After running an art gallery and giving sex ed classes in prairie high schools, six months working in a bathhouse in San Francisco and a summer spent in his Newfoundland hometown, performance artist and HIV activist Mikiki set up shop in Ottawa in 2005. Here he revamped Ottawa’s languishing gay men’s outreach program for the AIDS Committee of Ottawa while immersing himself in SAW Gallery‘s queer-positive community.
Since leaving Ottawa in 2006, Mikiki has worked for AIDS service organizations in both Montreal and Toronto, performed “Down In a Blaze of Glory Hole” for Buddies in Bad Times Theatre and fallen in love with my ex-boyfriend.
Mikiki is back in Ottawa twice this month: as co-host of Transgress, Capital Xtra‘s celebration of transgressive queer writing and as a performer in Radical Drag, SAW Gallery’s exhibition of artists who expand or even ignore the expected values of mainstream drag.
Recently I sat down to talk with Mikiki about his time in our city.
NL: What was it like moving from Calgary to Ottawa?
Mikiki: I feel like I set Ottawa up to fail because I had just come from living in these places where I feel so comfortable. I was partying and doing queer work and being an artist and I expected Ottawa to be able to compete with San Francisco and my home. The comparison wasn’t fair.
NL: Is that really how high we’ve set the bar?
Mikiki: Well I think because there’s a smaller history of fabulousness in this city that, when people ease their way out of the closet in Ottawa, they aren’t butting up against the history of the body politic, you know? Or Rick Mercer and Tommy Sexton in Newfoundland. Or queer street youth and visible substance users who are part of the queer community in Vancouver. And of course, Montreal is Montreal. There are all these other extreme examples of queerness in larger Canadian cities, but Ottawa doesn’t have that, you know? In Ottawa, it’s a slow integration where you can be the gay friend at the dinner party. You can always be that one gay friend at the dinner party. I think that that plays out in how much space people are willing to allow each other in Ottawa.
NL: How much space straight people are willing to allow gay people? Or gay people are willing to allow each other?
Mikiki: Each other. I think there’s a resistance among gay people to letting each other be too extravagant and opulent and ridiculous and frivolous in this city. And that’s limiting. It’s like gay people here say to each other, “I don’t want to see that from you because I’m not interested in being that myself.”
NL: That’s the feeling you had living here?
Mikiki: Yeah. I had really lovely interactions with people here and met some lovers and made some great friendships. Just as in Calgary I met some super radical people. I find in any city where there’s a strong socially conservative current, there has to also be a strong undercurrent. Some of the most radical people I’ve met come from Calgary. And from Ottawa too. I really appreciate that.
NL: So where are they in Ottawa?
Mikiki: SAW Gallery.
NL: So why isn’t SAW Gallery contagious? Why doesn’t it spread?
Mikiki: Marketing. It’s hard to market contemporary art and SAW’s not willing to compromise some of the stuff they’re doing to make it more mainstream.
NL: But it’s not hard to market dirty, sleazy parties.
Mikiki: It does take a lot of work though. To put on the Jizz! party took a month of organizing.
NL: When Guy Berubé threw his Holy Fuck III party at SAW Gallery, he had closed circuit camera porn stations so you could get off watching yourself get off watching yourself get off… He had photographers and snakes and all this shit set up so the party could go off if the people wanted it to go off. But it felt like a majority of people were there observing. People wanted to see a dirty party but they didn’t necessarily want to be the dirty party. And it wasn’t for lack of effort on Guy’s part at all.
NL: Caitlyn Pascal organizes Divergence Movie Night here. She says you can’t sit around and wait for the party in Ottawa, you have to throw the party yourself. And Ottawa does have a crew of people trying make shit happen. There’s SAW Gallery and SAW Video, there’s Guy, there’s Caitlyn and the Guerrilla Gay Fare folks. AIDS Committee of Ottawa and Venus Envy throw alternative parties. Glenn Crawford donates hours and hours of his time. The LIX ladies have their thing and the Ottawa Bears Yahoo Group has over 400 members. Hump night at Helsinki’s been going for over three years and Ladyfest for seven.
But sometimes people take a first few tentative steps to test the reception and they’re met with an audience that shows up and doesn’t make the party go off.
Mikiki: I think it requires people that don’t expect it back. People that are willing to do something raunchy on that closed circuit camera and not care if anyone else is watching. Not care even if no one is watching. Not care that they could get pleasure and pain, grief and praise from participating.
NL: So what was the experience of being that guy at SAW’s Jizz! party who did the champagne enema? Which becomes this story that’s told and re-told… What is it like being an exhibitionist living in a city of voyeurs?
Mikiki: Honestly I felt like my time in this city was cut short for that.
NL: (laughing) You wanted to show more??