Boot Camp

05.09.12

Left: Foodgasm. Right: Artist Bruce LaBruce. (Photos: Nguyen Tan Hoang)


THE HALL WAS SET UP to cater to the trashy gay appetites of all who would trespass its borders over the three days in late April when “Camp/Anti-Camp,” a film festival–slash–academic conference–slash–performance orgy–slash–[fill in the blank] took over the Hebbel am Ufer 2 Theater, nestled on the banks of the Landwehr Canal in Berlin’s homey Kreuzberg district. Brushing past the obligatory beer bar, one was greeted with a live, functioning kitchen, courtesy of a duo calling itself Foodgasm (free chocolate muffins for all those willing to submit to a spanking). At the auditorium entrance, a book stall vended the sauciest and latest titles in theoretical faggotry, while at the rear of the room, just before the toilets, an alchemical “altar bar” had been installed, providing an array of dizzying intoxicants in exchange for a couple of coins, with a “no change given, change yourself” policy. (My substance of the week was Russian Cocaine: a lemon dipped in coffee grinds and sugar chased with a tall glass of vodka.)

Inside, several rows of phallic mini-cacti separated Jonathan Berger’s prissy white set from the audience. Seats had been removed and replaced with comfy body pillows, further enhancing the girlfrien’ gossip ambience. Douglas Crimp read to us from his new book, “Our Kind of Movie”: The Films of Andy Warhol, using Warhol as a kind of foil for the camp canon. “The incoherence of the discourse on camp is extraordinary,” Crimp said in the ensuing conversation with event co-organizer Marc Siegel, before going on to admit that he actually doesn’t know what camp is. If one thing could be agreed upon, it was that Susan Sontag was way off the mark. Neither Crimp nor Siegel could concede to the grand dame’s notion that doing camp is a means of putting authenticity in quotation marks. While no one went so far as to accuse Sontag’s famous 1964 essay of homophobia, Crimp came close when he stated: “She makes camp a knowingness about others in the eye of the beholder. Which is moralizing. That bothers me.” Perhaps camp can only be defined by its elusiveness. “I was interviewed earlier today, and they asked me why Flash Gordon was camp,” Crimp continued. “I remember when I was a child watching him on television, I just thought he was sexy.”

I wish I could tell you more about the opening night—especially the appearance by Warhol superstar Holly Woodlawn, which I’m so sad to have missed—but I got my mind blown halfway across the continent by Narcissister’s lithe and livid living sculpture performance. I’m not sure what it had to do with camp, but she did raise the bar for twenty-first-century performance art, dance, and feminism within the course of her forty-minute act of brainfuck ingenuity, which I would need an entire essay to describe.

Left: Narcissister. (Photo: HAU/Dorothea Tuch) Right: The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black. (Photo: Nguyen Tan Hoang)


There is a tendency among scholars to become trapped by the very tools employed to investigate a problem—namely, the language that has evolved to accommodate such research, with its conceptual jargon and pronouncements perfumed with opacity. So it’s unsurprising that the one person bold enough to offer up a new definition of camp that weekend was an artist. “The whole goddamn world is now camp,” declared Bruce LaBruce, before launching into an ambitious list of several new categories that certainly exceed anything on Sontag’s radar, such as Classic Gay Camp (Mae West, Joan Crawford, the Catholic Church), Bad Gay Camp (Will & Grace, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy), Good Straight Camp (Woody Allen’s dramas), Bad Straight Camp (Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, Black Swan, Adam Sandler movies), and Conservative Camp (Fox News, Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney).

The strand tying each of the three nights together was an edition of Vaginal Davis’s talk show–cum–performance installation Speaking from the Diaphragm, first performed a few years back at P.S. 122 in New York. The Berlin edition was dedicated to the theme of “failuretics,” a field I happen to be an expert in, as lived experience would thus far suggest. So no big shock that I was invited as a guest on the last night of the show, where I was briefly interrogated by the infectious wonder that is V.D. before being shrimped (look it up online if you don’t know) by my hostess. Shoes and socks in hand, I was then rushed off the stage to make room for the grand finale: the debut of Davis’s new band Tenderloin (featuring Hidden Cameras frontman Joel Gibb on drums) followed by the first ever Berlin show (how?) of the Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black.

Whether all this makes a case for camp or anti-camp as the “ideological white noise of the new millennium,” in the words of LaBruce, is for future historians of heresy and decadence to parse. But those of us fortunate enough to ride the wave of this three-day irruption of queer thought, naked flesh, and pretty colors are still stumbling around with dilated eye-deologies and mental boners. Only in Berlin, kids.

Travis Jeppesen

Dagmar Hopfpfisterei (aka Vaginal Davis) in her new band Tenderloin, with drummer Joel Gibb (Hidden Cameras) in the background. (Photo: Nguyen Tan Hoang)