of view, such as the use of iconic signs (imitation). That is not to say that imitation itself does not have a place in contemporary art, but then it is rather a departure and not the end point of the work and so does not become the whole of the artwork, especially not in a narrative context.
Being aware of the fact that iconic queer art (consisting mainly of imitative gestures) has conservatively been seen as a marginalized artistic expression, we sought to present works that move towards the symbolic (in which the connections between abstraction and reality must be learnt) and the indexical (in which the sign is caused by the concrete). This can be seen throughout the QNYI program. As in David Wampach's work 'Auto' where the choreographer performs dressed as a woman (iconic queer), though the imitation is only the starting point for a broader reflection on the relationship between sound and movement on an aesthetic level and on a semantic level on micro-relationships of power. The iconic queer in this piece can be seen as one of the causes of these reflections (indexicality). Or in Marlene Monteiro Freitas' work 'Guintche' in which the character she embodies and its sequence of transformations become a queer sign itself (symbolic). This connection is facilitated in the context of a queer festival.
The second is that there is a shared opinion that what is thought of as good art has openness to interpretation in it -- in reference to Umberto Eco's 'The Open Work.' Which is to say that these highly valued art works are so valued because of their ability to engage individual and society and mind. Therefore it is a well-placed question that if we label any art works 'queer' would we then be reducing their meanings and thus decreasing their values? According to Dobrovic's experience, these works often do not have their queer layers recognized. There are many reasons behind this non-recognition, and these reasons may vary according to any number of local and specific socio-historic contexts. However, a shared reason is 'heteronormativity.' This reality itself enables and justifies a queer frame.
From this experience and understanding came the need to present these works in a 'queer' context in a way that would ad to its experiences, interpretations and understandings -- instead of limiting it. That is done through a varied program, in form and quality, that itself expands the meanings of the term queer to include others that share the margins of contemporary societies with the usually recognized as 'queer' people (LGBTIQ).
For more information on the Queer New York Festival, please visit www.queerny.org