by Annie Danger
This is an article reprinted from Dance Theatre Journal: Special Edition on Sex and Performance, an academic but user friendly publication by the Laban Centre in London, which Tessa Wills co-edited with Doran George in 2013. We used the festival THIS IS WHAT I WANT as a lens through which to reveal the field of the intersection between radical sexual practice and radical performance practice in the Bay Area, and our work. Read the other articles here.
‘Love takes off the masks we fear
we cannot live without and know we
cannot live within’ – James Baldwin
The Great Church of the Holy Fuck doesn’t want your soul, it wants you to have it. It wants you to love and adore your own soul. Wants you to recognize that you are holy.
Great Church of the Holy Fuck is a fifty-minute long work of interactive performance in the shape of a Catholic mass, minus God. In God’s place is the notion of holiness defined as open-heartedness and the thought that the most revelatory sex requires powerful holiness, thus queers and other marginalized bodies are holy; are healers.
Great Church of the Holy Fuck opens with a joke and a revelation: a projection of the interior of a cathedral, Photoshopped holy light pouring in through the windows, appears on a small screen upstage. I enter, looking supremely satisfied with myself, welcome the congregation, and tell the tale of my first erection. ‘A great light shone unto me as I experienced my first erection, forever opening to me the path of righteous humpery…this will not be a religious mass…In fact, it will not be a mass at all, but more of a heft – similar to mass, but a reminder of the glorious weight of our lovers’ flesh in our hands during the many acts of sextitude.’
In this first two minutes – replete with winks and innuendo – I welcome people to the space, let them know it’s okay to laugh (and thus it will be okay, en general), and open to them with a humorous, truthful story about preteen awkwardness. With this, I am informing my audience that I will be frank and humorous and also socially naked with them as we proceed. I am building trust.
As the piece continues, we work our way through a modern, Catholic mass with group prayers – standing and sitting and standing again – a reading, a homily, a sacrament, and finally a closing prayer and blessing. As the show moves forward, the humor cross-fades with earnest openheartedness. I speak of the ‘well-worn metaphor of the mirror. Have you ever looked in a mirror? I did believe it was so. Now, a mirror has many uses, as I’m sure you know. A mirror is the center of every fine telescope and mirrors make fine birthday gifts and wedding presents. But I want to talk about a more insidious use of the mirror: to cut.’ I speak of how we are taught at our earliest lessons about ourselves and society to cut ourselves with the visions we see in the mirror. How hegemonic power is maintained first on and in each of our bodies, keeping us wounded, separate and unsure. I share my own experiences of this metaphor of cutting with the mirror, providing a truthful and not-uncommon account of a lifetime of self-loathing and redemptive moments of connective, healing sex. I ask the audience to share if they have ever felt this way and the response is always a resounding ‘yes’. I tell them that to come from such wounds and find the openness to love one’s own and another body is profound. I tell them that they are healers.
The ceremony culminates in the sacrament: grand music swells, myself and two other ministers step down to the front of the stage and close our eyes. The crowd lines up to whisper in our ears, one-by one, a manner in which they ‘cut’ themselves. We take these pains from them, and they are told that [pullquote]the pains are ‘in our care now and no longer yours to worry about – we will tend this wound. [/pullquote]We will relieve you of this burden and you will be given a new mirror with which to see. One with no edges with which to cut.’ After each private revelation, eyes still closed, the minister places a small, round mirror in the palm of the audience member’s hand and whispers back in affirmation: ‘We all feel that way sometimes’. The mirrors are theirs to keep, and many of these tokens have remained on the altars or in the wallets of the groups who came to experience sex church that evening.
By the end, the joke is proven not to be a joke at all – the realization that we’re actually here for church comes only as one is shouting or tearing up in emotional outpour or standing in line for the sacrament. A hymn is sung (‘You make me holy with your love / Oh how it feels to be whole in the mirror of your eyes / Oh how it feels to take off my clothes underneath open skies’) to give the audience time to hold this moment and the closing prayer is simple but by this point electric:
All: I believe in bodies, the flesh we each bear,
home of my soul.
I believe in sex, our primal prayer, our
destroyer or our salvation.
I believe in the Holy Fuck,
sometimes rare but always revelatory,
the communion of bodies,
the forgiveness of love,
the redemption of learning and
re-learning to trust,
and the hump everlasting.
AD: May a Holy Fuck find you,
in the name of the pleasure, and of the
pain, and the healing fuckery.
This work was produced in response to the question, ‘What do you want?’, posed in relation to queer sexual desire in San Francisco in 2011. My answer, immediate and true, was ‘healing’. This response was rooted in an SF queer sex culture that I experience as simultaneously revelatory, wide-open, deeply segregated, and, more than occasionally, quite shallow.
Before coming into adulthood in queer, arts, and anarchist circles in the Bay Area, I was raised up through political punk culture and DIY ethics. When I look at art or at lifestyles, I look first to social and political context. [pullquote align=”right”]Ethicality is a cardinal compass point for me in divining a life well-lived and I often feel sex art and sex art culture coming up short. [/pullquote]I sense an unfortunate selfishness in work which views the stage as a venue for personal growth and which is willing to call that personal growth (on-stage therapy?) art-making. I have seen work processing a variety of issues including child sex abuse, body dysmorphia, sluttery/polyamory, depression, racism, and more. These are all valid and important areas for examination. My issue is the selfishness I perceive in a lot of work I see. So much of the potential of earnest work is lost in a morass of unexamined self-exposure.
Really? Someone else is piercing themselves on stage again? And the piece is how long? Carolee Schneeman’s, Karen Finley’s, and Barbara Kruger’s children are everywhere and we are a mite overexposed. We are standing on the shoulders of giants, gazing intently at our navels. Within this overexposure lies the potential for gripping work: the human body is still the center of how we experience the world, and holds unending potential as a tool and a canvas for very good art.
Also at play is the excessive generosity of San Francisco audiences. Onstage, anything goes and the act of performing anything at all is enough to merit a standing ovation. It’s a great place to perform but a terrible place to evolve. The groundwork laid by sex art forbears of the 70s, 80s, and 90s has left us with a fertile ground. A crowd versed in a common language of sex and kink, ready to do most things you ask of them and interested in supporting experimental works.
With so much in its favor, why does the sex culture in the SF Bay Area feel so…blasé? Sex art has become a rite of passage, de-toothed by the revelation that when the surprise of sex as art has worn off, the content may not be strong enough to make a lasting impact. Without the obfuscation of novelty, [pullquote] the work we are making remains saddled with wider, unexamined social tropes in the community, like hideous and ranging cultural appropriation and, as regards the wider sex culture, division of bodies based on race, size, age, ability, and trans status. Classic[/pullquote].
I didn’t expect to magically solve entrenched racism or ableism in our community, but with The Great Church of the Holy Fuck, I wanted to take this navel-gazing through the looking glass. If the art we are making is personal therapy, then we are searching for some form of healing or transformation from the stage. Great! What a better place for group ritual and transformation than a theatre? A church maybe, but there’s hardly a difference. And despite my chafing at unexamined cliché, I positively adore a well examined archetype. The proposal contained in my art is always this: we have the basics down by now. Let’s quit quibbling over how to build a wheel and start rolling forward. So I chose the church. I love to preach – to work up a crowd and say (loudly): ‘Look into yourself. You know what you’ll see? It’s the same things you see in a lot of people around you. That doesn’t make you the same, but it does make you okay. You want therapy? Here it is. You want connection? Look around you. Here we are, working together in a profound, near-utopic manner, all communal and whatnot without even thinking about it. Let’s use this.’
The prompt for my piece and the others in This is What I Want was simple: What do you want? I wanted us to remember just what we have in this queer, sex art haven and I wanted to make use of its well-developed, shared language of sex, bodies, sex, art, and sex to get at these deep commonalities that wound us all daily and lead to these ugly, unexamined fissures in queer community. I want us all to see the humanity in ourselves and in each other. I want us to understand the lived experience of political awareness. I want to use the social currency of sexual desirability to buy us our freedom. I want to short-circuit the subtle and powerful currents of hegemony in our countercultural circles. [pullquote align=”right”]I want us to know we’re not alone because that remains an enormous, rudimentary stumbling block to our collective liberation. I wanted us to move forward; to evolve. And by golly, I want it to feel good, too.[/pullquote]
Annie Danger is an artist, activist, and trans woman from Albuquerque, New Mexico. Rooted in the SF Bay Area more than fourteen- years-strong, she is deeply committed to realizing the potential of the perfect hybrid; she wants it all. Her art can be summed up in the phrase “The joke is: it’s not a joke”. Danger’s work combines humor and savvy with deeply earnest invitations for her audiences to reexamine their relationships to the world around them with eyes on politics, ethics, and the good of all people.
The Great Church of the Holy Fuck was revised and expanded for a three-night-run at CounterPULSE in San Francisco in March of 2013. Her most recent collaborative work, The Fully Functional Cabaret: Trans Womens’ Secrets…REVEALED!, toured the US East coast in April 2013. She is hard at work on How to Cook A Frog, a major expansion of her work and practice which examines social media, surveillance culture, and our complicity in a slow slide toward fascism. Find her on her ever-evolving website, www.anniedanger.com
Republished with permission at http://tessawills.com/the-great-church-of-the-holy-fuck/. Originally published in George, Doran, Hargreaves, Martin, Shaw, Thom and Wills, Tessa eds. Dance Theatre Journal 25.2. London: Laban, 2013. Print.
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