PSWG October 2nd Elizabeth Wiet — Jack Smith, Charles Ludlam, and the Objects of Camp

This week the PSWG blog takes the form of a curated set of responses to Elizabeth Wiet’s paper ‘Jack Smith, Charles Ludlam, and the Objects of Camp’ delivered and discussed October 2nd. We asked Elizabeth to select two key objects of performance to stimulate critical response from fellow PSWG scholars. 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.

Elizabeth chose an anecdote and a film. Here they are, with exhibition label-type responses from Elise Morrison (Performance Studies), Lina Moe (English) and John Cooper (Art History).


“The more people have told me that I had to get away from the word “camp,” that it’s terrible that people would call my work “camp,” the more I decided to embrace it. If nobody wants it, come to me! Bring me your poor, your tired, your yearning to be free! Let my theatre be the repository of all forbidden theatrical conventions!”

Charles Ludlam
anecdote quoted in Ridiculous Theatre: Scourge of Human Folly, the Essays and Opinions of Charles Ludlam, ed. Steven Samuels (New York, 1992) p. 227


5 thoughts on “PSWG October 2nd Elizabeth Wiet — Jack Smith, Charles Ludlam, and the Objects of Camp

  1. Response to Elizabeth Wiet — Jack Smith, Charles Ludlam, and the Objects of Camp – via film clip from Normal Love (1963).

    Before I go any further, I will admit to never having seen a Jack Smith film before. So it is with some lack of critical context and experience that I will be responding to this clip. Fortunately, however, I am armed with Elizabeth’s very informative and thoughtful analysis of Smith’s work, which she framed within (more familiar to me) discourses surrounding Ludlam’s performance career and theories of Camp.

    As I watched this clip from Normal Love my first thought was that I was viewing footage recovered from some structuralist anthropologist’s research archive, pagan wedding traditions of some far away tribe that had been observed and captured on camera and then paired with an ethnic love song soundtrack. That is not what the film is, but I am going to try and get some mileage out of my first impression nevertheless. It seems like there could be a connection between the (likely mocking) objectivist documentary style of Smith’s film and Smith’s use of found objects – often ‘trash’ or refuse from the streets – in his stage performances. As Elizabeth described, both Smith and Ludlam repurposed discarded objects and made a point of staging them within the mise-en-scene of their theatre productions. While Ludlam would frequently bedazzle and sequin his found objects, Smith would leave his unadorned, refusing, it would seem, to make them into sparkly fetishes. Though the bodies of the performers in Normal Love are adorned (pearls and headdress on the mermaid, printed filmy scarves worn over faces and bodies, metallic jewelry, etc), they are nevertheless displayed in a somewhat gritty fashion, as if marred, exhausted, and/or bored by the demands of real life enactment of ritual.

    In our discussion of Elizabeth’s work, the term ‘abject’ came up in reference to the objects Smith chose put onstage; it seems that the same might be said for the bodies in the film, as we are perhaps meant to see their behavior and attitudes as ‘abject’, or simultaneously rejected by and unsettling to the ‘normal’ social order. This notion jars productively against the title of the film; Smith seems to be staging (by which I mean filming in this case) fetishes of ‘abnormal’ or ‘abject’ love. But, at least in the brief clip here, we never get a full or satisfying look at abjection: we are blocked from the tangle of bodies (in pleasure? pain? death?) and the surrounding narrative by too close close-ups, fleeting pans, and gauzy fabric that frequently floats between the actors and camera view. This seems in keeping with Elizabeth’s descriptions of Smith’s life and art, in which he approached his audience with ambivalence if not outright hostility. I think though that it may not have been his audience that he was being hostile towards, but instead the social order that seeks to mandate what is given to be seen and what is cast outside the realm of visiblity. Perhaps we are not meant to gain a full view of anything here, but are instead meant to experience the difficulty of seeing anything outside of the status quo, the slipperiness of abjection.

  2. Elizabeth Wiet’s research is about the historical performances of Charles Ludlam and Jack Smith. Therefore as well as being critical and theoretical, her work is archival. I would like to focus on this archival work from the point of view of art history.

    Normal Love (1963) is one of the performances in which Wiet is interested. It is a lavish piece of cinematography that compresses a superabundance of photographic still life material into a series of heady shots. So much visual interest begs for taxonomy and cataloguing. By this I mean some scholarly act aimed to register and acknowledge the material excess of sign matter which Smith and his collaborators surely worked hard to produce.

    Vestiges of the performance may remain in themselves and I think the objects like clothes and properties which played in the film and which have that fetishistic aura of having touched the performer’s body could also be acknowledged by a curatorial effort to account for them. Even if they have disappeared.

    The anecdotes which make up a lot of Wiet’s sources could also be treated, amassed and stored like objects. Especially since, as Wiet explained, they are likely to be shunned by the more conservative part of Literary Studies. They are clearly knowingly performed speech acts and have the well-turned finish of objects.

    What this amounts to is the idea that an argument might be produced not through the movement from concept to concept but from object to object, from this image to that lipstick, to this mouth, to that anecdote, to the body of Jack Smith—and so on until the performance has undergone a kind of critical restoration in the work of the writer / archivist / curator.

  3. Last Tuesday, October 2, 2012, the Performance Studies Working Group gathered to discuss Elizabeth Wiet’s paper, “Jack Smith, Charles Ludlam, and the Objects of Camp.” Elizabeth is interested in using affect theory to expand the critical and theoretic uses of the term “camp.” She offers an historical investigation of two important New York artists from the late 1970s and their polarizing personalities. Focusing on Charles Ludlam and Jack Smith, Elizabeth frames her investigation as a return to the critical term and performance style of “camp.”

    Camp has been used recently to mean a queer sociality—a performative style that catalyzes affective community building among its audience members. As a case in point, Elizabeth marshals an archive of anecdotes that recall Charles Ludlam as an influential performer, but also a generous and far-reaching social facilitator. Ludlam’s camp style has been interpreted as not just an aesthetic choice, but as a means of social formation. Ludlam initiated new forms of queer community and intimacy among his audience members and among those who remember and reflect on his social importance.

    What happens when “camp” is the aesthetic mode of a performer who has a personal legacy of solitary artistic production, who was interested in disguise and thrived on confrontation rather than collaborative intimacy? Elizabeth is interested in investigating the productiveness of the antisocial. She has collected an important anecdotal archive about the quixotic, thorny, and fascinating performer Jack Smith whom Ludlam called “the daddy” of queer performance and Ron Vawter confessed “scared the shit” out of him with his unyielding and “powerful personality.” Smith, Elizabeth argues, used “camp” and other performative means of disguising himself, in order to ward off the sociality that is generally considered the intention of campy performance. By comparing Ludlam’s and Smith’s modes of performing, Elizabeth though wants to reconsider “camp” in terms of negative affect.

    The group had a productive conversation about how challenging it is to critically expand a critical term like “camp” when it is being used to describe an historically innovative style that carried certain social inflections in its moment and it is useful as a critical term to bring performers, like Ludlow and Smith, into conversation when their performative styles seem to have affectively contradicting consequences. Camp for Ludlow generated a shared cultural space for social intimacy. Camp for Smith provided a ground for cultural opposition which was not necessarily intimate or confessional. The challenge for discussing Smith’s career is to assess “camp” as a term that is not necessarily affirmative of community and a style that embodied negativity, refusal, and non-intimacy. By theorizing camp through negative affect, Elizabeth is positioned to refute those historical accounts that assume an unmarked or repressed personality can be recovered from underneath Smith’s prickly unsocialness. Instead, the baffled and sometimes hostile anecdotal accounts of Jack Smith’s unfriendly camp can be theorized as part of the history of camp that needs to be re-scrutinized, not explained away as a personality problem.

  4. Gemstones and Road Kill: A Note on Found Objects

    Lapidaries find gems but work them into tchotchkes—kitsch. Scavengers find carrion. Artists, including Jack Smith and Richard Montoya, find objects. In found art, as in kitsch and carrion, abjection is also big, at least since Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917). “If nobody wants it,” Smith offered, “come to me” (qtd. Wiet, 10/16).

    It did.

    Normal Love (1963), lit by sparklers, fetishizes “repurposed disgarded objects” (Morrison, 10/16), producing a “material excess of sign matter” (Cooper, 10/16). The Yale Rep’s American Night: The Ballad of Juan José, lit by Lekos, likewise repurposes discarded objects, producing a material excess of sign matter. For Montoya, the objects are human beings, or the signs of human beings, got up in ethnic drag. But for Montoya, love is truly “normal.” Only wholesome stereotypes of abjection—the fat señora, the nurturing Mammy, the picaro protagonist—every one of them focus-group tested through the regional repertory combine, need apply.


    Milan Kundera, defining kitsch as something quite different from abjection, has the answer. “Kitsch,” he said, “is the complete absence of shit.”

    If nobody wants it, kill it on the road.

    –Joe Roach

  5. Here’s Charles Ludlam, in Statue of Liberty drag, chanting, “If nobody wants it, come to me! Bring me your poor, your tired, your yearning to be free!” He presents his theater, then, a repository of repurposed discarded objects and “forbidden…conventions,” as both marginal and central to national identity—or maybe central precisely because it’s been cast out. This kind of success through failure seems to me to be the power of abjection, a kind of aesthetic experience that David Halperin calls a “tradition of secular erotic martyrdom” that endows a subject “with an inverted glamour, an antisocial prestige” and in turn opens up opportunities for public solidarity with other outcasts. The “paradox of abjection,” Halperin writes, is “the more people despise you, the less you owe them, and the freer and more powerful you are.” (What Do Gay Men Want? p. 95)

    As Elizabeth and commenters above point out, Smith and Ludlam harness this power in their theatrical works in part by repurposing discarded objects. There’s also something religious and ritual-like in Smith’s Normal Love (1963) which Elise picks up on in the comment above (“pagan wedding traditions of some far away tribe”) and it may be worth looking into the connections between “abnormal love,” religious traditions, and abjection. In Powers of Horror, Julia Kristeva calls art and religion two ways of purifying the abject, an aesthetic experience akin to poetic catharsis: “an impure process that protects from the abject only by dint of being immersed in it” (p 29).

    Gay artists’ reuse of found objects has a long history, as Joe Roach notes, but it might be worth looking at James Bidgood in particular—if only because he worked at the same time and in the same city as Smith and Ludlam. In his soft-core art pornography, Bidgood repurposed bits of trash and other found objects to transform his drab little one-rrom apartment into a glittery fantasy-scape, which could maybe be read as a purifying of abnormal love. Here’s a fantasy love scene made of tin foil, for instance: And here’s a clip from the film he’s for which he’s most well-known, Pink Narcissus, filmed in a style reminiscent of Jack Smith’s Normal Love:


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