We Have a Past and a Future

A review of  Dazzle Camouflage: Spectacular Theatrical Strategies for Resistance and Resilience by Ezra Berkeley Nepon. 2014. ISBN-13: 9780692595350. E. Nepon. 154 pages. Buy the book

Dazzle Camouflage: Spectacular Theatrical Strategies for Resistance and Resilience is the type of book you want to buy multiple copies of and give to your friends so you all can talk about it. It’s funny, accessible, and most importantly, it is about people and ideas that are otherwise absent from mainstream discussions around contemporary art and life.

dazzle-cam-cover-frontIn the book, Philadelphia based artist, activist, and public intellectual Ezra Berkley Nepon provides examples of engaged theater practices rooted in ideas of health, identity, faith, citizenship, and community by looking at New York based theater artist Jenny Romaine and the Eggplant Faerie Players, a theater troupe with a connection to the wilds of Tennessee. Collectively their work explores Jewish history, the legacy of family and trauma, gender, sexuality, age, HIV / AIDS, the impact of capitalism and gentrification, and the ongoing role of the archive. The book is a reach back into the not-so-distant past to help us think about how we are living now.

Dazzle Camouflage begins with a focus on Romaine. (Those familiar with her work often lament that she is not more supported and resourced.) Even before she studied at NYU, Romaine was a prolific artist that would make work using theater, archives, and current events. To trace her oeuvre is to come into contact with many powerful collectives and organizations. She has been involved with Grace Paley, Bread and Puppet Theater, the Lesbian Avengers, Women’s Action Coalition, ACT UP and many more. As an artist and “activist’s artist,” the amount of rigor and generosity Romaine puts into her work can sometimes be obscured by the spectacle, and joy it produces. She wants you to have fun, be moved, and be politicized. Romaine creates not just with the present drawing from the past; she also creates with hope.

Jenny Romaine by Mor Ehrlich
Jenny Romaine by Mor Ehrlich

It makes sense to write about Romaine and the Eggplants together. Their art has a lot in common: a motley mix of humor, absurdity, history and activism. This comparison also reveals the significant ways their work in art and activism via theater diverge, the most obvious example being their engagement with archives. Romaine, who has archival experience, provides a wealth of documentation, creating an invitation to future biographers to deep dive into a fascinating time in New York’s artworld. The Eggplants on the other hand are hair’s breath from being the legend that oral history is made up of. Much of the information about them comes from a few video taped performances Nepon was able to watch, past issues of RFD, and interviews Nepon conducted with the troupe members at a gathering, which brought Romaine and the Eggplants together.

The majority of the Eggplants’ story comes from SPREE and MaxZine, founding members of the troupe. Leading up to the millennium, the troupe toured the US and Europe with purposefully haphazard and thoughtful theater pieces, “. . . challenging the ways AIDS activism was being packaged for mainstream consumption.” The shows embraced audience participation, changes in the performer’s own lives, and the messy reality of working and living with a chosen family over blood relations. Anger and humor wrestled for primacy at the core of the Eggplants’ work, maybe best illustrated by the show title, Person Livid with AIDS, a play on everything from political correctness coming out of the crisis to rage and despondency.

Flyer: A Person Livid with AIDS
Flyer for the show “Person Livid with AIDS”

[pullquote] In some ways, it’s a spiritual project for me. In this book and my previous writing about radical Jewish organizing in the 1980s, I find myself drawn to telling stories about living people whose meaningful cultural contributions are not yet fully on the map for the kind of critical engagement they deserve as artists and activists. [/pullquote]The book was a result of the the Leeway Transformation Award that Nepon received in 2014. The organization gives annual awards of $15,000 to women and trans* artists who create art for social change, demonstrating a long-term commitment to social change work. As Nepon explains, “[This is] not a grant, but rather a really life-changing award that can be used in whatever ways will be supportive to artists to keep on doing the work, or take the work to new places.” Nepon used $5,000 of the funds to publish Dazzle Camouflage, including paying other social change artists for copyediting, book design, photos rights, cover art, and printing.

In the end, the award enabled Nepon to share the work of Romaine and the Eggplants, who they see as being influential to the communities that Nepon is part of. This is movement and cultural work. Nepon writes:

Who we are has a legacy, our experimental creative visions, our queerness, our yearning and our organizing for justice on a collective level have a rich history . . . We are making new culture and we also come from somewhere. We have a past and a future.

Below Nepon speaks with writer and organizer Theodore (ted) Kerr about the book, social practice, and why rehearsing is good for survival.

Ezra Berkely Nepon by Karen Kirchoff
Ezra Berkely Nepon by Karen Kirchoff

Theodore Kerr What does dazzle camouflage mean?

Ezra Berkley Nepon The term comes from a way of painting warships in a bold, pattern-mixing collage of stripes and shapes, which makes it difficult to tell the ship’s speed, location, and direction. I first heard the phrase used to describe the ways queer and trans people sometimes use glamour, humor, and wit to move through the world, distracting from potential attack. In the work of the artists I wrote about, Dazzle Camouflage takes the forms of surrealism, satire, camp, and other methods of spectacle that enable their political theater to reach even those who might be hostile to their messages. The Eggplant Faerie Players talked about using “the three lavender shields of fun, friendly, and unexpected” to sneak political messages through in their public performance art. Dazzle camouflage is one of three creative survival strategies I write about in the book, along with remixing history and rehearsing resistance.

Initially the book was called, Unleashing Power in Yiddishland and Faerieland, from one of the Jenny Romaine quotes: “ . . . movements build power, art unleashes power.” For me, Jenny’s phrasing referenced the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), the AIDS activist group that played such a big role in the lives of all the artists I was writing about. At first, dazzle camouflage was just a footnote in the book, but over time I came to understand it as a key frame for the ideas I was working with. I also witnessed how many people are drawn to the phrase and instantly recognize this practice in their own lives. In the book, I say that dazzle camouflage is both “a way in, and an escape plan.”

TK What made you write the book?

[pullquote]I first heard the phrase used to describe the ways queer and trans people sometimes use glamour, humor, and wit to move through the world, distracting from potential attack.[/pullquote]

EBN In some ways, it’s a spiritual project for me. In this book and my previous writing about radical Jewish organizing in the 1980s, I find myself drawn to telling stories about living people whose meaningful cultural contributions are not yet fully on the map for the kind of critical engagement they deserve as artists and activists. I gravitate to telling stories that I share a legacy with as a Jewish person with Israel-critical politics, who is queer and trans, who is anti-capitalist. I feel isolated by the limited stories that are being told in more mainstream venues about what Jewish and LGBT art and politics have been and can be. I want more! In my late-30s, I often understand myself as a bridge between the radical work done by people 10-20+ years older than I am and those 10+ years younger than me, who I know are also hungry for these stories.

Often the people I write about have been ahead of the cultural tide, and by the time the culture catches up, the moment has passed for acknowledgement of all those who pushed hardest for the changes. I’m writing in part from a desire to say “I witness what you did. You matter to me.” I believe that this kind of documentation and story-telling can be a path towards retroactive healing.

TK In the book you call yourself a zamler — a collector of stories.

EBN In the interwar period in Eastern Europe, there was a huge movement of volunteer zamlers (collectors) who gathered Yiddish ethnographic and folklore materials — stories, songs, jokes, and beyond — creating YIVO (Yiddish) archive, now housed in New York. Jenny has worked with the YIVO archive extensively, and in many ways the Eggplant Faeries have created an archive of their specific subcultural world through their theater. As I wrote this book, I happily realized that there was a meta-process happening: As these artists have collected, engaged with, and remixed various histories in their creative processes, I was also collecting and re-mixing these artists’ own stories and histories. My writing process echoed the creative strategies I was learning from these artists.

TK It seems like part of your project is interested in various modes of preservation.

EBN Sometimes this is about actual physical archives. The Eggplant Faerie Players live rurally in Tennessee, and a great deal of their theatrical materials and photographs had been destroyed by mice and mildew, but their plays serve as an archive of their lives as AIDS activists and rural southern queers throughout the 90s and into the present. I was part of a team who scanned what was left of those archives during a work party at the land project where many of the Eggplant Faeries lived. I even received a small grant from a Radical Faerie arts fund to digitize a bunch of videos of their old productions!

I’m also interested in the element of preservation that ties to independent media, and the kinds of critical thought that can be shared, in uncompromised ways, through the independent press. I have learned so much from the writers published by [now defunct] Kitchen Table: Woman of Color Press, or Aunt Lute Books, or [now defunct] Naiad Press. Liberatory small presses like these published such an incredible body of work, including a real record of the detail and depth of critical analysis building within social movements of those decades. Belief in the world-making cultural power of independent media informed a big part of my decision to publish my first book with an independent small press called Thread Makes Blanket, and to self-publish Dazzle Camouflage.

Some of my interest is in preventing erasure. Here’s an example: With the release of a number of films about early responses to AIDS in New York, I heard a lot of smart people asking, “Where are the trans people in this story?”  I heard the film directors say that they believed there were very few out trans people in ACT UP at that time, or that there was no footage. But SPREE, of the Eggplant Faerie Players, was there! She has even been recorded for an ACT UP Oral History interview! SPREE is someone who walks through the world in a gender nonconforming way, as a person with a beard who is also extremely feminine and always wearing women’s clothing, jewelry, and makeup – and this was also true in her time in ACT UP NY in the late ’80s. In rural Tennessee, SPREE is treated as a trans person at the grocery store, the emergency room, and the bank. I don’t want SPREE’s contributions to cultural transformation to be erased or lost from the record, as an AIDS activist or as a gender nonconforming rabble-rouser.

TK As I read the book, I wanted to know more about your thoughts around the relationship between activism, performance, and social practice.

EBN What is social practice?

TK I would describe it as the ways artists are engaging and sometimes being asked to engage with issues of justice through their art by engaging with community.

EBN It sounds like a fancy term for being a good person! Isn’t it a given that as you engage in creative work, you would want to be part of the world at large and contribute towards positive transformation? I guess the specific term may be helpful to shape a field of theory and practice.

There is something in the process of Jenny Romaine’s method of stewarding collaborative theater production that enables those involved to learn a set of skills together, and to build intimate relationships through shared creative work. Jenny wants to share the skills of being part of revolutionary moments and movements. People who know how to do things and deal with stuff together are more prepared for those moments that need spontaneous collaboration – whether it’s responding to an incident of Islamophobia, a flood, someone getting arrested, or other moments of crisis, or opportunities for organized resistance. There is power in having already rehearsed doing and being together, often have met each other’s loved ones, and having a real idea of where other people are coming from.

TK This comes from being a community of artists?

EBN Not always. To me, it’s about being in any community of people brought together through a shared intimate process. With the Eggplant Faerie Players, I see that as rural queers, they are inter-dependent in a way that I am not used to as a city person. That can look like checking in on each other, giving each other harvested vegetables, seeing if anyone needs anything from town . . . In years of visiting, I’ve come to recognize how much of the culture of that community is built through small acts of mutual care. The Eggplant Faerie Players’ process of making shows together gave them a history of asking each other: what do we want to say about our lives, how do we want to say it, and who is going to play what role? What kind of re-imagining do we want to engage in together?

TK I get the sense that [you believe] art is important, but not the only site for such community building.

EBN True. In many ways I experience the creative partnership that Jenny or the Eggplant Faerie Players use to create as similar to my experience of a direct action protest affinity group. People come together to make something happen; the path isn’t set in advance but instead requires a lot of creative collaboration, and the process allows us to know each other much more deeply. There are so many ways we can be in community with each other, creating these spaces of political and personal intimacy. At the same time, I do think that creative space is different than shared political organizing, social service, or self-help spaces. The process of making art together can invite people to collaboratively re-imagine the future.

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