A few years ago during a New York winter evening, I was waiting for a friend of mine in front of a residential Upper East Side building wondering about the sense of community in this sophisticated neighborhood that has turned to large extent into a contemporary site of holiday apartments for the winners of global capitalism. Some minutes later, the two of us found each other inside a cramped elevator and I was beginning to be reminded of a passage from the video At least you know you exist (2011), co-created by my friend and tonight’s host, the video shows her remembering her first time in this very elevator at the age of 18 and the words directed to her before entering the apartment: “Welcome to the time capsule.” I couldn’t tell who was more excited: My friend who just flew in from Los Angeles and hadn’t seen her Grandma for what felt to her way too long (it has been a few short months), or myself in anticipation to meet one of the legendary forces of queer art and activism. We entered the time capsule through an unlocked door and stepped towards the living room, as countless others have before us during the nearly five decades of her habitation. As recently attested by many, the hours spent there have changed their lives inevitably for the very much better. The living room: a half a century accumulation of gaudy camp ephemera, books and notebooks, paintings (including a potentially authentic Picasso), countless wigs, emblazonments and opulently accessorized headdresses, photographs of queer ancestors mixed with notes scribbled with lipstick, all this amounted to an overload of impressions. Yet, the undoubted center of attention was sitting at her wooden desk, framed by two lamps (a clown nose was draped upon one of the shades to be used whenever required), putting on her glasses to see which of her children or grandchildren, often with someone in tow, had entered tonight. As she noticed my friend, the atmosphere for the entire night seemed immediately settled as the following hours of cooing and hugging, infectious laughter and joy demonstrated their bond of mutual adoration. This night became the first of a few where I could witness the affective kinship between a Grandma and some of her many grandchildren. It had been nights shaped by the generosity and hospitality of an elder you had no chance but to look up to with utter admiration: nights of storytelling and witty observations, hilarious anecdotes and tarot readings, and, these might be the most lasting memories, nights of relentless nurturing and nourishing, encouragements of one’s being and doing, nights of unwavering empowerment of one’s often forgotten or repressed agency through mantra-esque catchphrases, from “everything you do is perfect” or “accentuate the positive, illuminate the negative, and don’t mess with mystery in between” to “you’re the boss, applesauce.”
In November 2017, legendary Flawless Sabrina, also known as Jack Doroshow, Mother Sabrina, the Queen, or to her grandchildren simply Grandma, passed away at the age of 78. Born in 1939, Jack grew up in South Philadelphia and became a businesswomen at the age of 19, the non-competitive, yet playfully facetious grandmother-figure Flawless Sabrina, founder, organizer and mistress of ceremonies of the Miss All-America Camp Beauty Pageant, traveling across the country and arguably establishing the first for queers-by-queers enterprise with up to hundred employees. Each year, and in between court hearings in all fifty states for advocating cross-dressing (she once told the anecdote of finding herself in these hearings being accused of promoting men in dresses by male Judges, in dresses!), the circuit culminated in the annual Nationals, a cross-country all-winners drag pageant including judges and guests such as Andy Warhol, International Chrysis, or Mario Montez, and chronicled during its last iteration in 1967 in the cult film The Queen (1968). Written and directed by Flawless herself, the film is a rare glimpse into the pre-Stonewall era of a variety of gender expressions, presenting both the affection and fierce competitiveness between the contestants. It also provides an insight into the perceived mistreatments of both older queens and queers of color within their own community and features one of the rare recordings of Crystal Labeija, the later founding mother of the legendary House of Labeija, ranting about her loosing against a younger, white Miss Harlow. The film immediately gained critical acclaim and won a prize at the Cannes film festival, yet has been rarely shown since the late 1960s due to copyright issues. Leaving the pageant business, Sabrina moved on to become a consultant for homosexual matters in Hollywood and for early transgender rights in US-politics, including advising Hillary Clinton for altering the M / F marker in passports, a producer and collaborator on many artworks, TV and film projects, a club kid, and, for several decades, the muse, mentor, and role model extraordinaire to so many.
In their 16 minute long collaborative video At least you know you exist, entirely shot in the time capsule of an apartment, artist and producer Zackary Drucker and Flawless Sabrina narrate through a history of transgender performativity. The affective kinship between the two artists of different generations, their mutual and literally vital influence on each other’s presence in this world, leads to Drucker’s final statement from the off: “Because of you I know that I exist.” The video begins though with Flawless’ contemplation on what needs to be undone to its core, namely capitalism’s pressure towards individual success and its promise of happiness through consumption and self-cultivation: “There must be more to life than just having everything (…) consumption and its gratification may be the Kool-Aid of capitalism but it doesn’t say you have to drink it and if you do, don’t be surprised that you are depressed (…) One of the principle diversions, hard-wired into capitalism, is the timeless pursuit of success. Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it, the more you make it a target, the more you’re going to miss it.” To follow her, both success and happiness are the “unintended side-effects of one’s dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the bi-product of ones surrender to a person other than oneself.” This insight into an elder’s wisdom telling is visually accompanied by a montage of close-ups of the apartment, most notably a shot of Flawless’ desk, decorated with a table clock at the images’, center and a copy of Michael Salem’s infamous 1973 handbook How to impersonate a woman, in the background. These first few minutes establish both the filmic and the creational reality: Flawless’ time capsule serves as a space to reflect upon queer temporality as a core means of anti-hegemonic opposition as much as on the queering and performative aspects of kinship relations.
Queer theory has always had a complicated discursive relation to kinship theory: from the often linguistically inconceivable differentiations of queer bonds, its critique of the institutionalized governing principles of pro-creational relationality, and their inherent regulative process of gendering, to the privileging of concerns that excludes those denied access to choice in their relations, to name only a few. In her essay Queer belongings (2009) around the potentials of queering kinship theory through a decidedly trans-generational approach of possible kinship, scholar Elizabeth Freeman offers a productive perspective within this discussion: referring to Bourdieu’s concept of habitus as a non-reproductive and temporally structured corporeal transfer, Freeman though opposes his assumption of a lesser flexibility within intergenerational bonds due to exactly the practices of gendered and generational crossings within queer performativity. On the contrary, these time-defying bonds open up alternative futurities of, what she calls, uninevitable form. By employing the terminology of belonging, Freeman further hints towards its associations with the desire to long for and to offer oneself beyond one’s own timely limitations. A year later and in her by now seminal contribution towards queer theories’ temporal and historiographic concepts, Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories (2010), Freeman coins the term chrononormativity as the technique of the temporal organization of human bodies subjugated to a politics of maximum productivity. She attests a predominance of time-bound bodies within and beyond the realms of capital and the nation-state, complicit towards a regime of exclusion. Written and published during the climatic years of what can be described as a temporal turn within queer theory, Freeman detaches her thinking not just from any historical determination or futural directionality, through offering a form of lateral agency. She further takes an important stance in the project of unbinding the queer subject as particularly bound to the experiences, representations, and politics of trauma and loss, through privileging blissful and sensual dynamics of binding, longing, and belonging. Attesting a commodified postgay and postfeminist era, Freeman finds a manifold of artistic and cultural practices that productively neglect the point of view of certain social and political struggles, to have been somewhat concluded. In her critique of a mono-dimensional narrative and with a radical understanding of the impermanence of temporal and normative categorizations, she offers some further terminologies for the strategies applied by artists who connect asynchronically with these struggles and their protagonists, namely temporal drag and erotohistoriography, the embodiment of the past and bodily acts in direct relation to the past, their subjects, and collectives.
Chicago-born and New York-based dancer and artist Mariana Valencia’s performance ALBUM premiered in spring 2017 at BAX / Brooklyn Art Exchange. For this 70+ minutes performance, Valencia creates a dense referential system between music, texts, gestures, and, most significantly, bodies. Combining traditions of social and ritual dances with her own moving repertoire and anecdotes of what she calls proudly her herstory, Valencia dives through cover versions of the likes of Bob Dylan, self-written songs such as the one about “the lesbian dilemma,” or a monologue around her Chicago-framily (she explains this as self-chosen family of friends). She blends these different segments by sharing anecdotes and intimate perceptions of the world through her own lived experiences, from her jealousy of vampires’ “life” span to her impressions of Detroit as “what happens when racism and capitalism both rise and fall—someone’s gotta die so someone else can live.” Approximately 40 minutes into the performance, Valencia traces out a cosmogram of a ritual she got taught by the Afro-indigenous Garifuna people in Belize, called the Dugu. An extended funerary ceremony, this seven day-long singing, drumming and dancing ritual, brings the families and community together to unite with the spirits of their ancestors. Shortly after introducing the ritual, Valencia initiates a conversation with poet and artist Assotto Saint, a key figure of the New York “queer-of-color” art scene in the 1980s and ’90s and a prominent AIDS activist who has passed away in 1994 when Valencia was ten years old, a “lost elder” as she refers to him. She asks the audience to greet him hello and contemplates on what he might have missed, such as the Fugees cover of Killing me softly. Repetitively interpreting elements of the Dugu ritual, the performance’s climax unfolds as Valencia begins to weave together Assotto Saints’ history with her own herstory, from remembering her mothers’ friends Renato and Max’s HIV-conflicted passing in early 1990s Guatemala, to her memories of singing along to one of her fathers favorite records, Edith Piaf’s No, je ne regrette rien—Valencia’s father died in close timely proximity to Saint, himself who was one of the first African American activists to publicly disclose his HIV-status and was featured in Marlon Riggs’ late video work, yet again titled No regrets. Arguably, the performance’s peak is Valencia’s acoustic cover of I wanna be where you are by the Jackson 5, merged with a widespread choreography combining elements of the Dugu commemoration ritual with moonwalk-inspired movements and a clear indication of her longing to be close to her ancestor.
“I find that when you keep the dead close to you, you begin to understand that they have another life because of your constant conjuring. I find that some dead people are always with you, some need conjuring,” Valencia proclaims at one point in her piece. Performance studies scholar Tavia Nyong’o draws a connection between the psychoanalysts Maria Torok and Nicolas Abraham’s concept of incorporation, the settling in of a loss into the body as a component of its habitus and a form of encrypting, and Valencia’s specific method of decrypting. This decryption differs strongly from a traditional form of mourning as it allows a joyful or witty conversational approach to the dead, regardless if they are with us or in need to be evoked. Similarly, Freeman’s concepts of temporal drag and erotohistoriography can be adapted for a reading of Valencia’s practice as sensual and caring embodiment that allows to create affective kinships as much as imagined different futurities, highlighting non-sequential forms of time that can fold subjects into structures of belonging and duration and in contrast to a historisticist concept of time. At a different point, Valencia speaks directly to Assotto Saint, aware that the conversation is not mono-directional: “You speak beyond the screen, and Assotto, you speak to me, finally to me.” Yet, if we follow the understanding that the prevailing perceptions of time are linked to semio-capitalist and progress-centrist demands of efficiency, limitless growth, or profitability and are fundamentally interweaved with techniques of colonial, hetero-normative, abled-bodied, and racial oppressions: How, to follow again Freeman, could these futurities look like? I would like to suggest to turn again to a quote of Flawless Sabrina, imagining a future together with her granddaughter: “Your going through glass ceilings and gender curtains, and finding all new planets—only solar systems—gorgeous.”
I was lucky enough to join one of the rare screenings, part of the accompanying program of the group show “Bring Your Own Body” at Cooper Union in Autumn 2016. During the Q&A and holding hands with Zackary Drucker and Diana Tourjee, the two brilliant Founders of the Flawless Sabrina Archive, Flawless was sitting on the podium without any pants on.
Michael Salem: How to impersonate a woman. A handbook for the male transvestite, M. Salem Enterprises, 1973.
Elizabeth Freeman: “Queer Belongings. Kinship Theory and Queer Theory,” in: George E. Haggerty and Molly McGarry (edit.):
A Companion to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Studies, Blackwell Publishing, 2007, page 295–314.
Elizabeth Freeman: Time Binds. Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories, Duke University Press, 2010.
The entire performance is documented on her website: http: / / www.marianavalencia.work / work / # / choreography /
In summer 2017, during a session of the Parliament of Bodies, the “documenta 14” Public Programs and curated by Paul B. Preciado, Nyong’o has read a paper titled “Decrypting Black and Brown Queer and Trans Lives in Diaspora” and in doing so, introduced the practice of Valencia to a broader European public.