Review of After the Party: A Manifesto for Queer of Color Life by Joshua Chambers-Letson, New York University Press, 2018, pp. 285; illustrations.
After the Party is indeed a manifesto: transparent in its politics and elegant in its prose, it takes the temperature of contemporary politics and offers “a tactical manual” for survival and transformation (5). Joshua Chambers-Letson names the deadly institutional, cultural, and social forces that impinge on minoritarian life and finds roadmaps for living through an analysis of works by select artists. Each of the artists he centers — Nina Simone, Danh Vō, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Eiko, Tseng Kwong Chi — create amidst, and in response to, untimely deaths of loved ones: women, HIV positive, black, brown, and queer folk. The work they make in conditions of crisis offers strategies to know freedom — freedom from commodification, visibility, captivity, white-supremacy, and institutionalization — even if only temporarily. Death — as the result of AIDS, intergenerational trauma, incarceration, poverty, land occupation, police violence, loneliness, institutional defunding, disproportionate expectations to perform care work, suicide — stalks minoritarian subjects. In response, the author testifies to the generative capacity of these particular artists and artworks; they helped him grieve and survive the loss of mentor and friend, performance scholar José Esteban Muñoz, to whom the book is dedicated.
Chambers-Letson’s preface is an elegant and wrenching tribute to Muñoz’s scholarly interventions and generous mentorship and too to the transformative labor that went into mourning Muñoz’s unexpected passing when his friends convened with alcohol, music, and drugs. Here, Chambers-Letson develops “the party” to name the conditions under which minoritarian subjects assemble: grief, protest, loneliness, escape, pain, memory, ritual, care. Subjugated people assemble to redistribute affective, material, erotic, and embodied resources, “trying to keep each other alive” (xv), making possible “more life” (239). Chambers-Letson insists on the worldmaking potentials of performance, its capacity to allow minoritarian artists and audiences to enter and try on freedom — this is the party’s “after,” the capacity to live a little longer, to invent in the face of immanent death, to sustain.
Each chapter centers a different artist to invoke and revisit some of performance studies’ field defining themes: ritual (preface), repertoire and improvisation (chapter one), repetition and reproduction (chapter two), spectatorship and display (chapter three), ephemerality and liveness (chapter four), and representation and censorship (chapter five). Taken as a treatise on performance studies, After the Party extends the interventions of José Muñoz, E. Patrick Johnson, and Saidiya Hartman to shift the field’s center toward investigating performance as a mode of survival under ongoing conditions of captivity and subjugation, conditions that perpetually require us to perform. In this way, it becomes an ideal book to teach at the beginning of a performance studies seminar, telling the stories of our field, while orienting students toward decolonial archives and methodologies. In chapter one, Nina Simone’s mastery over and manipulation of Bach’s repertoire is both her escape into pleasure — and perhaps freedom — as she performs for white audiences. Personhood doubles and collapses into each other in Danh Vō’s IMUUR2, a Chinese mother’s archive of her queer son lost to AIDS-related illness; this second chapter explores together “performance’s mode of reproduction, maternal reproduction, and the reproduction of capital” (85). While Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s work obscures identity, chapter three shows how Gonzalez-Torres creatively exhibits his work to make it more readily available to minoritarian subjects he believes deserve to encounter its liberatory politics. Eiko’s dances at Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station (witnessed by the author) and in Fukushima Japan (documented by photographer William Johnston) are at the center of chapter four. Witnessing these works, Chambers-Letson is inspired to develop “entanglement” as an analytic that accounts for both embodied engagement and intimate histories, fetishizing neither archival document nor live performance. In chapter five, Tseng Kwong Chi, visual and performance artist famous for posing in his Mao suit, photographs himself alongside elite white people he labels the Moral Majority, bringing into relief the (unmarked) heteropatriarchal white supremacy that censored and defunded queer and HIV-positive artists of color in the eighties.
“Party” and “manifesto” in the book’s title also signal Chambers-Letson’s rigorous and “heretical” engagement with labor, class, capital, and Marx’s vexed relationship with performance (9). In his chapter on Danh Vō, the author describes how the installation Metal lays bare regulations of embodied labor by juxtaposing metallurgists and musicians; he meditates on the disassembled chandelier of 16:32, 26:05 to explore relationships between objects, labor, and life; and he evaluates Vō’s circulation through museums to highlight the commodification of (supposedly ephemeral) performance art. Especially captivating across the book are encounters with museum staff: the posed image of Kwong Chi with a black guard at the MET Costume Gala (216); anecdotes of black guards facilitating interactions with Gonzalez-Torres’s candy spills (152); a black guard witnessing Yayoi Kusama’s performance intervention at the MoMA in New York City (187); an immigrant cleaning lady who tearfully hugs Eiko upon witnessing her installation (181); and Ryan Rivera’s staging of his mother’s labor as a cleaning lady in sustain (81). These scenes of “entanglement” overlay the colonial and capitalist histories that both produce the workers’ everyday conditions, and engender the queer of color art that workers supervise, clean around, are featured in, and become experts on. These moments also make evident how performance — uniform, posture, gesture, repetition — is quotidian labor for many people of color (222). Chambers-Letson invites museum guards and cleaning ladies to the party, to convene, complain, remember, grieve, listen, and theorize.
After the Party is a love letter to performance, excavating its efficacy beyond commodification and toward sustenance. With gorgeous prose and unapologetic politics, the author offers this book as a gift. This is most evident in chapter one, which documents Nina Simone’s resilience, artistry, and practice of freedom, formatted as an old school, two-sided mix tape — a carefully crafted token meant as a critical soundtrack to the quotidian challenges of minoritarian living. I read, or perhaps more appropriately, I listened to this chapter with a queer ear, recalling the few times I’ve witnessed black drag queens lip sync Nina Simone’s Four Women. Matching the punctuations, breaths, and scream in the song, these queens staged Simone’s bodily effort, her labor, that went into making her musical manifesto. Such performances call into the nightclub violent legacies of racial capitalism that cling to black women’s bodies, leaving audiences arrested, unsure how to respond. When I watched Brooklyn-based drag artist Merry Cherry perform Four Women on 20 April 2018 at Tufts University, she ended her performance with, “I brought the party down. Now it’s up to you to bring it back up. I’m ready to dance with all of you!” Instead of apologizing for inviting the specter of black death into the party, she summons her audience to perform, and into the collective worldmaking necessary in the wake of trauma. Like Merry Cherry, Chambers-Letson invites us to the party, to commit to the transformative and embodied labor of performance that might bestow “more life.”