The PSWG blog this week presents a curated series of responses to Joey Plaster’s paper ‘Vanguard Revisited: Co-Performing Queer Histories in San Francisco’s Tenderloin’. Joey has selected for us an iconic object of performance around which his fieldwork has crystallized and which uniquely expresses the performance genealogy his work traces. By ‘objects of performance’ we mean things which embody, depict, surrogate, reflect, describe or resonate with a performance in the past and which constitute the focus of our critical attention. They could be films, audio recordings, clothes, anecdotes, buildings, gestures and so on- in short, objects by which we know the presence- or disappearance- of a performance.
Discussion of the film John Frum: He Will Come with guests Cevin Soling and director David Guinan. Moderated by Elinor Fuchs. Please follow this link to view the film before the February 5th session.
Movie synopsis: Tanna is a tiny island located in the South Pacific island chain of Vanuatu formerly known as the New Hebrides. In the early 1900s, the island was governed by both the British and French as the locale was too remote for them to bother fighting over. Instead, they enacted an oppressive regime and sent missionaries who brutalized the natives and burned down their villages in an effort to force them to convert to Christianity and surrender their traditional customs.
During World War II, America arrived for the first time in Vanuatu and impressed the natives with their advanced technology and generous gifts of cargo. Instead of threatening them or forcing religious ideologies upon them, American soldiers treated the Tannese with dignity and respect and donated medical supplies, food, clothes, and other necessities. In addition, the Tannese were amazed to see black officers among the ranks of soldiers.
America became their beacon of hope against the European occupiers and a resistance movement that had begun before the war assumed religious dimensions that now included America. A mysterious deity named John Frum emerged who embodied these sentiments. After the war, the United States left and the John Frum spirit also departed. A prophecy arose that John Frum would return to Tanna with an abundance of American goods and lead them to salvation from the Christian missionaries. Believers were thrown into prison by the British and French for blasphemy until they were granted religious freedom in 1957. The John Frum followers patiently wait for their American savior to return.
Upon discovering the existence of the John Frum Movement, Cevin Soling, a Harvard graduate student and filmmaker, traveled to Tanna with an abundance of American goods in the hopes of fulfilling the John Frum prophecy. “John Frum, He Will Come” chronicles Mr. Soling’s attempt at becoming an island god.
David E. Guinan is a writer, producer, and director who works in the world of converging media. He studied artistic applications of emerging technologies and comparative literature at the University of Wisconsin, as well as the Sorbonne. In 1998, he joined MTV Networks to develop and produce original multimedia programming. He went out on his own in 2001 and began an intense exploration of more experimental types of filmmaking. David produced and directed John Frum, He Will Come a feature length documentary about cargo cults that worship America on the island of Tanna in the South Pacific nation of Vanuatu. John Frum, He Will Come had its world premiere and headlined the 20th annual Hot Springs Documentary Festival. He also produced Freeloader, a narrative feature that premiered opening weekend at Rooftop Films and was featured in the New York Times, Time Out, and New York 1. He also continued his collaboration with artist Liz Magic Laser producing Flight and I Feel Your Pain, both of which received glowing reviews in the New York Times, Art Forum, Modern Painter, and New York Magazine. He continues to work with other notable artist including Frances Stark, Michelle Abeles, Simone Leigh, and Ryan McNamara.
Cevin Soling is a writer, director, producer, artist, and academic. He produced and directed The War on Kids, which illustrates how American public schools are now modeled after prisons and why they cannot be reformed. The film was honored as the best educational documentary at the New York Independent Film and Video Festival and received accolades from The New York Times, Variety, and The Huffington Post. Soling has been a guest on numerous radio shows including “The Lionel Show” (Air America), “The Joey Reynolds Show” (WOR), and “The Leonard Lopate Show” (WNYC). Additionally, he has appeared on national television on the RT network, “The Dr. Nancy Show” (MSNBC), and as a featured guest on “The Colbert Report.” Soling is currently enrolled in graduate school at Harvard University.
The PSWG blog this week presents a curated series of responses to Carolee Klimchock’s paper ‘Humor Hung Like a Horse: Coachmen and Coaches as Satirical Sites for Discussions of Class and Power in the Gilded Age’. Carolee has selected for us a group of objects of performance around which her research is crystallizing. By ‘objects of performance’ we mean things which embody, depict, surrogate, reflect, describe or resonate with a performance in the past and which constitute the focus of our critical attention. They could be films, audio recordings, clothes, anecdotes, buildings, gestures and so on- in short, objects by which we know the presence- or disappearance- of a performance. In this case Carolee has chosen a set of photographs and anecdotes.
“A Philadelphia lady is in deep distress concerning her coachman. She returned from a drive in very dejected spirits the other day and explained the cause to a friend by saying:–“I sent clear to South Carolina to get a man to match my brougham. He was a real olive green, and I was delighted all summer. Why, you don’t know how many congratulations I received on my taste at the City Troop races! But now the cold weather comes he turns that nasty grey. The wretch, I believe he knew he would.”—
“Vanguard Revisited” was an imagined conversation between two groups of queer homeless youth activists based in San Francisco’s Tenderloin: one that in 1966 founded the seminal organization Vanguard, and another which in 2011 “reconstituted” Vanguard around contemporary concerns by reenacting the organization’s street theater, artistic productions, and organizational structure. The project’s goal was not merely to reenact a discrete historical moment, but through these temporal pairings to “body forth” a lineage of Tenderloin-based cultural activism that may be partially obstructed by the archive. I draw on my experiences with this project to suggest, more generally, approaches to generating historical material through co-performances with the individuals who embody the consequences and promises of the histories we hope to represent.
Humor “by its nature tends to seek out and reveal incongruities” and the site of the Gilded Age horse-drawn coach was one of drastic visual, social, and performative contrasts, making it especially ripe for staging humor about power imbalances. Rich and poor alike being pulled by four unpredictable animals endowed the scene with a sense that ‘anything could happen,’ which is rich terrain for comedy. Add to which, real sex scandals between heiresses and coachmen in the Gilded Age enrapt the public. Thus humor pieces about class conflicts often used the site of the coach or the person of the coachman as it material, turning them easily into caricatures, puns, and double entendres. A coach in motion inhabited a liminal space: being on it was to be neither here nor there, and to not know if you were coming or going. On the coach the servant–not the master–held the reins, and coachmen got into trouble by horsing around with society belles who were sometimes driven by passion to elopement. (Puns intended.)
(Jerry Farber, “Toward a Theoretical Framework for the Study of Humor in Literature and the Other Arts” Journal of Aesthetic Education, Vol. 41, No. 4 (Winter, 2007), p. 84.