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