Joshua Chambers-Letson wants More Life for queers of color.
By Noa/h Fields
“We won’t die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come. Bye now. You are fabulous creatures, each and every one. And I bless you: More Life. The Great Work Begins.”—Tony Kushner, Angels in America
Joshua Chambers-Letson is a writer and performance theorist at Northwestern University who reckons with questions of life and death. His new book After the Party: A Manifesto for Queer of Color Life is an electrifying tour-de-force; this tender grief monument is not just about queer of color performance art—it is a work of art. I am still personally wrecked by the intimate second-person address of the preface and epilogue, which somehow finds the potentiality of More Life even at scenes of loss.
Noa/h Fields: You frame your book in homage to the late José Muñoz, your teacher and friend. In many ways, After the Party feels like it’s picking up where his book Cruising Utopia left off. Muñoz outlined a wishful hermeneutics of utopia, a critical embrace of queer lifeworlds, relationality, and futurity. But in the grief of queer of color death—especially the death of someone close to you—it can be hard to sustain that hope. How do you think performance can help us with that struggle?
Joshua Chambers-Letson: I’m not foolish enough to think I could “pick up where Cruising Utopia left off.” I’m not that smart, for one. After the Party is probably most accurately described as a response to losing José, but also my friends Sam and Ryan. And it’s about the challenge of living with the knowledge that the future is one in which we’ll lose even more loved ones and more kin (queer and otherwise). It was an entirely insufficient way of saying, in response to Muñoz’s work, pedagogy, and life, “Thank you” and “This is what I learned from you” and more than anything, “Come home. We miss you.”
But not only. It’s also about what I’ve learned from a world of theorists who constellate alongside Muñoz in my mind: Hortense Spillers, Saidiya Hartman, Karen Shimakawa, C. Riley Snorton, Fred Moten, Audre Lorde, Alexandra Vazquez, C.L.R. James, Lisa Lowe, Nina Simone, even Marx. These are all thinkers who cast a picture of the world in its stark reality and impossibility, but many of them are also theorists of the way minoritarian subjects produce something from nothing (as Migos might say). In the face of great foreclosure, following Snorton, “even so, and as yet, there is still life.”
Performance has an intense relationship to life and to the live. It can be a way of materializing worlds and of remembering and keeping our dead alive. In the face of devastation and great loss, people often turn to performance and ritual, putting performance to work to make what C. Riley Snorton calls “still life” possible. In performance, still life (still being alive) becomes the grounds on which one improvises More Life into reality. The tradition of the oppressed, though marked by defeat and great sadness, is also the tradition of transforming still life into More Life. Of still being here and of being for the then and there. I don’t know if that’s hopeful: it’s just a fact. Despite the ravages of colonialism, white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, and capitalism, the persistence and extraordinary beauty of minoritarian life (or of black, brown, Asian, indigenous, queer, and trans life) is a testament to this fact. And while we must demand more than just “still life,” hope and performance can be powerful tools in the struggle to realize such demands.
NF: In After the Party, you discuss the work of Nina Simone, Danh Võ, Felix González-Torres, Eiko, Tseng Kwong Chi, Ryan Rivera, Martin Wong, and others. How did you curate the cast of artists in this book? Who came to the party first?
JCL: It started with Felix. I went to grad school to study with Muñoz because of his work on Felix. Writing about Felix had always been a way of writing to my mentor. In the weeks after José died, I started writing about Felix as a way of keeping our dialogue alive. That writing was the seed of this book.
One of the stories I tell is the way that Felix had conceived of his work as an ongoing conversation with his lover, Ross Laycock. When Ross died Felix continued making work as a way of keeping that dialogue alive. He made work to make more Ross. That story was always at the back of my mind while writing.
But it was also about other losses. Historical losses. In some ways it’s also a book about blackness; it’s also a book about my mother. Much of it is about the queerness of black life’s relationship to grief. Growing up, my mother loved Ella Fitzgerald, who I also love, but I was particularly drawn to the weird queer vocality and affective depths of Nina Simone and Billie Holiday. Simone has always been a figure who helped me make sense of the ceaseless catastrophes facing black and queer life. So, you know, Nina was at the party before any of us.
Danh Võ’s work is so much about queer and decolonial forms of loss and grief, so it made sense when he showed up. Nao Bustamante is the party. Obviously I was begging her to come along. I was grateful she obliged. Eiko, Muna Tseng and Tseng Kwong Chi, Martin Wong, Audre Lorde, Ryan, Jorge Cortiñas… I don’t know. People just kept showing up and so it was like, “Ok, here we are. Lets see what we can get up to.”
NF: Throughout the book, you grapple with multiple forms of relationality, including communism, Jean Luc Nancy’s “being singular plural,” and “punk commons.” In doing so, you come across as so intentional in who you include in “we,” and complicate the ways that nationalist projects invoke a violent and exclusionary pluralism (“We the people”). Who do you try to include in your “we”?
JCL: It’s not my “we,” so it’s not my place to include or exclude anyone. I’m describing a “we” that can’t be owned or claimed. It is the performative production of any range of commons: such as the black, brown, queer, and/or feminist of color commons. It is the commons.
The book grapples a lot with the dangers of “we.” A lot of damage has been done in the service of “we” in the (ongoing) histories of both capitalist and communist states, but also within colonial and white supremacist societies. “We” is often constituted precisely by defining itself against those who it delimits and excludes or limns within its framework. I take very seriously Vazquez or Miranda Joseph’s critique of “we” and of the “romance of community.”
But, still, we need ways of being together and being alongside each other in difference. This is one of the fundamental lessons of Audre Lorde’s work, also Muñoz’s. I like this idea of a provisional, ephemeral we at difference with itself from the inside out: one that comes together and falls apart just as quickly. That’s why in this book I tried to write about, as I describe it there, a “we” that includes but does not enclose; it is a form of being with by being “within’ and also “outside” of “we.”
NF: I love the way your discussion credits museum guards, mothers, and other care-takers in the artists’ lives as creative collaborators. You talk, for instance, about the role museum guards play in Felix González-Torres’s work. Why do you think these “peripheral” figures are usually ignored in art history, and what is gained by drawing attention to their presences?
JCL: These forms of labor are often willfully ignored in a master discourse like art history and it is not surprising that these are forms of labor that are overdetermined by race, gender, sexuality, and class within racial capitalism and heteropatriarchy’s division(s) of labor. Historically, the master discourses study the world from the perspective of the masters, not from the viewpoint of the slaves and servants. Museum guards, mothers, and care-takers are often drawn from the domain of the feminine and queer, the black and brown, immigrants and the working class. Perhaps art history often ignores those stories because, like virtually every discipline in the academy, the (her)stories and work of people of color, queers, and women is always being erased, placed underground, or denigrated. Or, and this can be just as bad, “included” but primarily in a tokenizing or otherwise utilitarian fashion.
I would say that these characters are not peripheral at all. Or, rather, periphery is only a matter of perspective. Something I tried to do throughout this book is to keep the overlapping and often incommensurate worlds, stories, labors, and generative powers of queers of color and women of color at the center of the frame. We are no one’s margin or periphery. We are our own centers. Always have been. That’s one perspective that (I hope) the book encourages readers to take.
NF: You also point to the ways that performance is a form of labor, a point which is sometimes lost in the mythologizing and romanticizing of artist’s lives. What could a paradigm shift to think of the art world in terms of labor and organizing entail?
JCL: Making art is labor and all labor it should be fairly remunerated. Like all people, artists should have access to their basic needs: thrivable (not just livable) wage, housing, education, healthcare. They need time and resources to develop their work and their craft. But the present society doesn’t do this. We make artists go into massive amounts of debt to get educations they can’t hope to pay back. They’re forced to work jobs to support their practice when often the only jobs offering such flexibility are often contingent and precarious forms of underpaid labor. We measure an artist’s success less by the work’s catalytic and aesthetic powers than by how much an artist can sell or break through into highly exclusive sites of exhibition, criticism, and consumption. And then we point to the few who break through and complain that their work is too abstract and therefore apolitical or immaterial, decadent and silly.
But none of that changes the fact that making art is a job. It’s work. Even dangerous and hard work at that. The art world, like most professional, commercial, and creative spheres, is so thoroughly integrated into capital that the transformation of artist’s working conditions would probably require an entirely new way of organizing ourselves and of organizing labor. Like Jameson says, regarding one of the “lessons” of Lenin, “One cannot change anything without changing everything.” We need more than just a paradigm shift in the art world, or in capital for that matter. We need a new world. Which is, incidentally, a labor that artists excel at calling for and materializing. So to my point, they should receive material support for undertaking that work.
NF: What is your favorite passage in the book?
JCL: Probably the blank spaces on the page. Those are the places where anything and any thought can happen.
This interview was previously published in an abbreviated form in Scapi Magazine.