The only quality that the artists and programs on this year’s 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 Hennessy’s wrenchingly personal (and physical) voyage through art theory, to singer-songwriter Bitch’s 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. “We’re 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?
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“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 doesn’t even matter that they’re gay. Which is kind of neat, ’cause it’s unfreaking it in a way. And in another way it’s 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 wasn’t 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 it’s not my culture doesn’t mean I don’t relate to their poetry and struggles,” she says. “But when it’s flipped, people don’t 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 world’s 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 it’s talking about myself and how I don’t want to talk directly about myself, and I use someone else to talk about these ugly feelings and period in my life.”
Rosenberg and Out in the Tropics’ producer Susan Caraballo of FUNDARTE say they have tried to broaden the festival’s appeal this year.
“It is important for the artists and for the community to have a GLBT festival,” Caraballo says. “But at the same time these artists can appeal to a wider audience, and I thought some of that audience felt alienated last year.”
For the 2011 festival, producers partnered with the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts and City Theater to present Jai Rodriguez, star of Broadway shows Rent and The Producers and Bravo’s Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, in Dirty Little Secrets, a solo cabaret show. Another Tropics presentation, the film Cracks (British slang for a crush), which screens Sunday at the Coral Gables Art Cinema (where Rosenberg is director), may be centered around a beautiful teacher at a 1930s-era English boarding school for girls and her sexually fraught relationships with her students. But Cracks, the directorial debut of Jordan Scott, daughter of director Ridley Scott of Blade Runner fame, is also part of a long line of movies about the social and erotic tensions at boarding schools.
“My primarily hetero group of volunteers latched onto this film ’cause it’s classy and Merchant-Ivoryish,” Rosenberg says. “And three [lesbian] women I know all said, ‘Oh, that sounds hot.’”
For the June 18 Out in the Tropics edition of Lip Service, the popular literary series at which people read personal stories aloud, co-director Andrea Askowitz says organizers deliberately didn’t ask for GLBT-themed submissions. While Askowitz, the gay author of My Miserable, Lonely Lesbian Pregnancy, is sympathetic to tales about gay experience, her focus is on compelling stories in which people struggle to come to terms with themselves and the world.
“Often they are in a situation where they are outsiders or outcast,” Askowitz says. “You don’t have to be queer for that.
“Queer means weird, doesn’t it? If queer means weird, and weird means different, then someone trying to come to terms with that feeling of being different — that’s a queer story. I think if we could redefine queer as ‘queer means different, and we’re all different’ that would be a real good thing.”