Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Discipline Slip 'n Slide in Chicago

My work took me to Chicago for Memorial Day Weekend. I was invited to perform my traveling solo show, "Trail Mix: A Sojourn on the Muddy Divide between Nature and Culture," at DePaul University. I've been doing this show for a while. In the fall of 2007 I performed the piece at the National Communication Association (NCA) Convention in the Hilton Towers in Chicago.

The performance investigates blurred "boundaries" between nature and culture, using personal narrative, persona monologues, and playful interrogation of backpacking practice and gear. At one point I do a monologue as a "bear," an ambiguously metaphorical creature who oscillates between being an actual grizzly bear and being a subcultural "type" in the queer community typified by the hyper-masculine, hirsute and large gay man. The monologue explores issues of celebrity, cultural exploitation, marginalization, and how dominant culture tends to designate and treat "Others," nonhuman or otherwise.

After the performance this past Thursday (well received, btw) I was taken out to dinner with DePaul faculty. An old friend and colleague pointed out that the International Mr. Leather (IML) contest was in town and that we should go. She pointed out that I already had the appropriate costume in my "bear" outfit.

What ensued was something like the literalization of the metaphoric practice of my show. That is, in "Trail Mix" I play a lot with metaphor and analogy, but I do so in a way that often oscillates. By oscillation, I mean the comparison goes both ways. In some analysis of metaphors, critics refer to the object being explored as the "tenor" and the object of comparison used as a lens to examine the tenor as the "vehicle." In "Trail Mix," I frequently switch the role of tenor and vehicle, sometimes mid-sentence. So, in "Bear" I am not just using the queer bear as a lens to examine the grizzly bear or vice versa, but both simultaneously. I find this sort of oscillation destabilizes the performance and does much to explore the paradoxes of the culture/nature blend.

And so, I find myself entering the Hilton Towers in my bear costume, walking past the ballroom where I performed "Trail Mix" for NCA a year and a half before -- only now, I am surrounded by mostly gay, predominantly male, leather fetishists, many of whom would claim the identity of "bear." My personal relationship to such an identity claim is tenuous at best. First, I lack the "fur" and body mass to really qualify as a bear. Second, while I tend to prefer hanging out in leather and bear bars to, say, twink-filled discos, I don't do either very often and am hardly an active member of "the scene." In "Trail Mix," I acknowledge my partial and insufficient representation of myself as a "bear" -- whether as non-human Other or queer Other. Even so, I felt among my kind as much as I ever do at GLBT/Q events -- caught in the familiar dialectic tension between identification/celebration and feeling like an outsider who's queer experience doesn't quite fit in such spectacles of excess.

My friend from DePaul came with me, of course. We enjoyed comparisons of this particular conference with our more traditional experience of a professional conference in the Chicago Hilton Towers. But where she tended to emphasize contrast between NCA and IML, I saw similarities -- the attention to professional dress (different outfits, surely, but there were still rules that very much mattered), assessing hierarchical status of others, the focus on discipline, public spanking, etc. The lobby was crowded with just as much milling about and contrived conversations. The elevators were always a wait.

In my new show, "Cross/Walking," one of the themes I explore is how theater practices (and even the conference practices at hotels) emphasize the idea that the space is blank and waiting for the performers and technical staff to transform it into something new for the audience. I challenge this practice as a problematic and seek to explore and acknowledge what has happened in the space before as something present, something we should attend to. I make metaphorical connections to territory-marking behaviors and tracking.

Certainly as a I walked through the Chicago Hilton in my "Trail Mix" bear costume, these themes resonated with me. I knew that I experienced the IML event in relation to so many NCA conferences that had been held there before. I knew that any future NCA conferences held in the Hilton Towers (there's one there this November) would forever resonate with those milling and groping leather men.

My head is still reeling a bit from the collapse of boundaries -- on so many levels! Bear was released from the cage of the "Trail Mix" performance, given a night out on the town. The oscillations I set in motion in "Trail Mix" swirled outward in an excess of conventioneering and the pulse of house music. Ballrooms and performance spaces hummed with significations and markings, the insistence of the present mixed with the persistence of the past. And if overt concern for the environment was lost in the liquor, leather and smoke, attention to the process of space-taking and place-making was not.

In 2007, the Conference on Communication and the Environment (COCE) was hosted by DePaul University on the theme of "Urban Wilderness." I attended that conference too and enjoyed that it coincided with the Gay Pride festivities and was so close to "Boystown" on North Halsted. I don't think Pride or IML was exactly what the COCE planners had in mind with the theme of "Urban Wilderness" -- but it could have been and perhaps should have been.


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