A burgeoning queer performance scene in the Bay Area is creating new zones
SQUART also epitomizes a community and an ethic of DIY art production that is on the rise just now across a range of insider/outsider artists in the Bay Area. It's a generational movement, but at the same time it's building on, and building relationships with, earlier generations of artists. It's predominately queer, but genuinely inclusive; it's DIY, but skilled and knowing; it's anti-institutional but includes many with practical and critical training from university programs; and it's been producing some of the most appealing, challenging, vital work in performance in the last few years. It's a highly fertile scene that, taken as a whole, amounts to a movement and a rare moment.
Modeled on reality-TV talent contests — but in opposition to the social Darwinism normally on display there — SQUART gives random teams of artists a set of parameters and two hours to come up with an original performance piece. A panel of "celebrity judges" from the wider arts community evaluates the results. The results have been surprising enough to participants and audiences alike to keep SQUART going through several iterations since its 2010 inception, always with the quick and affable Arrington as the host sporting her now trademark bullhorn.
"It began out of a sincere desire to get people working together and to get ideas out," says Arrington about SQUART's origins. "I'm suspicious of how isolating working can be — with grants, residencies, artist statements, etc. — how everything is 'my project,' 'my work.' I think ideas get better the more they are bounced around, and that stripping away the traditional hierarchies is important. It's dangerous when work becomes precious. [With] SQUART, you just have to create. There's no time to do anything else. It can be a big mess; often it's a really beautiful mess."
Arrington says SQUART started as a side project but has developed into something larger. "The Headlands SQUART was a big step," she says, crediting program director Brian Karl with open-minded support of the undertaking. "We kind of took over the main building for 24 hours. It was crazy, but in the end some of the work was just staggering. The timing was pretty magical too. We got [choreographer] Meg Stuart [as a celebrity judge] because she was in town doing Auf Den Tisch! at Yerba Buena [Center for the Arts], and Big Art Group [Caden Manson and Jemma Nelson] happened to be up at Headlands while I was. Jess Curtis is back for a few months from Berlin. It was all quite perfect."
The coincidental calendar-pairing of SQUART and Auf Den Tisch! (which means "to put things on the table") was a striking alignment of the leading, established international contemporary performance represented by Berlin-based American Stuart and the new but internationally aware local scene. In making her long-overdue Bay Area debut (courtesy of YBCA), Stuart not only brought a project exploring the nature of collective improvisation, but drew performers from a local artistic milieu that included emerging queer performers like Julie Phelps and Jorge De Hoyos.
Keith Hennessy, the renowned interdisciplinary artist and performance maven who was both a performer and organizer for Auf Den Tisch!, says there are similarities between Stuart's improvisation project and SQUART.
"In some ways, the Auf Den Tisch! project is like a weeklong SQUART, with a much tighter selection of who's in it. There's a certain camp in contemporary dance and performance that was born out of really early queer theater, like Theater of the Ridiculous and Jack Smith, and that came to some people through performance art. I see that in both SQUART and Auf Den Tisch!"