Queer Traces: Miguel Gutierrez’s I do something (2016)

I do something is not exactly a work by Miguel Gutierrez, although it was something that the choreographer himself definitely did, and I myself also surely witnessed it happening. Yet, if you go onto Google and type “I do something by Miguel Gutierrez”, nothing of sort would appear – no images, no written descriptions, no interviews, no reviews, no videos, no traces whatsoever, as if the work did not happen at all – there was nothing materially and evidentially to prove that it did happen. This article, then, can be pure fabrication and imagination, and indeed the process of writing it does involve a lot of fabrication and imagination… Yet, as the work dissolves in time without any textuality to ground its happening, its urgency still remains – it becomes no less real in the imprint it leaves behind even when it seemingly disappears into traces.

In contrast to the highly-produced Age and Beauty Part I which I have reviewed earlier on Cult Plastic, I do something is presented in a much more informal context of the 2016 Lion’s Jaw Festival in Boston, as part of a showing of the faculty members’ works. Unlike other pieces in the concert that are either a finished product or a revision of one, I do something is a one-time deal where Miguel Gutierrez was performing, and doing, his research on John Bernd, a queer choreographer who died of AIDS in the 1980s. It is presented in the weeks leading up to the project Variation on Themes from Lost and Found, which Gutierrez co-directs with Ishmael Houston Jones to reconstruct Bernd’s choreography and music created in the years leading up to his death.

The piece starts with Gutierrez crouching down hiding behind a clothed rectangular table in the center of the stage, placed on downstage left is a red chair facing towards the table and shown in the back is a projection simultaneously showing three works of John Bernd. There is very little change in terms of vision throughout the work other than the videos being played and the choreographer’s head being occasionally exposed – no live dancing bodies, no costumes, no light changes. The audience has to step out of the conventional mode of watching dance, to call on other modes of knowing other than seeing to experience the Gutierrez’s offering: perhaps hearing, perhaps imagination, perhaps a relational mode of spirituality that connect people, things, and matter.

It is important that the piece is not just seen: “Can you see me?”, Gutierrez asks, “No, I am serious. It is important that I am not seen”. It is important that he is not seen because John Bernd has not been seen. Despite being a significant figure in the New York downtown dance scene in the 1980s, Bernd’s narrative is now more or less forgotten and Gutierrez himself was not made aware of Bernd until very recently. In a way, Bernd was constantly fighting for survival – physical survival against AIDS but also survival of his story, of the queer experience that is meant to be erased out of the archive.

This act of calling to Bernd echoes the writing of José Muñoz on “queer traces” as the scholar argues for the mode of “queer evidence” that is gestural and ephemeral, which enables queer narrative to disappear only to then later rematerialize and persist (Muñoz 2007). In this performance, John Bernd, despite having disappeared physically, is still living with the audience through traces as the mean for survival, holding onto each word uttered by the choreographer before fleeting away the next moment, yet still lingering in the space like a rumor in the air. The red chair that Bernd used in all his works is now tangibly present on stage and the works he made are now being shown in this black box, all gesturing towards that which has disappeared only to rematerialize.

In a sense, Gutierrez is summoning the traces, the “queer evidence” of John Bernd, only to resist documenting or cementing them into a more reliable mode of knowing, hence deliberately claiming the ephemeral ontology of queer traces. In fact, this embracement of ephemerality became even more pronounced when Gutierrez read John Bernd’s last letter to Sally Banes before he passed away. Beautifully poetic, each syllable articulated simply comes and goes before meaning itself escape the audience’s grasp. This escape, in turn, brings out the discomfort inside me that do not want Bernd to continue disappearing, resulting in a sense of unresolution that is very different from Age and Beauty Part I.

I do something feels unresolved not because of the queer excess or because of the unable-to-contain characteristics but more because of Gutierrez’s willingness to let John Bernd disappear into traces again, the same way Bernd’s narrative is almost erased from dance history. The choreographer is willing  to relinquish the urge to capture John Bernd, to archive and protect his works just like any museums would do to maintain the legacy of artists of the past that they want to elevate. He refuses to participate in this institutional prescriptive way of thinking about preserving art history, which has been fundamentally set up to elevate straight white men, to amplify the voice that is already meant to be heard. Thus, he chooses to let Bernd go, to not do anything to secure this figure whose legacy hitherto has no security to remain, but only to do something, to gently gives a little push so that Bernd’s works are again flowing and circulating, further fueling the queer persistence that lets the traces of his works endure until this day.


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