Criminal Queers, Camp and Rasquache: Reimagined Aesthetics for a Reimagined Social Order

In December of 1997, Luis Alfaro’s play Los Vecinos: A Play for Neighbors went up in a Chicano community center in Los Angeles. The piece was staged as a means of bridging the gap between the usual theatergoing audience and the communities upon which so much of Latina theater and performance art are focused. Relying on the resources of the community rather than imposing their own, the directors collaborated with many nonprofessional actors from the Boyle Heights neighborhood in which the play was being staged, and made use of the limited lighting and production tools of the nontraditional space of the community center. When a writer from the Los Angeles Times reviewed the play, she wrote disparagingly that it had “actually looked like a community production.” Its untrained actors, raw staging and brazen themes were read by her as a lack of the polish and canonical markers she expected from a “professional” production. When, however, the production is imagined not as trying to work itself into the cannon of traditional theater but rather as crafting itself within whole other lineages of performance—such as those of camp, DIY, pasterola and punk—we may come to understand that the production was not falling short of professionalism, but, rather, actively challenging the very means through which we evaluate art and understand its duties.

On March 31st, 2011, Chris Vargas and Eric Stanley visited our campus to screen their current project Criminal Queers, a film which follows a group of friends as they organize off the grid to break their comrade—who has been incarcerated for terrorizing homonormative structures of power—out of prison. In the director’s words, the film “visualizes a radical trans/queer struggle against the prison industrial complex and towards a world without walls.” Save a cameo by Angela Davis, all the actors in the film are nonprofessionals, friends and acquaintances of the directors. All cameras and sound equipment are borrowed, as are the sets in which the scenes take place (the directors relied on spaces known to them, and filmed by force in areas in which they were prohibited). The uneven sound quality, washed-out lighting, exaggerated makeup and shoddy costumes could easily be dismissed as a lack of professionalism, resulting in a poorly made or unpolished product. A more nuanced and radical approach, however, might understand this film as functioning within a DIY/punk/camp framework, in which the very elements of production which are failures in the eyes of the cannon come to be seen as a subversion of the cannon itself, a means through which whole other structures of cultural production and their respective sets of values come to be honored. From the film’s description: “Criminal Queers grows our collective liberation by working to abolish the multiple ways in which our hearts, genders, and desires are confined.” The breaking out of traditional film rules—which is, in fact, a form of failure—is simultaneously a breaking out of the oppressive structures from which that tradition was born, reinventing film as an entirely new tool, useful for a new form of radical cultural production.

DIY, like camp and like rasquache, can result in a powerful and original aesthetic, but is not at its root solely aesthetic. It is a way of existing, a means of surviving the structures which want you dead, and of fashioning voice outside of the systems which silence you. Like the examples of Los Vecinos and Criminal Queers, it incorporates and honors the community, rather than essentializing and degrading it through distanced portrayals. And like the pasterolas which precede it, it subverts the genre within which it functions rather than appeasing its conservative lineage. The results of these forms of cultural production are not merely aesthetic, but are a reminder of resistance, a means of expressing and of being which empowers existence outside of dominating structures. It teaches us that life off the grid of the cannon is totally feasible, and there is no shame in putting on a “community production.”

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About rad fag

rad fag is a Black, mixed-class, queer femme dedicated to combining arts and education to inspire direct action. Their writing has been featured in the AK Press anthology Taking Sides, as well as at Truthout, Salon Magazine, Socialist Worker and other abolitionist and feminist-based media.

2 thoughts on “Criminal Queers, Camp and Rasquache: Reimagined Aesthetics for a Reimagined Social Order

  1. I definitely agree with Ben in the sense that the lack of the “traditional” or the conventional in anything whether its art, music, or theatre boggles people because they come in with expectations and think that they will see something conventional, but to their surprise come out with a better outlook and response.
    While DIY changes outlooks on the conventional and allows individuals to see the beauty in non-conformance, it also serves to be enriching for those participating within the DIY framework. Participants must come up with what they have without any expensive formal training or expensive materials and resources. During high school, I was invited on a school trip to see a spanish play at the “Repertorio Espanol”. I imagined this place to be a fancy theatre in NYC, and when I arrived I was surprised to see that there was no a.c., the room was small, and the chairs were not sturdy. The actors did not seem to be wearing new clothing. Within a few minutes of the play, I realized how much talent and dedication was in front of my eyes. I realized that although the theatre may not be your typical ornate huge theatre with professionals, I actually appreciated and got more out of the play at the “Repertorio Espanol” than in an expensive Broadway play. That is the beauty of DIY. This experience allowed me to challenge and break out of my views on what the norm should be or strict definitions of what constitutes art. It allowed the actors and actresses to express their power, talent, and potency no matter what resources were available to them, and for this reason I respected them and the play more.

  2. Pingback: Homotopia :: Criminal Queers :: Eric Stanley :: Chris Vargas » Blog Archive » a bit of writing

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