Outside and inside

A burgeoning queer performance scene in the Bay Area is creating new zones

Queer, radical, collective: (front, then clockwise from left) Harold Burns, Tessa Wills, Honey McMoney, Ernesto Sopprani, Aylin


PERFORMANCE Some dramatic clouds hung darkly over the Headlands Center for the Arts on the last Sunday in March, threatening more than the prickly spray that had started to whip around in the cold and gusty air. By contrast, everything was bright and bustling inside Building 944, the repurposed 1907-era military barracks at the center of the Marin County artists retreat's secluded, picturesque coastal campus. The first-floor dining hall was still open until 3 p.m. — when the latest edition of SQUART was scheduled to begin upstairs — so arriving audience members gravitated to the long tables lining the unexpectedly beautiful room, revivified from spartan army drabness by artist Ann Hamilton.

Uncle Sam was not anticipating this crowd in 1907, let alone the anarchic spirit of creative community fostered by SQUART (short for spontaneous queer art). Then and now, Uncle Sam wants "you," but not your yoke-slipping imagination please. The performers running around loopy for lack of sleep — together with the center's varied flock of international resident-artists and the crowd arriving from the city to watch the results of SQUART's 24-hour venture in collaborative art-making — formed an alternative community, low-key and self-assured, the majority queer-identified, well-versed in strategies of critical resistance and up for anything. In striking ways, the four performance pieces communally created for that afternoon — and for that history-haunted place — eloquently registered the gaps and links in a century of social chaos.

All told, a moment from the last piece was probably my favorite. In a large first-floor room elegantly and eccentrically composed like something from a Peter Greenaway film, a good chunk of the audience had been pressed to the wall by a relentlessly advancing line of screaming men and women with their arms outstretched. Then a man rushed to the window and (with a vaguely camp bellicosity) ordered a small group of performers out the windows and up the hill. There in the cold drizzle they stood on the access road in shorts and tees, doing exercises, as two of the performers began to wrestle aggressively.

This "fight" inspired an unwitting passerby to come between them with real violence, as the audience gasped loudly in surprise and alarm at the unscheduled event. The good Samaritan, flushed and angry, cocked a confused glance at the audience of maybe 60 people filling the windows, and trudged back to his car and family and drove away, visibly shaken. The performance continued, in fact did not miss a beat, the performer at the window shouting a beautiful broken monologue full of yearning, confusion, and wonder interspersed with loud calls to "Retreat!" that sent the performers scrambling up the slippery hillside in the rain, bare limbs flailing, helpless, comical, and heartbreaking.

SQUART is the initiative of San Francisco–based choreographer Laura Arrington, one of a new generation of mostly queer artists under or around 30 who are making serious waves in the performance scene. Her own bounding, sharp-cornered, mercurial work has been staged at CounterPULSE (where she shared a much acclaimed bill with fellow artist-resident Jesse Hewit in August of 2010), Women on the Way, the National Queer Arts Festival, The Lab, and the Too Much! queer performance marathons. But SQUART is a unique undertaking in which the artist functions as a channel for collaborative expression. As such, it both epitomizes and catalyzes the current queer performance movement as a whole.


Thank you for writing this article. I find what is happening with performance in SF to be so delightful. People are making work because they absolutely must, not just for the money. But, fuck, money is sweet. People are also working together because they absolutely must. We need each other to get it done and to believe in what we are doing. When I see someone putting themselves out there mime fucking an audience member with a strap-on or dancing like a turkey with a sailor hat on I know I too must take myself as far as I can go. Have ya'll ever heard that Francis Ford Coppola quote, "Collaboration is the SEX of ART"...? So true. And SQUART is so sexy. Furthermore, I appreciated the shout outs to the more experienced performers among us like Hennessey, Curtis and Jenkins, but we got to acknowledge the work of Guillermo Gomez-Pena and the POW festivals for all they have done to bring up crazy, queer artists. With Love, Lula Mae Day

Posted by Guest on Apr. 13, 2011 @ 2:17 pm

The Emperor has no clothes. See SF '99.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 14, 2011 @ 6:36 pm

i'm trying to figure out what's so "radical" or "autonomous" or "collective" about an organization like TOC -- is it all the grant-money, the proposals, the big art institutions, the (off)centralized bureaucratic structure (run largely by one person), the career-artist professionals, the "art-for-art's sake" attitude -- or what?

JUST WONDERING...(maybe you could enlighten us...)

but yeah, more power to SQUART! and laura arrington (who was doing this long before TOC came along, as with everything else...)

THANKS! "anonymous" guest

Posted by Guest on Apr. 15, 2011 @ 1:20 pm

Wow, I had no idea the Bay Area queer performance scene looks so very, very white.

Oh, that's because in reality, it doesnt. Not that anyone would know from your article.

While I appreciate the fact that Robert Avila wanted to highlight the work of some great San Francisco artists, the article and accompanying photo spread were shockingly pale. In a city as diverse as San Francisco, it seems as though one would almost have to be trying to make it look like most of the rad queer performers are white. Yeah, yeah, I know, Philip Huang was featured (though, notably, no photo was included). And thank you for mentioning Mama Calizo's (R.I.P.) support of queer P.O.C. artists.

But still.The omission of groups like Mangos with Chili, (an organization that fosters boundary-pushing performances by emerging and established queer artists of color), Sins Invalid (featuring performers with disabilities confronting sexuality), and individuals such as Mary Ann Brooks of DirtStar is jarring.

Please be more mindful in the future when writing articles that seek to describe happenings in the radical queer community in SF. We are not all white, and we are not all funded (far from it).


SQUIRT- San Francisco Queers Undermining Insidiously Racist Tales

Posted by SQUIRT- San Fran Queers Undermining Insidiously Racist Tales on Apr. 16, 2011 @ 11:48 am

Wait.. none of the work noted in the article is or has been funded. I believe that is why is deemed radical. SQUART, THEOFFCENTER, Home Theater Festival - are all initiatives made by a community of performance artists who are not waiting to get funding to put work out or to organize themselves.

Mangos with Chili, Sins Invalid and DirtStar are all great groups as well who deserve mention, I venture to say they probably have had it at some point or another. tho this piece is in fact about another group. One that has been working very hard at making this happen.

I would appreciate a show of respect for the hard work these artists are putting forth. It takes a community. If you "SQUIRT" as so candidly name yourself want to change anything on how they are doing what they do it might be best to email them directly and see how can your great ideas encourage change.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 30, 2011 @ 1:13 pm

that you might be offending the people in that photo by calling them white?

Posted by Tessa on May. 24, 2011 @ 12:45 pm

What can we learn from this article?

1. That a white male writer perceives the queer performance scene in SF as mostly white and not very trans.

2. That many people confuse getting press with getting funding.

3. That too many people allow the language and framing of the press to influence the language and framing of the actual art, people, and communities that make our imperfect yet vibrant networks of queer, art, performance, community, action...

4. That white and cis artists can be much more diligent about representation in the press.

Those of us who were approached by the Guardian for this article did not know of the scope of the article nor who else was involved. When I was interviewed, I intentionally cited artists of color. I articulated how Dwayne Calizo of Mama Calizo's prioritized artists of color, and tried to paint a broad and historical picture of the Bay Area's diverse communities engaging performance as both queer and cultural tactic.

Basically, a curious and engaged theater writer - fairly new to dance and performance art - has been moved by a small network of friends/artists making innovative work. So he spent some time trying to present these artists and their influences to the Guardian readers. Because the article took a relatively small view, that network seems more like a clique than a movement. Most of us who resonate with the article also recognize many its absences - artists and collectives, curators and events - that could/should have been mentioned or photographed.

Access to the press and to public attention in general is always impacted by structural racism (etc): by issues of visibility and histories of oppression and systems of exclusion and racialized strategies of divide and conquer. If a press opportunity comes your way, how will you negotiate your participation?

Let's continue to experiment - take risks - with art and solidarity. If there's truly something new and good going on, let's work it. The words radical and queer aren't very important if the same old shit is structurally maintained and reproduced and represented. Let's continue to collaborate and debate, expanding our borders rather than contracting and protecting them.


Posted by Guest on May. 24, 2011 @ 7:56 pm

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