Whose Island / Who is Island
For BOFFO’s inaugural Fire Island Performance Festival, curators Andrew Kachel and Clara López Menéndez invited a group of choreographers, performance artists, and musicians to spend a week in residence, creating or adapting works responding to “the dramatic landscapes and social histories of Fire Island.” BOFFO, led by Executive Director Faris Al-Shathir, serves as one of two artist residencies on the island, along with the Fire Island Artist Residency (FIAR) in Cherry Grove.
The festival, which took place at several locations in the Pines, opened on Friday evening with a poolside collaboration between Jen Rosenblit and Enrico D. Wey, about which the artists write: “We talk of the tides of waxing and waning of things washed away and disappearing into the expanse of water we speak of small tokens that arrive.” Colin Self’s guided audio walk, DOCKING, braided together found sound addressing “arrivals and departures: how we mediate our arrivals in relationships and experiences, and the ways in which we choose to leave things behind.” The “Beach Music Explosion,” which included performances by Tyler Matthew Oyer (TMO), Lauren Devine, La’fem Ladosha ft. Juliana Huxtable, Jessica 6, and Frankie Sharp, transformed the quiet BOFFO bayside beach into a Tea Dance populated with New York nightlife royalty. Finally, Vanessa Anspaugh’s performance on Sunday afternoon inherited the legacy of the island as a gay male space, conjuring and reimagining rituals of masculinity in a mythical seascape.
While each performance was completely independent of the others, the shared locale of the island, and a mutual relationship to its historically gay male monoculture resulted in a conscious carving-out of space for queer and feminist practices to thrive. Hybrid rituals emerged—playful and less so—in response to the histories and ecologies of this place. And throughout the weekend the ocean’s steady and ever-changing presence was witness to us all.
Jen Rosenblit and Enrico D. Wey: Waxing and waning and small tokens
Usually when I arrive at dance performances, I am rushing from the train, dodging people and cars. But on Friday I go from car, to ferry, to boardwalk, to beach, until I’m walking through someone’s very nice house and onto their back deck where rows of chairs have been set up around a small pool. This is the location for the collaboration between Jen Rosenblit and Enrico D. Wey. It’s packed. Most people have a cocktail in hand. It’s like we’ve been transported to paradise. There are also a number of Pines residents and visitors present. I wonder how they will respond to the work and if they are conversant with Rosenblit and Wey’s artistic and social worlds.
Rosenblit, wearing summer clothes and ankle boots, comes to the front, and Wey is behind her wearing a blue Speedo. He begins an animated monologue, making jerky gesticulations with his arms. Little phrases linger in the air: “A to B to something more, something greater” and “from me to you—what is that distance?” Place(ment) is what he is occupied with. Boundaries and horizons, surface tension—even hymens are invoked. He renders architectural plans with his arms, and then his whole body starts to twitch and flail, his speech gradually reduced to little bursts of sound. There’s something almost Beckettian about this disintegration.
Rosenblit has been walking back and forth in a line on the deck in front of the pool, responding improvisationally to Wey. Now she crouches down, takes a drink, and then approaches a microphone with a large piece of paper in hand. Wey is still dancing, his whole body flung open. The opening strains of Alice Deejay’s “Better Off Alone” float across the pool. Wey dances to the beat, a beat that has surely found its way to the Pines since it first dropped back in 1998. This classic break-up anthem is also about the boundaries between us. The lyrics consist of: “Do you think you’re better off alone? Talk to me—ooooooh, talk to me,” repeated over and over and over and over.
Wey’s most recent performance focused on the exoticization of the Asian male in gay culture. Rosenblit’s work often sets male and female bodies in opposition, and sustains a tension between conventionally beautiful and less conventionally beautiful bodies. Wey’s toned body in its Speedo is regarded with a high level of enthusiasm from the largely male audience while Rosenblit’s body appears to be regarded with tolerance. I imagine that Wey and Rosenblit have taken their audience and locale into account in their shaping of this work.
In the next section, Rosenblit reads a text into a microphone that ranges in topic from icebergs, to hair follicles, to beehives, to a flamingo named Pink Floyd. Once again, the drive to make sense of the self apart from another: “I’d like to know where we are if we’re not together.” As she reads, Wey, out of nowhere, falls into the pool sideways. His falls appear accidental, or outside of his control—at times an easy tipping over, at times as if responding to an aggressive shove. The pool becomes activated. The splashes blend with the steady rhythm of the surf.
Rosenblit quietly removes her shirt and shorts. She strides purposefully to another mic near the house and continues reading, bending at the waist to read upside down. A foghorn is audible. Then, a moment of stillness runs its course. I think I hear a motor rumbling out on the water but it is Wey humming. Rosenblit turns her head to look at him. She enters the pool slowly and begins to glide towards him, her face submerged up to her mouth and her hair trailing on the surface, so that her head appears as a horizon moving towards us, timed to the setting of the sun. Her eyes are as intensely blue as the pool’s water.
Having pulled herself out of the water, she lies on her side, removing her bathing suit bottom, and walks around the deck. Immediately, I sense the audience split—there are those who are energized and laughing along with her display of fierce nakedness, and there are those who sit rigidly with a blank expression. She disappears into the house and reenters, wearing a long pink shirt with no bottoms. Wey has been posing languidly, wringing out his long hair. Rosenblit manipulates him into contorted poses before leaving him to make a few more trips into the house—walking like a total boss—where she retrieves lifejackets, floaties, and rolled-up towels. To the faint reprise of “Better Off Alone,” she puts the finishing touches on her beachy, living sculpture.
Colin Self: Docking
At 10 a.m. on Saturday, a group of us assemble outside of the BOFFO house, each equipped with an MP3 player or left to our own devices. Self gives a 3-2-1 countdown and we set off, crossing the sand to walk along the ocean. My download fails almost instantly, and so I share a set of headphones. Although I am now tethered to another person, I have one ear free to take in the sounds of the island. The beginning of the audio program behaves like a guided meditation, putting forth the idea that it is up to us to decide when we are ready to stop “clearing” and to begin experiencing something new. It is certainly New Agey but also a little snarky, anticipating a simultaneous need for guidance and rebellion: “Under the power of my own divine authority, I think I’ve had just about enough—of this clearing, healing, purification carousel. I’m a little dizzy, a little fed up. I’d like to move on to the next phase of my journey.” It ends just as we approach the water when a ringing begins, a ringing that turns into chanting.
Immediately captivated by the music, I enter a kind of altered state, the always-breathtaking shore taking on an even more intense quality as the soundtrack enters my system. As I watch the other members of the group walking ahead of me, listening intently with relaxed gazes, it seems we are members of a temporary collective, connected by the audio and the environment but traveling through our own stories. Led and leading.
After a while we turn left and walk along the boardwalk to the bayside. The music morphs along with the landscape, slipping between trance, R&B, gospel, strings, Self’s angelic voice, Diane di Prima chanting: “Free political prisoners. Free yourself.” The phrase “Forever beautiful” repeats among horns.
We come out to a dock on the bay side along a narrow walkway over the water, and I notice two shallow currents meeting at a perfect point, creating a triangle in the sand. As we leave the dock, there are exclamations of delight in recognition of the song “Everybody’s Free.”
Back on the oceanside, Kathy Acker relays a dream about her girlfriend and muffins. The transitions are layered, gliding us between and beyond the songs, populating them with ghosts. Frank O’Hara’s “Having a Coke with You” rises up out of a trance song and dissipates into synthpop. After a while I hear giggling, the sounds of wonder and joy. I feel more aware of the sun’s heat and the wind on my skin. Prior to the event, I had made a remark to Self about O’Hara’s unfortunate end on the beach at Fire Island almost fifty years ago now, having been run over by a dune buggy. Self was surprised—he’d always thought O’Hara had died of old age on the island. And here we were, listening to his voice float by on that very beach. Eerie, isn’t it?
I am still recovering from this whirl of feeling when a little boy’s voice appears, offering precocious wisdom. “In trying to do what they have not done before,” he says, with great urgency, “they will suddenly see a broader horizon after pacing at the same spot for a long time.”
Self sits down on the shore and we all follow suit, looking out at the horizon. The music ends and we clap, slowly removing our headphones, clumsily coming back to ourselves. One of us throws off her clothes and runs into the waves, and others follow.
Vanessa Anspaugh with collaborating performers devynn emory, Clara López Menéndez, and Andrew Kachel: A-men (the first event)
Behind the BOFFO house are some spread-out sheets on the sand facing the bay. Beyond some piles of driftwood, a teenage girl and boy and their dog begin wading out to their boat in the calm water. The four performers enter and stand in profile before us, all in a line. Slowly their arms lift from their sides until they are holding hands. After a firm grasp is attained, they shake in unison, briskly, up and down.
Four glass cups and three brightly colored spools of string sit on the sand between them and us. The cups are picked up and the performers disperse out into the water. From their sequined and satin shorts emerge streams of piss. Short bursts of laughter erupt across the audience. This is the chosen medium for a baptism that is carried out in turns—each performer getting their head tipped back and christened by the others. From my vantage point in the hot sun, the liquid, slightly differing in color and opacity, actually looks refreshing, causing their hair and face to glisten. A faint whiff of urine makes its way to my nose.
This image is a strange juxtaposition but also reflects a familiar queer sensibility, exhibiting an element of sacrilege in its mixing of religious iconography and subcultural sexual practices. Anspaugh’s choice of location however, and her collectivizing of urine, bodies, and ocean, also points to the interrelationship of natural environments around us and within us. As if to play down individual subjectivity in favor of emphasizing larger patterns of relationship, there is no speech, no development of character through movement or affect. Throughout their regroupings the performers maintain a neutral expression—although each neutral is native to itself—Anspaugh appearing kind and nurturing, Kachel placid, emory gently inquisitive, and Menéndez a bit more moody, challenging.
Now the spools of string are picked up, and the performers wade into the shallow water. Anspaugh is closest to the shore, in the center, and the other three performers fan out in a V formation beyond her, rolling out the string as they travel. They go out quite far. Their bodies become small to us, linked to each other with the bright string. They face each other, Anspaugh maintaining the slack in both hands, whirling her arms one at a time as if she is flying a fleet of kites or struggling to keep a sailboat upright. Almost imperceptibly, the formation changes, and Anspaugh moves out as the others move in, eventually handing over spools to audience members. Kachel and Menéndez, enclosed by Anspaugh’s V, lean against and over each other in interdependent poses that reflect either awkward relationships (Menéndez holding Kachel’s knee), or images of tender cooperation (Menéndez leaning back into Kachel’s arms). emory wades out to the left of them, holding a salmon-colored sheet in their extended arms like a cape.
Anspaugh joins emory and they each take hold of two corners of the sheet. It inflates in the wind. A game ensues—if such an aggressive play can be called that—where Menéndez and Kachel charge into the sheet with their full weight, conjuring images of childhood games of capture the flag, or bullfights, or large fish trapped in nets. Finally, Menéndez “wins” by breaking their hold on the sheet. She places it around her net with a bloodthirsty look in her eyes, and then almost immediately collapses backwards into a float position. But the surprises don’t end there. The others push her down below the water for what seems like a long time. Looking up from the water’s surface, they slowly turn to face the audience, their expressions naked, surprised, and resolute all at once. Finally, Menéndez resurfaces, holding her nose, loudly expelling her breath. One by one, they all undergo this process, falling back, being caught, floating, and being pushed under. It’s never exactly the same, but similar enough that the repetition becomes a bit rote. But it is necessary that each one go through the process. And each time they turn to look at us, we are implicated as witnesses to a submersion that is both violent and holy.
The four of them then charge forward, emerging onto the shore, and extending hands to audience members. They lead several people out one at a time to form a triangle formation in the water, facing the horizon. The performers return to the shore and begin to dig in synchrony, kneeling in the sand, creating little holes into which they then wriggle into sideways. They look out at the assembled group in the water, which by some miracle or whispered direction, turns to face them as well. Frank O’Hara comes back into my consciousness from the day before: “I look / at you and I would rather look at you than all the portraits in the world.”
ContributorJaime Shearn Coan
JAIME SHEARN COAN is the author of Turn it Over (Argos Books, 2015) and Ph.D. student in English at The Graduate Center, CUNY.