Keith Hennessy’s Turbulence, one’s resistance of queer art and the boogeyman of cultural compliance

Along with seeing the highly anticipated Keith Hennessy piece Turbulence at Velocity Dance Center, I attended the Stance meetups earlier in the week discussing two pieces, in one of which Cassie Peterson made a hyper-intellectual effort to define the notion of Queer Art. To sum her piece up, the term Queer shouldn’t be constrained to LGBT art but can describe any piece of culturally subversive art. As a straight guy, this opened the door for me on a topic in which I’d otherwise feel a complete outsider.

I’ve been sitting on this topic a while as I was never sure of how I felt about it, about the concept of queer art or how this piece related to that message.

I ultimately enjoyed Turbulence, a spectacle too extrasensory to describe, a lot of noise, a lot of action, a lot effort and a lot of provocation. Parts irked me and parts motivated me to greater ideas. Given the definition of queer art and this piece’s bent of honoring that approach, qualifying any of it is supposed to be beside the point. Provided it struck you and made you think, whether you liked any of it or didn’t like any of it is irrelevant.

Such a stance is by its nature pretentious and it’s very easy to bristle at such pretension. But queer art subverts the notion of pretense: Pretension requires a sense of personal status quo, and queer art is all about subverting status quo. And obviously in that is paradoxical irony: To claim identity requires pretense, yet pretense is built upon a point of view. To exist a point of view requires a sense of status quo… and queer art is about subverting status quo. In queer art identity is at all times simultaneously broken and formed.

I have to realize that at any point I took some sort of offense at what Hennessy presented in Turbulence, that I took offense was in itself exactly the point. Just as any point where I took inspiration or the piece compelled me to ponder what I was watching or the reality that inspired the moment before me was in and of itself the point. In its abstraction of overall focus, Turbulence constantly questioned itself and in turn compelled you to question yourself, what you were watching and the world you live in.

That I found Hennessy and his piece at times artistically masturbatory showed me more about us, about myself, about the dance and theatre and arts community at large than it did of Hennessy and his company, and in turn sparking other epiphanies.

– Artists try so hard to be profoundly self expressive, and ironically their efforts prove so introspectively wanky that their effort frequently falls far short of sincerity (the only true barometer of successful self expression, queer subversion be damned).
– We take ourselves too seriously. In turn, we have judged each other into oblivious cultural compliance.
– In turn, we focus on rewarding cultural compliance, and mistakenly equate cultural compliance with good art… as intelligence insulting as shitting on someone’s face and calling it a hot fudge sundae.
– The artistic cliques that result from cultural compliance have suffocated sincere expression. Artists are so afraid of pissing the wrong people off that few take any real risks, or make half hearted stabs at innovation and, after culturally complying, receive praise for having taken alleged artistic risks that were, in fact, not that risky at all.

I realize in making any of these points that I am leaning on firm definitions, and the concept of queer art emphasizes that definitions are relative and, in turn, easily rendered irrelevant.

I will posit that, queer movement aside, you need definition to have meaning. To be truly queer is to live in anarchy, an impossible ideal. Without a sense of order, there is no society to produce an audience to share your art with. For art to be produced, there must eventually come some sense of order. Hennessy himself not only eventually had to set a score to his Turbulence piece, but he also had to approach funding agencies to finance the piece’s production. This required adherence to a process. It is only through compliance with the granting agencies’ processes and tastes of the adjudicating personnel that Hennessy could receive grant funding. He had to win the approval of his audiences across the world, which includes the community at Velocity Dance Center, to receive the opportunity to share his vision.

This is all to say that art can never truly fit the abstracted definition of queer. We live in an artistic society that has its rules, its pecking orders, its benevolent providers whose favor you must win to get a seat at the table. To share his vision of cultural non-compliance, Hennessy had to culturally comply.

And therein lies the challenge of performance art: Finding that artistic middle ground between cultural compliance and finding the queer nirvana of breaking those rules and truly expressing yourself. Many in the dance and theatre communities won’t seek out the high end of that artistic bell curve: They will etch themselves firmly within reach of the cultural compliance end, afraid of the ostracization of pissing off the wrong people and the boogeyman of being artistically blacklisted.

The challenge is not in chasing the nirvanic ideal of a world where everyone lives in queer artistic anarchy, but in convincing the artistic world that they should not be afraid of the gatekeepers to a world that is easily subverted once you open your mind and close the doors on your boogeymen.

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