Sins Invalid IV: A Review
Sins Invalid is a force to be reckoned with. Make no mistake about that. I've been to 3 of the 4 shows, some of them more than once. I can tell you: Sins is a force to be reckoned with.
Sins describes itself as a "performance project on disability and sexuality that incubates and celebrates artists with disabilities, centralizing artists of color and queer and gender-variant artists as communities who have been historically marginalized from social discourse." Umm. YaY. And this year, things were a little different. From the 2009 Press Release (with edits by me):
This year, SINS celebrates the experience of sexuality in a "nonnormative" body. .... "[T]he theme of this year's show is the magic of embodiment, to reflect the magic of all life and the spirit incarnate as a human being. Nonnormative bodies reflect that in a particular way, though all people are magical." (Patty Berne) To reinforce the idea of magical possibilities, the artists of SINS INVALID possess disabilities that range from apparent physical disabilities, to disabilities that aren't immediately apparent, such as deafness, environmental illness and injuries. Each of these artists is in nonnormative bodies, and each is a miraculous, sexual being."
I saw some truly incredible performances. Both times I was there, Antoine Hunter's dancing in Risk and Matt Fraser's piece, Beautiful Freak, rocked my world. On second viewing, Nomy Lamm (The Reckoning) and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha's Dirty River Girl moved from solid to totally cookin': sometimes, the actual performance of a given day can make all the difference to the reception and value of the work in the eye of the beholder. I also saw some things that I didn't like, some things that were poorly designed, poorly performed, and some things that just felt underdeveloped.
The first time I ever saw a Sins show, I wept because these were my people doing their thing. This time, however, I feel that I have reached a point with Sins (and/or perhaps that Sins has reached that point -- it's an important distinction) where attending to the questions that arise from the project -- its format, content, and vision -- are now absolutely critical.
For the most part, this year's Sins show was full (again) of hot performers telling it like it is. Disabled, sexy, hot. Doing it. Cummin. Doing it again. Loving. Fucking. Wheelchairs are Freedom. Living. Despite all expectations. Here. Loud. Proud. And not going away. (Hoorayyy!) Spoken word artists (and Lamm who was singing) told their stories: rejection, pain, disbelief, frustration, and yet sexy. Major exceptions to these grossly overgeneralized characterizations were Hunter, Fraser, and Quest and Moore -- I'll come back to that bit later. In all of this "first wave-y" disability sexuality pride stuff, two big things stand out.
One: the format of most artists performing two different pieces, albeit with similar messages, was simultaneously scattershot and repetitive (if you see what I mean). Spoken word artists often perform alone -- it's partly the nature of their material -- but what would happen if there were a unifying theme or if the artists performed together in pieces they had constructed together? If you wish to reclaim the structure of the freak show, that's a good thing. But unintentional reproductions of that structure without explicit discussion of why or how tend to remain just that: unintentional reproductions.
Two: Even though the material performed comes both from the individual experiences of the performers and from some representative experiences of people in our communities, I feel that it is important to ask: To whom is this directed? Whose story? Whose expectations? What world is this? Whose needs is this show fulfilling? Whose minds is it expanding?
To get at these questions, I want to impose a perhaps artificial distinction between disabled sexuality and crip sexuality. I may come back to that in a separate post, but, for the moment, it is just a division that allows me to get at some important ideas; it is not a philosophical position to which I am committed.
By disabled sexuality, I mean articulations -- declarations -- of sexuality by disabled people directed, for the most part, at non-disabled people. "I'm here. I'm disabled. And I do it. Yes, I do. Even in this body that you cannot imagine anyone fucking and loving." That kind of thing. It's an important thing, this disabled sexuality. It is critical that we speak our truths to those who cannot imagine them. And for a variety of people at a variety of stages in their disability journey, it is an important message to hear. This is what brought me figuratively to my knees in that first show. The joy of hearing others celebrate their freedoms and their bodies lifted me up. So, don't get me wrong. I'm not dissing it.
At the same time, however, I want to insist that there be more. *Is* more. Why? Well, partly because I know that there is. And partly because celebrating our identities and ourselves is not enough. What is a celebration? Can you celebrate without merely reiterating and repeating? How many times in a show filled with a sympathetic audience (At times, I felt that the applause was a welcoming of the performer -- "Oh, Y! Y's sooo awesome!" -- rather than a response to the work) can you restate your very vibrancy without fierce resistance refiguring itself as routine? If you are preaching to your type of crowd, is defiance the strongest form of celebration? You need to resist; hell, we need to hear and see that resistance. But ultimately, there's got to be growth. A production with the prominence of Sins must grow.
For Sins, I imagine that growth will be both structural, thematic, and conceptual. Structural: As it includes a greater diversity of performers in a wider range of performance disciplines; the preponderance of spoken word leaves me feeling that the show, overall, is somewhat unbalanced. Instead of awarding the performers what looked like two slots or, perhaps, a finite number of minutes (I can't tell what the governing structure was precisely), I'd like to see more developed, sustained pieces. Pieces that bring together the performers as individuals and as smaller groups. After all, isn't it the dominant world view that we celebrate our sexualities alone, by ourselves? The revue format unintentionally recreates the philosophy the show is designed to reject.
Thematic: In allowing more of a "company" feel, it might be possible to display a more substantial piece that deals with a weighty issue. This year, the topics of institutionalized sexuality, medical abuse, trauma, racial violence, sexual violence, disability, and s&m were dealt with in a single scene that was performed by Quest and Moore. Given all that was going on here, there was no way that this could have been anything other than a complex piece of writing and performance. It didn't work for me. It didn't work because it was underdeveloped and tackled too much in too short a time without seeming to have settled on its artistic goals and tones. Too much, too soon, too hard, too light, too little, and yet too heavy -- and therefore, again, too much. The piece ran the risk of reenacting-- and, I think, for too many audience members actually did trigger -- the shared histories of trauma and abuse that all too many members of our communities know. I'm not saying that any of these topics and aspects of our sexualities should be proscribed; I am saying that the cabaret/revue format is not yet capacious enough to hold such work.
Conceptual: Here's where I get back to that thing about crip sex. As I see it, crip sexuality is something different from disabled sexuality. Crip sexuality is about what disabled people know and what we do. It speaks to us and our partners (disabled and non) about the ways disability interacts with sexuality. It is more than a statement of having sexuality. Crip sexuality lays bare the mechanics, the logistics, the joys, and the pleasures. Crip sexuality might reveal the joys (or not) of a third person, an attendant, who isn't a lover or perhaps is. Crip sexuality might discuss the things we do to get it on, off, or in and out. Crip sexuality might address touch.
It is not enough to say that my vagina needs to be loved -- sure does. I wanna know what happens when you part my lips and my legs spazz my hip into some unbelievable place. What happens when I kick you .... wherever I kick you this time. I want to know what happens when you won't fucking cum, when you are holding it and I'm eating you. I'm on my hands, risking my shoulders; my neck hurts; I can't get my mouth open wide enough any more ... my pain vs. your pleasure, but the cost for me for the rest of the day? I want to hear what other people do with pain. I want to see an s&m scene that talks about disability pain and sexual pain. This, for me, is crip sexuality.
Perhaps the distinction is functional only for this discussion. But perhaps the division is also technical. I'm not committed. The question is how we get art from all of this.
And that might be my last point. How are the personal and the abstract/conceptual (I see these as necessary layers of art) connected? When Fraser washes his arse with his foot, he does so in such a way that my eye sees movement, dance, and functionality. I am aware that a possible response is technicality -- OMG!! how does he do that? -- but Mat is a consummate artist and performer. There's abstraction in this most quotidian action. It's not purely functional. I mean, this might be the way that Mat washes. It could be. But I don't know that. And I don't know that because even as I see his heel appear between his cheeks, Mat works the conceptual, the purity of the movement. And it is simply fucking gorgeous.
Antoine Hunter has similar skills. He doesn't let you linger in the factual world of "this guy is dancing to some music that you just picked that *he* can't hear." He moves you beyond questions of technicalities: If he can't hear, how does he know when to ..... And then when Antoine comes out a second time and repeats essentially the same dance to what he theatrically offers as his own music -- silence -- (I don't know his degree of impairment), I see an artist working concepts and ideas. Abstraction and artistry are present here; they move me beyond questions of how much Antoine does or doesn't hear to questions of what is music anyway? How are sound and dance related or not? It's a bigger picture. And the kind of picture I think Sins should be painting.
Back, for a second, to the moments in Press Release that describe the Sins performers as having magical, miraculous bodies. In some ways, these words are key to understanding my difficulties with Sins. Magical bodies belong to the ethereal otherworld of exotics, freaks, and unreals. Miraculous bodies (only of some proportion human, if any) are inspirational and scary. Embodiment is not, in my world at least, magical or miraculous; it is real: stinky, sweaty, and real. That's the political message I would like to send. It's no fun if everyone cums with a single wave of the magic wand; I prefer the sweaty, grunty, wormy, windy, hilarious, painful moments in between. These are moments I want to see.