Speak Now and Forever

by Andrew Kachel

images courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York.


When the scene of racism is reduced to a single speaker and his or her audience, the political problem is cast as the tracing of the harm as it travels from the speaker to the psychic/somatic constitution of the one who hears the term or to whom it is directed. The elaborate institutional structures of racism as well as sexism are suddenly reduced to the scene of utterance, and utterance, no longer the sedimentation of prior institution and use, is invested with the power to establish and maintain the subordination of the group addressed. Does this theoretical move not constitute an overdetermination of the scene of utterance, one in which the injuries of racism become reducible to the injuries produced in language? And does not this lead to a view of the power of the subject who speaks and, hence, of his/her culpability, in which the subject is prematurely identified as the “cause” of the problem of racism?
—Judith Butler (1)

“How do we move forward as a society?” she asks. “It has really become insane… No one is talking about peace. I don’t want to live in a world without peace...” A blank expression lingers, and cuts to a blank screen. Cue the music. Cue the dancing. “I looked in the mirror, it all got clearer…”

It’s a drag queen’s Choose Your Own Adventure: depending on when you walk into the gallery, Charles Atlas’s Here She Is from The Waning of Justice (2015) might offer up a twirling, bopping, singing, lip synching Lady Bunny (the New York drag performer known as much for her sharp raunchy humor as for her enormous blonde buffant), but you might also encounter Bunny in the midst of a political monologue—going off on Hillary Clinton’s hawkish voting record, the “war on terror,” gay marriage, political corruption, and austerity policy. The musical section is ebullient, its campy energy accentuated by split-screen editing and vertical wipes revealing Bunny’s sartorial range of sequined muumuus, flowing chiffons, and fluorescent feather-trimmed dresses. It has the feeling of a finale, but it could just as plausibly be the beginning. The monologue section has moments of lightness too, but on the whole it strikes a different tone: restrained, a slight background drone lending a subdued air of gravity in line with the political issues on the table. The vocal track occasionally cuts out. Sometimes this happens when Bunny is retracing her thoughts or laying out a tangent, but occasionally she is silenced at moments when it seems she’s just remembered her point. The low drone remains throughout. The oscillation of Bunny’s monologue prompts questions of who gets to speak in political arenas, how we are heard, and how vision interacts with language. The answers to these questions are refracted in a million directions, as if through the fist-sized costume diamond on Bunny’s ring.

On view at MoMA PS1 as part of Greater New York, the video is the lone work in a quiet gallery on the third floor, a massive floor to ceiling projection. The doorway to the gallery lets in trace amounts of purple neon light from Mira Dancy’s sculpture in the adjacent room. The video was shown in New York earlier this year, as part of a larger timed installation at Luhring Augustine gallery, but it assumes a heightened urgency in this presentation. This has little to do with the museological context of its display (although the considerable space allocated to the piece is quite welcome); it’s largely because it’s the beginning of 2016, the Republican presidential primaries are in full swing, and the ship of fools is led by Donald Trump— whose platform is spectacular apocalypse. Trump makes outlandish racist and xenophobic comments when his poll numbers flag, and like clockwork his bigoted speech is channeled into a gust of hot air behind his sails. The extremity of his speech appears in direct correlation to his popularity (at least among the politically conservative base of primary voters). Pandering along this sordid path, Trump’s manipulative rhetoric operates as political cathexis: it encompasses all that is not “great” about the United States, draws clear causal relationships, and places blame on specific ethnic, religious, and cultural factions.

In contrast to the dark cloud of this political model, Atlas’s view of Lady Bunny emerges as an eminently reasonable and engaged citizen. Her extemporaneous explanations are pages from a campy Cliff’s Notes on domestic and foreign policy (on austerity: “take the poor people and hit ‘em again, hit ‘em again, hit ‘em again”; on the Trans-Pacific Partnership: “NAFTA on steroids”), peppered with bad standup jokes but more often candid, impassioned, and concerned. Off-color jokes aside, her positions are strikingly lucid. Yet the most affecting moments in the work are the points at which her voice cuts out, unpredictably. Questions of agency, authenticity, censorship, and the audibility of the marginal percolate against the low hum of the reduced audio. Why is she silenced? Is she taken seriously in an artistic context? In the public arena? Who is afforded a platform for political speech? How does artifice affect content? What is the fate of the unheard? When is the last time you’ve heard a drag queen talk policy?

Political speech can foster an injurious climate, but more nefarious is its ability to obfuscate the entrenched power structures that undergird a system running on anger and manipulation. Judith Butler has described this phenomenon of vocal eclipse as a reduction of structural prejudice “to the scene of utterance,” which is conditional on a highly mediated landscape in which language is stripped of context (2). In this scenario, the utterance is “no longer the sedimentation of prior institution and use”—it exists in an eternal present, covering its tracks and shoring up its defenses—building a wall, so to speak, around its own temporally condensed authority (3). Political speech thus functions metonymically, representing vast accretions of belief, history, and policy in its minute instantiations and provocations. In this framework, the utterance is occlusion, conclusion, and subjugation; it is “invested with the power to establish and maintain the subordination of the group addressed.” (4)

For Butler, the subject who speaks utters whole histories in each syllable (far too vast to fully register); intricate accretions of cultural narratives and political systems are subsumed under the immediacy of speech. This framework cuts both ways: while the speaking subject may elide vast swaths of information and effectively cast the world along the contours of the tongue, that same subject might be held accountable as a causal agent, shouldering the weight of entire zeitgeists as a condition of an utterance. What happens then, when speech is dissociated from its form of dissemination? When the speaking subject is muted and the speech keeps flowing but we can’t hear it? When the speech seems to cut out at the crucial moment?

Atlas’s depiction of Bunny as engaged citizen makes good on drag’s potential as a radical form (which Butler proclaimed in the 90s but never with such cogency), and the appearance of these monologues alongside more standard musical routines suggests a latent political subtext to all of this performer’s work. By extension, Atlas and Bunny elucidate a connection between the potential of a non-normative and playful practice like drag—which Atlas has described as “trashy, funny, homemade and non-professional”—and a broader hankering for a better world, however that might be defined (5). It also amounts to a curt refusal to allow quotidian politics to dampen the mood, so to speak.

So it’s all the more puzzling when Bunny is muted. Following Butler, perhaps the uncoupling of Bunny’s speech from the movement of her lips allows her to temporarily evade the accountability of the utterance, which no public figure is able to fully pull off. It allows her to exist in a speculative interstice. In this pliable linguistic limbo, the audience is afforded no historical scope, no clear view of the material structures and ideological superstructures that constitute political reality in this country. Instead, we are reminded of the fact that political speech is its own context, governed by its own laws.

This is part of what Butler was arguing, but in case we didn’t already know it for sure, we certainly learned it in 2009 when the U.S. Supreme Court found that the First Amendment of the Constitution affords corporations the same protections of free speech afforded to individuals, and that a monetary contribution to a political campaign is a protected form of speech (6). Bunny has some thoughts on this—“campaign contributions from war profiteers!”—but what are the actual effects of her monologue and Atlas’s portrait in the grim hangover of such a momentous decision? Perhaps not much, strictly speaking. But art does things that politics can’t; art isn’t poised for political interventions on judicial or legislative terms, so Atlas stakes out an elliptical and critical response to depressing political realities. As speech becomes dissociated from the individual speaking body, he renders a dark corollary: not the extension of expressive rights to corporate entities, but the restriction and redaction of individual voices—effected by an overwhelming din of political noise.

The act of lip synch becomes a potent metaphor for this literal silencing of the voice, coupled as it is with the tenacious will to keep going—falsely, desperately, full of hope, faking it until one makes it—without the ability or materials to go about things properly. We can’t be sure whether or not Bunny is lip synching in Atlas’s video. The lip synch is a performative trope that covers its tracks (at least when it’s done well), and its indeterminate presence testifies to the subversive powers of speech that are available outside the terrain of political and oligarchic elites. Of course, this ability to slyly mimic, to camouflage one’s abilities, and to inhabit the words of others, is not exactly on par with the power to purchase speech on expansive platforms and influence elections. Yet it offers a narrow glimpse into the arsenal of outsiders. A tactic to be tried out by those resourceful individuals who would otherwise be silenced by politics of austerity and the concomitant upward redistribution of speech. Taking a cue from that legendary lip synch master,
“Good luck, and don’t fuck it up.”

(1) Butler, Judith. Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative. New York: Routledge, 1997. 79-80.
(2) Butler, op cit. 80.
(3) Ibid.
(4) Ibid.
(5) Comer, Stuart. “Life Stages - Charles Atlas in Conversation with Stuart Comer” Frieze. May 2011.
(6) Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U.S. 310 (2010)

is a curator and writer based in New York. Recent curatorial projects include BOFFO Fire Island Performance Festival (2015, Fire Island Pines, NY; curated with Clara López Menéndez) and We owe each other everything (2014, CCS Galleries / Hessel Museum, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY). In 2016 -17 he will present a two-part project with Clara López Menéndez called A new job to unwork at (LACE, Los Angeles; Artspace, New Haven, CT). He received an MA from the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College.

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