BY Christy Lange in Features | 11 JAN 13
Featured in
Issue 160

Imitation of Life

Animating archives in the ‘queer archaeology’ of Berlin-based duo Pauline Boudry / Renate Lorenz

BY Christy Lange in Features | 11 JAN 13

Pauline Boudry / Renate Lorenz, 'Toxic', 2012, film installation. All images courtesy: Marcelle Alix, Paris, and Ellen de Bruijne Projects, Amsterdam

In a series of photographic portraits and self-portraits from the mid-19th century, London housemaid Hannah Cullwick showed off her masculine qualities, sometimes dressed in drag, or in sadomasochistic poses with her lover. Around the same time, Annie Jones, a ‘bearded lady’ with hair that grew down to her knee, toured as a ‘freak’ with Barnum’s Circus, but was also the subject of medical studies and photographs by the German researcher Magnus Hirschfeld. In 1923, Alla Nazimova, a Russian émigré and star of early Hollywood, produced and took the lead role in the silent film Salomé, which was rumoured to have an entirely gay cast and crew; it nearly ruined Nazimova’s career because of its suggestive dance scenes. 

All of these figures are historical inspirations for the protagonists in the films and installations of Pauline Boudry and Renate Lorenz, a Berlin-based duo who have been working together since 1998. Using a discursive, research-based approach that they’ve termed ‘queer archaeology’, the art­ists derive their films from archival documents that would otherwise remain lost, buried or unseen. Their aim is to literally and figuratively animate these artefacts by orchestrating re-performances or re-enactments of them with their frequent collaborators, most of whom are contemporary artists or musicians in their own right. In doing so, they are not just imitating previous gestures and poses in the histo­ry of queer performance, they are also preserving them. In this sense, their work presents an alternative model through which to disseminate the history of performative activism. 

However, Boudry / Lorenz don’t set out to paint a rosy picture of radical gestures and the success of queer activism through resistance. They also remind us the extent to which restriction and mistreatment have been (and still are) embedded in these expressions of sexual freedom and liberation; their works often portray radicality as stagnant, rehearsed or grossly anachronistic. In their film No Future / No Past (2011), for instance, the musician Ginger Brooks Takahashi, performing as Darby Crash from The Germs, smashes and stomps on her guitar, but without conviction. In N.O. Body (2009), the apparently hysterical laughter of drag performer Werner Hirsch acting as bearded lady Annie Jones, quickly becomes forced and painful. In many of their works, radical gestures become stiff or stilted, consciously performed or recited by rote for the camera to an absent audience.

Boudry / Lorenz’s most recent film, To Valerie Solanas and Marilyn Monroe in Recognition of Their Desperation (2013), was produced for their exhibition ‘Patriarchal Poetry’ at the Badischer Kunstverein in Karlsruhe. It features six performers playing the titular musical com­po­sition, written by Pauline Oliveros in 1970 and inspired by Solanas’s feminist scum Manifesto from 1967. Oliveros’s piece is not a traditional musical score but rather a set of typed instructions that asks each performer to play long tones orchestrated through different coloured light cues. Among her specifications is that no single performer in the group becomes dominant: ‘If a player is too loud, it is the responsibility of the ensemble to raise the general dynamic level.’

Pauline Boudry & Renate Lorenz, 'N.O. Body', 2012, film installation

The artists filmed this re-performance of the score in a single take in the iconic Funkhaus Berlin. The film stars members of their cadre of frequent collaborators: Takahashi and Rachel Aggs play gui­tar, Peaches sings, Catriona Shaw plays the accordion, Verity Susman is on the synthesizer, while William Wheeler plays the Theremin. As in the majority of the duo’s films, most of the performers appear androgynous or in drag, including Wheeler, who wears a green hat and beaded veil. Takahashi is dressed in a purple body suit with bondage straps, which she uses to secure a small pa and guitar, so she can literally drag them up a staircase to the main performance hall, where the ensemble perform the score. The sustained tones the group produces alternate between moaning, chirping, droning and ghostly howls. The individual performances seem reigned in; the musicians rarely smile or make eye contact. As is characteristic of Boudry / Lorenz’s re-enactments, the piece is a consciously staged imitation of an avant-garde moment, not a nostalgic homage to one. It’s a long way from the images of the Velvet Underground jamming in Andy Warhol’s Factory, but nevertheless pointedly alludes to that mythos. 

Boudry / Lorenz’s 2009 film Salomania, probably their most effective and affecting work to date, also traces a lineage from past to present. This 17-minute fractured narrative spans a complex, layered history of performance and imitation. The starting point is the Dance of the Seven Veils from Nazimova’s Salomé. That provocative scene sparked a craze in the 1920s called ‘Salomania’, in which women imitated the dance as an expression of sexual freedom. From there, the references spiral backward in time: Nazimova’s film was an interpretation of Oscar Wilde’s 1891 eponymous play which was itself inspired by the biblical story. But the timeline in Boudry / Lorenz’s film also spools forward, to dancers from subsequent generations: namely, Yvonne Rainer (who choreographed a piece based on Nazimova’s dance, entitled Valda’s Solo, in 1972) and the Los Angeles-based artist, performer and activist Wu Tsang. By arranging a collaboration between the two dancers, Boudry / Lorenz create a new entry into the history of dance, a medium that is most effectively passed on through a set of instructions and personal, intergenerational connections. Salomania contains a touching scene in a dance studio in a storefront on an la street, in which Rainer teaches Tsang how to interpret the finer points of Valda’s Solo, including a passage in which the dancer wriggles out of the thin straps of her dress. It’s a lesson, an interview and a passing down of knowledge.

In the finale of Salomania, we see Tsang in a wig and white dress and Rainer in a tuxedo performing the dance on a small stage in a darkened club. Tsang enacts the movements of the Dance of the Seven Veils in front of a film projection of Nazimova from the original movie. Tsang’s body creates shadows against the screen, sometimes mimicking Salomé’s actions, sometimes deviating from them. As opposed to the impromptu, relaxed nature of the earlier dance rehearsal, here Boudry / Lorenz signal that we are re-entering the realm of staged performance by drawing attention to its construction for the camera, casting that glow back on what we’ve previously seen. Is this performance constructed for the live audience or for us? Or for a future audience we can’t yet envision? The scene creates a direct, physical contrast between Tsang’s performance as openly and elegantly appearing in drag while the historical source film – which was condemned for provoking ‘perversity and lesbianism’ – features dwarves playing tambourines and actors in campy costumes. Boudry / Lorenz don’t shout: ‘Look how far we’ve come!’ Rather, they ask: ‘Where are we now, and what could come next in this lineage?’

Boudry / Lorenz’s 2012 film Toxic again features Hirsch, this time dressed in a leopard- skin bustier with fake hair pasted above his breasts, enacting the transcript of a 1985 interview with Jean Genet on a British television programme. The subjects and referents of the interview constantly shift from the historical to the present and, at one point, Hirsch (as Genet) speaks out on behalf of the ‘technicians’ of the film, saying they should ‘revolt’. When the camera pans behind the scenes to the film crew looking concerned, the artists among them, we don’t know if it’s a performance of concern, or concern itself, but they are clearly indicating that they fully understand their role in this act of representation. Writing about this moment of the film in Afterall, artist and activist Gregg Bordowitz points out: ‘It’s no longer a revolutionary gesture to reverse roles and turn the camera on the film-maker(s). That gesture is now a worn cliché. There is no doubt that Boudry  / Lorenz are aware of this. They’re not trying to overturn the social order with one powerful gesture. For Boudry  / Lorenz, change comes through constant reiteration.’ Bordowitz identifies a key point in the artists’ work: every aspect of their approach indicates a knowingness that they are part of a long line of framers of how gender identity has been and is visualized – for better or worse. The filmmakers are aware that they’re implicated in this role of recorders of radical gender performance – and the fact that they are orchestrating it – and in doing so they pre-empt any possible criticisms of their approach.

Undoubtedly, the duo’s thorough research has unearthed important and revealing documents. One drawback of this scholarly approach and the way they frame their work is that the only conclusions we can draw from what they assemble for us are the conclusions they’ve already (quite astutely) drawn themselves. Through their multiple, highly articulate interviews and their own writings about each work, they create their own discourse, which makes it very hard to read their output outside of these interpretations – or to criticize it – especially when dealing with a topic as unimpeachably important as queer performance and identity.

It’s possibly more productive to think of their work as contributing to an ongoing archive or future museum of queer history. Their films often overshadow the photographic components that accompany them, but it is these reproductions of uncovered archival photographs which illustrate the depth of their research. For  instance, the postcard images that accompany the film Toxic are scanned versions of real portraits of 19th-century ‘sexual deviants’ who had been arrested: cross-dressers, cruisers, prostitutes, gay men and women. Instead of the customary mug shot, the criminals were documented by the police in commercial portrait studios, in which they pose with defiance and pride for the camera. These archival images perhaps best illustrate the way that the artists’ work is not about glorifying or mythologizing this evidence of ‘resistance’ from the past, but of making it terrifyingly real, by bringing home the gravity of the treatment that people of ambiguous gender or alternative sexuality received. Similarly, the Badischer Kunstverein show featured a complementary exhibition of ‘Her Noise Archive’, which, among a vast collection of rare feminist video and music, contained the original score of Oliveros’s Solanas, which might have been the most instructive or fascinating document in the show. Together with the film, it highlighted the contrast between radical inspiration and the state of it today. If nothing else, Boudry / Lorenz’s work leads us back to a primary source (which inevitably embodies hundreds of years’ worth of previous primary sources and inspirations), and gives us a way to retroactively enter these archival documents, to see them animated and then to return with fresh eyes to the present tense. 

In 2013, Pauline Boudry and Renate Lorenz had solo exhibitions at the Badischer Kunstverein, Karlsruhe, Germany, and CAPC Bordeaux, France.

Christy Lange is programme director of Tactical Tech and a contributing editor of frieze. She lives in Berlin, Germany.