Conceptual Frameworks

Conceptual frameworks

Queer performance creates publics by bringing together live bodies in space, and the theatrical experience is not just about what’s on stage but also about who’s in the audience creating community. (Cvetkovitch 2003: 9)

This research is concerned with gender, sexual orientation and age and the way that those aspects of people’s identities are manifested, articulated and debated through drama, theatre and performance. The research is rooted in the productive intersections between the fields of performance studies, trans studies and queer studies.[1]

In the quotation above, Ann Cvetkovitch comments on the social and intra-personal nature of the performance event or ‘theatrical experience’ and the potential that such experiences have to constitute the people who are participating, performing and also witnessing performance, as ‘publics’. By analysing a range of specific aspects of the INTERarts project, this notion of the constitution of publics and communities through LGBTQ performance events will be explicated.

The central question of the research is how ‘performance’ contributes to the process of constituting individual identities and communities, specifically LGBTQ communities. I will expand Cvetkovitch’s point to include consideration of how involvement in the process of making performance, as well as the act of performing and witnessing performance, can contribute to the process of constituting both individual LGBTQ people’s identities and LGBTQ communities.

Visibility and coherence through the arts

When people make use of the arts as a medium for expression, the ways that identities and bodies are presented and re-presented become politicised. The reasons for presenting aspects of one’s self through artistic means and the politics of this action are critical to the analysis of the artists and their work shared within this website. By way of beginning to explore  specific conceptual frameworks that relate to the practice of making one’s gendered, aged body or one’s lived experience of sexuality visible through the arts, we can consider the FTM London Photography Project Exhibition which took place at Swiss Cottage Library in North-West London and was the end-result of a project that was carried out as part of the 10th anniversary of FTM London (a social and support group for those who identify as female-to-male transgender, or think they might be).

The exhibition was open for one week, from 25 February 2008. Funding was received from the LGBT Camden Forum and members of FTM London were invited to use a disposable camera and take shots that represent their lives, their selves and their surroundings. One image was to be used from each person who returned the camera and an exhibition of the images, curated and displayed in the East Foyer of the public library for a week as part of LGBT History Month 2008. The Private View was on Monday, 25 February 2008 and the exhibition contained 38 images, from 38 different contributors.

The collection can be loosely themed into three areas: bodies, environments and objects, although the exhibition was not structured in this way and images were hung in a more random arrangement. The images all had a commentary, so the ‘personal’ here is very strong. As a viewer, one sees the body, the environment or a meaningful object within the image and reads a first-person explanation of what can be seen, or rather what the artist-subject wants us to see and read in the image. Using autobiography in this way, by having people be responsible for their own images and construct a commentary about their image, suggests that the ‘subject’ is mediating the presentation of their image in a direct way as opposed to being part of a collection of images where the shots were all taken by an ‘outside eye’.

The subjects that artists chose to capture and present were diverse. To concentrate on two photographs as examples, among the bodies-related images, Angel’s is a picture of himself taken by himself in a hospital bed after a hysterectomy operation. The image shows Angel at a strange angle and his form is somewhat blurred as he held the camera at arm’s length therefore not looking through the viewfinder to create the image. He looks pale. His commentary asks, ‘Will she still love me tomorrow? Uncertainty worries me, truck loads.’ Jay’s image is of an embrace. Because of the angle of the camera, the shot is predominantly of a white pillow, but in the top right of the image, there is his closed eye as he holds another person – of whom all we see is the back of the head as they are being held by him. He talks about touch and the way that his physical interactions with others (not just his partner) have developed since his transition.

Celebrating queer bodies by exhibiting visual images of transgender men in a public library is a radical act. Judith Halberstam talked about modes of representation at Chelsea College of Art and Design (17.05.05). She was arguing that the ‘queer as body’, or queerness represented through the body is not a redundant practice but she was promoting an alternative mode of representation, as well as continuing a discussion about readership of queer art. Halberstam was suggesting that representations of transness/queerness without a primary focus on bodies can be more confrontational, or ‘useful’ because we are equipped to read the body as an icon more easily than we can read abstraction. The body can still be challenging though in that the images of trans men as seen in the FTM London exhibition might be asconfrontational for some viewers as viewing an abstract piece. The visual shock of seeing two genders in the same body or being confronted with the notion of the uninhabitable body having been made more habitable are common concepts within representations of the trans body and they are concepts which underpin the work of some of the participants in the INTERarts project, both through two and three-dimensional media and live performance where a number of participants use their own bodies to offer a kind of ‘truth’ of an unusual body – a body that confounds normative expectations and understandings of what bodies look like.

Halberstam acknowledges that there is still a wealth of exploration of representations of queer bodies to be enjoyed among the queer community. She was, however, pushing the question of what a representation of trans would be without the body, arguing that there are liabilities in making transgenderism reliant on the body (such as hierarchising particular ‘types’ of trans, or perpetuating notions of the ‘universal’, thereby excluding non-white male identities). Within live performance, the body is key. As performance is reliant on the body, I am looking at how those potential liabilities are refuted or enacted. By accepting and capitalising on the centrality of the body, is the performance of queer gender, youth or older age, sexuality always already exclusive when it places some bodies on the stage and not others? The range of performances at the centre of this research includes multiple identities in terms of age, nationality, relationship to the categories of gender and sexuality and each of the works connects with this idea of representation through performance of self.

Analysis of the nature of community and belonging in relation to LGBTQ identities and performance will contribute to this discussion. The notion of being visible to specific people, in order to belong as part of a community, or being visible to the whole of society as a lesbian, for example and using the arts, and performance specifically to insert oneself into the text a societal framework is vital to the production of LGBTQ identities. Notions of community that connect with LGBTQ identities can be marked out as different. In order to ‘count’ as part of a community, one has to be visible or identifiable in some way, to other people who form that community or conversely, to people who are outside of that community. Yet identification is important.

Some of the work shared through this website was created by a group, rather than an individual. This implies that there were things that the individuals in the groups shared or had in common and, further, that they would benefit from a collective experience of exploration or a communal learning process engaging with some of those common things. Shane Phelan’s notion of ‘non-ascriptive’ community asserts that identity is about group identification rather than primordial essence and people consciously choose to join a community rather than community forming around identities such as gender. She suggests that non-ascriptive communities are ‘most often formed in order to create and maintain non-hegemonic or non-hetero-normative identities and lifestyles’ (in Sullivan 2003: 139). This implies that conscious self-identification is straightforward, which is a complex and problematic idea but interesting in relation to a concept of LGBTQ community within which a project such as INTERarts is implemented and evolves. Phelan conceptualises community as process, saying ‘in the process of community, personalities are created. Persons do not simply “join” communities; they become microcosms of their communities, and their communities change with their entrance’ (p. 87). A. P. Cohen supports this dynamic definition of community and suggests that the reality of community lies in its members’ perception of the vitality of its culture: ‘people construct community symbolically, making it a resource and repository of meaning, and a referent of their identity’ (Cohen 1985: 118).

Catherine Graham (2005) suggests that rather than asking what community is, we ask instead when it is that people start to use the word. She wonders if it might be when people consider the ‘thing’ or matter of focus to be unimportant such that it would not be discussed in public life where public life is concerned with ‘larger’ issues. Rather it is a thing of concern within the private sphere. Nikki Sullivan goes further with this notion that community is a personal or private practice and references Merleau-Ponty in considering the notion that the body-subject “is constituted by mimesis and transitivism: by identification with and against others, and by the imitation of gestures, actions, and so on… the other is the medium through which the body-subject achieves an awareness of itself as self” (2003: 93).

The production of self is ineluctably connected to the experience of participating in the INTERarts project, where the doing of one’s own body in the company of others enables those present to further become themselves.

Autobiography as a medium of expression

As Viv Gardner describes ‘the volume of biographical and autobiographical material published about or by late-nineteenth- and early twentieth-century performers, whether in newspapers, journals, or books, attests to the public’s appetite for “knowledge” of the private stories of actors’ lives’ (Gale and Gardner 2004: 10).

The range of practices that are connected within autobiographical practice is broad and far-reaching, and I am specifically interested in ways that the confessional model takes up societal roles and seeks to destabilise assumptions, as well as locating the construction of self and construction of community identity through performance for the participants in the INTERarts project. Richard Kearney argues that narrative provides people with one of the most viable forms of individual and communal identity within a postmodern era of fragmentation and fracture (2002: 4). Deirdre Heddon talks specifically about autobiography’s function within a contemporary culture of intolerance. This idea is useful as a context for older and younger LGBTQ participants in a project which is about them producing an artistic response to the themes of gender, sexual orientation and age, in that contemporary as well as historical cultures generate the need for community through marginalisation, and for a marginalised individual’s insistence on the right-to-be as a gendered being, for example:

“Communities, as most often conceived, operate through a process of inclusion/ exclusion. In order to have a community, there must be a boundary separating those who belong from those who do not (and the former relies on the latter). Shared narratives are one process of erecting and maintaining a boundary” (2004: 221–2).

Autobiography is a popular and familiar form for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people who choose to tell their stories, whether in fiction, on film or, much less often, on stage. Stephen Whittle asserts that transgender people ‘have built upon the tradition the community has of autobiographical writing to give a voice to their self-acknowledged subjectivity’ (1996: 208). He is talking here about numerous ways that a sense of an organised community of transgender people emerged in the 1990s, and the parallel increase in the number of trans people who began to contribute to theoretical discourse on transgender lives and identities. He sees the use of autobiography as a key tool in reclaiming the voice previously discredited by the medical and academic establishments. He uses Kate Bornstein’s Gender Outlaw (1995) and Loren Cameron’s Self Portrait (1993) as examples and adds:

Challenging their own sense of self, looking inwards to find who they are, using the process of autobiography that they know so well, is producing some very interesting answers which challenge, not only the structured world that queer theory inhabits but the very binary structure of the complacent world in which gender was invented, and by which it has become obsessed. (p. 210)

Dean Spade talks about the strategic deployment of self-narrative in relation to trans people’s necessity to construct an ‘appropriate biography’ as they enter the medical system and begin the process of seeking treatment for gender reassignment (2006). Stories told by self-identified trans men are politically crucial whether the ‘layman’s’ story challenges the ‘expert’s’ story, offering a critique of medical and scientific discourses, as well as religion’s discourse of sin and unnatural behaviour. This is acutely significant for the younger and older participants of the INTERarts project: ‘Through their stories, then, the storytellers not only claim identities for themselves, but they may also attempt to rewrite what those identities mean … The act of writing enacts the writer, bringing [her] in to existence as matter’ (Heddon 2004: 221).

David Valentine comments on the ways that identity and personal narrative connect with institutions such as the medical or legal system too, saying, ‘identity is not something that simply arises from the self and its experiences but is the product of an ongoing process of meaning-making which draws on, and is drawn into institutionalised categories of selfhood’ (p. 223). He talks specifically about the ways that the self is narrated in relation to the state in order to make sense of violence, where a person harnesses the power of narrative force for political ends to appeal to particular agencies in order that transphobic violence gets addressed. He acknowledges that the negative side to this is that in order to operate in this way, one has to narrate oneself through those institutional frameworks, sometimes at the expense of other aspects of the self such as race, class and sexual orientation.

Narratives constructed from autobiographical storytelling, which tell of having a trans type of gender, actively work against appealing for inclusion in the dominant narrative of having ‘a’ gender, but rather, challenging that dominant narrative. This notion differs from Heddon’s concept of the relationship of gay narratives to the dominant narrative of sexuality because there she suggests that people are specifically appealing for inclusion, using the idea that they too have a sexuality as well as heterosexual people. These performers, by constructing a narrative that draws on experiences of being other in terms of gender, acknowledge their own involvement in the construction of their identity and moreover, their own use of discourses including medical and scientific ones.

[1] Performance studies is a well-established field of academic study which began in the 1970s, incorporating the study of drama, dance, performance and installation art, music performance and related disciplines such as anthropology, philosophy, sociology and critical studies. The origins of the field are most often attributed to Richard Schechner and Victor Turner’s work on intercultural performances (Schechner 1976; 1985; 1988, Turner 1969; 1975; 1982). Trans studies is a newer discipline that focuses on transgender as a concept, a category or construct and as a lived experience. Though sometimes subsumed into gender studies or queer studies, the trans studies field is emerging as significant (Ekins & King 1996; Butler 1999; Stryker & Whittle 2006; Valentine 2007). It too connects with the related disciplines of anthropology, philosophy, sociology, and medicine.

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