NIDA Art-Wank #2

This one came out a little more personal, and I think is a little easier going because of it. It also sounds very self indulgent. In my defence, that was the set task. Enjoy, or whatever.... 

Subversive and Queer Ideas in Institutional Artistic Practice

Introduction: 

I am a queer artist. This mode of identifying does not supplant other identities in every piece of my work, however it does contributes to a world view which permeates all of my work. I am interested in sex and sexuality, notions of deviance, and resisting dominant (and potentially oppressive) paradigms. 

By contrast, I have professional ambitions which have entailed (and will hopefully continue to entail) an engagement with the main-stream of institutional academic, state-subsidised, and commercial theatre; in this country and around the world. These idioms have come a long way in their acceptance of queer issues as legitimate topics for artistic address; the growing commercial viability of performers such as Paul Capsis and makers such as Sister’s Grim indicate something of a broadening of what is acceptable to the mainstream. This said, I would posit that this acceptance is not as far-reaching as it may at first seem and that the dominant paradigm of euro-centric heterosexism still exerts a powerful influence on the theatrical landscape, albeit in subtler ways than in the past. 

Nominally, we are now making theatre in a post-modern (or perhaps just post- ) paradigm, but a number of experiences during my time at NIDA suggest to me that 

  1. the manifestations of how we work can actually support a more deterministic and modernist view of the world, and 
  2. that in many cases what can be addressed is still subtly controlled by powers that are less open to alternative viewpoints than is immediately evident. 

In short, there exists a sometimes unexamined potential for unintentional support of paradigms that are not the maker’s worldview, through blind or enforced subscription to established formal structures and cultural norms. The conflict in this negotiation has been particularly evident inside the academic environs of NIDA.

Colonialism, Queer Theory and Institutional Sociology at ACPA

As a member of a minority in one way - gender and sexuality - and not in another - racial, ethnic or religious - my experience of living outside dominant paradigms has been extensive in depth but limited in breadth. Thus it was with some surprise that I encountered a very telling and informative example of the insidious nature of the-tyranny-of-the-dominant-paradigm during our week at the Aboriginal Centre for the Performing Arts (ACPA). That week’s work will be explored more fully in my Practiced Based Research project, but I would like to address a specific turning point in the process here.

The project explored the intersection of indigeneity and queer identity for the artists involved. The cast were predominantly indigenous and a mix of gay and straight. By contrast, the production team was universally gay and non-indigenous, and included the only non cisgender team member (myself)(1). 

At an important juncture in the process a decision had to be made about whether to include a drag sequence and/or a traditional indigenous dance. An extensive open discussion ensued, during which it became clear that the cast were unwilling to perform the two things simultaneously, i.e. perform traditional dance in drag - as this would go against their spiritual and cultural beliefs - and the production team (myself very much included) were unwilling to perform the two contiguously but separately - as this would belie our belief in the non-essential performative nature of gender [Butler 1988, p527].

Concepts prevalent in current theory around indigeneity and representation suggest that the suppression of indigenous beliefs beneath a colonist power’s dominant culture is a dangerous practice for the rights of, and respect for, indigenous peoples [Taylor 1992, pp25-26]. Queer theory suggests that to present gender as a binary with fixed gender roles for men and women is dangerous and denies women and gender/sexuality minorities political agency [Butler 1988, p529](2). 

In this moment two important modes of thinking, both I would suggest fairly admirable in intent, came into direct conflict. The team and I realised over the next day or so that this conflict of ideas was itself the centre of our piece: the play, like the process, should be a group of artists trying to honour two sets of ideas which are, at times, mutually exclusive. consequently a new formal element presented itself to us: while nominally presenting a celebratory expression of our varying cultures to conclude the performance we would problematise the presentation by preceding it with audio recordings of the conversation mentioned above. 

As I will discuss further in my PBR article, greater documentary and dramaturgical rigour on my part (and more time) would have allowed this conflict to be more meaningfully expressed; in the actual event it was not placed in a position which captured the audience’s attention sufficiently and, I believe, became a tokenistic nod to the issue, rather than a fully fledged exploration of it. Further, the NIDA production team made the final decisions, and the subverted ‘celebratory’ performance which followed the recordings was the drag routine only, and not the indigenous cultural performance. 

This reflects on the particular sociological structure of the project and the institutions involved: as alluded to above, NIDA is an elite institution, the majority of students present were masters students and we were placed in positions of power within the creative team - direction, writing/dramaturgy, and design;  ACPA is a ‘close the gap’ institution, its students are certificate and diploma students, and they were placed by the institutions in the relatively disempowered position of performers. Being the decision makers, the NIDA students followed the mode of thought which most reflects our beliefs system - in this moment european-queer thought was the dominant paradigm inside the rehearsal room.

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I posit this first example as a framing: the experience at ACPA placed me in the dominant cultural paradigm of that project and I became acutely aware of the unconscious ways in which that paradigm suppressed others. I regret that we did not do service to those indigenous performers’ culture, but stand firm in my decision not to belie my own beliefs. This experience has resonated though my year. Much that followed has been informed by an acute awareness of just how insidious are the operations of hegemony.

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Subculture, Subversion and The Question of Address in Directors Graduation Production Development

Throughout the first half of the year I had been in discussion with Stephen Sewell about developing a new work around the issue of intentional HIV transmission for my graduation production. The issues of the piece gradually broadened to concepts of disenchantment with, and disconnectedness from, society. However, the piece retained a very queer theatrical world and language, and the central question of the piece remained “what forces might drive a person to intentionally contract HIV?”. 

The original draft of the play justified the behaviour of the protagonist, Falco, in a number of ways: his desire to contract HIV was part pathological, part thrill seeking, part a desire for intimacy with another, and part a desire to have an articulable grievance as a middle class person. I felt intuitively that something more was at stake but was unable to articulate what it was. 

During my research for the play I encountered Tim Dean’s “Unlimited Intimacy” in which he suggests that barebacking and bug-chasing culture(s) are identifiable subcultures defined specifically against the hegemonic ‘cult of health’ [2009, loc 852] and against the growing prevalence of ‘hetero-normative gays’ - another hegemonic force, epitomised by the marriage equality lobby: marriage being an institution which, Dean asserts, ‘becomes more not less discriminatory when extended to same sex couples, insofar as the relational recognition that marriage brings inexorably detracts from all other forms of intimacy” [2009, loc 1205].

This framing articulated the deeper resonance that I had been searching for: Falco is searching for a specifically and discretely subversive act. It also went some way towards justifying the title - ‘Nigger For Love’ - which Stephen and I had come upon during discussions around reclaiming deviance as a lifestyle choice. I encouraged Stephen to think in terms of subculture, and we defined a number of specific subversions of dominant semiotics utilised by the subculture. The principal example, which has become a core element of the play text, is the use of the terms ‘breeding’ and ‘seeding’ to refer to HIV transmission through internal ejaculation. The terms encapsulate a typical subcultural semiotic shift, the words are “made to carry ‘secret’ meanings: meanings which express, in code, a form of resistance to the order which guarantees their continued subordination” [Hebdige 1979, p18] Additionally, in this particular case,  the words speak to notions of lineage and belonging within the HIV positive community, and to me personally have a visceral nature which I feel is profoundly subversive in this context. 

During continued development Falco’s actions have become more and more sympathetically rendered as we have framed them more in terms of subculture and a desire for intimacy and community. I note this here because I have a hunch that this re-framing has been a substantial contributing factor in the censorship issues which followed. 

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During these deliberations the question of address also presented itself to me. On one level ‘Nigger for Love’ could be viewed as a piece of queer theatre in which addressing a specific subculture - a queer audience - is central to the conception of the work. This framing of the work sits uncomfortably at NIDA, where the ‘built in’ audience is not, by and large, queer. Stephen and my ambitions for the future of the play also warrant an examination of who is being addressed; we hope the play will be developed and presented by an AMPAG company in the medium term future. This led me to consider re-framing the piece as a work of theatre which may address a queer audience, but the intent of which is to address a predominantly straight audience. 

This sociological framing has in turn affected the conceptual framing of the piece. Rather than relying strongly on a queer audience feeling the ‘joy of address’ that Dolan speaks of [Dolan, 2001] I am now conceiving of the piece as, in part, a defence of queer lifestyles to a more traditional audience base. To achieve this mode of address I am utilising two aesthetic elements, both of which I have drawn from study of John Waters canon and writing. The first is shock value, employed not simply to shock (although shocking audiences out of a muted appreciation of the ills of the world is a separate aim of the piece) but also to intentionally ‘other’ the figures and express that non-universality - of experience and taste - is acceptable and perhaps desirable [Waters, 1979, p2]. The second is an articulation of an alternative morality which Waters suggests in his BigThink interview [2015, 3min 51sec] and which I am explicating as ‘the morality of mind your own damn business’. 

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Recognition and Representation in Casting and Development

During development of ‘Nigger For Love’ it became clear to me that we were making this work in a complex cultural context with regard to the queer voice and the concept of representation in theatrical production. Although not exclusively ‘queer theatre’ the plays central figure is gay, queer culture is a driving force of the play, and the aesthetic of the production was becoming increasingly influenced by queer practitioners such as Lee Bowery, Charles Busch and John Waters.

It was important to me that my casting process for ‘Nigger For Love’ reflect a deep investment in notions of recognition and representation. It’s worth noting that the majority of the creative team are not queer; Stephen is straight, as are the designer and the dramaturg. Bearing this in mind, and in deference to my own deeply held beliefs about the power of meaningful representation I was determined not to “mirror back to [queer and trans* people] a confining or demeaning or contemptible picture of themselves” [Taylor, 1992, p25], thus it became increasingly important to me that queer and trans* cast members were given the capacity to be recognised as tellers and not just subjects of theatrical stories. Too frequently I have observed straight and cis actors playing queer and trans roles, while queer and trans people are not given the opportunity to play our their own stories, or straight and cis roles (3). Avoiding white-washing, cis-washing and straight-washing became central to the casting process. 

What is most disturbing to me in this is that I was repeatedly encouraged to regard the excellence of the acting as of greater cultural value than the representational politics. Inside the confines of NIDA it was considered by many to be crucial that I cast good actors at the expense of all other concerns. This reflects on the sociological doxa of the institution; NIDA’s valuing of artistic excellence over representational integrity, and The Institute’s desire to maintain its own elite reputation, sit uncomfortably beside my personal political beliefs (4). 

The search for the right actors - people who serve both the values of The Institute and my political beliefs - is ongoing. 

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Control & Institutional Sociology in Production Management

As casting and crew allocations for the Director’s Graduation Productions continued it became clear that there were concerns about the content of ‘Nigger For Love’. Over a series of meetings and emails the specific concerns were revealed. They included the explicit depiction of simulated sex and sexual violence, nudity, course language, and of course the title. Some of these elements were directly censored by NIDA - the title, sex, and sexual violence - and regarding the remainder I was reminded strongly of NIDA’s duty of care to students and stakeholders and required to provide a series of assurances that no student, volunteer or attendee would be required, without substantial warning and prior discussion, to do or witness anything which might make them uncomfortable (5).

It was never specifically mentioned that the queerness of the subjects, or the subversive act of intentional HIV contraction was an issue, however I noted that between the five other graduation productions there are two further heterosexual rapes and two suicides, none of which initially sparked concern within The Institute (6).

The events revealed a disconnect in the habitus and doxa of the institution.  If doxa is defined as “a set of fundamental beliefs which does not even need to be asserted” [Bourdieu 2000, p16] (my emphasis) and the habitus as the instinctive attunement to the doxa [Maton 2008, p57] then this process of articulated and conscious censorship seems to belie the idea of a Bourdieusian reading of the situation. Alternatively, As Dr Hay suggests, operations at NIDA could be seen to be complicated by the fact that The Institute “operates in … the field of cultural production in Australia [and] in the field of higher education” [Hay, 2014, p172]. The doxa of one I would loosely articulated as ‘if something occurs in life it is legitimate fodder for creative expression’ and of the other; ‘the continued good reputation and prestige of the institution is tantamount’. 

This concept was further articulated by The Institute’s censorship of it’s own censorship: Stephen and I suggested an alternative title, which would contain no words, but instead a black box similar to those seen on official documents that have had names or details redacted. NIDA responded with a suggestion that this would complicate the booking process and, although neither the writer nor director saw this as concerning, the proposed title was disallowed. Working on a hunch, I suspect that the underlying concern on NIDA’s part was not, in fact, purely logistical, but grew out of a fear of being seen to censor the work of it’s students. 

I believe that in this moment the values of the academic institution predominated over the values of the artistic institution. Put another way, the relative importance of what NIDA is seen to do predominated over what NIDA does. This observation points to a discussion of discourse analysis which is not the field of enquiry here, but suffice to say that the above transactions articulate the complexities of working in institutions with many stakeholders and a complex relationship to multiple fields. 

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Conclusion: 

It is fair to say that my experience of being simultaneously a NIDA student and a queer artist has been a challenging one. The Institute’s particular sociology and the restrictions this places on artistic expression have limited my capacity to explore themes I wish to explore and express ideas I wish to express. I imagine this will be a theme which permeates much of my work in institutional theatre in the future. Consequently the practical lessons are many. Some of them conclude this piece: 

  1. Awareness of my own levels of privilege must be an integral part of my practice. To throw stones at unexamined privilege and institutional strictures I must first be without blame as regards understanding my own privilege and maintaining vigilance when I might be placed in a position of power or authority thanks to institutional structures.
  2. A finely honed understanding of the ‘built in’ audience in institutional art creation can be a meaningful key to unlocking a work’s potential; its capacity to have the intended effect on the actual audience. 
  3. Conscious awareness of the doxa of a particular field or institution (especially if I do not wholly subscribe to it) and of my own deeply held political beliefs, is integral to maintaining control in transactions where my beliefs could be undermined without my knowledge.
  4. And finally: Understanding the sociology of a particular institution is invaluable in all negotiations within it. 

I have ‘gotten away with’ a lot thanks to a diplomatic voice which addresses the institutions concerns, and an understanding of the capacity to alter modes of working without undermining an ethos. A more finely honed understanding of the sociology of the institution would have allowed me to even further manipulate the strictures, cultivate a place of happy medium, and to create artistic freedom for myself and for the viewpoints I hold dear and seek to represent. 

Footnotes:

  1. Cast & Production team Breakdown:
    * three indigenous cis-gay identifying men (cast)
    * three indigenous cis-straight identifying women (cast)
    one non-indigenous (european) cis-straight identifying woman (cast)
    two non-indigenous (european) cis-gay identifying men (production team)
    one non-indigenous (european) cis-gay identifying woman (production team)
    one non-indigenous (european) qenderqueer-gay identifying person (myself, director)
     

  2. My personal experience of gender is that the binary model also suppresses the complexity of many individuals’ personal experience of gender, my own very much included.

  3. Though this trend is somewhat less pronounced in theatre than in film and television it it none the less present and concerning me to.

  4. To some extent this concern is also aesthetic. Queer theatre has a long history of presenting ‘rough’ (in the Brookian sense) works which reflect through their aesthetic an economically and socially disadvantaged position, again the works of Waters and Busch are exemplars of this artistic lineage.

  5. Tangentally, it is worth nothing that the opinions of NIDA as an institution were, in almost all cases, relayed to me as the opinions of others. The specific sociology of the institution seems to allow individuals within it - including lecturers and heads of department - to hold differing views so long as they tow the party line in dealings with students. Additionally, the specific meetings that lead to censorship and the like are not made accessible to students. In these ways (in my experience only) no individual is ever able to be held to account by students for the restrictions placed on their work by the institution.

  6. A conversation about sensitivity to students mental health was, subsequently, had with those directors but nothing was directly censored from any of their productions.

Bibliography: 

  1. Butler, Judith. 1988. ‘Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay’ in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory in Theatre Journal, Vol. 40, No. 4 pp. 519-531. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.
    URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3207893
  2. Taylor, Charles. 1992. Multiculturalism and ‘The Politics of Recognition’ Edited by Amy Gutmann. Princeton University Press, NJ.
  3. Dean, Tim. 2009. Unlimited Intimacy: Reflections on the Subculture of Barebacking (e-book edition). University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
  4. Hebdige, Dick. 1979. Subculture: The Meaning of Style Taylor & Francis e-book. First Published: Meuthen & Co Ltd, London.
  5. Dolan, Jill. 2001. Geographies of Learning: Theory and Practice, Activism and Performance. Wesleyan University Press, Middleton
  6. Waters, John. 1979. Shock Value Dell Publishing Co. Inc., NewYork.
  7. BigThink, 2015. BigThink interview with John Waters. BigThink Inc.
    URL: http://bigthink.com/videos/big-think-interview-with-john-waters
  8. Bourdieu, Pierre. 2000. Pascalian Meditations. Trans. Richard Nice. Polity, Cambridge.
  9. Maton, Karl. 2008. ‘Habitus' in Grenfell, Michael (ed.). Pierre Bourdieu: Key concepts pp. 49 – 66. Acumen. , London.
  10. Hay, Christopher. 2014.  Learning to Inhabit the Chair: Knowledge transfer in contemporary Australian director training. University of Sydney, Sydney.