Opinion
10 min

If you build it, will they come?

In bed with Reena Katz.
Reena Katz has built a giant bed, John and Yoko style, at Harbourfront and is inviting viewers to come and confer with queer couples/activists about how to live in peaceful defiance. I love the idea, but I have my misgivings about positioning queers as innovative mystics. Katz and I had a talk about this and other gay stuff. Grab a coffee and a snack because this one’s involved.
 
Town Dyke: I wonder if we’ve really done enough to examine the advantage (and by extension the impracticality) inherent in two people who have little to do with the reality of the average life — and the limited choices one must make in this space — talking to the public about peace. Many of us don’t have the benefit of sitting in bed making proclamations about the state of the world and snuggling, then going back to our enormously wealthy bohemian lives.
 
Reena Katz: Absolutely. Yoko and John rarely reveal the privilege of their bourgeois lifestyles. They rarely reveal the contradictions or ethical challenges of struggle they experienced. My guess is that they lived in such a counter-culture/avante garde bubble that they were more focused on their marginality than their social power. Even their interest and articulation around ‘total communication’ came from an extremely exclusive place. They were defining themselves through their public love, through their public persona, through the misunderstanding and reductions of fame. There was an inherent messianism to every gesture, but it was a playful messianism, one that revealed fractures, humour and sexual bliss. Despite its lacks, I find it refreshing.
 
Politically, I see the value of the “bed-ins” as twofold. First, they were an interesting proposal around exploitation of one’s own celebrity for political protest, and second, they were a unique use of mass broadcast during a time when publics were first experiencing the immediacy of its potential.
 
In so many projects, [Ono] reveals a codependency between artist and audience that I resonate deeply with. [Judith] Butler might call this interdependence, where one requires the other to live, to breath and to be. Yoko’s work requires participation to be activated, which is a core link with the project I’m doing at Harbourfront. This dissolving and overlapping of authorship has been taken up by so much feminist performance art since her influence in Fluxus.
 
The second piece deals with mass broadcast technology, advertising and the capitalist war machine. John said in a number of interviews that their goal with the bed-ins was to “sell peace.” They wanted to take up airtime, to suggest that publics didn’t have to be passive and consume the endless images of war. That indeed, even demonstrating in the street in some ways limited the imagination.
 
You include this quote with some of your material: “We’re not trying to explain. We’re just trying to communicate. And communication itself is art and art is communication. People are getting so intelligent that you don’t have to explain too much, all you have to do is just touch each other, just shake hands. So this is a way of touching each other.” Yoko Ono, interviewed by David Frost on Frost on Sunday, broadcast Aug 24, 1968. I agree, people are getting very intelligent. So much so that they are able to intellectualize very self-motivated actions and position them as transcendent. I feel like this quote needs a more critical eye.
 
I also feel quite critical of how the “transcendent” is placed in performance work today. AA Bronson comes immediately to mind. He can build a large tent, allow only gay men inside, perform mysterious and transcendent ritual — sexual to the point of ecstatic, limited only by our imaginations as non-tent-dwellers — thereby including our shame in his grandiose vision and have the work lauded and circulated with no critique of its exclusivity. I see a turn particularly with queer performance towards this opaque and surface spiritualism. In terms of mystical practices in performance, I am more interested in engaging with the kind of shared consciousness that allows publics to enter in their own modality, and I choose conversation as the tool for this entrance. I am very curious about the kind of overlap between art and ritual that allows publics to perform their desires and their fears: decolonization, anti-violence of all kinds.
 
I’ve been working with Sara Ahmed’s Orientations: Toward a Queer Phenomenology in this regard. She says, “The starting point for orientation is the point from which the world unfolds: the here of the body and the where of its dwelling.”
I think of participating in the round-dance flash mob of Idle No More on solstice. As a participant, I had a very specific role — to dance in a spiral with others, also dancing in spirals. No one explained this goal to me, but as I moved, I felt my body digging out the concrete, the traffic, the overbearing architecture of the Eaton Centre. I felt a moment of transforming Yonge and Dundas . . . not nostalgically or romantically “returning” the land — but literally turning it, in this spiral motion, outwards and inwards simultaneously towards something I hadn’t yet imagined — this Toronto, our Toronto, under another system of governance. One that honoured all the nations present on the territory. So, with the work, I’m using a strategy of divergence — many bodies with many political motivations — to try and turn the space. While I’m not confident it will have a lasting impact, it is the labour I want to engage in as an artist — how aesthetics and oral transmission can aid in the imagining of another kind of social/civic space.
 
You use the paradigm of the queer relationship — how we often apply non-violent politically learned communication to our own relationships — as a place of mysticism and teaching. The reality is often more fraught than this. We fight, we rage, we get jealous and we struggle with addictions and actions that are sometimes directly related to the fear of being culled from a very mindful herd. On one hand, I see so much value in this, and on the other I see us setting ourselves up as a model that can’t actually acknowledge the real pain and suffering involved in chosen family and non-heteronormative relationship models. We have a lot to teach those involved in more traditional models and homonationalistic spaces, yes. But we also have a lot to learn from what happens when people set themselves up as a paradigm to be modelled after.
 
I totally agree. That complication — or friction between how we are seen, how we see ourselves and our private realities, all of which overlap constantly — is some of the richness that I hope comes out in the durational aspect of the work. Twelve hours in a bed with your sweetie might sound like loads of fun, but there will for sure be moments where much uglier, more complicated relations unfold. Here we also have the entrance of the marketing machine. I’ll admit: I left my interest in these nuances out in order to push the project. As an artist who works with improvisation, spontaneity and publics, I want the opportunity to communicate my ideas and to experiment with what I’m guessing might unfold. I haven’t yet found a way to express this in grant and application language that feels compassionate, philosophical. So, I tended towards the idealization of queer relations.
 
Will we be able to be honest about our struggles when we position ourselves as mystics and perhaps even more “evolved?” Were John and Yoko really in touch with an evolved ideology or were they just two people who aren’t really connected to the travails of the average person showcasing their transcendental relationship, one that was burdened by issues like heavy drinking, jealousy and manipulation? Their relationship was one, in terms of “queerness,” of extreme privilege. For example, it was immediately assumed between the two of them that May Pang would be John’s lover. The discussion never seemed to involve consent. Their relationship was held up above all others. Basically, Lennon used Pang so that Ono could have some space to work. Ono may speak about this in a very blasé way, that the affair didn’t bother her, but Pang’s feelings and her place in their intimate connection afterwards don’t seem to come into it at all. How is this an admirable model?
 
I love the lines you are drawing here. Words like “more evolved” and “transcendental” do get proscribed onto queer bodies regularly in the public battles over the universality of love and our endurance in overcoming oppression. The sloganeering around rights to love fascinates me. Not only does it pressure us into surface models, I think it also has the reverse effect of evolution. It puts our shame, vulnerability and mistakes back into the closet.
 
One place I am convinced of queer “superiority,” however, is in the realm of polyamory. I’m guessing you’re laughing at this — but for all the failed multiple-lover models, I’ve found more successful ones in queer spaces, across political lines. I’ve dated gay Republican women who have had multiple lovers for years and are open and happy about it. I have an open strategy for this with love that takes the worry out of being close — the lover/organizer teams are welcome to invite anyone they want, as long as they have an articulated and shared intimacy. For me, this gestures to the slippery space, the queer zone of sensuality, pleasure, desire, love and as you’ve said — chosen family.
 
In terms of May Pang — OMG, absolutely! There is so much to “unpack” there . . . from John’s clear Asian fetish to a lack of ownership over desire and articulation of polyamory — if that was indeed what was going on. I think one of the compelling pieces for me, though, is how both Yoko and John spoke of their separation — the period in which John and May were involved — after the fact in the Playboy interviews David Sheff did with them. Basically, Yoko was sick of being overshadowed by John’s fame — his white privilege as a rock star (again, my projection) — and the lack of respect Yoko was getting as the businesswoman who controlled all their finances. She didn’t want to stay home with Sean; she wanted John to take equal parenting responsibility. This was the terms of their reunification, and they were quite public about it.  For five years, John was a stay-at-home dad. He articulates this with depth and insight, particularly for a rock star. He even took Polaroids of his first loaf of bread, and all that crap.
 
From your material: “In many queer and trans solidarity movements, sensuality and desire intersect with political urgency. Those of us who are engaged with community as transformative space tend to use strategies from social movements in our kinship practices. These forms of communication exist in resistance to and outside of corporate and heteronormative structures. For example, we evolve language around ideas of respect, consent and participation.”
 
I like that you use the term “evolving language” rather than simply “evolving” because in so many cases, all we are doing is evolving the language around anti-oppression rather than evolving action and solidarity. It seems every day the queer community is torn asunder by another critical platform where we are not being considerate enough toward the most marginalized amongst us. We evolve language and criticism around this rather than evolving participation and action. In the queer community, we have a love of scholarly discourse around the way we fuck and the choices we make and the bathrooms we use, yet putting that into practice is difficult because we’ve talked ourselves into circles and corners and shamed one another for our lack of mindfulness. When will we learn that it takes more than language to soothe us savage little beasts? Or that maybe we are little beasts and that is okay?
 
Yes. I also wonder why there is an impulse to mobilize shame in our communities. Is it learned and unconscious to some degree? Recently, I have done a lot of personal work around allowing myself to fuck up. To reveal my contradictions. I was unemployed for 10 months until recently (this doesn’t include the tons of unpaid work we all do constantly as artists, of course) and developed a kind of anxiety disorder. Or, at least that’s the pathologizing language that works for me right now. One night, my partner and I were taking a bath together, and I had an attack — a physical effect of the soothing water and its heat — and the emotional vulnerability of being naked together like that. She was so kind and caring with me. She really took care of me without judgment. I felt so queer and small and animal-like, and also so honoured. It was hugely cathartic to admit I do need an immense amount of soothing. My partner and I came to a new place as a result. I feel like I showed her something I’ve never been able to show anyone, and it liberated me. TMI, perhaps! But it does speak to the work in that I am very curious about emotional intelligence and how language helps shape that. So, if queers are introducing certain words, phrases and modalities into a broader public stream, are we contributing in some way to an emotional intelligence that includes marginal lives? We do this in so many ways — through artifice, through designing campaigns in our social service jobs, through writing curriculum that includes queer voices, through facilitating meetings in alternative ways. I am hopeful there is a leaky quality to this knowledge and it can contribute to an emergence of some kind. I hope to see in this experimental work if there is an energetic shift in certain moments with publics, much like the energetic shift John and Yoko attempted to create (but failed, in my humble opinion) when Al Capp visited and started on a shaming tirade.
 
From your material: “Like the bed-in proposals, I am interested in the playful invitation of publics into intimate space as a strategy for public dialogue. Queer and trans bedrooms are often open to public scrutiny and our intimate relationships constitute some of the most prudent public debates of this century. The moments in which we are empowered to act from and with our desires are embodied moments. They contain our histories and desires in tandem. They are relational, performative and highly charged with political potential.”
 
Doesn’t this also set people up for a situation that they have to lie (no pun intended)? If you glorify and mythologize the queer intimate/political space, surely you are also setting it up for failure or fear of really exposing the legitimate hurts that exist in these spaces. Thoughts?
 
I am less concerned with the dangers of failing, and exposure. I hope this occurs — within safe-ish parameters for the performers. I am working with the lover/organizer teams in a series of workshops as we lead up to the performance. We are outlining our issues, how we want to talk about them, what we’re willing to reveal with our lovers in the bed and what we aren’t. Part of my job is to act as an ally and notice when any conversation or impulse from the public moves in a direction that the performers aren’t comfortable with. This includes overtly violent moments, such as comments or actions that are anti-sex work, racist, Islamophobic and transphobic. But it also includes more subtle things around privacy, the body, sensuality. While developing guidelines and doing role-plays beforehand won’t solve all problems that could arise, I’m hoping it will build a kind of team solidarity, even a trust between us as performers. There won’t be a sense of exposure without a buttress of support.
 
Also, the lover/organizer teams are all tough cookies! Way tougher than me, in fact. They are interested in these tensions and up for the challenge. They know that their honesty might elicit fear, judgment and anger and are interested and engaged with this kind of confrontational and often painful work in their lives, and that’s why they want to try this experiment with me.
 
Reena Katz’s Love Takes the Worry out of Being Close: Public Assemblies in Bed with Queers
Bed-ins: Tues, April 9–Fri, April 12, 9am–9pm (free)
Final Presentation and Discussion: Sat, April 13, 8pm, $10/$12
HarbourfrontStudio Theatre
York Quay Centre, main floor
harbourfrontcentre.com