How to Build a Fire

Queer Performance Artists Ensure All Stories Get Told

Montreal and Brooklyn Queer performers are connecting and collaborating to go “beyond thinking outside the box,” as Jordan Arsenault, a Montreal-based drag star and workshop host, puts it.

Arsenault, along with Brooklyn-based creative production alliance Boxcutter, and Montreal artists Laura MacDonald, Antonio Bavarro and Andrea Joy Rideout are organizing a series of free, community-based performance workshops open to the general public on Jan. 7 and 8 called How to Build a Fire: A Queer Sans Fin Convergence.

Bavarro, co-organizer of the event, said that free child care and special attention to those who may not feel included in the art making of the Concordia student community will be offered.

“Community-based art is a casual term for a performance art that is concerned with social and ethical motivations,” said Arsenault, who is hosting an interactive workshop called Fear Drag.

“We’re rallying together to make sure that, as queers, we are getting together to talk about what performance means to us and what stories we need to perform,” said Bavarro. “The basis of performance is storytelling, and we have some really vital and important stories within the queer community that, unfortunately, don’t often get told.”

According to Bavarro, Queer art is often misconstrued because the queer community is still viewed as a white-male-centric environment is an indication of which stories are being told. There’s more to it than that.

Queer stories are boundless.

“Queer art-making is often related to cabaret, entertainment-style performance that starts after 10 p.m. and takes place at a bar,” said Arsenault. “There is something to be said that isn’t situated in the context of entertainment. There is a very rich history [of performance art] that is often overlooked because [performance artists] don’t usually have the resources to put a lot of money to planning a show that might not be commercially viable.”

The risk and preparation of a theatre performance is a heavy burden even for those who have the time and money for it. Creating performance art is, at first-sight, intimidating. However, once one is exposed to the many mediums of theatre, the earth becomes a stage.

“[Performance art] doesn’t have to be huge scale operations like Operas and productions a la Places des Arts,” said Bavarro. “There are different avenues available for people to explore theatre.”

Arsenault said his workshop is “extremely outside the tradition of typical theatre where you have to trick yourself, as a spectator, to believing what’s happening onstage is real. There is no need to create an illusionistic state, but you can if you want to.”

He explained how different variations of queer art exist outside of the typical theatre setting: “Anything from family trauma, to food addiction, to sex addiction, to loneliness can be examined as a spectator and as a performer without having to make up a story, memorize lines and have props,” said Arsenault.

As an example of how performance-art can be created without a typical stage, Arsenault reflected on Jessica MacCormick’s 2005 performance art piece, Hold My Hand, which involved her going to a town where she didn’t know anyone, placing an advertisement in the newspaper that asked someone to hold her hand on a bench and then seeing what the ad would prompt.

MacCormick said in her blog that the act was an “undocumented ‘performance of self’

[that] highlighted the awkwardness of social contact and physical communication while challenging notions of authentic interaction.”

Arsenault explained that many Queer theorists lump Queer culture and art as a performance of sexual otherness. Those who define themselves as queer are defined by their sexual identity from people outside their community. To Bavarro and Arsenault, being queer isn’t just about sexual orientation, there’s more to it than that.

“A need to identify ourselves is imposed by hetero-normative norms like family, gender and wealth,” said Arsenault.

According to Bavarro, performance is the easiest and most fun way of getting people to be able to access stories that reflect on the true image of the queer community.

“I think the queer community can have a connection and a sense of togetherness in its performance base,” said Bavarro. “[The event’s aim is to] make sure that all queer stories get told.”

This article originally appeared in Volume 31, Issue 16, published November 30, 2010.