On November 21st, the scene at the New Museum’s Skyroom was familiar, but not entirely expected, as the entry into an early evening performance. Booming dance music by TOTAL FREEDOM was played, free liquor was served, and there was no perceptible “performance” for quite some time. The majority of the room filled up with those happy to drink, chat over the music, and mill around for over an hour after the stated start time. Perhaps they were already familiar with Wu Tsang’s background as the organizer of the legendary party/performance night WILDNESS in Los Angeles.
Finally, around a quarter past eight, the lights went down for a short performance from Tsang’s recent series Full Body Quotation. Before starting, the artist took a moment to explain that originally he had planned to allow the audience to believe that the performers were speaking in “authentic voices,” rather than those of the subjects in Paris is Burning, the 1990 documentary on New York’s ball culture, and a touchstone for the history of transgender cinema. But, Tsang noted, “The spaces we were inhabiting tonight” - that of the institutions of the New Museum, Performa, downtown New York- were not “safe spaces for the communities being referenced.”
It was a true reality check to those who uncritically look at these spaces as the most accepting cultural spheres around. (As one character says just a few minutes later, “If you can offer something to society, you’re no longer gay, you’re a genius.”) The four actors then launched into the performance, piling on top of each other at first and then enacting separate scenes, speaking passionately and poignantly on issues of race, class and gender identity in “White America”. The piece commenced when the characters came together in unison to say, “This movie is supposedly about…” without allowing an answer to surface. Though these original words were spoken twenty years ago, Tsang’s quotations felt as necessary as ever; a reminder that “safe spaces” are still to be negotiated.