Sebastian Marmite Drag King, the bedsit aesthete, live at Queerdom Brighton, 06/10/2018. Introduced by King Sammy Silver. Oscar Wilde inspired dark comedy on the “corporatisation” of Pride and 1921 queer anthem Lavender Song (Lila Lied)…
My first foray in art criticism! Review of Manifesta Biennial in Palermo for A-N from the subjective perspective of an artist working with queer and feminist themes and an underground ethos.
My review has been featured in GLIMP, free international queer art newsletter from the Netherlands, September 2018 edition.
I applied to for a bursary to visit Manifesta 12 partly out of interests for its core themes of migration, and space/place as politically charged, especially as sites of repression, which I explored in my own work (Ghost House, Disciplinary Institutions), and partly out of interest for visiting Palermo itself, where Luchino Visconti, an artist I greatly admire, had made his masterpiece The Leopard.
At the time of applying, I was unaware of the 2014 controversy of Manifesta 10 taking place in St Petersburg with direct funding from Putin’s government, despite several calls from various artists and organisations to either withdraw and boycott or organise with more curatorial and financial independence, in protest of the Russian government’s repression of LGBTQ rights, and human rights in general. As an artist dealing with feminist and queer themes, this new information influenced my perception of the Biennale.
My review will first explain my reservations and criticism towards the Biennale’s general curatorial concept, which I perceived to be heavily biased towards a specific type of artwork rather than presenting balanced, varied approaches to the mandated subjects, then focus on the few artworks that I perceived dared to go beyond the restricted view of the curator and engaged with the subjects in deeper, more thoughtful, critical and independent ways, and therefore stood out for me.
Manifesta 12 is split into three curatorial themes, each investigated both generally and within the context of Palermo, with themes occasionally overlapping. The Garden of Flows explores plant life, gardening and climate change. Out of Control Room examines geopolitical power and migration. The City on Stage, the theme explored most closely in relation to Palermo, focus on the urban life of the city.
Amongst the 3 themes, I was most interested in Out of Control Room as I regularly explore repression of minorities and social control in my own work. As it turned out, it was the theme for which I was most disappointed with the curatorial process. I felt a disproportionate quantity of artworks, most of which especially commissioned for Manifesta, explored the theme purely from the angle of collating and visually presenting big data about various forms of violence taking place in contexts of armed conflict or migration, without ever digging into the controversial questions of ‘Who benefits from the crime?’, ‘Who is pulling the strings?’. In short, too much of the work focused on the factual ‘What’ and ‘When’, but shied away from the ‘Why’, and even to a certain extent from the simpler issues of ‘Who’ and ‘To Whom’.
‘Signal Flow’, a video installation by Laura Poitras, documents the US military presence in Sicily. ‘Liquid Violence’, an installation by Forensic Oceanography looks at the militarized border zone of the Mediterranean, leading to the death of many migrants at sea. Both works are mostly detailed records of strikes or deaths, and their factual circumstances. ‘Unending Lightning’ a video installation by Cristina Lucas documents the history of aerial bombardments and bombings over civilian targets, from the first, in 1911, to the present day. World wars and civil wars, terror campaigns and random bombings are all gathered in a database assembled by several research groups over the last five years, that methodically counts who killed whom, how many civilian casualties there were, when and where. But because the work lists together so many events that happened in widely different geopolitical contexts, motivated by wildly different causes or ideologies, whose only common denominator is the ‘What’ (civilian death by airstrike), if feels even more devoid of critical context and analysis than the previous examples, which at least narrowly focused on one specific, coherent type of event.
While I fully relate with the artists’ drive to expose human rights abuse, when bombarded with such accumulation of data, my mind starts wandering in wild directions, about Western regimes silently supporting dictatorships in the Middle East for decades, the extent of human rights abuse taking place in far away countries that never end up landing on the shores of Fortress Europe, the shadowy links between repressive regimes abroad and authoritarian, regressive groups in Europe, and the refusal of the work to engage back with me about the complex underlying causes of the carnage it catalogues leaves me frustrated.
When looking at most of the work, I kept wondering whether I was looking at designed/animated infographics made for a newspaper, a mainstream news documentary aiming to present a ‘neutral perspective’ (as opposed to artist’s documentaries where the subject is filtered though the artist’s critical and creative perspective), or a video clip for a charitable fundraiser that sticks on purpose to dramatic human stories without digging into the more controversial political or economic underlying causes. All these media have their use, but Manifesta 12 is world class art event, and I would have expected it to tackle its chosen political themes from more controversial and critical angles.
I asked myself what may have been the drive behind this curatorial focus on big-data and fact-gathering. At first, I thought it might have been a deliberate intellectual response to ‘fake news’ and the rejection of facts and experts during the Brexit and Trump campaigns, but these events happened in the second half of 2016, by which time the curating and commissioning process must have been advanced, so this theory most likely does not hold. I then looked into the origins of Manifesta: Manifesta was created in 1994, aiming to ‘enhance artistic and cultural [international] exchanges after the end of Cold War’. Extrapolating and venturing into my own highly subjective perception (please consider this sentence a disclaimer), I felt that the creation of Manifesta in a context of East vs.West conflicting ideologies may shed light on the curatorial angle, except in the context of the migration crisis, the concept has shifted to North vs. South oppositions. While a whole third of the program was devoted to power, repression and migration, the vast majority of the works explored power dynamics from country to country, with affected human beings identified solely by their nationality/geographical origins, and a country’s population was mostly presented as a homogeneous cultural entity. Other forms of repression, gender-based, against minorities in a given country, or between conflicting ideologies and values within a country’s population, the very conflict that drives cultural change, were mostly ignored. Consequently, the works that stood out for me were the ones that offered alternative or counter- narratives.
‘Purple Muslin’, by Erkan Özgen. Photo: Melanie Menard.
Purple Muslin, a documentary video by Erkan Özgen created in collaboration with women refugees in Europe and Turkey who fled the war zones of northern Iraq, records in interviews the women’s experiences of violence, repression, and being forced to leave their country to survive. The video made for harrowing viewing and while it focused on recording testimonies without providing context (ISIS is named as the perpetrator but the video does not dwell on who funds/supports them), the work shed light on uncomfortable questions that none of the other migration-related works addressed: that women bear the brunt of repression and violence, both in repressive regimes and in war zones. And also, since a lot of the women interviewed lived in refugee camps near the Irak border, do we (Europeans) only care about human rights abuse when its victims land on our borders, while washing our hands off repressive regimes far away?
‘Pteridophilia’, by Zheng Bo. Photo: Melanie Menard.
Another human group bearing the brunt of repression and violence, namely LGBTQ+ people, often sent back to unsafe countries when their asylum requests are rejected by European countries, was conspicuous by its absence. The only explicitly queer work in the whole of Manifesta’s program (compare with last year’s Venice Biennale program…) is Pteridophilia, a video by Zheng Bo exploring the ‘eco-queer potential’ of sensually connecting with nature and ‘relying on bodies rather than language to initiate affective relations’. The work is playful and sexy, and appealed to my love of camp and eccentricity. But it felt like a slap in the face that the curators’ token queer work did not address LGBTQ+ repression amongst a program so heavy on power and migration, especially in light of the previous St Petersburg controversy. Like our queer lives do not matter.
Indeed, to find work addressing LGBTQ+ repression, and artist-activists fighting back against the laws of their own countries, one had to dig all the way into the collateral program (of independently curated fringe events): the Visual Arts strand of Sicilia Queer filmfest curated a group show of contemporary artists from Beirut, exposing the situation of LGBT rights in Lebanon, and offering glimpses of the clandestine queer scene of the city, including a lot of compelling photographic work, from the stark documentary to the aesthetic and conceptual. But the show was only on between 30 May and 30 June.
‘Night Soil’, by Melanie Bonajo. Photo: Melanie Menard.
‘Night Soil’, an experimental documentary by Dutch artist Melanie Bonajo, alternating social documentary and experimental hallucinatory visions, explores the disconnection most Western people feel from nature, and the consequent feelings of fragmentation, emptiness and alienation. The artist documents how her subjects, mainly women, because she believes their voices are insufficiently heard even today, tackle the problem by exploring alternative way of life outside the mainstream system, based on a different relationship with nature and a reassessment of ideas surrounding gender. Melanie Bonajo’s long term, intensive collaboration with her subjects, and the artist occasionally stepping into the frame herself, both observer and participant of a community, reminded me of Nan Goldin. ‘Night Soil’ highlights and celebrates the possibility for unknown individuals to affect change, both social and intimate, using their creativity and self-directed willingness to resist enforced norms, to make and be the change they want to see in the world. The work stood out for me as I felt it was the sole representative in the whole of Manifesta’s program of the avant-garde strand of contemporary art that, throughout the 20th and 21st century, defined art not as a remote/detached commentary on life, but as a laboratory for new ways of living, often operating at the intersection of the official art world and underground, alternative communities.
“I’m happy to own my implicit biases (malo mrkva, malo batina)” by Nora Turato. Photo: Manifesta.
Nora Turato’s “I’m happy to own my implicit biases (malo mrkva, malo batina)” is a spoken word performance (and a site specific recorded sound documentation of it when the artist is absent). The monologue is inspired by the Sicilian tradition of the so-called donas de fuera, that is “women from elsewhere”, who at the time of the Spanish Inquisition were treated as outcasts due to their unconventional powers and behaviour, and adapts it to a contemporary context by whispering secret stories, commonplace clichés and popular myths exposing contemporary sexist discourse and cultural normativity. The performance celebrates the concept of “elsewhere” (artist’s own description) or “The Other” (my interpretation) understood as a ‘space of emancipation within a contemporary culture that increasingly promotes the concept of inclusion as a deterrent to diversity and change’. I felt parts of the monologue satirising the worst cliches about the supposedly ‘irrational and hysterical female’, lines such as “I’m ready to cry, or combust or scream” or “I don’t need to make sense”, were especially powerful. The historical reference to the repression of female behaviour by the Inquisition, when read in parallel with Erkan Özgen’s documentary of female victims of ISIS in contemporary Irak, created a chilling historical echo across time and space, a powerful reminder never to forget past abuse and never to take progress and acquired rights for granted. As a piece of side trivia, the installation-performance takes place in the Oratorio di San Lorenzo, a stunning baroque oratory also home to the reproduction of a stolen Caravaggio. Fascinating women stories are collected in a series of related critical writing: ourladiesfromtheoutside.org
“Videomobile”, by MASBEDO. Photo: Melanie Menard
“Videomobile”, a video multi-channel installation by MASBEDO transforms an old van into a ‘video wagon’ that roams locations loosely associated to the cinema of the past, investigating Sicilian society and the history of Palermo through the angle of power dynamics, the genius loci, and the struggle for ideals. When roaming, the van acts a mobile video recording studio. When stationary (as I saw it), the van displays the collected videos on 3 small screens and 1 larger screen. The work stood out for me as it gave voice to ‘characters who had worked in cinema in an almost anonymous or marginal form, such as make up artists, extras or technicians’ alongside ‘better known figures such as directors, intellectuals, producers or politicians’, but gave each of them an equal voice. One of the clip pays homage to Pasolini’s Comizi d’Amore, where he interviewed women and children on the taboos of sex, love and freedom, and I could feel the influence of this ethos in the way the film-makers presented each of their subjects, whether famous or unknown, as a thinking, reflecting, autonomous individual, and gave them equal opportunity to address deep subjects if they wished. Some testimonies offered fascinating insight: collaborators on Visconti’s film described how his love for pomp and grand design infected their own later creative output. A musicologist explains how Visconti, when he adapted ‘The Leopard’, ‘turned a right-wing book into a left-wing story’, and how this process may have been related to Visconti’s own social ambivalence, coming from an aristocratic background but having leftist ideals. This insight made me reflect on how powerful and thought provoking political art can get (think of Visconti’s The Damned) when the artist does not shy away from exposing their inner contradictions, and playing with formal ambiguity, something I felt was sorely lacking from most of the overt but one-dimensional political work in Manifesta. In another very moving sequence, a photographer Letizia Battaglia speaks to a 10-year old girl Aurora ‘as though to her confidante’ and photographs her ‘as a mirror image of herself’. The artist shares her experience with the young girl in the most honest, profound, unpatronising manner: she talks of her younger self’s desire to take beautiful photographs, only to have it confronted by an uglier reality, of the profound meaning images can take when produced in a spirit of civic sense, quest for beauty and commitment to utopias and ethics. Live on camera, she relays onto the next generation how to think, create and initiate change in the world. In its unpretentious simplicity, I found this film extremely empowering when compared to other works which, while more overtly political, only extorted ordinary citizens to act after the artist had done the thinking for them (The Peng! Collective ‘Fluchthelfer.in. Become an Escape Agent’ and ‘Call a Spy’). Both Letizia Battaglia and a lesser known subject worked at the Palermo left-wing and anti-Mafia newspaper L’Ora and one of them (I can’t remember which and quote the film from memory) recalled how the newspaper acted as a local hub for artists and intellectuals of international caliber, including Visconti, the first point of call where they came to inform themselves of the local cultural and intellectual climate when they came to Palermo to work on a project. By paying homage to the ongoing work of local artists and intellectuals who, despite most of them remaining unknown, contribute to the ongoing cultural change and development of their city, long after the art stars have passed and moved on, the work could have provided inspiration for Manifesta to engage with local communities in a less patronising way, by thinking in collaboration with the locals instead of observing their lives but imposing external interpretations on them.
Tricyclic Transform – A Genderqueer Musical Cabaret
Supported by Brighton Pride Cultural Development Fund
Sunday August 5th, 8pm
11 Dyke Road
Brighton, BN1 3FE
‘Tricyclic Transform’ premiered at Brighton Fringe 2017 with support from New Steine Hotel, toured to Paris Dreams Before Dawn festival and Berlin Transnational Queer Underground and now received a Cultural Development Grant from Brighton Pride to be staged at the Rialto theatre as part of the official Pride Arts Festival. £1 per ticket donated to the Rainbow Fund.
Join Miss Liliane, Queen of Camp Noir, and Sebastian Marmite, the bedsit aesthete, round the gender wheel as they try to negotiate restrictive gender-roles by performing symbolic rituals and re-enacting iconic songs, trying on gender identities as they try on clothes and pitches.
From heart-wrenching jazz diva standards to the pissed-off ladies of gritty blues and Brecht, from the broken men protest songs of Johnny Cash, Scott Walker and Jacques Brel, to the gender-fuck anthems of Marc Almond and Boy George, with sprinkles of ‘Victor Victoria’ and ‘La Cage aux Folles’, ‘Tricyclic Transform’ mixes popular alt-drag cabaret, dark cabaret singing and live-art aesthetics to unearth ‘gender archetypes’ hidden in popular songs. Judith Butler takes on RuRaul Drag Race!
Some Ghost House pictures were shown as part of ‘The Other House‘ curated by Socially Engaged Art Salon for Artist Open Houses.
“The ‘houses’ in the exhibition are haunted by political, social, economic, gender and environmental issues that demolish any fantasy of a ‘house’ as a safe and comforting place. They show the ‘house’ as an ‘other’ space and as a system of processes in which people find themselves as strangers in their own home. […] The theme of the un-homely runs through several of the exhibition’s works: Melanie Menard’s haunting photography series documents deserted houses in Ireland which their occupants had to leave due to political and economic issues.”
Traverse Video Art Writer Simone Dompeyre wrote this article on my videos ‘Ghost House’ and ‘Disciplinary Institutions’ (in French only). I will be published in the 2018 catalogue that will be available online for free when finished.
Mélanie Menard – Ghost House
La mémoire se forme sur les reliefs du temps ; des maisons vides depuis si longtemps que poussière, tavelures, fissure et murs lépreux n’augurent pas de nouveaux aménagements.
Maison simple à étage, avec fenêtres barrées de rideaux plus ou moins intacts, blancs à fleurs ou rouges plus audacieux et dont l’ameublement tout aussi simple ne manquait pas de l’essentiel ni des objets du quotidien désormais parsemant les décombres.
Ce n’est toujours cependant pas la nostalgie qui guide cette investigation, aux mouvements curieux, ne refusant aucun axe ni zooms avant ou arrière car même si en incipit, une petite horloge jouet, décorée, poursuit son balancement en attestation des attentes d’une petite enfant, les bouteilles vides nombreuses, l’imagerie pieuse fréquente entraînent vers un autre constat du mode de vie. Enfant roi abîmé saisi au passage. Christ en jeune homme aux longs cheveux dont le renversement n’est pas redouté par le montage qui le fait tournoyer – jouxte, en un autre plan, des pages arrachées d’un livre de prières qui n’hésite pas à énumérer « éjaculation interdite et « fleurs ». Le visage de la vierge occulte à demi celui d’une jeune femme qui l’occulte à son tour comme prise par la modèle… les reflets de deux miroirs redonnent plus de brillance à ce qui est, en écho de ce qui fut et le vert des plantes éloigne tout larmoiement.
La musique électronique elle–même se teinte de mélancolie, Shadow of sleep
son nom adopte le propos : ils dorment ceux qui furent ainsi pris par de telles règles…d’eux demeure l’ombre grâce à laquelle on peut les réveiller.
Melanie Menard – Disciplinary Institutions
Melanie Menard pense en photographie et en films. Son regard est porté par des préoccupations d’Humaine. Elle sait et rappelle que nous sommes des êtres de la mémoire et d’Histoire et que nous nous devons d’exercer la première pour l’autre.
Elle entraîne en des déambulations très dirigées, en perspectives calculées, en travelling épousant le plafond pour revenir au sol, en zoom déictique vers les décombres de diverses maisons mais d‘identiques raisons d’être et architectures. Des lieux « disciplinaires » de contention dont une énorme clef découverte dans un entassement de papier est emblématique, dont l’impasse s’avère la seule non-issue des couloirs aux portes fermées alors que les hauts murs et les fréquents barreaux déclenchent le motif de l’angoisse.
Le film va à la trace, il ausculte les murs lépreux, les tapisseries en lambeaux et intègre la découverte-irruption d’un étage plus « noble » à la tapisserie colorée, années 1960, à la rampe d’escalier ouvragée sans doute l’habitat de la direction de ses lieux sans davantage de commentaire.
Le silence n’est, cependant, pas accordé à la visite puisque une musique sourde, répétitive mais qui refuse le facile anxiogène -le film n’est pas d’horreur- n’autorise pas la contemplation esthétisante d’une poésie des ruines.
Mais l’esthétique de la mémoire en acte : couloirs larges avec arcatures en ogive traversés, plus étroits amoncelant les gravats vus de leur entrée, barreaux qui transforment les étages en prison captés en contre plongée, rares dessins appréhendés en légères saccades, carrelages suivis, végétation brillantes colorant l’espace ou graffiti obscènes au-dessus des anciens lavabos, les éléments sont pris en leur lieu et selon ce que leur emplacement offre comme possibilité de prises de vue… ainsi tel passage en caméra portée oscille, tel chariot pour malades est capté dans la profondeur du champ.
Ce faisant, la main actuelle entrant dans le champ par deux fois pour attraper telle page manuscrite, feuilleter tel texte imprimé ou approcher le dossier avec index et pages du Nouveau Testament, atteste de l’engagement de l’artiste dans cette « histoire à contretemps » selon l’éclairante formule de Françoise Proust. Revenir à ces lieux pour donner Histoire à ceux/celles qui y furent détenu/es sous des prétextes de morale et de diktats religieux, plus précisément catholique comme le dénote la statue de la Vierge saint-sulpicienne, intacte dans le jardin.
Le générique énumère les lieux de tels enfermements : « l’asile » qui longtemps a accueilli/enfermé malade et vagabonds ou, en une métonymie les indésirables ; « la blanchisserie, l’école professionnelle et la maison de travail (obligatoire) » où ces détenu/es travaillaient gratuitement.
Le film fait des décombres, leurs traces.
Pour paraphraser Deleuze, réclamant dans L’Image-Temps, à « l’art cinématographique […] non pas s’adresser à un peuple supposé, déjà là, mais contribuer à l’invention d’un peuple. » reconnaître à Mélanie Ménard d’inventer ces innommés, s’impose.
L’artiste dit :
Dans Surveiller et Punir, Michel Foucault définit les « Institutions Disciplinaires » comme des lieux où l’homme est rendu obéissant sous la répression préventive de toute déviation à la norme. Ma vidéo explore des endroits employés pour faire disparaître, discrètement, des personnes indésirables et/ou désemparées, ainsi le couvent de la Madeleine (qui a servi de prison pour femmes), les asiles psychiatriques (où les queers et les hommes dits déviants subissaient un « traitement » forcé) et les ateliers. Dépassant la simple documentation de ces bâtiments, je me suis intéressée à transmettre la manière dont les détenus disparus depuis si longtemps continuent d’imprégner ces lieux longtemps après leur mort, ainsi que l’aura maléfique qui émanant, toujours de ces bâtiments, perdure dans la mémoire collective.
‘Tricyclic Transform’ was screened at Leeds Digital Festival, and they interviewed me on their website. I copied the unedited interview questions below.
If you could start telling me a bit about yourself (briefly), so I can get a general impression. (What do you do, where are you from,etc.)
I’m originally from Rouen, France but have lived in the UK since 2005, and Brighton since 2012. I’ve worked in photography, video and digital since 2007 and branched into performance last year. I show work in exhibitions, galleries, film festivals, clubs as well as traditional performance venues.
What is your inspiration for a new project? What inspired you to start with art in general?
As a child, I spent all my time reading, drawing and making paper cut-out characters from my favourite books and staging plays with them. But being from a lower middle class background, I sort of self-selected out of studying art as a teenager and opted for the ‘financially safe’ option of software engineering. I remained passionate about Art though, and slowly grew the guts of making art, first as a self taught artist, until I studied for a MA at Camberwell College of Art in 2009-2011 via part time distance learning, while keeping my commercial software job.
I’m an intuitive and visual thinker, so Art is very much ‘practical philosophy’ for me: I will work on a project to make sense of social, political or philosophical issues that obsess me, where more literary-minded people would write about the subject.
What do you want to express with your artwork?
My work explores the tensions between the individual and the place and circumstances they inhabit, and the human mind in conflict with itself. In visual media, I design an aesthetic representing an individual’s thought processes, using a precisely crafted audio-visual mood and rhythm to trap the audience into their subjective experience. In performance, I mix popular alt-drag cabaret, ‘dark cabaret’ singing and live-art aesthetics to question gender identities, and portray individuals fighting restrictive social norms. I aim to gently coax the viewer into questioning norms and assumptions they may feel more comfortable ignoring, without presenting ready made answers, leaving a degree of ambiguity and interpretation.
What do you think about the transgender conflict in our society?
I believe that each individual’s perception of their gender identity and relationship with their body is unique, that nobody else has any right to pry into it and coerce them, and that nothing progressive ever comes in the long term from attempting to impose artificial simplifications over the endless complexity and fluidity of the human experience. So human beings need to resist pressures to ‘fit into narrow predefined roles’ that wreck their mental health, whether they come from mainstream society or more insidiously from within ‘alternative’ communities. That another individual’s experience differs from yours does not invalidate your own experience in any way, it’s just another one amongst endless natural variations. As Audrey Lorde said: “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.”
Talking about your artwork “Tricyclic Transform”. Can you give me some more information about your piece? What was the inspiration for it?
I’m interested in social control and repression, both the overt and violent kind, but also the subtle, more insidious cultural or peer pressure that an individual may end up internalizing. Being genderqueer, I experience a degree of detachment and critical distance from both feminine and masculine gender norms, and I leverage it to portray the psychological consequences of rigid, enforced gender roles on individuals, something that both trans* and cis people can relate to. Tricyclic Transform follows the inner journey of a person, who ‘thrust into being’ and presented with gender archetypes from popular culture, mimics them to ‘try them on’, only to discover none quite fit the complexity of their thoughts and experience. Their psychological journey is cyclical, though a gender spectrum of female, androgynous, male, with no fixed resolution.
If you couldn’t be an artist, what would it be?
I don’t make art full-time, I have a commercial software job at the side. It’s important for me to be upfront about it because it’s so difficult to make a living solely from your art, and very few artists actually do, that if you maintain an ‘artistic blur’ about how you pay your bills, possibly for ‘personal branding’ reasons, then you contribute to the vicious circle of aspiring artists who can’t rely on family money or financial support from a partner possibly giving up because they believe they can’t make it work. I know dedicated creative people who do all kinds of commercial work at the side to support themselves and their practice.
Are there any projects planned in the future?
I’m working on a digital video installation simulating the collective creation of a shared queer identity through the assemblage and reinterpretation of fragments of a hidden history. Videos sequences document places associated with queer artists and thinkers, relating the former inhabitants’ experience of space, place and identity to the experience of contemporary queer people who drew inspiration from them. It requires coding as well as video-art, so of direct relevance to a Digital Festival!
I received STEP Travel Grant from European Cultural Foundation to attend in person the Transnational Queer Underground exhibition in Berlin, network with international queer artists and complete a programme of self-directed study about Queer and Cabaret Berlin. This is a slightly extended version of my travel report on ECF website.
I visited the Transnational Queer Underground exhibition at Gallery ReTramp. You can download the catalogue in pdf. At the Easter Brunch, I showcased excerpts from my solo musical queer cabaret ‘Tricyclic Transform, as Drag Queen and Drag King including 2 Brecht songs from Threepenny Opera I dreamt of performing in Berlin! I watched performances by both local and international performers who had traveled especially like me. I attended a costume workshop which gave me valuable insight for my drag.
I followed a program of self-directed study about Queer and Cabaret Berlin. I visited the Schwules Museum of LGBTQ Art, and was particularly interested in rarely found information about Queer cabaret performers persecuted by the Nazis.
I attended a LGBT history walking tour around the neighbourhood where Christopher Isherwood lived in 1929-1933, today still Berlin’s LGBT area. I saw the buildings of the bohemian boarding house at 17 Nollendorf Strasse where Isherwood rented a room, and the Eldorado nightclub (the real life inspiration for Cabaret’s Kit Kat club), now an organic shop 🙂 To learn the full story, I recommend reading ‘Christopher and his Kind’, the real life account of the part of his life fictionalised in The Berlin Novels (or watching the film adaptation). A particular anecdote made my day: Jean Norris, the real life inspiration for Sally Bowles, was a lifelong committed socialist. When the movie Cabaret was out, newspapers including the Daily Mail were stalking her in front of the house she shared with her daughter. The daughter replied ‘you want to talk to my mum about sex, she wants to talk to you about politics’.
I visited local queer-friendly underground art spaces (Sudblock, Silver Future, The Ballery neighbouring Isherwood’s former house, Barbiche, Instinct at Village Berlin), Bertolt Brecht’s House and his and Helen Weigel’s grave in the nearby cemetery, and the Tiergarten Memorial for homesexuals persecuted under Nazism. I attended representations of the Threepenny Opera at Brecht’s own theatre Berliner ensemble, and a musical Alles Schwindel by Mischa Spoliansky, composer of 1920 queer anthem Lila Lied.
The ECF grant enabled me to experience the Art Scene in a major queer hotspot in mainland Europe, and network in person with artists with whom I had previously collaborated digitally. I was pleasantly surprised by how much space the local LGBTQ magazine Siegessaeule devotes to culture, compared to its London/Brighton counterparts. I aim to pitch the TQU travelling exhibition to contacts from a Brighton conference about museums collaborating with LGBTQ communities, to try and find a host venue in the UK. Lacking time to visit all the LGBTQ history hotspots identified in my research inspired the possibility of crowdsourced contributions to a digital video installation I’m working on, to which worldwide TQU artists could contribute.
ACTS RE-ACTS 5
Wimbledon College of Arts: Performance Laboratory
Friday 2 March, 2 – 9pm
Tricyclic Transform Full cabaret show at 18:40 in the theatre.
Event: Melanie Menard, Tricyclic Transform (70m)
Melanie Menard presents Tricyclic Transform, a solo musical cabaret exploring genderqueer identity with songs and drag. Join Miss Liliane, ‘biologically-challenged drag-queen’, round the gender wheel as they try to negotiate restrictive gender-roles by performing symbolic rituals and re-enacting iconic songs, trying on identities as they try on clothes and pitches.
Tricyclic Transform goes beyond the ‘private confessional’ nature of many queer solo performance, using ‘Lynchian’ cabaret and German Expressionism aesthetics to explore the alienation of enforced gender roles on individuals from a full spectrum of psychological perspectives.
20 songs span several genres (Torch songs, jazz, musicals, gospel, European Cabaret/Chanson, ‘storytelling’ songs by Johnny Cash, Scott Walker), united by a dramatic delivery and focused on archetypes: sacrificial femininity, Lilith (Predatory Femininity), Androgyne, Dionysos (Broken Man). The theatrical presentation mixes popular alt-drag cabaret with live-art aesthetics including on-stage costume change, breast binding and destroying make-up. Judith Butler takes on RuPaul’s Drag Race!
Refreshments available during the cabaret.