Performance

Drifting Through Queer Utopian Memory: Mx Justin Vivian Bond’s “Golden Age of Hustlers” And “The Drift”

Still from Justin Vivian Bond's 'Golden Age of Hustlers' (screencap by author)

Still from Justin Vivian Bond’s ‘Golden Age of Hustlers’ (screencap by author)

As you, dear reader, can probably guess, I’m not exactly a crier. If you hear sobbing in a dark movie theater, I can almost guarantee that sappy sobber won’t be me. So when I choked up watching Mx Justin Vivian Bond’s recent “Golden Age of Hustlers” video, a cover of iconic transsexual singer and former Cockette Bambi Lake’s ode to hustlers in pre-AIDS 1970s San Francisco, I knew Bond hit on something significant to queer culture. I mean, hustlers aren’t exactly known for being tear jerkers.

Directed by Tribe 8’s Silas Howard and Eric Greenwell, Bond’s “Golden Age of Hustlers” features Bond at v’s cabaret best with a host of other beautiful, glittering Downtown queer performers and personalities such as writer Kate Bornstein, Merrie Cherry, Flotilla DeBarge and Untitled Queen. If this line-up of sparkling NYC LGBTQ luminaries wasn’t enough to pull on your heartstrings, added video of Bambi Lake, as well as black-and-white footage of 1970s Polk Street, links this queer past with the queer present, as well as perhaps the future.

While the song celebrates the height of sexual freedom and visibility of post-Stonewall queer culture, the video is haunted by the specter of HIV/AIDS. Without any obvious reference to the ongoing epidemic, a palpable and, I would argue, politically significant sense of melancholy pervades the video–invisible yet undeniable.

As Silas Howard explains in an interview with The Huffington Post, ” I’m obsessed with the idea of queer and trans lineage and how the past and the future can live in the same room. Perhaps it’s in part due to coming of age in the midst of loss from AIDS, that I feel a kinship to mentors gone too soon.”

Still from "Golden Age of Hustlers"

Still from “Golden Age of Hustlers”

With the ghostly specter of pre-AIDS hustler culture, as well as the losses from the ongoing AIDS epidemic, “Golden Age of Hustlers” blurs the divisions between the queer past, present and future, enacting José Esteban Muñoz’s conception of “queer utopian memory.”

In his chapter “Ghosts of Public Sex: Utopian Longings, Queer Memories” in his seminal Cruising Utopia: The There and Then of Queer Futurity, Muñoz discusses the queer world-making potential of remembrances queer history, particularly of the disappearing sexual culture that defined the 1970s.

Muñoz begins the chapter by quoting Douglas Crimp’s influential essay “Mourning and Militancy,” which, like “Golden Age of Hustlers,” invokes a lost “culture of sexual possibility: back rooms, tea rooms, movie houses and baths; the trucks, the piers, the ramble, the dunes” (qtd in Muñoz 33).  Analyzing sources as varied as poet John Giorno’s memories of public sex, most notably with fellow artist Keith Haring, Muñoz concludes that these acts of memory not only preserve the legacy of these possibly utopian sexual cultures but also affect current, as well as future queer worlds.

As Muñoz reflects, “Although the moment Crimp describes is a moment that is behind us, its memory, its ghosts and the ritualized performances of transmitting its vision of utopia across generational divides still fuels and propels our political and erotic lives: it still nourishes the possibility of our current, actually existing gay lifeworld” (34).

For Muñoz, these queer worlds are constructed through “queer utopian memory,” a collapsing of the past, present and future through ghostly evocations of memory and history. As he states, “I see world-making here as functioning and coming into play through the performance of queer utopian memory, that is, a utopia that understands its time as reaching beyond some nostalgic past that perhaps never was or some future whose arrival is continuously belated–a utopia in the present” (37).

Similar to Muñoz’s description of world-making through the performance of queer utopian memory, “Golden Age of Hustlers” presents a conglomeration of queer historical references as well as current performers and personalities, which in combination seem to reach toward an ecstatic utopian future.

Not only does “Golden Age of Hustlers,” construct a queer world through memory, but Justin Vivian Bond’s recent performance The Drift at Joe’s Pub also employs significant figures of queer history to powerfully blur the boundaries of the past, present and future.

Named after a passage from Filthy Dreams’ hero Tennessee Williams’ (who was certainly no stranger to memory himself) novel The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, Bond’s performance took viewers with v on a “drift” through new songs, hilarious stories and unexpected readings. Emerging onstage with an enormous stack of books (and a Negroni, naturally), Bond’s The Drift was a tour de force of queer memory and an strong assertion of queer history.

Promo photo for Justin Vivian Bond's The Drift (photo by Liz Liguori, via justinbond.com)

Promo photo for Justin Vivian Bond’s The Drift (photo by Liz Liguori, via justinbond.com)

Whether reading one of my favorite Frank O’Hara poems “Poem (Lana Turner Has Collapsed),” singing Warhol superstar Jackie Curtis’ rousing final number “Everyone’s Gone To The Moon,” or referencing Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers while describing just a quiet evening of lipstick-stained underwear and some strategically placed grapes (“It was a very literary evening!”), Bond’s The Drift expertly inserted these icons of queer literature, art and poetry into v’s performance.

Haunted by the specters of these queer figures, role models and filth elders, The Drift, like “Golden Age of Hustlers” employed memory as a tool to create, even if just for a few hours, a queer world inside Joe’s Pub.  Like Muñoz states in Cruising Utopia, “memory is most certainly constructed and, most important, always political” (35).

In ‘Ghosts of Public Sex,” Muñoz explains, “The notion of a strategic and self-knowing modality of queer utopian memory, and, more important, the work that such a memory does, becomes all the more possible. The utopian longing … is neither a nostalgic wish nor a passing fascination but, rather, the impetus for a queer world, for what Crimp has called a culture of sexual possibility” (48).

Providing the impetus for a queer world through the various readings in The Drift, Bond conjures these essential figures of queer history, calling out their names and words and opening up a space of remembrance.  Discussing the potential of ghosts and ghostliness in regards to queer utopian memory, Muñoz describes, “The double ontology of ghosts and ghostliness, the manner in which ghosts exist inside and out and traverse categorical distinctions, seems especially useful for a queer criticism that attempts to understand communal mourning, group psychologies and the need for politics that “carries” our dead with us into battles for the present and the future” (46).

And that is exactly what Bond, and the directors of “Golden Age of Hustlers” have done–provided a space for politics that carries the influential weight of the dead into the battles for the present and future.

As Bond quipped in The Drift, “I’ve been up the creek but never without a paddle. I’m a paddle girl.” And perhaps these queer figures, ghosts, memories and histories are just the paddle to create queer worlds.

 

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