Issue 12.1-12.2 | Fall 2013/Spring 2014 / Guest edited by Janet R. Jakobsen and Catherine Sameh

Wildness: A Fabulation

A response to a discussion with Wildness filmmakers Wu Tsang and Roya Rastegar. This conversation took place on March 1, 2013 and kicked off the The Scholar & Feminist Conference 2013: “Utopia.” Watch the video here:

I never made it to Wildness, the party. But I have spent enough intoxicated nights dancing in art-damaged queer bars and clubs to recognize the vicarious thrill that went down my neck when watching Wildness, the film (2012). People sometimes talk about this feeling as FOMO (fear of missing out), but I prefer to think of it as SOSM (sense of something more). What is this sense of something more that Wildness gives us, and what is its connection to that perfectly apposite name?

Coming from the generation of collegiate queers who cut our critical teeth on Jennie Livingstone’s 1990 Paris is Burning (a film which recently marked its twentieth anniversary), Wu Tsang’s Wildness feels like it has captured a similar zeitgeist. Just as it seemed like everyone who saw the Sex Pistols live started a band, it seemed that everyone who watched Paris is Burning wrote an essay, article or thesis. The film condensed into one complexly incandescent picture all the burning issues of the day: HIV/AIDS; homophobia and transphobia; street style and the guerrilla tactics of fabulous survival; queer kinship and performative gender; poverty, racism, and exclusion in the gentrifying city. Dance, dance, dance, kinesthetic stutter on the broken rhythms of everynightlife on the piers, in the ballroom, waiting for the subway, parading at the beach, always on the run.[1]

My own undergraduate contribution to the still-expanding literature on the film was based on a summer “researching” the New York City drag ball scene; really the most transparent of alibis for abandoning my mid-Western, middle class upbringing for the fierce pleasures of an urban social dance world created by and for black and Puerto Rican queer and transgender folk. Paris is Burning didn’t make me queer, but the film and the responses to it gave a sense of a larger world, never fully actualized or present, within which my queerness might take up root and flourish.

For the above reasons, I immediately identified with the character Wu (portrayed by the filmmaker Wu Tsang) who appears at the beginning of Wildness, arriving expectantly at the doors of the Silver Platter, a legendary bar in the Silverlake neighborhood of Los Angeles, and the longstanding home away from home for a community of Latina, largely immigrant, transgender women. Wu arrives at the threshold of the Silver Platter neither as a total outsider to its allure nor yet as a member of the community it shelters. The genius of the film is to foreground and problematize this moment of encounter, fascination, and self-invention. If Paris is Burning followed ethnographic documentary conventions in rendering invisible the directorial presence and framing of the ball children, Wildness makes every effort to keep viewers’ attention on the fact that the film is a fabricated thing, and that both Wu and we, the viewers, are being granted privileged but limited access to a space not necessarily set up for us. It encourages us to dwell on the fact that enjoyment and spectating is not the same thing as participating and contributing, and it sets into the foreground the debate around the cycle of artist and queer-led gentrification of urban neighborhoods like Silverlake.

“Each generation,” Frantz Fanon wrote, “must discover its mission, fulfill it or betray it, in relative opacity.”[2] If my generation discovered its mission in “gender performativity” (whether that mission was fulfilled or betrayed isn’t for me to say), the relative obscurity in which the Wildness generation seems to be seeking theirs in a critical reimagining of “safe space.” Much of the story of Wildness concerns the challenge of cultivating and protecting that opacity in an age of the hypervisibility of the social margins, and the seeming disappearance of the ‘underground’ or ‘alternative.’

There is an important and ongoing polemic around safe space, and whether it is either possible or desirable.[3] It is the achievement of Wildness to approach that polemic with only the lightest of touches, suggesting how different the question of safety looks, depending upon your positionality (the lesson of intersectional theory). Without initially foregrounding the question of safe space (the film is after all about “wildness”; not the opposite of “safety” certainly, but hardly its synonym), Wildness gradually lets it creep up on you as the film progresses, until it is front and center. Going for the party, you end up staying for the legal clinic. The regular clientele, the newcomers, the media, the owners; all wind-up implicated in the continual transformation, breakdown, and remaking of what the Silver Platter is and what it represents.

Watching some of the montage scenes of community-making in the film, I had the fantasy of being able to similarly fast-forward through some of the necessary but torturously long “process” meetings I’ve been through, the difficult, messy, and aggravating tedium through which counterculture is sometimes built and sustained. Wildness definitely wants you to dance at its revolution. Rather than moralize about safe space, the film deploys a cinematic device that could be hokey but that in this case pays off: it animates the Silver Platter itself, giving her a voice, personality, and wry perspective on all the dramatic goings on. This parallax view on safe space, as seen from the perspective of the space itself, is startlingly effective. Rather than engage in the interminable analysis of the impossibility of ever doing interpersonal justice to one another—given the ways our communities are necessarily riven by difference—the film turns its attention to the structures that enable and condition our gathering on the first place. As the Silver Platter shifts back and forth from object to thing, the film asks us to consider how we necessarily co-create a space, but how when we scrutinize to closely at the aspect that makes it “safe,” that aspect tends to flicker and vanish. Wildness is not the opposite of safety, but it does contrast with a certain sense of stability, security, and permanence: instead it celebrates contingency, gentle chaos and the impermanence of all things, even the good ones.

Abandoning documentary realism from its opening moments, Wildness plunges headfirst into a trans-queer-of-color fabulation that is, as Marc Siegel puts it, “neither true nor false but fabulous.”[4] Responding to the emergence of counter-documentary and anti-ethnographic film in the 60s and 70s, philosopher and cinema theorist Gilles Deleuze theorized fabulation as the an capacity of cinema to fabricate, rather than just document, the real.[5] Fabulation in this sense differs from the acts of imaginative “let’s pretend” that we ordinarily associate with fictional genres. Fabulation is instead the immanent potential within storytelling to redirect us with the glancing force of the relatively opaque. Fabulation thus also partakes of the Lacanian concept of the Real, thought of here as that unrepresentable strand or stain within representation; the motivating impulse that enables figuration and gives it its productive, empowering lie. (It is like when I say, in response to a series of unrelated and disastrous personal events: “What a horrible year!” In that moment, the year, an arbitrary slice of calendrical time, suddenly assumes animacy and intentionality, overriding my rational understanding that years lack such properties). The overriding of our rational brain is key to how fabulation, as an instinct for the virtual, unlocks and unleashes novelty in an otherwise deadlocked symbolic order.

The transgressive, creative impulse of fabulation stands in some tension with the representational aspirations of safe space discourse. To make a space safe for difference is often construed as identifying and accommodating all categories of difference, considered primarily as sites of imminent injury. Safe space, seen in this light, is constructed around the fantasy of a zone that is temporarily autonomous from the symbolic order and from structural violence, a space of retreat and repair from which we can emerge refreshed and energized to reengage the quotidian battles that would otherwise prove enervating. Centering the trauma/healing dyad, safe space discourse places each subject, simultaneously, in the position of victim in need of support and privileged subject in need of potential “calling out.”

The moving images of community making, sustaining, collapse and rebirth that Wildness tracks suggests that fabulation isn’t a voluntary escape from the reality principle that safe space discourse frequently insists upon (“You are triggering me!”), but an involuntary personification of the impersonal forces that affect our lives but are indifferent to moral outrage or interpersonal admonishment. Rather than privileging one perspective or identity, fabulation subsumes and decenters identity in the impersonal field we actually subsist and seek to survive in. Safe spaces are fabricated, but we do not fabricate them, at least not with full, conscious intention. We fall into them, as Wu falls into the Silver Platter. And in so falling, we become other than who we were, which is why safe space cannot protect or preserve the integrity or individuality of who we were before entering them. No-one enters, leaves, or fabulates a safe space unperturbed; the only violence one can do to such a space is to presume it will leave you unchanged.

The Silver Platter bar doesn’t actually speak, of course; the filmmakers have given her a voice and might therefore be accused of a certain ventriloquism. How is this ultimately different, one might ask, from the omniscient camera strategies of Jennie Livingstone? One difference perhaps lies between the omniscient gaze and the acousmatic voice as cinematic strategies. If the omniscient gaze sustains the fantasy of looking without being looked at, the acousmatic voice (the voice whose source is not immediately visible) sustains a different fantasy. Part of this fantasy, in Wildness, is the fantasy of an immanent elsewhere, which surrounds us without taking up an exact location within the geopolitical coordinates of the film. This sense of an elsewhere that the voice evokes (so different from the standard authorial voice over) gestures to a location Fred Moten and Stefano Harney have styled “the undercommons” and Jack Halberstam has called “the wild beyond.”[6] If the Silver Platter is the wild voice of this undercommons, it is not because the bar speaks for or from a definite location; it can only be because it is “a voice and nothing more.”[7]

  1. On everynight life, see Celeste Fraser Delgado, and José Esteban Muñoz. Everynight Life: Culture and Dance in Latin/o America. Durham: Duke UP, 1997. Print. [Return to text]
  2. Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth. Trans. Richard Philcox. New York: Grove, 2004. Print. 145. [Return to text]
  3. See for instance the important new history by Christina B. Hanhardt, Safe Space: Gay Neighborhood History of the Politics of Violence. Durham, Duke University Press, 2013. [Return to text]
  4. Marc Siegel, “Vaginal Davis’s Gospel Truths.” Camera Obscura 23, no. 1 (2008): 151–59. [Return to text]
  5. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time Image. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989. Original publication in French in 1985. [Return to text]
  6. Moten, Fred, and Stefano Harney. The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study. Minor Compositions, 2013. Introduction by Jack Halberstam. [Return to text]
  7. Mladen Dolar, A Voice and Nothing More. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2006. Print. [Return to text]