Mar 6, 2014

Dirty Looks - Creative Partnerships for Community-Based Audiences

by Joey Heinen

As is often declared by scholars and curators, the cinema is as much about the act of gathering as it is the projected image. It is an opportunity to create a discursive space and a means of analyzing how art imitates life and our role in shaping the public. Dirty Looks is one such example of an evolving notion towards the role of cinema in public discourse. This monthly film gathering focuses on experimental and queer film, video, and performance, many times in cross-pollinated or hybrid forms. The majority of the screenings are held in pop-up style spaces throughout New York City, ranging from galleries, studios, book stores, and lecture halls. Most notably their yearly event throughout July, “On Location”, takes places in 30 different locations of queer historical significance such as bars, bathhouses, and DIY venues.

This reflection on the history and significance of place-making is very much at the heart of what makes this series so unique and relevant. Ambience for the monthly events also range in formality, sometimes taking the form of a traditional screening and in some instances resembling more of a happening. For example, one event that I attended in October was a film/performance by Luther Price at PS1 that was performed in the round and featured an ample amount of “fourth wall” permeation with the projected video appearing on the ceiling of the domed space and performers crawling their way through the audience that was seated on the ground and on pedestals. While the content of the performances and screenings at Dirty Look are a primary focus, the community that surrounds the event is the most essential element. 

This past month I attended a film as part of the Dirty Looks series that was hosted jointly with Animal Shelter, a periodical publication that focuses on film, art, literature, and their intersections with sexuality, politics, and queerness. With this in mind, they chose as their site the Bureau of General Services - Queer Division, a cultural center, bookstore, and event space in the Lower East Side. According to their mission, the Bureau seeks to “excite and educate a self-confident, sex-positive, and supportive queer community by offering books, publications and art and by hosting readings, performances, film screenings, book discussion groups, and workshops.”

This event that I attended was a blending of three things - a launch for the newest edition of Animal Shelter, a fundraiser for the BGSQD, and a screening of The Adventures of Sylvia Couski, a 1974 film by Adolfo Arrieta and starring the french transgender singer, actress, and icon Marie-France. While this would at first glance seem like a shoe-horning of missions and initiatives, the event emphasized how creative organizational partnering can create a spontaneous and potentially lasting community out of an audience. What is also striking about this model is that it demonstrates how this community can transcend a singular space or affiliation, particularly in a city where it is increasingly difficult for a community to stake claim over spaces which rapidly gentrify. In a moment of great curatorship, this ethos of each organization’s respective missions and their reasons for gathering were also carried through in the content of the film itself.

The Adventures of Sylvia Couski (Les intrigues de Sylvia Couski) is not necessarily a great film in terms of narrative arc or style (though some particular moments are extremely delightful), but it is a vital work for the historical movement that it captured. The FHAR (Homosexual Front for Revolutionary Action) was a collective of artists and activists that was founded in 1971 and acted in opposition to the notoriously homophobic and misogynistic leftist French movement which gathered around the Student and Proletariat demonstrations of the 1960s. The Gazolines were an offshoot of the FHAR and are thoroughly present through Sylvia Couski as they live up to their reputation for frivolous and bawdy public performativity. The film is a somewhat fractured story that predominately follows Sylvia, a woman who, as the title suggests, embodies much charm and intrigue. One such charmed individual is a male artist whose upcoming show is thwarted by his ex-wife and her lover who contrive to steal his sculptures. He in turn asks Marie to pose in the show as living sculpture. This nod to past artistic movements and happenings (one immediately thinks of works by Yves Klein or the Viennese Actionists) is mixed with a decidedly queer bent, perhaps as a means of subverting a history of body-as-sculpture that was almost exclusively attributed to heterosexual male artists using females as their artistic objects. In referencing these art movements and casting a transgender woman as the object, we see a parody of the misogynistic and transphobic Leftist movement and witness similar acts of gender identification turned flesh. This coy glimpse of the Paris art world in the 1970s also gives us an excuse to explore how art and socializing were often synonymous in certain communities. The rest of the film centers around other figures in the FHAR community, displaying their attempts at wooing strangers on the street, mugging for the camera, cavorting around the cafes and boulevards of Paris, and generally attracting much attention at various hip gatherings. 

The space itself was quite conducive to the DIY nature of the film and the respective collaborators. The “film” was in fact a DVD played through a laptop that was somewhat conspicuously located towards the front of the audience, the projected image appearing on a screen that doubled as a shade to the exterior facade window. While cineastes would perhaps balk at this setup, I felt that it helped to create a more socially comfortable environment so as to express the sense that you were gathered together as a community rather than separate audience members in a formal venue. I also enjoyed that the film had the potential to be viewed on the street from passersby, creating a sense that the act of watching a film can step outside of the private sphere and can simultaneously superimpose itself upon public spaces. Contextual information was provided to the audience in the form of a limited edition zine that contained articles and interviews on Marie-France and her community. It was very fitting that the screening was accompanied with a special printed object in addition to the launch of the latest Animal Shelter edition such that the literary and filmic blending was given equal weight. 

The film itself was introduced by Bradford Nordeen, director of Dirty Looks, and Hedi El Kholti, editor of Animal Shelter. The majority of the introduction was led by El Kholti who helped to position our understanding of Marie-France as a political and pop cultural figure and also to reframe the conventional notion of the tragic transsexual.  Marie was born in Algeria in 1946, relocating to the destitute suburbs of Paris in 1962 after the close of the Algerian War. During her upbringing, her trans identification was known only to her grandmother, for whom she shared a special bond. In the late 60s she began living her full life as Marie, and received much adulation for her vocal performances in cabarets and stylistic invocation of Marilyn Monroe. Marie-France is often compared to Warhol superstar Candy Darling - in fact Marie was asked to play Candy Darling in a purported biopic that never came to fruition. Candy Darling is perhaps one of the more iconic examples of a transgender figure who rose to prominence though often struggled with poverty and ultimately died of lymphoma.

The film Beautiful Darling intimately portrays her life and makes reference to oft-told stories in the queer and especially trans collective unconscious of fractured family relations and struggles to find self-acceptance. It is stories like these (and ironically similar to Marilyn Monroe’s fate as well) which is often associated with transgender figures in film and music. Their stories are often problematically imagined as doomed to failure and, in a sense, a direct cause of the echelons of society to which they are ultimately relegated. 

Marie-France (left) with the Gazolines

Marie-France, however, is still alive and known to perform every now and again, defying the often damning expectation for figures such as her to burn out. There was a feeling at the event of the rarity of the lived experience in the contemporary queer community, particularly in places like New York or Paris where noteworthy communities emerged in the 60s and 70s though many of its prominent figures fell victim to drug abuse, homelessness, or died of rampant illnesses such as AIDS. The most interesting part of the introduction was when El Kholti broke the format of the traditional introduction and starting riffing with friend, audience member, and performance artist Penny Arcade, one such noteworthy figure who can speak on behalf of a community that many of us can only read about or, in this instance, see on film. 

This notion of historical presence is what makes this film so striking to see in this type of venue. El Kholti made reference to FHAR’s delightful anarchism including such moments where they would appear at events of the political left and stage irreverent “performances.” Some particularly scintillating moments include when they hijacked a broadcast of Ménie Gregoire on Radio Luxembourg by instead playing a treatise on homosexuality, or when the Gazolines stormed the funeral of a famed Parisian Maoist. Moments such as these are rarely in print let alone told from an authoritative figure, which is also what makes publications like Animal Shelter so important. For most transgressive histories there is a necessary exhuming and rewriting of the past that must occur in order to build an accurate and representative history. A collaboration between Dirty Looks and Animal Shelter conveys a hope to document experiences through oral histories and rogue publications as well as create a community of witnesses to proactively continue to invoke the spirit of these past groups and movements. For the Bureau of General Services - Queer Division this also allowed them fulfill their interdisciplinary mission as both literary and film audiences were brought together under the same auspices. 

If anything could have benefited this event it would have been some form of post-screening discussion or event. While people did mill around for at least a half-hour following the screening, there was no sense that the act of community-gathering could extend beyond the experience of the film and perhaps the purchase of a copy of Animal Shelter. The resources required to put on a post-show discussion or event may be prohibitive given the DIY nature of the event, but past Dirty Looks have designated a nearby bar as a potential venue. This furthers the cause for the experimental and queer community to be more involved in public discourse rather than self-designating to private spaces, a problem that is perhaps even more prevalent in cities such as New York where niche scenes become increasingly insular and uniform. Nonetheless, the dynamic and mixed programming, not to mention the choice to shift venues, ensures that an event like Dirty Looks is likely to avoid the trappings of pandering itself to one exclusive audience. Additionally, in continuing to program events with other constituents in the literary, scholarly, activist, and theatrical communities, they ensure a lively and informed approach towards defining cinematic spaces and building new audiences around these unique filmic works. 

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