On June 10, 2014 Mysti, neither drag queen nor artist, delivered a performance lecture entitled Master’s Tool: Is Unpaid Labor Feminist Practice? at Raumerweiterungshalle in Berlin. It was a meditation on amorphous hierarchies within community production models and a reparative invocation of Second Wave Feminism before a group of filmmakersand friends. Here is her post-performance reflection with Vika Kirchenbauer, artist and friend:
V: Dear Mysti, when I look at your lecture performance Master’s Tool, I consider your performance character less a drag queen but rather a persona to avoid self-performance. Would you be able to point out the differences from your perspective?
M: I keep thinking of a drag persona as being a life’s work… the narrative runs parallel with my own formations. It’s hard to locate in personas where labor stops and life begins. Within Master’s Tool, I was very much attempting to avoid responsibility… not to have my face represent this rather disruptive critique of standard approaches to filmmaking and art production in general. Because many who utilize this system of labor are close friends, I wanted a mask between the audience and myself. It was not personal; it was exploring organizations of labor together.
V: You speak mostly about labor conditions within the art world and queer community. Mysti is a worker, yet you also speak about your experience of labor conditions that aren’t Mysti’s… How would you compare Mysti’s experience in ‘community practices’ in the art world with Eric’s experience of labor as a dishwasher?
M: The two inseparable… my labor as a dishwasher enables me to continue the exhibitionisms of Mysti in Berlin, right? Without my 7 euro/hour job I wouldn’t be here. Many artists I encounter often don’t need jobs to continue to produce work…
V: Or to create work for others…
M: EXACTLY! To create work for others. Beautiful nuance! I feel guilty asking people for favors. I often doubt my work as an artist is worthy of anyone’s labor. Believing time spent creating ‘art’ has inherent radical value when outside monetary concern… this is… THOUGHTLESS!
V: One of my favorite lines from the performance is: “I look here and imagine your bodies assembled as a vehicle that I’ll drive toward success.” How would you describe the power structures that underlie community projects?
M: There is only romance in capturing the utopian moment of all these different people coming together to create one work! One of my first paid art jobs was working for Sharon Hayes as a volunteer coordinator for Revolutionary Love: I Am Your Best Fantasy. She wanted 100 volunteers to read a love letter to an anonymous delegate inside the Republican National Convention. I have a special relationship to that piece because for almost everyone captured in the video, I can tell stories… alongside Sharon who doesn’t know them at all. Authorship is tricky, what kind of authorship is available in simply tasking volunteers with representation?
V: In a queer community whose filmmaking practice focuses largely on fiction film there is an insatiable need for extras. Extras supply the subject with a sense of authenticity; it allows the queer audience to recognize themselves in the representations of people ‘like them.’ We could say that it is a way of selling the community back to itself as a commodity, while at first glance things may seem as if hierarchies had been flattened, as if a triumph of visibility had been achieved… How can we actually work with people?
M: You talk circles around me! I love it! UM… back to ‘assembling bodies as a vehicle’ that is the empty gesture of community as art medium. If the critique is often: There weren’t any women… what about people of color?!?! then indeed, bodies stand in place of meaning. It’s a shallow meaning. For example, at the end of Wildness by Wu Tsang when suddenly everyone is having that picnic in MacArthur Park, and they are all sort of posing for the camera… very aware of it. She Male Snails by Ester Martin Bergsmark –which I love–also ends with a queer picnic scene. Both intensely emotional and important narratives simply become a queer picnic! What is it to stage/perform these vignettes? I don’t know what the picnic means… togetherness?
V: From my perspective artists are to a large extent professionals of desire production. I see the queer picnic as a good example of desire production. How would it look to you if we decided to disappoint this demand and no longer lure people into the illusion that there is anything to aspire to? I once went on a date and when the person said they had no big ambitions, I thought that was the wisest, sexiest thing I had heard in a while…
M: Haha! The first sort of tagline I wrote for my work as Mysti was something like: Creating desire isn’t about fulfillment but leaving room for longing. The queer picnic looks like what you’re supposed to feel when you’re a queer. I reflected on the queer picnic (or maybe family) and performing this structure with great conviction in Master’s Tool. I said: I’m not sure that the isolation ever really goes away. Many feel they must gift their labor to take part and belong and this is cause for alienation… when family, again, becomes a series of disappointments.
Behind my performance I showed American Gash, trying to illustrate how Ripsy and I made work together… that art doesn’t have to be “career” it can simply be a reflection on life. Maybe my political message didn’t have access to the images created together. Maybe the political cheapens the personal.
V: What we are talking about also connects to not just a privilege but actually now a demand to build a career on one’s passions.. to do what you love. Is the queer community project an inspiring space for neoliberal work restructuring when we think of ways to convince people to exploit themselves in the name of love and higher goals?
M: I really feel seen by you! I wrote a conclusion paragraph AT THE END… in a way I never write, to make clear that this mandate for loving your work is an interruption to what we do as a community of lovers. Love is abuse’s most discreet tool. My issue with self-identified queer or community art: it’s just a marketing line. I don’t believe there is being queer. Queer is how it perverts or disintegrates. Jose Munoz said queer isn’t even here yet. When people use political art to create a career this is the only goal… not community.
V: Criticality as a trademark is a widespread strategy in the art world anyways…
M: This is a very unimaginative present, mandating love for what you do… It is a luxury to spend your life’s work creating a job that you love… not working out of necessity. There is fraudulent innocence in assuming gifted time and labor come from love. This abusive rhetoric enables someone to make a name for themselves via this performance of assembling people. I think that’s what the queer picnic is… there’s the person with the camera, who gets the name to acquire future funding and then the unnamed bodies merely assembled, standing in for what is/was a community and elusive if not vague meaning. What is it to stand on those bodies and insist togetherness, especially considering how often these projects produce violent alienation among friends, paid producers and unpaid participants alike?
A film of the performance Master’s Tool: Is Unpaid Labour Feminist Practice? along with a transcript can be found at http://www.fuckmewhileimgorgeous.blogspot.com
Vika Kirchenbauer is an artist and writer currently working and residing in Berlin. “Infrared Dreams in Times of Transparency: The Love Life of Drones and Other Western Cyborgs”, her latest essay, is available at http://married-print.com.