Feminist curator and a theorist and historian of art and performance, Professor Amelia Jones from the Roski School of Art and Design at University of Southern California, is the 2018 Mayne Centre Lecturer. Ahead of the 14 March Mayne Centre Lecture, we caught up with Amelia to find out a bit more about her topic, ‘In Between Subjects: A Critical Genealogy of Queer Performance’.
Q: You’re currently in New Zealand on a Fulbright Scholarship working on your forthcoming book – can you tell us a little more about how the themes you’re exploring in your book relate to your upcoming Mayne Centre Lecture?
A: The lecture is titled after the book and will trace its main arguments. The project is both about a specific cultural phenomenon – the rise and flowering of a notion of gender performance connected to queer culture (which has reached popular culture in examples such as the television shows Ru Paul’s Drag Race, I am Cait, and Transparent), and a politicised way of writing cultural history. As a ‘critical genealogy’, it seeks to denaturalise the tendency in many humanities and arts fields to think that LGBTQ identified people necessarily are more radical because more fluid or ‘performative’ in their gender identifications, as well as to question the lineage of the academic arguments and artistic practices that have led us to these assumptions. Being in New Zealand – similarly to my experience living in the UK and Canada – has already helped me question the US-dominance of these ideas. Particularly looking at queer performance by Maori (takatapui) and Samoan (fa’afafine) performers has been really instructive.
Q: In your lecture précis, you note there has been an interrelationship between ‘queer’ and ‘performance’ in art discourse and practice since the 1950s in the US – were there significant events that marked this as a turning point?
A: Yes, many key art historical, performance or theatre studies, and philosophical texts (from J.L. Austin’s texts on performativity, Erving Goffman’s studies of social relationality, and Allan Kaprow writing about Jackson Pollock as performing painting in the 1950s, to Judith Butler’s and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s now famous articles and books on gender performance from the 1990s). As well, I look at key creative moments and practices from early Black Mountain and Japanese Gutai performance in the 1950s to Jack Smith’s relentlessly queer films and performances in the 1960s and William Pope.L’s gendered commentaries on Black masculinity in performances from the 1990s onward. My theory is that social transformations, along with these theorisations and shifts in art practice, all signalled new ways of understanding subjectivity and embodiment as performed, relational, gendered and otherwise identified.
Q: Could you describe your notion of ‘genderfluid subjectivity’ as you address it in your work?
A: This concept can only be properly understood in relation to the histories I am tracing. The idea of genderfluid identification arose in the wake of certain modes of feminist and poststructuralist thinking about meaning and subjectivity in the 1970s and 1980s, along with theories of queer culture as resistant and non-binary that arose during the AIDS crisis. It is a way of understanding how someone relates to themselves and the world in terms that diverge flamboyantly from the heteronormative gender binary. Rather than identifying with traditional behaviours and appearances and roles connected to heterosexual masculinity or femininity, people who embrace or embody genderfluidity experience their gender as mutable or in between normative categories of ‘male’ and ‘female’ or ‘heterosexual’ versus ‘homosexual’.
Q: Gender fluidity is increasingly becoming part of national and international conversations – what does that mean for you as someone specialising in this subject?
A: Exactly! I’m interested in how deep theory (including philosophical texts by the likes of Austin, Jacques Derrida, and Butler) as well as sophisticated (and often conflicted and contradictory) creative ideas about how queer sexuality relates to art and performance have become mainstreamed. This raises interesting questions about whether these modes of sexual identification and self-understanding still have the radical potential to disrupt norms that theorists and artists often continue to assume. This is something I address at the end of the book, in the final chapter called ‘trans’ – which explores the current increasing popularisation of transgender people and their experiences in positive and sometimes romanticised ways, even as transgender people often experience terrible violence around the world.
The Mayne Centre Lecture is generously supported by Philip Bacon Galleries