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Camp and Anti-Camp

By Bruce LaBruce

The Camp/Anti-Camp festival, subtitled A Queer Guide to Everyday Life, has come and gone after two days and three nights of kibitzing, k’vitshing and k’vetching on the subject of the elusive sensibility known as “camp.” No, it wasn’t a Jewish festival, although Susan Sontag, in her infamous 1964 essay “Notes on Camp,” does draw some comparisons between the largely homosexual tradition of camp and that of Jewish liberalism and reform, defining them as “the two pioneering forces of modern sensibility.” Plus the co-curator of the event, Marc Siegel, is an American Jew (and homosexual) involved in a long-term (sexual) relationship with the German actress Susanne Sachsse (the other curator), my frequent muse and star of several of my films and theater pieces in Berlin. Confused yet? Good. That seems to be an earmark of camp.

The performance festival-cum-academic conference, which took place at the venerable Hau 2 Theater in Berlin, attracted queer luminaries, scholars (Douglas Crimp!), indignantaries, superstars (Holly Woodlawn!), and various other deviants and rabble-rousers from around the world, and parts of Canada. It was a heady mixture of head-scratching (everyone still seems to be somewhat baffled and befuddled by the concept of camp), headstands (two brilliant New York-based performance artists, Narcissister and Kembra Pfahler, both feature this key upside-down maneuver in their wild, gender-bending routines), and giving head (Vaginal Davis, host of the late-night talk show “Speaking from the Diaphragm” that ran during the three nights of the fest, gave it memorably onstage to guest performer Gio Black Peter). By the time it was over, everyone was spent, and danced it off to my campy DJ set (including camp tracks from Barry Manilow and Godspell!) till the wee hours of the morning.

Why should you Viceheads, who aren’t particularly known for your sense of camp, pay attention to it? According to my “lecture” (I still consider myself a recovering academic), entitled “Woman in Revolt: Notes on Anti-Camp,” the whole goddamn world has become camp. The late Susan Sontag (whom I argued has herself become a kind of camp intellectual figure) identified the essence of the sensibility, a variant of sophistication, as having a love for the unnatural, the artificial, and the exaggerated, and a certain mode of aestheticism known for its high degree of stylization. It’s something that converts the serious into the frivolous, but it’s a frivolity that begs to be taken seriously. Where I strongly disagree with Sontag is in her assertion that camp is neutral to content, disengaged, and apolitical. On the contrary, I believe that camp, which began as a kind of secret language shared by a group of like-minded, closeted homosexuals, is, or should be, by its very nature, political, subversive, and even revolutionary. But I also argued that the sensibility and aesthetic has now largely been co-opted and assimilated by the popular culture, and transmuted into the variants of “straight camp,” “conservative camp,” and even “conservative gay camp,” that might even be identified as “anti-camp.” I developed some of these theories in this very (camp) column, but I don’t have room to expound on them here (look for my lecture to be reproduced soon on the website http://www.catch-fire.com/). Instead I offer you a series of images with commentary from the festival that might give you a clue to what constitutes that mysterious phenomenon known as camp. 

 

 

The Camp/Anti-Camp Poster

Me and the extraordinary, celebrated New York-based performance artist Richard Move, whom I hadn’t seen since the old Jackie 60/Mother days in the Meatpacking District, when it was still full of real meat, and before it was invaded and occupied by meatheads. It was in this fertile playground that Richard developed his project of becoming a living archive of Martha Graham, the grand doyenne of American modern dance. Richard's talk with Douglas Crimp, featuring clips from Richard's brilliant performances in Martha Graham "drag," was one of the highlights of the festival.

Transgendered Warhol Superstar Holly Woodlawn, star of Warhol’s Trash and Women in Revolt, a survivor of the Factory still going strong at 65. I had the honor and terror of interviewing her onstage after she performed her cabaret act.

 

Holly and I backstage sharing a few intimacies.

The incredibly inventive and spectacular New York-based performance artist Narcissister wowed the crowd on the opening night of the festival. So much more complex and politically subversive than her audition on America’s Got Talent would indicate, her revolutionary reworking of drag (a central component of camp) had everyone’s mouths agape.

Narcissister’s performance invoked and turned upside-down classic tropes of black minstrelsy, blackface, and burlesque, making pointed commentary on representations of race, class, and gender.

Her scrubber/washer woman transformed into a sexy stripper…

… who then transformed back into an image of labor in the developing world, carrying her own load of clothing on her head…

…before she mutated into a new post-human form of double-headed travesty…

…turning traditional notions of drag and striptease on their heads.

For the climax of the performance she pulled her costume out of her body to perform a reverse striptease…

… literally pulling her costume out of her mouth…

… a new black superwoman…

…out of her vagina…

… a new kind of Supreme…

… and out of her ass! Then she proceeded to pull her purse and other accessories out of her enormous Afro! Her spectacular performance has to be seen to be believed!

The illustrious Vaginal Davis and her co-host, New York-based performance artist and practitioner of “Tropicamp” Carmelita Tropicana, during an episode of “Speaking from the Diaphragm.” 

Quasi-naked boys got freaky each night on stage during Vaginal’s show…

…while others, including Susanne Sachsse’s son Richard, kick-boxed.

The legendary Kembra Pfahler and the rising star Gio Black Peter both came from New York to perform.

Kembra prepares her performers for her closing night act with her hot horror rock band The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black.

Vaginal Davis, who also performed with her brand-new band Tenderloin with The Hidden Cameras’ Joel Gibb, joins Kembra onstage.

Kembra gets swallowed by Jaws during her set.

Kembra wields her mighty pentagram during her set. Vaginal also interviewed Kembra on her talk show, during which the goddess K. ripped New York a new asshole for its current politically retrograde, neo-fascist, neo-liberal tendencies. She also castigated high-profile female performance artists for refusing to identify themselves as feminists for fear that it will hurt their careers. Listen to the goddess Kembra. The goddess Kembra knows.

Previously - London's Ubiquitous Cocks

 

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