How does the queer manifesto as a concept balance the past, present and future? This is a question that pervades the The Present Is Not Enough: Performing Queer Histories and Futures program, a ten day performance festival running June 20 to 30, at Berlin’s HAU Hebbel Am Ufer. The core theme revolves around its ambitious project titled ‘Manifestos for Queer Futures’. The three consecutive evenings of these 26 individual manifestos—collected from an open call to Berlin-based artists—are buttressed by contributions from more well-known and international names like Sara Ahmed, Michał Borczuch, Jota Mombaça, Carlos Motta and boychild. The festival’s interdisciplinarity extends beyond visual art and film to two theoretical panel discussions that provide an extended contextualisation of certain ideas, including archives, utopias, futurity, vernacular vocabulary, activism, support networks, legal or institutional frameworks, histories, fictions, and the repercussions of colonialism.
The restaurant-café located on the ground floor of HAU2 is brimming with a community of seemingly like-minded humans; the environment feels open, friendly and embodied. The dissonance comes from the performances themselves, where the level of isolation, struggle and loneliness expressed seems to radically contradict the conviviality outside. The unrelenting marathon of spectacle is unforgiving for the faint-hearted but phrases of the participants’ spoken text—scribbled down in the dark during performances—helps to build the architecture upon which memories can hang, each statement acting as a resonant pillar; some are shared intermittently here.
Neo Hülcker’s contribution to ‘Manifestos for Queer Futures #2’ positions its temporality with a gentle yet insightful line of enquiry into the tools available for the imminent, forthcoming queer-gaze, asking through its title, ‘What is the future, other than a dream that we are able to dream right now?’ The composer-performer brings in the character of Judith Butler with whom the artist had a dream of freeing horses from captivity, a sequence enacted with miniature toys on stage. A synthesis of gender and its performativity is cleverly tucked into this scenario, and it is further layered by Hülcker’s talent at crushing binaries with vocal gender-polyphony. In reality, breaking free from the constraints of norms and convention is never straight forward. Is the future the playground of our dreams or the dumping ground for our present complaints?
Sara Ahmed and respondent Nikita Dhawan offer a thorough and thought-provoking discussion around how to express frustration within institutional systems that are set up to the disadvantage of people representing the peripheries of a patriarchal present. The queering of complaints or queer as complaint: how relevant is this Ahmedian objection to the context of ‘The Present Is Not Enough’? Following the ‘Mind the Gap! Complaint as a Queer Method’ lecture, the (in)famous scholar behind the feministkilljoys blog is quick to clarify that complaint as methodology is not necessarily a universal tool, emphasising that the existence of support systems is perhaps the most important factor when enduring the long procedures put in place to deny entry or permission. A festival such as this one offers an opportunity to manifest a complaint in the form of a performance, thus transforming its temporality through weaving past traumas and hardships into an imaginative future to be shared by many. The borderline between a complaint and a demand for a better future is thin; some performances ask its audience to think harder and do better, presenting positions through which alternative future-fictions become more visible.
“I long to belong. I am the change I have been waiting for.”
Romily Alice Walden’s ‘Notes From The Underlands’ is unique in actually proposing a concrete, carefully elaborated manifesto with all of the conviction one could expect: a direct invitation accompanied by a clear explanation of the ethos and ideals it professes. In order to evoke a liminal zone of transitioning out of humanness as we know it, an image-less video projected onto an empty stage is inhabited solely by a vocoder-mutated voice-over, sending the mood into a digitalised near-future. The imagined environment of the Underlands claims a moment for the audience to pause and examine any self-appointed position within the hierarchy of ableism, speciesism, and many other -ism normativities. Claiming lineage with what Walden’s manifesto calls “the sisters of Anzaldúa’s Borderlands and Irigaray’s Lowlands”, its invitation to the Underlands tirelessly paves a path into a new conceptualisation of collective space that sets out to be truly inclusive:
“WE wait here, Growing and Shifting, Leaking and Mutating, Fucking and Decaying in the WASTELANDS OF THE SICK. a queer future is an ACCESSIBLE FUTURE! a queer future demands that WE ARE ALL INCLUDED! […] WE must learn to LISTEN!; WE must learn to ACT! […] COME WITH US! LET US COME WITH YOU!”
Joining the Underlands demands direct action. It is not enough to just talk. ‘WE’ have to relocate and come together. The presence of queer bodies in public spaces have in many instances defined both the tragedies and victories of gaining access to recognition and equal rights. Each body surely has a story to tell. However, the ‘Present is Not Enough’ program is not so focussed on queer performance history. Instead, the exploration of the body itself takes second stage to the ideas of identity and experience. The consequences of socio-political contexts and conditions dominate over the investigation of distinct emotions in their singularity. One phenomenal exception is the slow, energetically charged gesture of sensing and sound by Jair Luna in ‘The Lifetime of Fire’, which successfully evokes a deep consideration of the performative space each movement occupies. A bundle of lit candles are attached to the artist’s head and drip at every twist of muscle. The wax resonates with an echo through contact mics hidden on the large piece of tarp covering the HAU2 stage floor. Luna’s breath poignantly elongates time in a way that pushes the audience’s gaze, anticipating and pressing against the fast dripping tonalities as they splatter into uncomfortable silence. Alone and in full view, the performer inhabits a hybrid relation to pleasure and pain with an eloquence that is haunting and thought-provoking.
“Do you hear me when I say I’m hurting?”
The most intricately demanding performances are no doubt ‘Black Privilege’ by Mamela Nyamza, and ‘Burgerz’ by Travis Alabanza. The former is charged with complex and interwoven threads of continually shifting power dynamics that leave the viewer destabilised. Nyamza explains during the post-performance Q&A why the audience is denied the opportunity to acknowledge or applaud the performance when people instructed to leave the room before its ending: “Why would you clap for that? I wouldn’t want to,” adding later, “It’s good to stay with that [difficult] emotion”. Not only refused any form of entertainment, the viewer is also deprived of any self-satisfied feeling of having understood what was being portrayed. Different registers of agency are demonstrated when metaphorical instruments of power move, shift, shake, slide and fall off the flesh, compounding strength and passivity as co-inhabitants of Nyamza’s regal poise. There is no redemption, no respite and no resolution. The layers of references to South Africa’s colonial history enacted upon the theatrical courtroom on stage takes its inspiration from anti-apartheid activist and politician Winnie Mandela’s life story. While Alabanza also positions the audience as silent voyeurs for much of ‘Burgerz’—which leaves many in tears—the personal story that galvanized its creation does not refuse the impulse to habituate for the tangible possibility of alternatives.
“I’m a touch too much, I’m much to touch.”
A mobile storage unit filled with boxes and a kitchen island with two stools waits quietly for the audience to shuffle in: a spaceship representing both displacement and a willful time capsule into a better future. Having emerged to greet us, carefully stacked thoughts densely occupy the space between Alabanza and the edge of the stage. These words, delivered with intensity and conviction, skillfully control the dynamics of humour, confrontation, discomfort and honesty. One audience member is chosen for the challenge of making a burger together with the artist but the burger is now functioning as more than just a burger. Poetic wit transforms every imaginable struggle of gender and queerness into the creation of a simple sandwich. Allegories transpose this burger into every imaginable bifurcation of choices made by society to literally box in bodies into irrelevant categories. Instead of leaving the audience with no choice but to passively walk out of the hot summer auditorium sweat of HAU3 in silent contemplation and shock, Alabanza invites a second audience member to read out a text from the ‘recipe’ book. Despite having not shied away from unloading intensely difficult and intricate realities of transphobia and racism through the hour-long performance, the text reveals itself as a set of vows, giving the audience a nudge in the form of a directive of stinging simplicity. A lot of it sounds much like a manifesto:
“I vow to protect you, more than others have before. I vow to protect you, as in the plural, as in more than just you. I vow to realise that in my safety, in my comfort, in my silence, comes your danger, hurt, and entrapment. […] I vow to make sure that everyday I go outside I realise that I am not alone, that I am together, with you, the plural, and me, the plural—that there cannot be singular anymore. That we have tried singular, and we continue to fail.”
“I need you; do you?”
—The Vulva Kings
Other performances request a more passive audience. The reverent mood and theatrical set-up of a symbolic, abstracted environment by Medhi-Georges Lahlou is echoed in the stage design and soundscape created by Moved by the Motion performance group, consisting of artists, performers, producers, and musicians. Solo cello by Patrick Belaga introduces a mise-en-scène constructed of various topographical latitudes for each creative impulse to pull apart slowly, while Asma Maroof’s soundscape functions like a stiff stage curtain refusing to unveil the vulnerable heartbeat of the group. Multiple screens of pre-recorded choreography are projected as doubles, interacting through displaced flows with the two beautifully costumed postures of boychild and Josh Johnson as the real and unreal collapse into delicate illusions. The text fragments in English spoken by Wu Tsang during ‘Sudden Rise’ are the most ambitious in questioning the very mechanisms of (human) perception itself, although the stolid, florid delivery of recurring idea nuggets clearly left a lot of the multilingual audience a little bewildered and underwhelmed. The repeated falling on stage by Johnson and boychild reveals an interesting ambiguity, of whether that falling is an act of freedom or a reference to mythological or historical struggles.
“Anthropophagy does not reunite us anymore.”
A sustained echo of words leaking through every boundary: words as declarations, words as explanation, words as confrontation, words as sharing. Language in its performative speech act or in a repetitive circular delivery of phrases is used by many artists during The Present Is Not Enough. With the raw intimacy of ‘Non-binary them – 1972–2019’, Jam Rostron delivers a personal narrative of what it has meant to understand language as a tool, as a queer non-binary creative today. The attentive and devoted audience giggles at every generous anecdote behind the iconic songs of Rostron’s Planningtorock project, while fragments of bold acapella leaves those ears wishing for just one more queer adult lullaby to take home that night. Aren’t we all looking for the right words—would it help if we could sing together?
“It’s no small thing to commit yourself to other people.”
The opportunity to sing comes the very next day with Ricardo de Paula’s performance ‘Out of Many, ONE!’ during the second set of manifestos. The audience returns after intermission to find all of the empty auditorium chairs labelled with names (of what could be recognised as fatal victims of hate crimes and police brutality): “These are my guests,” says de Paula. After dancing on the chairs to ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ by Seal, the audience-as-witness standing awkwardly on stage is addressed by a projection of actor Samuel L. Jackson’s viral video that encouraged celebrities to swap the 2014 ice bucket challenge with singing a hymn protesting police violence: “We ain’t gonna stop until people are free”. The mood tangibly shifts as this exercise in collective singing led by de Paula restitches an otherwise tense audience, exhausted from absorbing complaints of queer suffering animated by anxiety-inducing strobe lights earlier that evening. Yet, it is Light Asylum a week later who finally brings a powerful voice that bounces off of pounding beats into the makeshift gig stage inside the HAU2 lobby. Uplifting and uniting a very mixed crowd with conviction and generous energy, vocalist Shannon Funchess repeats, “We have to look after each other!” between each song. Sometimes anthems are needed for an invitation to rise up united and each Light Asylum song performed that night gives the crowd just that.
The collective understanding of what it means to be queer is shifting as new vocabularies, new legalities, new (inevitable) categorisations continue to emerge. Common ground is difficult when queer climates cannot provide for complete inclusivity. Constructing inclusivity also inevitably leads to committing acts of what Pêdra Costa calls epistemicide, as these efforts to homogenise and equalise can ultimately erase the diversity of differences and historical backgrounds. As if in response to these lingering dilemmas, the term capacious is repeated many times during Ewa Majewska, Omar Kasmani, Josch Hoenes, and Rachael Moore’s ‘Histories of Our Futures’ panel discussion concluding The Present Is Not Enough. This desire for a definition of queer that is capable of containing more space leads to a deeper conundrum of trying to understand the links between queer memory(s) and queer futurity(s). Majewska proposes to start with queering how archives themselves are read and revisiting these histories with new framework(s).
How these histories can then crush the crusty boundaries that continue to splinter communities through differences remains unanswered. The statement “the present is not enough” is evidently an insufficient premise for approaching queer futurity as the experience of an embodied present moment does not offer easy escape routes. With a few exceptions, the mood of what is being shared at HAU during these hot summer evenings situates itself more heavily in the past than the future, leading to a realisation that the extraction of queerness from (historical and more recent) recognition deficit may never be complete. That is, before dreaming of a better future beckons bold statements to be made about the things that must change now. The present must hold within it these queer histories, so is the current present not capacious enough? By curating a program that looks to before and after, the present has to avoid confounding commemoration with manifestation, which ultimately leaves little space for dreaming.**