The only quality that the artists and programs on this years Out in the Tropics festival seem to have in common is how different they are from each other, from more mainstream entertainment, even from other gay artists.
From performance artist Keith Hennessys wrenchingly personal (and physical) voyage through art theory, to singer-songwriter Bitchs passionate folk-punk music, to the stories of self-discovery in a special edition of the story-telling series Lip Service, being gay is just a starting point. Performances for the second edition of the festival, presented by non-profit FUNDARTE, start Friday and run through June 18.
None of these artists would want to be identified as only, or even primarily, a GLBT [gay-lesbian-bisexual-transgender] artist, says Robert Rosenberg, Out in the Tropics artistic director and founder. Were not just promoting gay or lesbian performers for the hell of it but artists that could appeal to a wider audience, addressing issues of sexuality and identity.
When mainstream popular culture has progressed to the point at which a star the stature of Lady Gaga is an outspoken supporter of being gay (and/or faaaabulously different), what is there for a serious GLBT artist to rebel against?
In the mid-90s we had Melissa Etheridge, the Indigo Girls, k.d. lang, who were all out, says Bitch, who has appeared in the John Cameron Mitchell film Shortbus and toured with indie-music heroine Ani DiFranco. Now it doesnt even matter that theyre gay. Which is kind of neat, cause its unfreaking it in a way. And in another way its annoying.
For the 36-year-old, New York-based musician who began writing songs shortly after coming out in 1994, personal and artistic identity blended naturally.
It was never a choice on my part to say I was gonna be out in my songs, she says. I wasnt thinking about an audience.
But Lady Gaga or not, Bitch still feels that heterosexual audiences are put off by her identity.
I grew up with white guys singing folk music, and just because its not my culture doesnt mean I dont relate to their poetry and struggles, she says. But when its flipped, people dont relate in the same way.
Hennessy is a 51-year-old San Francisco-based artist and leader in the performance-art world and its subset focusing on gay-identity issues. For him, sexuality is part of a complex matrix of ideas surrounding his identity as a performer, his relationship to the audience and to the history of art and performance.
All those ideas will be in play Saturday when Hennessy performs CROTCH (all the Joseph Beuys references in the world cannot heal the pain, confusion, regret, cruelty, betrayal or trauma ), a 2009 solo that won a Bessie award, the contemporary dance-and-performance worlds version of a Tony. On one level, CROTCH deals with the work and impact of Joseph Beuys, a German visual and performance artist and theorist who, though little known in the United States, has become increasingly influential in art circles and academia. But Hennessy says the piece, which includes nudity and some graphic physical episodes, is also about the painful breakup of a relationship with a lover.
I say I cannibalize Joseph Beuys, Hennessy says. Then you realize its talking about myself and how I dont want to talk directly about myself, and I use someone else to talk about these ugly feelings and period in my life.