Performance collage



Identity politics currently hold a firm grip on social and cultural discourse. Race, gender and sexual orientation exert strong influences over much recent art practice. The Civil Rights movement of the '60s, along with feminist and gay politics and theory, have informed this practice, but hard-fought gains in those two decades were rolled back during the right-wing's reign of the 1980s. The attack on racial equity programs, the backlash against feminism and fear mongering around AIDS all served to keep equality rights outside the political mainstream.

By the mid 1980s, the failure of these movements to bring about real change required a rethinking by people of colour, women and gays on the strategy of co-existence within the white male heterosexual power blocks. It became stunningly obvious that complicity within the system made people feel segregated and isolated and allowed the structures to play one off against the other.

But the coming together of these groups required an education process for all concerned. Feminist and gay organizations had to confront the Eurocentric and racist nature of their organizations. Questions of internalized racism, sexism and homophobia were commonplace. Men of colour were questioned on sexist and homophobic attitudes. Suddenly issues of racism, sexism and homophobia weren't simply a matter of what they did to us, but often things we did to each other. Also, by the mid '80s it became increasingly obvious that the shaky alliances between the gay and lesbian communities weren't really working. Lesbians questioned gay men on their privilege, their sexism and their inability to see their oppression as related to other liberation struggles. Gay theory was often focused narrowly on AIDS in recognition of the greatest threat to that community. Quietly working within the system for change wasn't really working. Queer theory was born!

"Queer" was more than a change in terminology from the older "gay" and "lesbian." It was an attempt to develop a place where racist and sexist attitudes could be discussed and internalized homophobia revealed. Queer was the taunt previously used to put down gay people and anyone else who didn't fit in. The past decades of the gay movement were about fitting in, working within the system and trying to portray ourselves as 'normal'; Queer was a conscious decision not to try. It was an in-your-face attack on the powers that be and a clarion call for change. ACT UP, Queer Nation, Wham, House of Color and others led the charge. As an American movement it took its antecedents and methodology from the venerable tradition of American radicalism; the Wobblies, Yippees, Black Panthers, Weathermen, and the early bra-burning Feminists, etc. - the long list of Yankee radicals that has always valued theatricality over the ballot box. Spectacle-based, they stormed onto the American political landscape screaming, "We're here, we're Queer and look out!" Drag became a weapon and leather gear a uniform: A new consciousness was emerging.

Queer culture grew up in the aftermath of the Mapplethorpe retrospective and the political furor over the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) funding in the American Congress. Anything sexual, and especially homosexual, quickly became taboo and artists saw themselves as victims of a witch-hunt. Curiously, before Mapplethorpe, queer subject matter was a rare focus for gay and lesbian artists - especially, explicit material dealing with sexual issues (as if there was an unspoken alliance to keep our difference to ourselves). The attack on the NEA came at a time when that same difference became the focus of work.

This fit with cultural practice by feminists and people of colour. The two-decade old feminist maxim "the personal is political" has now become a strategy of artmaking. The number of artists living with HIV brings an immediacy to artmaking that is revitalizing. It seems as if the entire art world is working on a project to discover how identity is constructed and how community is formed.

Much of Queer theory centres on the 'closet', its complicity with external and internalized homophobia and the relationship to culture. In the previous generation the closet remained as the site of interface with the straight world - job, family and other obligations. In those situations, even if one was out, one was discreet. Younger artists and activists saw that same discretion as part of the problem and pondered its complicity with the straight culture to keep gay issues on back burners. They questioned the internalized homophobia this shifting closet suggested. Visibility was seen as the issue.

And visibility doesn't just mean being seen. Queer wants to look around and see itself reflected in the culture, on the large screen, in technicolour.

Performance Art has always been a queer practice. Its obscure form reflected the marginalization of the gay and lesbian communities. Its lack of restriction made it a form many queer artists chose to reflect concerns that had never been voiced. Performance history in Vancouver has always had ample numbers of gay and lesbian artists. Western Front, Video In, Pitt Gallery, grunt and others have long histories of funding and producing performance, but queer artists have often worked out of gay bars as well, using tools such as drag and leather to tell their stories.

And Vancouver has always been a QUEER CITY. Just over the mountain from the long redneck plain, it has provided refuge and community for queers from everywhere. Vancouver's cultural community hasn't displayed the same kind of homophobia as other art communities in this country. There have been queers front and centre in most major art initiatives in the city as well as founders of almost all the institutions. It's just the way it's done. Despite that, one hasn't seen a preponderance of gay issues in artmaking in this city. There have been exceptions to this generalization, most notably Oraf and Persimmon Blackbridge, but until recently it was an issue not generally given much serious attention. In addition, Vancouver has lagged well behind many other cities in its cultural response to AIDS.

1993 marks a big change in Vancouver and it is fitting that we go public with our Queer City. Since January there have been a host of exhibitions taking a frontline look at sexuality issues.1 Suddenly, sexuality and its relationship to race and gender are big questions. And recently the dominant culture is paying more attention and some gains are being made. But conversely, as in the recent American gays-in-the-military fiasco, our society's deep homophobia has become increasingly obvious. The old gay movement was founded on the right to our private lives, the Queer movement on the right not to be private. It is predicated on naming who we are and what we do. Its strength is in asking questions the dominant culture would rather not answer.

Glenn Alteen

Footnotes and Endnotes

  1. Joe Sarahan's Curse of the Homo, Pitt Gallery; Larissa Lai's curated exhibition Telling Relations: Sexuality and the Family, grunt gallery; Nan Golding's Ballad of Sexual Dependency, CAG; Fiona Mowatt's Condom Series, grunt gallery; Zulueta's Humane Society, Western Front; Joel Frohman's chosen by god, Artspeak; The upcoming Queer City exhibitions and performances; and Racy Sexy upcoming at the Chinese Cultural Centre. back

Glenn Alteen is a Vancouver-based curator and writer and director of grunt. He has worked extensively with performance art and is co-founder of LIVE Performance Biennale (1999, 2001, 2003, 2005). His writing on performance was recently published in Making Always War (Stride Gallery, Calgary, 2009), Access All Areas (grunt, 2008), Rebecca Belmore (Sydney Biennial Catalogue, Australia, 2006), Caught in the Act (YYZ Books Toronto, 2005), La Dragu (FADO, Toronto, 2002), LIVE at the End of the Century (grunt, 2002) and Locus Solus (Black Dog, London. 1999). He is the producer of brunt magazine. Alteen has also been organizer in a number of conferences including INDIANacts: Aboriginal Performance Art, November, 2002 co-produced with TRIBE and grunt gallery, InFest, 2004, produced by the Pacific Association of Artist Run Centres, An Ecology for a New Performance, a Performance Creation Canada conference during the 2005 PuSh Festival and Live In Public - The Art of Engagement at ECUAD in 2007. Alteen has also produced a series of websites focusing on current cultural production, including First Vision (2006), First Nations Creators Project (2007), Medicine (2008), Beat Nation (2009) through grunt gallery, and Ruins in Process - Vancouver Art in the 60s (2009) produced through grunt and the Belkin Gallery at UBC.