The queer arts and music fest `Mo Wave had its first run in 2013 bringing artists of diverse disciplines together with a visual arts show (titled Polari) and a weekend full of music. It was an ambitious undertaking for local artists and musicians—especially mastermind Seth Garrison of Night Cadet—organized in cooperation with curators and promoters. Audiences asked for more and the team delivered in every way with `Mo Wave 2014.
The Gallery Show
On day two of the music fest, as I was beaming about what I had experienced thus far, photographer Steven Miller remarked that “queer space can be a beautiful thing.” In addition to his own fine art photographic practice, Miller has worked with diverse artistic groups locally and internationally, including Degenerate Art Ensemble and Implied Violence. He curated the Polari show last year, and the sheer number of entries was interesting to glimpse as an indication of diversity within an ostensibly niche community of queer artists. That show proved that the array of talent present is anything but narrow or niche, but suggested a shared sense of beauty (wild and placid in turns) in the face of perceived transgression.
As an inaugural show, it was a brilliant gesture, but the encore needed to be more carefully edited and restrained. Miller and co-curator Davora Lindner acted accordingly in organizing the show currently on display at True Love Gallery. The selection is more staid in some ways and the decision to frame all the pieces in white muted frames makes it cohesive though the pieces themselves are anything but muted.
Frank Correa’s photographs are manipulated and saturated until they seem ready to burn off of their paper. His youthful urban portraiture is eye-catching in its own right, but his signature dayglo palette is downright arresting. Portland artist Michael Horwitz’s drawings and paintings are hip and humorous confections, distinctly stylized and recognizable in a way that distinguishes him as a master illustrator. Some are X-rated, but most are child-like in a good way, invoking a sense of sincere curiosity and innocent play in an imperfect and complicated world.
A video by Brooklyn-based Narcissister plays by the front window, and for those unfamiliar with the artist’s work, the raucous, bestial performance may be hard to follow or put in context. This is generally true of Narcissister’s work, which is best seen live first. Suffice it to say, the themes usually explored by the Narcissister persona (the fine line between self-love and self-destruction, narcissism and oblivion, and how identity is arranged between the individual and society) are on display here and absolutely key to the queer experience, but for those outside of that experience and Narcissister’s work, it may just look like a mescaline trip combining Sesame Street and Mortal Kombat.
The collaborative work of artists Brian Kenny and Slava Mogutin (collectively known as SUPERM) are a collage of photography and illustration. The lush images (from a series known as ENTROPY PARADE) take portraiture and overlay them with symbols (some indecipherable, some plain), splashes of color, tawdry illustrations and slices of narrative that produce a complexity of character. Layers of fantasy and revision speak to a universal modern experience of the construction of self and image, but take on additional resonance in a queer context, where so much of one’s experience has been hidden and is still being reconciled or suppressed in the larger culture, especially in places like Russia, where Mogutin was born and from which he was exiled for his writing on queer subjects.
Queer voices throughout history have been more often demonized than celebrated in cultures built on binary views of sexuality, which inform how people speak, to whom they can speak, how they dress, how they value themselves and others, etc. Typically unchallenged norms deserve a big question mark from the queer perspective, and this has at least in part led to many profound cultural contributions from queer artists and thinkers, as art and philosophy are in the business of asking better, sometimes more fundamental questions.
Queerness is not meant to be an exclusively political identity, but when people use inclusion or oppression of LGBT people to score political points, it becomes at least primarily a political identity. This in turn steers people away from asking broader questions and towards providing conclusions and answers…propaganda. Queer artists and activists are as wary of portrayals of queer people as suburban saints as they are of conservative talking points that turn LGBT people into satanic sadists. The latter create dangerous and oppressive environments for non-conforming individuals (straight and gay alike). The former—acceptance by assimilation—threatens to further marginalize voices that challenge the status quo. (Again, this includes straight and gay voices alike).
When the national dialog around diversity is riddled with shaming and fearmongering and when our local communities can feel balkanized geographically and culturally, there are few working models of an environment where diverse voices have their own space but are allowed to participate in a larger culture. It is somewhat miraculous to see that diverse balance so earnestly and beautifully achieved. The art show balances aesthetically beautiful and eye-catching works with more ferocious, transgressive imagery. The same balance was struck in the music lineup. `Mo Wave was still a raucous party, but the overall culture of it was refreshing on a much deeper level.
The festival offered three afternoons and nights of music acts at Chop Suey. No matter how good the music, a nocturnal indoor venue can’t compete with a gorgeous early spring day in Seattle, and the earlier portions of each afternoon and evening were sparsely attended. This did not seem to diminish the spirits of performers and revelers in attendance and that energy only multiplied as the venue filled each night for a wildly diverse set list. Michael Horwitz worked almost ceaselessly every day and night, creating distinct portraits of partygoers. Compared to the work on display at True Love, these were much looser and frenetic in their style, but his peculiar hand remained evident.
The headlining performers each night came from around the country, beginning on Friday with Austin-based CHRISTEENE, the stage persona of artist Paul Soileau. CHRISTEENE’s punk and southern grit aesthetic shows influences from filmmakers who chart the more grotesque aspects of contemporary celebrity culture through a queer lens. (Bruce LaBruce and John Waters come to mind especially.) However, the subjects that CHRISTEENE confronts and lampoons are ageless—obsessions with fame without substance, beauty without humility or kindness, carnality without intimacy. CHRISTEENE is an ancient sort of creature in a modern husk, equal parts Baubo and Burn-out Barbie, and Soileau is aware of this power in the performance, the roles of shaman and sin-eater that cultures throughout the world and throughout time have associated with queers and cross-dressers.
When queer aesthetics and desire are demonized, rage is a natural response—sadly often internalized. That rage once faced can emerge in a howl (a la Ginsberg), dark humor (a la Waters) and decadence in queer art and writing. Soileau combines a bit of all three in CHRISTEENE, but is not cynical and proves that there can be a lot of love in what is perceived ugly and obscene. “In a mad world, only the mad are sane,” said Kurosawa, and to prove one’s sanity (or at least some functionality) an artist’s best bet is to show some mastery of a medium, a clarity of mind through technique. To fall is easy, but to fall well is difficult indeed, and CHRISTEENE’s performances are a tightly choreographed free-fall, interactive and unexpected.
Artists like CHRISTEENE are proof that even if the public embraces a more sanitized and whitewashed version of “the gay lifestyle” (quickly becoming code for a more polished, exquisite form of consumerism), there will still be those artists who throw down the gauntlet and draw on modes both ancient and contemporary (especially punk) to challenge a status quo that isolates and dehumanizes people for the sake of creature comforts and a false sense of security—greater civil equality notwithstanding. To call positions like this strictly political is facile when they are actually existential, rooted in aesthetics and underlying human experiences. The opening night with CHRISTEENE was a solid assertion of the greater culture behind `Mo Wave—a culture that is willing to challenge broader assumptions even if doing so is not politically expedient.
Night two carried that energy forward with an array of acts for every taste, from the high-energy punk and metal sound of Sashay to the earnest, sultry solo beats and rhymes of HypnoTits. Promoter and booker Jodi Ecklund was justly commended on the final night for orchestrating a lineup that was not partial to any genre or archetype and was full of heart and talent. Some performers fell flat or were just plain sloppy; I won’t cry if BoyFunk (PDX) is not on the line-up next year, but they kept others entertained.
The final act of night two was NYC-based Zebra Katz, the persona of rapper Ojay Morgan, whose underground hit Ima Read was used by designer Rick Owens during Paris fashion week 2012, and has subsequently been remixed countless times by independent artists and established musicians. Katz played it near the end of his set, getting the lively crowd in on it. The repetitive, driving and simple words and beat hammer the word “bitch” dozens upon dozens of time, a conscious act by the artist to undermine its power and reclaim it while also referencing NYC Ball Culture, which was the origin of voguing and a hotbed of drag styles and lingo that have only recently come into public awareness.
While CHRISTEENE stares down the hegemony of image culture, Katz is working in the difficult realm of dual minority status. The rap community is notoriously homophobic and Katz presents a rare strong, openly gay figure in that realm. Both queer and black culture face constant appropriation that trivializes the origins of these subcultures and eventually dismisses them as passe. The vitality of these sub-cultures is never truly sapped as long as people are aware of the reasons for their existence, the defining experiences that shape their aesthetics, language and sound, and new blood is still stepping in to keep things new and relevant to those living the experiences that inspired such movements in the first place. Katz and others are keeping that living, adapting sanctuary alive and open to a broader audience. It’s reassuring to see and hear.
The last night of performances was more glittering and dreamy, with electro-pop, chamber pop and cabaret dominating the evening. That said, in the midst of that there was a punctuated burst of butt-rock and metal from the all-female Judas Priest cover band (yes, I’m serious) Belles Bent for Leather, who absolutely shredded. Electro-pop duo Glitterbang sounded better than ever, followed by Night Cadet. Night Cadet’s Barrett Anspach and Seth Garrison had a long weekend of taking care of performers and attendees and when the band took the stage they were in high spirits. Their gorgeous song “Seaside” included soaring back-up vocals from the next performer, Carletta Sue Kay, who then donned a wig and dress and delivered a heart-wrenching performance of her own, accompanied by a guitarist. (I wish I knew her name.)
It was an apt and quiet prelude to chanteuse Justin Vivian Bond‘s grand finale. Bond came to fame and critical acclaim in the 90s in NYC as one half of the cabaret act Kiki and Herb. In the aughts, Bond appeared and performed in filmmaker and Broadway wunderkind John Cameron Mitchell’s film Shortbus and began a solo career.Bond’s humanity comes across in a performance style at once fragile and defiant, buoyed up by something indomitable. As LGB rights are fought for and won, the T is often treated as last and least. Even within the gay community there are divisive politics that stigmatize Transgender individuals and ignore the larger fight, which is not just for individual acceptance but for more empathy, more humanity, more appreciation for the full human experience, against norms that make one gender, one sex, one expression of love inferior to another—or even deviant.
Bond carried a torch for the whole community and for empathy and human love as a whole, keeping the audience rapt. It was a perfect end to a weekend of music that featured plenty of hedonism, rage and silliness—a full spectrum.
The Stage Performances
Later in the week, `Mo Wave featured its first dance and performance showcase at Velocity Dance Center. Dancer and choreographer Matt Drews curated an evening of eight short stage works and two other “installation” performances. Drews is a warm and affable member of the community whose extensive collaborations made him a good choice to select the featured performers. Out of the eight performed on the stage, the most compelling were two solo works, which were inherently more suited to pieces of limited length and were virtuosically executed. The ensemble pieces all lacked virtuosity and did not make up for it with wit or novelty, but some were notable for trying new things.
Elby Brosch’s Palliation was superbly performed without a soundtrack—just fierce athleticism and a calmly delivered explanation of the title, acknowledging palliative care as a means to alleviate suffering without curing an issue and the roots of the term in deception. The defiant strength of Brosch’s movements (so near to tumbling over at times, it seemed, but always landing solidly) was enough to leave one breathless, and yet Brosch was able to give that succinct ambiguous message without wheezing. It was quite the feat.
Matt Drews’ choreographed piece Like a Ripe Fruit Ready to Burst was beautifully executed by Kyle Bernbach, and felt more fully realized than any other piece, synching with the music and putting Bernbach in an outfit whose sweeping sleeves extended his lithe limbs into living, abstract sculpture. It did not reinvent the wheel, but rather showed care in its craft from start to finish.
Seth Tankus’ Me. Im Not. was a believably performed portrait of a drug addict, and as an excerpt it showed promise. In this abbreviated form, the ending was a bit on the nose, even cartoonish, but perhaps it goes somewhere more fulfilling in the full version. I would give it a look. Dylan Ward and James Kent were charming in their duet, Dogged. KT Shores was transfixing to watch in the initial moments of What Remains Illuminated, when she danced in a square of light—a bit burlesque, a bit street, all power. The monologue that followed was entertaining at first and acknowledged the absurdity of being in a body—a good point to bring up in the middle of a dance performance, especially with a queer focus—but less could have been a lot more as the act progressed and she mutilated a glowing gelatin mold.
Like the Polari exhibit, this initial showcase was inclusive and experimental, and that is a good foot to put forward. Next year (and I really, really hope there is a next year for `Mo Wave) it would be nice to see a more tightly managed set, even if it means fewer acts are included. It is not too much to ask, especially when the creative minds behind the festival have proved they are capable of maturing the program wisely as it grows.
The festival comes at a pivotal time for Seattle and for the Capitol Hill neighborhood in particular. Developments are changing the culture of one of the city’s most vibrant communities. The frequency of harassment and assaults against LGBTQ residents has risen steeply in recent years. Among the gay community and straight allies, there is growing concern that the neighborhood is no longer safe for many who made it a unique place to live, work and visit. Following recent attacks (and the arson at Neighbors nightclub on New Year’s Eve), discussions are brewing to re-establish the long-dormant Q Patrol, a citizen group founded in 1991 following a rash of gay bashings, which the SPD treated dismissively. Despite improvements in civil rights and protections for LGBTQ citizens, it is clear that precautions and community solidarity are as important as ever.
This trend reflects those larger concerns about how challenges to queer voices and perspectives may become stricter in time. I think the concern is legitimate, but I remain optimistic. Not long ago, the sexuality of artists and writers and other cultural leaders was hidden or at least put aside. In more progressive circles, it might have been mentioned as an after thought to nudge others to reassess ill-formed opinions about LGBT people. In conservative circles around the world it was and still is used as means to dismiss (or violently persecute) anyone who does not conform. If LGBT people must be portrayed in mass media in some conformist fashion to get the majority of people to recognize the basic humanity of LGBT people, so be it…for now. But this cannot and will not be the end of the story.
Someday sexuality will not be considered in the valuation of a person’s dignity and potential. Even then, queer voices and perspectives will be vital. `Mo Wave didn’t just give us a taste of what is happening among queer creatives around the world at present; it hints at the potential future, where diverse cultural pasts are still referenced and regarded, still on individual paths that cross and expand the human journey. And on those paths you will find jester gutterpunks, stoic guardians and stately torchbearers—all queer, all human, all together. It’s going to be quite a party. Cheers to everyone—and I mean everyone—working to make it happen.