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Process Record (Blog)


Rebecca Bruno


Excerpts from:



Full text will be available as a booklet at PASSAGES events.

This work, like this essay, tumbles over and through psychological and material human fantasies. Jack Smith’s Oriental fantasies. Ron Vawter’s on stage character fantasies. Maria Montez’s on screen fantasies. Lloyd Wright’s fantasies of the built environment. John Sowden’s fantasies of a glamorous home as site for entertaining. George Hodel’s surgical, murder fantasies. The stage as fantasy.

Jack Smith’s fantasies are often characterized by an uncomfortable orientalism: sparkling headscarves, Polynesian fabrics, feather headdresses. In his slideshows we find images of Smith “trapped” in various narratives; as a well dressed businessman taking calls, dancing or reclining in a Scheherazade fantasy, a glitter-faced mime-creature, walking and talking to his penguin in safari garb, a brooding gypsy, and as a futuristic trash lobster cyborg. Muñoz writes, “[Jack] Smith’s investment in other cultures initially appears to be nothing but Orientalist fantasy, but those renderings of the East should be considered simulacra of simulacra because they are not based on those cultures but on cheesy Hollywood fantasies of “over there” or a “not here”.”[1] While Smith’s cultural appropriations are offensive and even alarming at first glance, his deeper critique lies in revealing the pathological, psychosexual, and materialist effects of more than a decade of popularized, shiny spoon-fed Hollywood fantasies. In films we escape from our reality into the moving image, one that is knowingly false but seductively (and dangerously) influences how we deal or not deal with the forces that shape our lives. Run out of the house or jump into the pool? Jack Smith brings these Hollywood fictions onto the street alongside the trash, the rich, the rats, and the rent. His commitment to play never seems to end; not the perfunctory kind of play rich people are afforded but rather the serious dislocation of things, the constant pulling-the-rug-out-from-under everything, including oneself. This reveals the fragility of the forces that shape the built environment and its social hierarchies. A shimmy and a shake can cause the great earthquake! Smith’s context was McCarthy, Nixon, Reagan, Cohn and the like. As the United States political system deploys otherness as an imperialist tactic, Smith, as a gay and poor artist, assumes these otherings on and through his body in what I see as a Brechtian approach to critiquing identity construction. It puts on display how notions of normalcy and otherness are used as methods of oppression under a late capitalist democracy. In all of Smith’s characters there is a failure at play; self-awareness in the attempt to transcend but knowing he will never fully reach the alternate reality. This is both the gaiety and doom of it all.

So why not make the performance ten hours long? Three days? A decade?!

The queer body, collective and individual, is site for disaster and possibility; disaster in terms of the violences, failures, categorizations, deprivations, and erasures caused by hetero-patriarchy. This reality is actual, structural, and historical. While it is a violent, depressing, and deadly existence, the failures of the queer body and mind under the framework of hetero-patriarchy allow for the possibility of new and different ways of being in the now and imagining the future. The queer body is not designated to gender and sexuality identifications only but expands to ideologies that intersect and parallel the anti: anti patriarchy, anti capitalism, anti imperialism, anti military, anti police-state, anti white supremacy, anti institutionality, anti nuclear family, anti fascism, anti landlordism, anti Palestinian apartheid. Anti artisanal vegan matcha gluten free ten dollar cupcake shops! The queer body is an essence to mine within oneself, to share with kinship and vigor, and the take, however possible or impossible, into the rhythm and roles of daily life. This is a recipe for the imagination of different tomorrows.

Did Jack Smith ever perform in Los Angeles?

Within the imaginings of Jack Smith, Mario Montez, and Ron Vawter I find an anti-establishment sensibility that grates against the very concrete blocks decorating and structuring the Sowden House. While similar in their fetishistic approaches to the exotic, these artists differ from Lloyd Wright because they never physically built their temples, rather used the idea of the temple as site to reimagine how history is fed to us, how it is digested, and how it influences the narratives that shape the hierarchies of this moment and our futures.

When Jack Smith uses the phrase wait for me at the bottom of the pool what does he mean? Does he wish to escape this harsh reality through death by drowning? Is the bottom of the pool a metaphor for where we all will eventually meet our mortality, joining the death club that unites us? Or does he use the pool as a playfully glamorous alternative temporality where gravity’s effects on the body are altered, our vision shifts and hearing becomes abstracted? Is it here, where the tea party that causes the revolution takes place? Are floating, swimming, horizontal bodies free from pains of the preinvented world? Does holding your breath conjure an energetic force that opens the mind to shifts in possibility? Is it in the rich man’s pool where we drown the landlords, CEO’s, and corrupt officials? Our Hollywood guillotine? Another murder at the Sowden house…

The queerness of death. Perhaps the inability to know death is a queer thing. Like Muñoz’s illustration of queerness as a horizon to always look toward and never fully reach, perhaps death is too a horizon. The limits of the human brain to comprehend death leaves space to imagine, fantasize, produce images, narratives, and meaning. We never fully become dead until we are dead and in that moment we shift from this consciousness into something unknown, something queer. When someone dies their life becomes a narrative, invented and reinvented, reinterpreted, retold. It becomes a queer thing owned and passed around by many people. The AIDS pandemic forced thousands of youthful individuals to confront their deaths prematurely. The time and space between diagnosis and death becomes a queer thing. A space when Jack Smith and Ron Vawter made art. A time when David Wojnarowicz reflected on his life, his intentions, his experiences, his desires and fears. It is life’s waiting game accelerated: the interruption of a normative lifetime.

Jack Smith’s famous penguin, Yolanda Penguina, was never alive. Is Yolanda the prop of a mummified exotic bird, once in the wild, captured for the zoo, and freed from captivity only in its afterlife? All we have in this realm is the empty container of Yolanda’s promises; a vapid and fantastic symbol of freedom. The prop of Yolanda Penguina is the prop of Maria Montez, Mario Montez, Jack Smith, you and me- trapped in captivity and waiting to be free. Myth has it Jack Smith, in his 50’s, wanted to contract HIV so he could spend his last days in a warm room with three meals a day, laying in a clean bed as though he was Maria Montez in glamorous recline.

[1] Muñoz, José Esteban. Cruising Utopia. New York University Press, 2009. Page 171.