The topography of queerness

Queer once meant only putting on performances with plenty of glitter and feathers. But not any more, says Queer New York and Queer Zagreb artistic director and curator Zvonimir Dobrovic 

Curating a performing arts programme has many influences, both rational and irrational. That is the charm of the job: it requires the constant adjustment of perspectives. However, curating a “queer artistic aesthetic” is in many ways even more demanding, especially if you want to avoid falling into a rut.

Historically, it has been easy for concepts of queer to remain static. For a long time there were very few curators dedicated to queer programming, this meant you could get by without being judged a conservative curator by your peers and colleagues.

I’m happy to say that this is changing. Having curated queer works for the Queer Zagreb and Queer New York festivals for 15 years now, I have witnessed first-hand how queer visibility and presence in main-stream performing arts has changed over time. It is also the case that other curators who would have never thought of touching queer welcome it now – queer has become fashionable.

This is a good thing: the landscape is opening up and most artists are no longer facing the dilemma of being labelled as queer and immediately pigeonholed into doing only queer work – work that would secure them a spot at festivals and venues as part of “party programmes”, but not on the main stages – something that used to be a reality when it came to queer art presented outside of traditionally queer venues.

However, the issue with queer once it went mainstream was that it was suddenly easy to recognise, to label, to place knowing expectations on what was to come. For curators to “know” in advance what it is they want to see and present is the most dangerous thing. Risk is at the heart of what it means to be a curator, and curators should not be afraid to take risks.

To understand queer(ness) today we need to move beyond sexuality and gender and the usual readings to which we have become accustomed. When queer hit the mainstream, it was carried by curators who did not really understand the depths of queer work – they only noticed its superficial qualities. That meant if shows featured glitter and feathers they were queer. For a long time, that was the only queer anyone ever imagined!

But such a shallow understanding is not acceptable for curators of queer performing arts productions. Instead, we need to understand that queer depends on geographies because what might not be queer in one part of the world, is completely queer in another.

By thinking outside of the norm when it comes to queer performing arts (as a construct, I would define queer itself as “outside of the norm”) we open ourselves up to content that is unexpected and, therefore, artistically interesting and relevant.

Content-wise, touching upon issues like race, education, ethnicity and economics can, in certain localities and realities, be more queer than presenting work through the prism of gender or sexuality. Moreover, playing with an artistic form alone can queer things up. Content gives the genre depth and sustainability and moves beyond the simple stereotypes of queerness as identity art.

As curators, we should not underestimate our audiences because audiences love to be surprised by unexpected ideas.
Identity art is not what queer art is about anymore.

Zvonimir Dobrović is the artistic director of both Queer New York International Arts Festival and Domino, a Croatian non-profit organisation that promotes freedom of expression.

This is an extract of an article published in the May issue of IAM. To subscribe to the magazine click here.