Private Dancers: Social Media Platforms and Contemporary New York Drag Performance

By Nordeen, Bradford | Afterimage, January-February 2014 | Go to article overview

Private Dancers: Social Media Platforms and Contemporary New York Drag Performance


Nordeen, Bradford, Afterimage


Father this year I toured the West Coast with some recently discovered videotapes, presenting a posthumous premiere of works by the 1980s video artist Tom Rubnitz. Rubnitz is best remembered for his late-career short, a sandwich tutorial entitled Pickle Surprise (1989, 1 min. 30 sec.), in which drag queens Lady Bunny, RuPaul Charles, Sister Dimension, and a gaggle of assorted performers and club kids meant a decidedly American recipe (Or the construction of a perfect sandwich--"Take an English muffin! Spread sandwich spread! Plop the ham thusly please!"--leading Ru Paul to beg the question of the hour, "Where's the pickle?" Lady Bunny giggles knowingly into the camera. "That's the surprise."

The figures who performed befbre Rubnitz's lens (Tabboo!, john Sex, John Kelly. Frieda. Hapi Phace, and Ann Magnuson, to name a few predominantly peopled the booming East Village art scene of the mid-198.0s. Most of them called i he Pyramid Club home--partieularkt he Sunday night "Whispers" party, a drag performance review organized by Hapi Phaee that would host visiting perlbrmers like Jayne Count y or Vaginal Davis, in addition to the club's experimental drag pedigree of Ethyl Eichelberger, International Chrysis, Lypsinka, resident DI Sister Dimension, the Funione crew from Atlanta--Larry Tee, Lady Bunny, and RuPaul Charles.--and, later, Antony Flegartv's early theater troupe, Blacklips Performance Cult. These acts drew upon pop culture and the post-punk. New Wave, and N.) Wave scenes du jour, combining them with experimental theater approaches. Some performers even drilled in from Charles Ludlam's Ridiculous Theatrical Company. (1)

As a haven for outre performance, the Pyramid was remarkable enough to attract the devout attention of not just Rtamitz. but another notable video mediary Nelson Sullivan, who shot hundreds oF hours id rootage in the club, 'vith the cumbersome video technology of the era. Sullivan employed a handheld documentary style that has since found great secondary life on his estate's YouTube channel. 5ninthavenueproject. where his fly-on-t he-wall approach grants access to the period's most vital live arts. Rubnitz also shot various tapes cunt a ini ng "doe." style fbotage (such as From the Files qf the Pyramid Cocktail Lounge, 1983, 6 min.), though his output is predominantly diegetic. Collahorating with the talents around him and evolving live performances into short tapes. Rubnitz created new. subversive worlds vith his flourishing nightclub contemporaries.

Presenting a program ofthese titles at the Billy Wilder Theater in Los Angeles this winter, I was joined by Magnuson who, during the question-and-answer session, spoke to the authorial intent of these collaborations, like her 15-minute tape with Rubnitz, Made For 7-1. (1984). "There was no practical application to any of it," she explained, when asked where these works initially screened. Pausing for a moment's reflection, Magnuson continued, "and that's what made the time so magical." Here, Magnuson was not singular; other performers who frequented the club created a diverse range of artistic productions with wild abandon, both independently and collaboratively, from 12-inch singles and plays at La Ma Nla Experimental Theatre, to large-scale paintings and art videos a product of (and beyond) the weekly performance slots that the Pvramid boasted.

Magnuson's observation caused me to wonder what figures today occupy this space of creative production and playful subversion. And how does that social club component, so essential 10 the Last Village movement, manikst in an age of social media? What are the products that this contemporary out re drag and queer performance culture sends out into the world? What will it leave behind?

As luck would have it, shortly after I returned from the tour. I was dragged out to a local Brooklyn dive bar to watch the hit reality television shom RuPaul'sl Drag Race and a live drag show that immediately followed. …

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