Media @ McGill

The Abject as a Counter-Aesthetic in Queer Performance in Art and Visual Culture

Submitted by Media@McGill on


By Ayanna Dozier

As we have learned from the queer legend Quentin Crisp everyone must have a style, and as Crisp so wittily noted, “If at first you don’t succeed, failure may be your style.”

My doctoral work is centered upon the intersections of performance, society, spectacle, and queer communities. I am in particular fascinated with how queer performance artists channel fandom and appropriate cultural texts into performances that are representative of their sex, gender, race, and or sexuality. Queer performance art has a penchant for featuring representations of the abject within the thematic use of fantasy. Contemporary artists such as, Narcissister, CHRISTEENE VALE, Ann Liv Young, Kembra Pfahler, and Millie Brown, among others, perform using various modes of the abject, including; vomit, penetration, defecation, etc. These performances are defiant, messy, and at times, vulgar. Therefore, they are able to function as a tool to violently combat the heteronormative structure that has not only pushed their cultural taste to the fringe, but their identities and sexualities as well. Because of their use of counter-aesthetics, these performances lend themselves to alternative outlets, such as cosplay (costume play), burlesque, (standup) comedy, and drag. I will conduct a historical analysis on the representation of the abject and fantasy via queer performance art from the post-World War II era to the present, an era that was defined by the rise of anxiety within the individual. Early postwar examples of fantasy and the abject through genre include the performances and films of Jack Smith, Mike and George Kuchar, and Mario Montez. I will examine how the performative use of fantasy and the abject can be used as a form of resistance and failure of heteronormative assimilation, and how, through cultural semiosis, functions as a signifier of sexual and social dissonance.

My research will highlight the ways in which the style of heteronormativity has been so prevalent that queer cultures have had to foster communities around shared aesthetics. This process is best understood as queer spectatorship, in which particular tropes are coveted and adored by the queer community. Such random examples include camp sensibility and its inherited love for all things bad, leading ladies, genre films, among others. Whilst these peculiar tastes are frequently noted in the canon of queer studies they are also, similarly, the same tropes adored by those within genre fan communities. By performing these tropes, they are embodying dissent and combatting conventionality in society. These artists are intentionally using alternative methods to convey the problematic relationship that exists with gender, sexuality, and identity. This is their style of choice and that style is a reflection of their failure at assimilation and subsequent opposition they face and perform in society.