Performance collage

Throughout the 1990s, grunt gallery's programming featured an annual live performance series and each of these series featured at least one cabaret, usually as a kick-off event for the series. In 1990 and 1991 it was the Performance Art and Performance Poetry Series, including the Pop Tart Cabaret (significantly, in 1991 the series featured 10 women performance poets); in 1991, grunt hosted the Chicago Series, which wound up with a cabaret that brought together Vancouver and Chicago-based artists; in 1992 grunt hosted the First Nations Performance Series, in 1993 it was Queer City and, in 1995, Halfbred - a series featuring cabarets and solo performances around the themes "miscegenation," "bisexuality" and "transgender." In 1999, of course, grunt hosted the massive Live at the End of the Century festival that was launched with a multi-hour cabaret at the Vogue Theatre, which itself might accurately have been described as durational performance by the audience: the show's closing act, performance art star Warren Arcan, comes on stage acknowledging the audience's endurance by saying, "Thank you everybody for staying so long. It's been a lovely night." There are many remarkable aspects to political cabaret cultures, not least of which is the consistency of the DIY-style variety-show experience. In October 2011, twelve years after Live at the End of the Century, I attended a sex-worker-run cabaret in Toronto, organized for the 25th anniversary of Maggie's: Toronto Sex Workers Action Project. That night, host Fluffy Soufflé (aka Kaleb Robertson) welcomed/warned the cabaret audience at the beginning of the night by saying, "It's a long show. It's a great show." The Arcan-Soufflé echo here reverberating over a decade of space and time, may serve as a reminder both of the ways that cabaret can become overburdened by its own capacity to include a wide diversity of voices, and also how cabaret is a necessarily provocative and durational form that has cultivated the work and careers of artists, who—because of their marginalized gender, class, ethnicity, sexuality, ability, or race—otherwise find themselves beyond the pale of the "legitimate" art world. Indeed, it strikes me that the lives of queers, feminists, Indigenous peoples, people with disabilities and people of colour are already (differently) durational performances. Aren't we already (again, differently) experts in impatient survival?

The resiliency and openness of the cabaret has made it a central form of radical/revolutionary contemporary performance. In particular, identity-driven performance art has thrived within the cabaret format. As Glenn Alteen notes in his essay for the Queer City series, "Performance art has always been a queer practice… Its lack of restriction made it a form many queer artists chose to reflect concerns which had never been voiced." As a one of the originary sites of performance art, cabaret—and variety shows more generally—has fostered the openness that Alteen cites here. Furthermore, as Archer Pechawis explains in his essay, "Remembering the Spirit, Re-Igniting the Sacred," on the Two-Spirited Series program pages, these events bring to new audiences the "existence, diversity, vibrancy of our sexual identities." So while these series featured solo shows and cabaret, the cabaret itself is a one-night manifestation of what Lizard Jones calls the "Queercity," the place "we live in, of our own making… our city of invisible sites that we know."

It is not surprising that cabaret should figure so prominently in grunt's programming. The variety format of cabaret enables the curatorial strategy of a longer series to become apparent in a single event; indeed, as grunt administrator Merle Addison's letter to Don Lindsay at the Cultural Services Branch reveals, one of the key features of these series is that they brought "…together artists from across the country…" and marked "… the first time these artists have performed at one event…" (May 14, 1992.) By showcasing what the series has to offer, and how each performer's work relates to the series, the cabaret form allows a potential audience to see short performances by artists working through the series themes, before committing to the longer solo pieces scheduled for later in the week. Ideally, the cabaret hooks audiences for all of the featured events to follow, even if they were only intending to show up for the cabaret. Indeed, this is how cabaret functions across the board: as an audience member, you may, for example, show up to see/support the work of your friend, Iris, who is performing at the Two-Spirited Cabaret. Yet, over the course of the cabaret you are exposed to the work of Aiyyana Maracle and Frankie Doss, who you would never have gone to see if left to your own devices. Now that you know about the work of these new artists—and after you have bummed cigarettes from them (by all accounts these events were smoking) and polished off the cheap wine at the gallery with the other series artists during the spontaneous cabaret dance party—you might just go (or feel compelled to go) see their solo shows. Cabarets are audience-builders to be sure. Or that is one hope offered by the variety format, but, given the tricky wicket that is performance art, cabaret can go the other way too and drive the audience away, in blood, tears, or worse. Sometimes a provocation of the whiplash-inducing variety, or the numb bum of sitting for hours is too much. It is a risky business. I remember in the late 1990s after a show I had curated, one of the audience members told me that she wasn't going to go to anymore feminist cabaret shows because she was "sick of leaving the house just to get yelled at" by the performers. But, accepting that cabaret can go either way, let us assume that the one of the functions of cabaret is to expose audiences to artists who were previously unfamiliar to them, for better or for worse.

Beyond audience formation/education, cabaret at the grunt in the 1990s served another important function as well: it allowed the various performances/performers of the series to be engaged together—often with additional artists added to the cabaret bill—in space and time, in a conversation that took the form of what we might call a proliferating dialectic. In general, by staging a range of performance forms, contents, tones and styles, the cabaret produces multiple relationalities. These juxtapositions in which the performances play off of each other—performances that are not necessarily contradictory, but which produce a new sense of meaning through the friction produced by the variety format—can rarely be achieved by a solo show or even the feature-length ensemble show. Cabaretic juxtaposition leads us to think of what in poetics is called parataxis and what, in film, is called montage. Whatever you call it, the cabaret is an embodied, relational, dialectical form. Cabaret places dissimilar or loosely connected performances side by side, or on top of each other (either metaphor works), and these performances move together and against each other throughout an evening, producing an experience of knowing and being that necessarily differs from the solo shows that make up the rest of the series or festival. Thus, what we might call the grunt's "impulse to cabaret" reveals not only the objective of generating interest in the rest of the series/festival—in which formulation the cabaret would be understood as a lesser, teaser form, a performance buffet, if you will—but also an astute recognition that these performances are necessarily always already in conversation with each other and it is in this 'cabaret conversation' that the most interesting work of the series may happen. The improvisatory rubbings against—of performances, of bodies in a small room—function as the surprising (and sometimes sadomasochistic) erotics of the cabaret and are heightened by a sense that the show is too political, in bad taste, excessive and/or out of control.

Perhaps the most explicit example of grunt cabaret's proliferating dialectic is the (controversially named) Halfbred series. Glenn Alteen's program notes for this series explain:

Halfbred is a multidisciplinary project focusing on artists of mixed race, bisexuals and the transgendered. The late 1980s and early 1990s have produced a body of work in which identity plays an important role. Gender, Race and Sexuality have become important signifiers but up until now binary systems of male and female, black and white, straight and gay have dominated the discussion.

Halfbred focuses on artists living and working outside of binary systems. Issues of miscegenation, bisexuality and transgender have often been pushed to the margins of these discussions. By programming within these margins, Halfbred brings into focus the gray areas between.

Alteen's note here reminds us of another significant feature of these cabaret events that bears some articulation. The thematic structures of these series were based on what might be called an identity aesthetics, which was, and continues to be, overtly political. Now, identity politics gets a bad rap, sometimes for good reasons. The political-social entrenchment in a rigid identity positionality tends to aim for uniformity and stability in that position in order to make it intelligible and to appear coherent; by insisting on these categories we tend to neglect the historical/regional contingencies of (asymmetrical) relations of power, reaching for a repeatable identity formula, rather than engaging with the impossibility of such a formula. Halfbred's preoccupation with cultivating non-binary performance reflects the ways that artists, activists and scholars were troubling identity politics, and marks the emergence of the post-identity theory/aesthetics/politics of the 1990s. Art, politics and theory struggled to arrive at critical and aesthetic forms that would complicate the identity categories that we found ourselves simultaneously embracing and rejecting, and it was perhaps in cabaret that this struggle was most evident.

The magic of the cabaret, while it can engender tokenism and cliquishness in the name of diversity, is that, even if it is motivated by an identity political praxis, the variety format can usually not help but to consolidate and expand their subjects and subject matter simultaneously. As the cabarets at the grunt tended to show, there is no such thing as a single way to be bisexual, no such thing as a unified transgender or Indigenous or Two-Spirited positionality. Even while individual performers may attempt to articulate their own understandings of what it means to be Two-Spirited, Indigenous, trans1, multi-racial, or queer, the variety format reveals the impossibility of framing a singular identity under the banner of these identity categories.

Moreover, it is important to remember that identity politics did not just spring up for no reason. As Archer Pechawis, Paul Wong and Laiwan remind us in their retrospective interview, "Art and Identity Politics: Vancouver in the 1990s," the importance of spaces like grunt, the Pitt Gallery and Video In, was that mainstream galleries, series and festivals were just not producing the work of Indigenous artists, queer artists, and artists of colour, especially if their work was political contentious. Furthermore, as Laiwan observes, "there weren't a lot of women of colour or queers of colour being trained as artists. So how do you create a space that encourages young queers of colour into being creative?" The cabaret is a place in which emerging artists can experiment with their practice by making short works that do not bear the same burden for "success" as a feature-length show. In fact, cabaret might be understood as a laboratory for what Judith Halberstam calls the "queer art of failure": a place in which success by hetero-capitalist standards has little or no value. While we may today in 2012 dwell on the failures of identity politics, these cabarets (and the series that they were part of) provided the necessary space for the articulation of identity categories and simultaneously revealed the inadequacy of those categories.

It is important, I think, for grunt to claim its history of engagement with identity politics. Furthermore, as we move through the second decade of this new century, it is necessary to remember that "identity politics" was a response to serious blackballing and censoring of Indigenous artists, artists of colour, women artists and queer and trans artists in mainstream and artist-run venues; this situation was (and continues to be) a product of a racist, ableist, colonialist, misogynist, queer-hating and transphobic, nationalist Canadian settler/occupier culture. Paul Wong explains that, in the early 1990s, "there was no ticking of this institutional thing because I fought the battles, I heard the disdain from out there. ‘What the fuck are those Indians doing or those queers doing and it's shit.' . . . I used absolutely every bit of my resources to kick down doors and my connections to co-produce and make these things up and be slammed in the press . . . We wanted to change institutional things and policies." Indeed, as Pechawis remembers, the programming at grunt enabled not just the differentiation of various identity positions, but also recognized the ways in which, to use the words of the indomitable poet (who, I suspect has performed in her fair share of cabaret) Staceyann Chin, "all oppression is connected." Pechawis notes, "it's really important to recognize that it wasn't all of a sudden that race, gender, sexuality - all those hot button topics - became, for some of us, especially, I think, just … the one big thing. It was very inclusive in the sense that basically anybody who had an axe to grind, we were the axe sharpening house." Whenever I have a choice between being in the axe-sharpening house, or in the house with no axes, I hope I always choose the sharp axes.

Cabaret at the grunt in the 1990s strikes me as a curatorial tactic in the mode of what Irit Rogoff has provisionally called criticality, "a mode of embodiment, a state from which one cannot exit or gain a critical distance, but which rather marries our knowledge and experience in ways that are not complimentary; … criticality, is a state of profound frustration in which the knowledge and insights we have amassed do very little to alleviate the conditions we live through." Cabaret, as a refusal of critical distance, is, at once an eclectic, genre-troubling performance space; it is a vital, if incoherent, form of entertainment and social commentary, a community-building, sustaining, and problematic set of activities, a dynamic, responsive and transformative site of political activism and aesthetic innovation, and, ultimately, a mode of existence and way of knowing that is both produced by, and produces, radical lives. We might think of the ways in which these cabaret functioned as not separate from but continuous with the everyday lives of the artists and curators involved in the grunt's "identity" programming. In this sense, they form a kind of "cabaret consciousness": a mobile ontology and episteme that privileges unpredictability, pleasure, risk, excess, failure, challenge and confusion, characteristics of the cabaret that are mutually constitutive with their radical, translocal DIY scenes.

When I think of the Bisexual Cabaret, for example, held on May 26 1995, and hosted by the irreverent Christine Taylor, who introduces herself as "your stewardess, or anything else you'd like me to be this evening," I see the ways that some of the performances importantly worked through troubled, hot and quotidian valences of bisexuality in more or less serious ways. Many of the performance of these cabarets took the form of politically charged, content-driven work that Rebecca Schneider has called "explosive literality." At the Bisexual Cabaret, the autobiographical performances by Teri Snelgrove and Tamara Vukov, for example, dealt head-on with topics of bisexual identities and politics, but Taylor's impious, impolitic interjections between performances brushed against these pieces, each performance altering the grain of the others, complicating and changing each other, resisting smoothness. The variety format on this night produced and was produced by the complexity of affect and aesthetics within the scene of performance, and within the politics, erotics and sociality of a "bisexual identity." The rubbing between performances is the affective process of cabaret, the political emotional valence of cabaret as everyday or "everynight life" (Delgado & Muñoz), in which performers and audiences enact their pasts, presents and futures. These multiple and multiplying embodiments and subjectivities of the DIY cabaret can be understood through their complex temporalities as experiments with time, lifespan, and the ever-shifting histories of joy, solidarity and violence within communities. In fact, the affective politics of confusion that tended to emerge from an identity-themed cabaret, rather than entrench these identities, typically served the opposite function by exploding these identities, and have importantly informed post-identity interventions in theory and criticism.

Finally, one of the most important features of contemporary feminist and queer cabaret is that it is not isolated to only one city or one scene and its history is not limited to the predictable linear history that heads straight for Europe; it is, in Canada anyway, ubiquitous and genealogical, happening everywhere and influenced by variety-style shows from a vast range of cultures, including, especially Indigenous cultures. Cabarets that happen at local levels are connected across time and place by aesthetics, politics and economies of public intimacy. The cabarets happening at grunt in the 1990s were in good company with cabarets sharing similar political and aesthetic commitments, happening in other venues across Vancouver and in cities and towns across the continent. These events included Edmonton's annual Loud & Queer cabaret, produced by Darrin Hagen (later Kristy Harcourt) and Guys in Disguise, the Cheap Queers cabaret hosted at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre by the Hardworking Homosexuals collective, the Meow Mix and Le Boudoir cabarets curated and produced by Miriam Ginestier in Montreal, the Hysteria Festival in Toronto curated by Moynan King, Rock 4 Choice curated and produced by Meegan Maultstaid and Denise Sheppard in Vancouver, and the Women in View Festival—which were primarily presented in cabaret/variety format—as well as the Talking Stick Festival, hosted by Margo Kane and Full Circle Performance in Vancouver. While these scenes were connected, either physically, erotically or empathically—and it is important to make these connections and to be reminded of their "contextual present" (Rich 11)—it is equally important to be wary of the ways that community can be mobilized. As Miranda Joseph and others have argued, while community is "almost always invoked as an unequivocal good," and, in particular, community for "leftists and feminists community has connoted cherished ideals of cooperation, equality and communion" (vii) an uncritical celebration of community tends to render invisible the ways that communities are also "disciplining and exclusionary" (vii), while simultaneously tend to gloss over or call necessary the ways that this discipline and these exclusions are exerted. However, I think it is fair to say that the kinds of cabaret that surface at grunt and beyond draw attention to the ways that our communities (including the grunt community) are diverse and tokenistic, progressive and regressive, welcoming and alienating, inclusive and exclusive. It is precisely through the variety format that cabaret enables—or even forces—us to engage in what we might productively call onanistic self-critique, or put another way, masturbatory self-flagellation. As the shows at grunt reveal over and over again, cabaret brings us all the pleasure and pain of being inside and outside of community.


  1. trans signals the various trans ways of being/identities: i.e., transgendered, transsexual, genderfuck, intersex, genderfluid, etc. Trans* is not meant to render all ways of being non-cisgendered or non-gender normative as uniform, but recognizes a potential affinity among these experiences and these critiques. back

Works Cited

  1. Chin, Staceyann. "All Oppression Is Connected" YouTube. (June 2009). Web. 25 Feb. 2012.

  2. Delgado, Celeste Fraser & José Esteban Muñoz (editors). Everynight Life : Culture and Dance in Latin/o. America. Durham [N.C.]: Duke University Press, 1997. Print.

  3. Halberstam, Judith. The Queer Art of Failure. Durham [NC]: Duke University Press, 2011. Print.

  4. Joseph, Miranda. Against the Romance of Community. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002. Print.

  5. Rich, Adrienne. On Lies, Secrets, and Silence : Selected Prose, 1966-1978. New York: Norton. Print.

  6. Rogoff, Irit. Smuggling: From Criticism to Critique to Criticality

  7. Schneider, Rebecca. The Explicit Body in Performance. London; New York: Routledge, 1997. Print.

I am a writer, performer, activist and professor currently living in New York City. My artistic, activist and academic work are mutually informing extensions of each other. My research and teaching are importantly influenced by the cultural and political scenes that I inhabit; my artistic productions are invested in an odd-ball and fleshy approach to the theories of cultural expression I take up in my academic productions; and all of this work is shaped by my overarching belief that social justice for all is an achievable goal.

As an artist, I got my start in the booming (largely feminist) spoken word scene of Vancouver in the late 1990s and since then have been making work that plays with and interrogates the complexities of contemporary queer femininity in performances that draw from cabaret, costume-based and alter-ego performance, spoken word, agit-prop theatre, stand-up comedy, video and sound art, installation and intervention. These performances reflect an ongoing quasi-pseudo-autobiographical meditation on female composites, class mobility, sexuality and style.

I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation on spoken word performance; this project, in book form entitled Poetry's Bastard: The Illegitimate Genealogies, Cultures and Politics of Spoken Word Performance in Canada, is forthcoming from Wilfrid Laurier University Press. My current academic work focuses on the social life of queer and feminist grass-roots performance. This work includes a book on transnational cultures of queer and feminist cabaret, provisionally entitled Sliding Scale, and a large-scale archive and ethno-historiography of feminist and queer community-based performance and media in Canada, called Viscera & Ephemera. I am also in the process of developing a collaborative research-creation project with Jasmine Rault and Dayna McLeod, called the Cabaret Commons: a user-generated digital archive and gossip rag for grass-roots queer and feminist artists, audiences and researchers. We are preempting the creation of this archive through a project/process we're calling "Feeling Speculative in Digital Space"; over the course of the next year or so, we'll be doing some utopic imagining for a digital space that is informed by feminist and queer ways of knowing, being, and making.

I am deeply committed to the knowledges and aesthetics of transformational and anti-normative media, performance, subjects and scenes, and my art-research-activism moves through the politics, spaces and places of genre, memory, agitation, consolation and perverse identities and identifications.