A burgeoning queer performance scene in the Bay Area is creating new zones
The DIY spirit of Home Theater Festival, and of the larger movement it's part of, couldn't have asked for a more eloquent summation — or one that hinted so neatly at its radical response to a larger context of economic crisis and control. Huang is a charismatic figure, quick-witted and generous, lanky and handsome in thick-framed glasses and a beaming smile. He's a fearless, unflappable performer and activist (some of his interventions are documented in must-see YouTube videos). He also makes the most outspoken people sound awfully tactful.
"I think most arts institutions, galleries, foundations, and theaters are useless," he says. "They keep artists in a state of dependency; they encourage a mindset that they hold all opportunities and paths to legitimacy and artists are only ever on the receiving end. That's why they keep putting out tired workshops and seminars that teach people to do lame shit like write grants and fundraise and network and do marketing and write press releases. All of that shit makes my dick limp, and none of it is necessary.
"I, in particular, believe that queer artists should not be professionals," Huang explains. "We should burn bright and burn out. We have a responsibility to society as a whole to scare the shit out of people. We should be the monsters they accuse us of being. Every society needs to enact its shadows, and it's our sacred duty, our sacred function, to do that for the world."
Huang argues the fulfillment of that function, the fulfillment of a truly subversive art, necessarily takes place outside of institutions. "Institutions, for the most part, are run by fearful, well-meaning people, to apply a phrase by Kirk Read, and to keep their heads above water, they can never really disturb the status quo. So I encourage queers to break away from institutions for their own independence, certainly, but also to restore queer art to its grimy gutter."
"This is quite a topic at the moment," acknowledges Arrington when I ask her about the DIY-versus-institution issue. "For myself, I like hybrid situations. I will always have house shows and do the less structured stuff, but I also love rigorously worked art. I love high production value. In my experience, most institutions are made up of incredibly hard-working people sincerely trying to nurture art. SQUART happening at Headlands is a great example. It's a totally nontraditional format happening in quite a traditional space." At the same time, she insists, "institutional success is not all there is. I think, actually I know, bigger issues of politics, economics, and environment are going to reshape how art gets made, both inside and outside institutions."
Jesse Hewit agrees that the issue of institutional support has become a serious dividing line, though he finds positive aspects to the debate as well. "People are really talking about this right now. On the one hand there's this group of people, myself included, who are working in conjunction with Angela Maddox over at YBCA curatorially to mobilize the community [around] what's going on in an international scene in terms of contemporary performance. And there are a lot of people who feel at odds with that. There's this weird tension." Hewit notes the change has occurred over the last six months: "The big love fest is over. People are getting more critical, which is good. It's good for the work. The work has been becoming more excellent."
Hewit suggests the uneven distribution of funding among the larger community plays some part in the increased tension, which seems all but inevitable, but he also cites a resistance to engaging an international context for contemporary performance. "We're just not a super savvy contemporary performance/dance community," he admits. At the same time, he appreciates the invention and novelty of the work being done on its own terms: "We're doing our own thing. We're kind of creating our own mini canon."