Queering Utopia: Circus Amok! at the S&F Conference

"Stay cool, stay calm, you have the right to remain silent. / Don't run, don't resist, and get that badge number." So goes the catchy and campy tune performed by Circus Amok! that teaches people what to do when they are stopped and frisked by police. A "New York-based, one ring, no animal, queerly-situated, political circus spectacular," Circus Amok! has been touring since 1989 to bring free shows to NYC parks. Exploring topics that include citizenship and healthcare access, the circus educates audiences on social justice issues through vivacious performances that involve acrobats, puppeteers, and stilt dancers. Circus Amok! founder and Pratt Associate Professor Jennifer Miller delivered an afternoon keynote address at the Scholar & Feminist Conference on Utopia, in which she talked about queer pedagogies in public spaces. Viewing Circus Amok! as a locus of solidarity and education, Miller looked to performance as an enactment of utopia. At Circus Amok! the bearded woman is the ringmaster, not the sideshow. In queering the circus, Miller has revealed the potentiality of queer pedagogy. She advocates employing the body in queering performance work. Queer stylings of the body through song and dance disrupt the normalized (i.e., racialized, classed, gendered, etc.) terms of engagement in public spaces. The Pratt professor of performance extends this thinking to the classroom, where she destabilizes heteronormativity to create a welcoming, inclusive space, where students are "all out [of the closet]." In this genderqueer classroom, Miller advises her students to learn with their bodies—to "[try] on different gendered behaviors" and "stretch" in new directions. (more…)

Safe Spaces, Queer Spaces & Public Spaces

This post is part of a series of reflections on the interdisciplinary winter seminar, “Mumbai At Home and in the World: Gender, Sexuality and the Postcolonial City.” BCRW Associate Director Catherine Sameh introduced the seminar in part 1, and BCRW Research Assistant Nicci Yin reflected on occupying space in an urban environment in part 2.

Growing up in Washington, DC and then moving to New York for college, I’ve been surrounded by “open-minded” and “accepting” people my whole life, the types of people who wear rainbow pins and have HRC bumper stickers because they’re “allies.” Of course this kind of liberal support is important for the queer community, but it also means I’ve been conditioned to perform queerness in public urban spaces in a specific way, especially as a femme-lesbian who is rarely read as queer. While not a revolutionary notion, my trip to Mumbai forced me to rethink queerness, and how queerness is embodied and embedded in different spaces. Perhaps because I’m a queer woman living in New York City, whenever I see two men or two women holding hands or snuggling in public I assume they’re a romantic couple – not “just” friends. Yet walking around Mumbai constantly challenged me to rethink my notions of public affection, public space, friendships and romance. Mumbai is a city much like New York, where the streets are almost theatrical in their variety of people and activities. Every time I stepped outside my apartment in Mumbai, I saw a different set of women holding hands while crossing the street, or men sitting in each other’s laps on a park bench.

Group of about 18 college students in an auditorium setting, listening as one studnet [Liz] talks into the microphone.

Liz Gipson (holding microphone) talks with other students at the Mumbai Winter Seminar.

This constant and seemingly banal performance of affection caught me off guard at first. Yet Mumbai’s notions of platonic affection – which in the US is rarely so publicly physical – eventually became normalized for me. When talking to the two women from Lady Shri Ram College about public affection – both romantic and platonic – they were surprised to hear my interest in the culture of platonic public affection. They didn’t give a second thought to these couples, just as most New Yorkers probably wouldn’t to a man and a woman holding hands on the subway. To them, it was part of the white noise of the city and they struggled to articulate why people hold their friends’ hands. In turn, when asked why it was commonplace and accepted to hold your partners’ hand in New York I stumbled over my own explanation. When, why and where is public affection acceptable?

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Art with intention: visions of newness and reform

What do a quilt, a scarf, and a vision of a feminist Utopia all have in common?

They are all at work changing the realities of our world. In the morning keynotes opening up this year’s 38th annual Scholar and Feminist conference “Utopia” we heard from several feminists at work changing the material realities of what is represented and who is seen and heard, using craft and critical design to challenge existing realities and create alternatives. Most striking was the extent to which our utopia needs be constructed; physically, in the objects we interact with, and perceptually, in the images we use to represent people and movements.

Activism Through Craft

Shaowen Bardzell, Youngsuk Altieri, Melanie Cervantes, and Elandria Williams at the morning keynotes during Scholar & Feminist 2013

Melanie Cervantes presented to the audience her philosophy of activism through craft, centered around “stitching lessons from stories and visions of women who shaped who we are.” A member of Dignidad Rebelde (rebel dignity) she spoke of the group’s founding motivation to push back against the idea of individualism that is dominant in US society and culture.

How? By reflecting solidarity with indigenous and international struggles through images that “agitate and inspire,” produced in her living room and reaching organizers and activists as far away as Bangkok. Reacting to day laborers’ inability to be the face of their own movement because of being “vilified” in the minds-eye of greater America, she makes images that re-incorporate and re-present the faces of those “on the frontline of a battle for dignity and human rights for all of us;” faces otherwise subsumed by a narrative over which they have no authorship.

Speaking to the theme of the conference, Cervantes said that to her, “working for a better world” means “working with other artists and movement leaders to lift up the women who don’t get to be put on a pedestal, whose names don’t get put in the history book, to understand how incredibly influential they will be… it is our responsibility to hold up those stories.”

This Utopia, she asserted, is built by connecting stitches and juxtaposing tapestries, and remembering every step of the way that “in many cultures there are roots within which we need to reach for because they have lessons for us.”

Melanie Cervantes and Elandria Williams, “Building Utopia: Stitching the Lessons from Stories and Visions of Women in Our Lives”

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Strategic Scrapbooks: Media Sharing in the 19th Century

How do you save and share media? Do you have a Pinterest page for pinning images you like? Perhaps a Tumblr for reblogging others’ posts? Maybe you just add links to articles you found particularly poignant to your Bookmarks on Google Chrome. Indeed, with today’s technology, there are myriad ways to experience, share and hold on to media, be it articles, videos, pictures or something else entirely. While the technology we use to do these things has evolved rapidly over the past twenty years, saving and compiling articles and publications (a la Buzzfeed) goes back to before the computer was even invented and can be found in nineteenth century use of scrapbooks.

Two old newspaper images, one of a woman, one of a US map that says "Votes for Women"

On Tuesday, March 5, the BCRW hosted English Professor and Historian Ellen Gruber Garvey for a presentation entitled, “Strategic Scrapbooks: 19th Century Activists Remake the Newspaper for African American History and Women’s Rights.” Garvey shared with attendees the research for her most recent book, “Writing With Scissors: American Scrapbooks from the Civil War to the Harlem Renaissance.” Going into this panel, I could hardly conceptualize what a strategic scrapbook would look like; my associations with scrapbooks were ones of family photos, personal letters and cute photo corners. As it turns out, in the nineteenth century, scrapbooking was an incredibly common and popular form of documenting and circulating information and ideas, and primarily consisted of cutting and pasting newspaper clippings into any sort of book that was no longer needed. In this way, people of this era documented war happenings, obituaries, articles, poetry and more while curating their own versions of the press in order to remember and share responses to media.

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An Open Letter to Caribbean Men on Gender-based Violence

Originally published by International Planned Parenthood Federation/Western Hemisphere Region at http://www.ippfwhr.org/en/blog/open-letter-caribbean-men-gender-based-violence

three men smile at something out of the frame

Dear Caribbean Men,

We do not have to smile for you. Our smiles are our own. Our lips are our own and our smiles are a celebration of our happiness. We do not have to smile on command. We are not pretty, little, Black dolls whose smiles were painted on with red paint and a plastic brush. Sometimes, we’re busy. We’re busy thinking about geo-political trends, the next ten-mile run, and the latest cricket match. We’re too busy to be the smiling decoration that we, as women, are expected to be. Our faces can be thoughtful, angry, sad, peaceful, meditative, or bored. So stop, Caribbean men. Stop walking up to us, harassing us, and demanding that we smile. We do not have to smile for you. Our smiles are our own.

We do not have to answer you. Our names are our own. We were not christened, “Eh! Baby!” We do not have to turn around and pretend that we enjoy being summoned like pets. We are not charmed when you follow us and invade our space. We do not have to make conversation with you as you block our paths. We do not feel flattered when you stand in a group and leer at our figures, competing to see who can make the vilest remark. We do not take it as a compliment when you comment on our bodies and tell us what you intend to do with them. So stop, Caribbean men. Stop making us feel uncomfortable, afraid to walk the streets of our homelands alone. We do not have to answer you. Our names are our own.

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