This past December, I made a short video with my boyfriend and collaborator Chris Vargas about the relationship in the early 1970s between San Francisco’s hippie drag troupe the Cockettes and future disco diva Sylvester. On New Year’s Eve 1969, the Cockettes danced into the spotlight with a rambunctious, drug-fueled stage performance as part of the “Nocturnal Dream Show,” Steven Arnold’s midnight experimental-film program at the Palace Theater in North Beach. More performances followed and the group gained prominence with write-ups in countercultural rags like Rolling Stone and The Village Voice. In 1971, the Cockettes were invited to take the ragtag show that they had invented in a lawless town on the Western edge of the world all the way across the continent to New York City, the center of art and civilization. They were scheduled for a series of performances at the Anderson Theater, and Sylvester, a peripheral member of the troupe who aspired to bigger things, was booked as their opening act. The singer took a more ambitious and committed approach to his art than other members of the group, placing more value, for instance, on practice and rehearsals. Apparently his commitment paid off, because New York audiences and critics responded well to his act. The Cockettes, by contrast, were a complete flop in New York. As they bombed night after night, Sylvester distanced himself in order to avoid getting dragged down with them. At one point he even trashed their show from the stage before they came out.
Chris and I felt that this chapter from queer art history was indicative of a perennial tension between San Francisco and New York art, as well as of the difficulties—and difficult trade-offs—San Francisco queer artists face when they try to break out beyond their “provincial” roots. In the video, I embody an artist in the tradition of the Cockettes and Chris embodies one in the tradition of Sylvester, and we argue over how we’re going to restage that historic show so that “this time, things are going to go right.” Will we spotlight a solo performer or rush the stage with a big motley crew? Will we present an elegantly pared-down set or a thrift-store hodgepodge?
The video was a chance for Chris and me to riff on some of the things that both appeal to us and frustrate us about Bay Area art: the pull toward loose improvisation over scripting and rehearsal, the regular admixture of performers and nonperformers on stage or in front of the camera, the customary refusal of polish or professionalism, and the way that brilliantly inventive preproduction of sets and costumes often gets paired with half-assed production values when it comes to shooting and performance (and vice versa). Our own ongoing video collaboration evinces these same qualities, which is doubtless why we felt compelled to make the piece. It was also a chance for us to wrestle with definitions of quality and professionalism that, we often feel, do not come down to us from any local source but instead from foreign capitals of “the art world,” like New York.
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