rethinking why performance matters through the matter of performance
Trashing Performance

1 March 2011

Cheap Flicks Chat #1

 

GB: I was thinking it would be good to say a bit about our current interests to make sense of this as a dialogue between us. Shall i go first?

BW: Please do ...

GB: So the reason why I thought it would be interesting for us to work together is because with Performance Matters we are interested very much in how contemporary performance practice, in its various forms, makes a contribution to public culture. In particular I'm interested in 'trash' performance, for want of a better word, and how that might be seen to be making a contribution, and perhaps more importantly where that contribution is made. I know with BURN you are also interested in trash and its publics, its mediated publics perhaps ...

BW: Very much. BURN came about six or eight months after I became cabaret editor of Time Out in London. Obviously, I was seeing a lot of cabaret work - not exactly a high-status art form in conventional terms - and one of the things I noticed was that a lot of artists were using moving image as part of their practice, rarely as the main means of expression but there was a lot of it about. As I've written mostly about film and television, I was especially alert to it but most of the artists I spoke to didn't consider it particularly important within their pratice so I thought someone should give it a platform and help it find a public, if you like. In terms of the larger contribution to culture in general, that's perhaps where this project comes in!

GB: Your interest in cabaret echoes my own in cabaret and club performance more generally. I have found myself being drawn increasingly towards work produced in and around these genres, or areas, of performance work. This has led me quite far from the usual objects of study for someone who is coming at performance from the vantage point of the academic discipline of Art History or Visual Culture which tend to focus on gallery sanctioned work, or at least work which has a more intimate relationship with the histories of high art and a visual art public - and their respective taste cultures. I wonder if we could try and pursue our shared 'tastes' a bit more here ... to prod around a bit to see if there are other ways we can characterise our interests without using the word 'trash'. Or if 'trash' is the right word then let's try unpacking it a bit so we know what we're talking about?

BW: I wonder if part of it is to do with accessibility. Cabaret is notoriously hard to define as a genre but I'd say one aspect is that it aims to deliver immediate pleasure - not only that, but perhaps that's something that sets it apart from more traditionally academically valued work. Do you think that's true? Is there a suspicion of pleasurable work?

GB: I think that's part of it yes. The reason why such work suffers in terms of status, in terms of cultural hierarchies of taste, is that it cleaves towards the popular. And, as we know, the popular perhaps above all is associated with easy pleasures; with work which is unchallenging or 'merely' entertaining. I still think sociologist Pierre Bourdieu's work is unsurpassed in many ways in helping us theorise the 'disgust at the facile' as a expression of the discriminatory operations of elite taste cultures ...But the thing that interests me about a lot of the work that's been coming out of the London club performance scene, especially the queer, feminist and trans scenes, over the past, say, ten years is that it has worked as much against such stereotypes of cabaret and club performance as it has worked with them. Performances by David Hoyle, or Bird La Bird, for example, have worked with popular traditions like stand-up comedy and cabaret whilst also engaging more avant-garde traditions, this has also led to opening up its publics, its audiences I think ... as the work begins to move between genres. This has been echoed in the ways in which individual performers have moved peripetetically between different institutions and venues. There is a cultural mobility to much of this work which I find interesting ...

BW: Yes. David Hoyle is especially interesting in that respect, i think. He grew up in Blackpool, has a very strong sense of what mainstream ‘tits 'n' teeth’ entertainment involves as well as the gay equivalent in the ‘camp laugh’, and he's able to exploit the strongest aspects of how that kind of performance engages an audience even as his politics go profoundly against its presumed social and political sensibilities. At the same time, he's accepted into ‘legit’ theatre and museum spaces, where his politics are perhaps what interests programmers and curators even as his mainstream techniques might be perceived as 'trashy'.

GB: That word again! I wonder whether it’s a word that many of the performers we are interested in would want to claim as an appropriate way of describing what they do? I think Scottee, for one, would be happy with this. Others perhaps not. But that interesting question aside, it is a word I think which helps crystalise some of our concerns (and happily we're undertaking this dialogue in relation to the theme of Trashing Performance!). So what's 'trashy' about this work? And what might be valuable - to us, to public sphere culture - about its trashiness?

BW: Yes, it's essential to unpack the term. I suppose to me it has two valences: there's an imposed trash status and a declared trash status. So some performers might resent the label - to pick an example at random from the cabaret world, Sarah-Louise Young does very polished, tight character comedy singing. She would probably consider her work only trashy when it intends to be (e.g. a happily slutty c&w singer character) but she might be dismissed as trash by those with no interest in cabaret. Whereas, on the other hand, you might have someone like Scottee - or indeed John Waters - whose work is based at least partly around rubbing audiences' noses in subject matter generally considered beyond the pale - bodily fluids etc. They could be thought of as revelling in the license conferred by a chosen trash status.

GB: Absolutely. Maybe this issue is something we could pursue in interviews with performers over the course of our research. Some of the work may, indeed, only be trashy from the vantage point of a discriminating gaze from on high, as it were, from the vantage point of elite culture and the professionalised discourses of criticism and scholarship associated with it. But this is one of the things we hoped Performance Matters would also open up to scrutiny i.e. the way in which some forms of performance get routinely 'trashed' by critics, and to think again about some of the unthinking ways in which some performance values get demoted, ridiculed or simply overlooked ...

BW: Whether it's imposed or declared, trashiness is by definition a relative status. No one's work is trash in itself, only in relation to expectations. It would also be useful to establish whether and how being 'trashed' by critics is different from being negatively covered. To be truly 'trashed', must there be a suggestion that the work is not just mediocre or bad but somehow abject...?

GB: Hmmmmm let me think about that one! I'd rather, if you don't mind, deal with the other pole of your useful distinction right now: with the 'declared' trash. This is because the reference to John Waters here, the so-called 'Pope of Trash', opens up the historical dimensions of our project. It's very difficult to think of what we mean by trash now, in performance, without thinking of trash then. Which is another way of saying that what we take to be trash performance is defined, to some degree, by what we have come to recognise as 'trashy' and which comes in part from performances to camera in 1960s underground culture - with the films of Jack Smith and the Kuchar brothers, for example, and later, and perhaps more famously, with Waters' films. Of course, 'trashiness' also has a more everyday meaning in terms of generally dissolute or lowly forms of conduct, of the kind of behaviour routinely represented on Jerry Springer or chav-baiting shows on UK TV like Jeremy Vile (sorry, Kyle) ...

BW: It's curious. As you say, in many ways our understanding of trash - certainly of that brand of queer trash that I suspect we're mostly concerned with for this project - comes from those films by Smith, Warhol, Waters, Kuchars et al. Yet in other ways, even more so today than in the 60s, film is a relatively high-status form, certainly compared to, say, live drag performance - though of course not compared to, say, opera or gallery work. But the very act of committing these things to celluloid could be taken as claiming some value for them, which arguably problematises their trash status. If this were true trash, would it even warrant recording?

GB: Yes, interesting. So if it were 'just' trash you'd throw it away right? Whereas Waters et al were, and still are, quite serious about making films that abide by a trashy ethic - both of content (Divine eating dog-shit) and of production (low-budget, no-budget). So maybe, it's more this we're interested in: trashiness as a kind of ethos of performance production, and the values that accrue to that? I know that certainly interests me from a historical and, if you like, a cultural point of view. I'm very interested in how something like John Waters' movies, imbued with their characteristic irreverence and sacrilegious bent, can move from being such an underground, sub-cultural 'taste' in the 1970s and 1980s to a more mainstream taste in the 2000s when Hairspray becomes a musical hit on Broadway and the West End, as well as a Hollywood film with the John Travolta re-make of Waters' original. Does this show that Waters has sold out? Or does it demonstrate that mainstream values have significantly changed over the decades, and that strategies of trashing are no longer as challenging, or offensive, as they would have been before?

BW: Or maybe it comes back to relativity again. Things that are markers of trashiness in one social/historical context lose their potency and are allowed into the mainstream while others perhaps gain in trashiness. I wonder how something like the lust for fame and celebrity might be seen in this context. It's certainly there in Warhol, to take the prime example, but is it even trashier now that everyone and their dog is an aspiring celebrity? Sometimes something is trashy because no one would do it, sometimes because everyone is doing it. So when underground work gets too popular (or populist), some will trash it for losing its trashiness, so to speak - "Oh, she used to be trashy but look at her now. So sad". Perhaps someone like Paul O'Grady, who went from performing at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern to the BBC and Channel 4? (although, that said, he has used his mainstream tea-time telly platform for explicitly political anti-conservative rants, including music hall refrains!)

GB: Yes that's very interesting. Which points to the discriminating nature of trash sub-culture - that something can only be valued as trashy when it can be appreciated in a rare way by a relatively small number of close-knit bohemians. When everybody is doing it, or laughing at it, then it ceases to have sub-cultural capital in such bohemian circles. I think this is very interesting because in my little blurb for the Performance Matters website I wrote that "It is sometimes difficult to know whether performance is merely cultish or an engine of democracy”. You could bung 'trash' in there to make it absolutely apposite to what we're talking about. Is trash performance really about challenging taste cultures, especially as these are aligned to class cultures, or is it about maintaining the taste culture, and the social distinctiveness, of a specific community of metropolitan artists? This is something that I think John Waters is aware of. In his new book Role Models he writes, only half ironically, about wanting to be a cult leader for a new movement - not of trash but of 'filth'. "Filth is just the beginning battle of the war on taste," he writes. And then, in high leadership mode, he calls for "a filth movement for the next century [which] will claw its way down the ladder of respectability to the final Armageddon of the eliminationof the tyranny of good taste". This is great because he seems to articulate both the generalising, common impulse of trash (or filth) - that hierarchies of taste will be despoiled - at the same time as spoofing on nutter cults and recognising that his call will only be answered by a dedicated band of freaks.

BW: Interesting. So is it possible to have it both ways? The destruction of bourgeois dictats of ‘good taste’ is one thing (and surely one that has basically been attained, at least in mainstream culture: just look at the TV schedules) but it doesn't necessarily follow that a democratised or radicalised filth culture will take its place. Is that Waters' point? That we're settling for trash (reality tv, celebrity culture, etc) instead of truly liberating filth? Perhaps it comes down to relativity again: trash is useful as a counter to the tyranny of good taste, but not a good replacement for it?

GB: I don't know. Certainly Waters shift from 'trash' to 'filth' would have to be understood, at least to my mind, in the context of the withering away of traditional bourgeois high cultural values with the rampant development of the neo-liberal media sphere, of multiple TV channels all in a race to the bottom, chasing the most sensational, ratings-grabbing forms of televisual spectacle. Reality TV, of course, is in many ways, the bastard off-spring of 1960s underground film, with its focus on everyday superstars and freaks. What Michael Warner might call 'counter-glamour'. But then, if popular media seems to have embraced trashy pleasures with the production of ‘car-crash’ TV – we know its bad but we watch nevertheless – where does that leave the ‘trashy’ values of the small scale, non-corporate filmic productions of the artists who show their work at BURN?

BW: in some ways, I wonder if it's more the reverse. Given the generally higher status of film, I think some artists might feel it's pretentious to be making film or video work at all. Or at least that in some way the stakes are higher: to have a duff show is one thing but a duff film would somehow be worse. That's more a hunch than something I can really back up at this point. In more general terms about car-crash tv etc, I wonder if part of the problem might be to do with the overlap between trash and camp. Some elements of vintage trash film are meant to be seen as ridiculous. It isn't supposed to look sensible or edifying to be pursuing some of the things they do. It's supposed to seem like an understandable response to a stiflingly conservative milieu. But perhaps when that kind of behaviour becomes the mainstream, it loses its satirical bite and just becomes ... pathetic?

GB: Say more ... about the distinction between trash and camp ...

BW: It's a tricky one, isn't it? One aspect we were thinking about was to do with intention. They're both to do with low status but camp has a degree of inadvertency built into it - whether in the person doing the camping or the subject of their discourse, there's that hint of failed seriousness. Whereas, with trash, there's a knowing delight in wallowing for its own sake (or pour épater le bourgeoisie). With camp the joke is that you think you're fabulous when you aren't; with trash, it's more like saying “fuck fabulous". Or, to put it another way, camp aims high and fails; trash aims low.

GB: Yes it's difficult isn't it? They are both sensibilities that are protean and difficult to pin down, whilst also overlapping, especially in their playfulness and irreverence. But I think what you are saying here is useful. I guess trash never really has the pretence to be about the rarefied or the beautiful or the fabulous - except perhaps in counter-intuitive terms where the grotesque becomes a new form of the fabulous (e.g. Divine). John Waters has been quoted as saying that he prefers trash to camp, as the latter calls to his mind "two older gentlemen in an antique shop talking about Rita Hayworth". Which is to say that camp is more gay - and perhaps older generation gay male - whereas trash is a more sexually open and fluid. Which would certainly make sense in terms of the variety of contemporary performers working in 'trashy' modes ...

BW: Perhaps it's also that camp is a necessarily closeted form. It relies on a knowing audience able to see the cracks and infer the critique of normality. Trash is beyond the pale and doesn't care who knows it. To that extent it's radical where camp is subversive.

GB: Yes I like that. Though, of course, it’s extremely difficult to sustain such definitions and values when we think about actual examples. Was John Inman as Mr Humphreys in Are You Being Served? really subversive or just reiterating a gay stereotype? And is trash radical when it becomes a pleasurable way of consuming neoliberal TV? Isn't rather Adorno and Horkheimer's critique of the culture industry more apposite in this context? Trash as a form of demagoguery? But if I think about how some of the work we are interested in wouldn't get a screening on national TV then things become interesting because perhaps it demonstrates the degree to which some performers work at the limits of what would be acceptable to the broadcasting codes. I'm thinking of David Hoyle again here, live on stage smashing up artefacts of organised religion - a Buddha, a Virgin Mary, a Qur’an - as part of his rant against people following ideologies blindly. This is radical – or at least potentially offensive, uncompromising, and unbroadcastable. It doesn't adhere to polite liberal norms of engagement and discourse. Which is what makes it trashy, or perhaps even 'filthy' in Waters terms ...

BW: Violence is also part of trash, i think. Uncontainable emotions ...

GB: Yes, it 'trashes' certain accepted codes and conventions, of liberal respect and tolerance for religious beliefs, for example, and can be extreme and even violent in its approach ...

BW: That's a very useful formulation: the idea that work is trash if it embodies a trashing of its own - some kind of symbolic (or not so symbolic!) violence against propriety. Not just something refused/made refuse by polite society, but something that actually soils it.

GB: Yes, that's one way I tried to frame the performance work foregrounded within Trashing Performance, as that which irreverently 'trashes' cultural ideals and hierarchies - whether it be forms of civility, ideals of the body, morality, or cultural taste. The challenging of such ideals is not through polite, or even 'tough', criticism, for trash performance forgoes the usual pleasantries of critical engagement. It trashes, rather than criticises. Which raises, of course, the question of the politics of trash if it chiefly goes around drubbing its enemies in this way. Is trash open to engagement? To discourse and dialogue? Or is it more wedded to confrontation and flicking the V sign?

BW: Right. I think this brings us back to something we touched on earlier. Trash might be a very good wrecking style but can't necessarily be looked to for a constructive alternative ...

GB: Perhaps this is where we go next. Perhaps we should think about the politics of trash a bit more, but also move on to consider its publics, and about whether or not it is something we can, or should, be serious about at all - especially in the context of our project. Perhaps, in the end, the joke is on us? Two serious souls coming together in the frame of an academic research project to talk about trash ...

BW: Ha ha, well, yes ... can't rule it out! But if we have fun along the way then i think we can still hold our heads high!

 

Waters, J. In: Role Models, Beautiful books, 2010, pp. 295-296.

Cohan, S. In: Incongruous Entertainment: Camp, Cultural Value, and the MGM Musical, Duke University Press, 2005, p. 8.

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