G-chatting with John Greyson

G-chatting with John Greyson

“John [Greyson] belongs to a category of gay and lesbian artist that I call “credible.” By this I mean that they have consistently produced artistically engaged work with authentic queer content and that they treat other openly gay thinkers and artists with a recognition and respect denied to them by the straight world. Given how many queer artists pander to mainstream approval by closeting, watering down, or coding their content—or who turn away from the community at the first sign of mainstream recognition—those who have regularly chosen truth over power are people I take very seriously. The professional price one pays for authentic LGBT subject matter is life changing. So when these individuals take a stand, I pay attention.”- Sarah Schulman, Israel/Palestine and the Queer International

Greyson is an innovator of new queer cinema (Urinal, 1988; Zero Patience, 1993; Lilies, 1996 – to name a few) a video artist, scholar and profoundly committed activist.  He just debuted a new public artwork, Murder in Passing, a whodunit that unfolds in minute-long segments on subway platforms in Toronto between January 7th-March 1st.

I delved into his oeuvre after stumbling upon a video of the presentation that he gave alongside Judith Butler and Jasbir Puar at Israel Aparthied Week 2011. His work is deeply humbling and inspiring; a younger generation of queer artists will benefit greatly from exploring his prolific explorations of form and resistance.

Martabel Wasserman: I want to start with a quote from Murder in Passing (MIP) that really struck me. “Citizens flee the pressures of agency.” Can you talk about that idea in relation to your work on the concept of solidarity and how that plays out in this project?

John Greyson: Sure! One of the threads in MIP is greenwashing, the use of green bandaids to hide the festering sores of corporate/government environmental carnage in Canada. It’s like pinkwashing, how the Israeli state uses pink (or rainbow) bandaids to hide the sins of apartheid. In these instances and in MIP, Gramsci’s theory of hegemony is a useful way to theorize why we participate in ruling projects − privileging cars over bikes and subways or a ‘liberal’ apartheid state over the rights of Palestinian citizens. Agency by definition is a big responsibility  –  a lot of hard and often thankless work! –  and both Big Oil and Israel’s defenders make it much easier for us to just bury our heads in the sand.


In MIP it was also a way to play around the definition of ‘fugue’ — which means both ‘flee’ and ‘chase’ – and I have trans-punk Jayne County chasing after fleece clad bike couriers fleeing.

MW:  Let’s talk about the idea of “cultural activism.” Given that we are removed in many ways from the situation of Israeli apartheid (from our respective Canadian and American locations), how do we create forms of solidarity?

JG: Many in our North American context, from Alice Walker to the Algonquin Chief Bob Lovelace, are adept at reminding us how the Israeli model of apartheid wasn’t just inherited from South Africa. It took many elements from US segregation, or Canada’s reserve system. I think as a movement we’ve made real progress in the past 5 years doing critical work which identifies the similarities AND the differences in critical and political terms.

I think it’s essential to locate why Israeli apartheid is OUR business.  For me it’s two fold: as a queer activist, I have to speak up when a state like Israel uses gay identity to justify oppression and as a Canadian, when my state declares that it’s now BFF’s with Israel and it’s policies.

MW: Yes, my country is also BFFs with Israel. What I really appreciated about Sarah Schulman’s book  is how honestly she narrates her experience of not thinking or knowing much about the issue. That is an experience I related to and I found her vulnerability to be radical.

JG: Sarah’s book is a fabulous (and rare) journey in terms of capturing the experiential journey of solidarity – invaluable. Our Prime Minister Stephen Harper thinks he’s the BIGGEST BFF ever − he’s truly mad! 

MW: In MIP you address complex and controversial issues − from public transit to transphobia to Transcanada – in a very short and very public forum. Did you come up against any silencing or censoring forces in this particular project? 

JG: Sharon at Art4Commuters who commissioned MIP deserves the credit for clever stick handling. She was the brilliant liaison between me and the owners of the transit screens (a network of 300 screens on the subway platforms owned by Pattison). Pattison also deserves credit for giving us all that airtime (really, six figures worth of ad time!).

The Toronto Transit Authority made us change the name from Murder in Transit because it was too close to theirs. So Sharon came up with Murder in Passing, which I’ve come to like better. Sometimes censors help you make better art!

MW: That’s what Richard Meyers calls “The Jesse Helms Theory of Art.”

JG: Jesse and Stephen – true love!

MIP was really a great ride. We purposely steered a path away from confrontation, trying to be more seductive. Really, it’s quite amazing when you step back and think about a million people per day seeing a trans story evolve on those screens  – and not blinking.

MW: It blows my mind how many people have now experienced a mini opera about gender performativity and Judith Butler. Which gets to my next question about how you remix culture. I love how you bring together “high” and “low” culture, particularly through your use of pop music.

Can you talk about how you negotiate (so brilliantly!) the affect of pop and queer fandom with your subject matter, be it AIDS or apartheid?

JG: Sometimes it’s about keeping people in the room − using the sugar lure of pop to keep audiences listening – especially when the form/content are challenging. It also becomes about the act of song itself − how content is transformed when it’s sung − and how both humor and melodrama are very well served by the act of song. Finally, I think there’s the perverse camp fact that both pop music and opera are wildly ‘inappropriate’ forms to use to address urgent social issues like AIDS or war or apartheid.

MW: That has been an effective strategy for your work with BDS.

JG: BDS has really embraced flash mob interventions − very often set to the tunes of Lady Gaga − in cities across North America. You see women (it is mostly women) in their sixties, lip-synching and doing the cat moves out front of Aroma Cafe locations.

MW: And then they go viral. Which impacts how we perform our politics.  There are a lot of similarities to how ACT UP caught media attention but I think we are still in the process of figuring out the differences.

JG: The huge difference is the ubiquity of social media, which replaced an earlier generation’s reliance on VHS cassettes sent through the mail. Seeing Jim Hubbard’s film United in Anger brought back so many searing memories.

For me, just about every act/gesture of solidarity has irony built into it: the ironies of speaking out without having access to mainstream/dominant outlets, the ironies of preaching to the choir, the ironies of earnestness. Foregrounding some of these ironies becomes a necessary ‘camp’ gesture.

MW: Yes! I love that idea. It grants permission. Camp gives us lot of cultural agency that is hard to find elsewhere.

JG: I think movements gain ground when they remember to see their efforts ironically − self-critically − via the use of “quotation marks.”

MW: Quotation is also about sampling, repeating and remixing – which helps alleviate the burden of individuality in art making.

JG: Camp’s classic definition was a survival stance, a description of a how to survive the closet with a soupcon of integrity. So it wasn’t activist − but definitely an act of resistance. Today − when the Queen has come out for gay rights (!) and homonormalization is the norm (and homonationalism) – I think camp can be used as our Trojan Horse. It’s a way of smuggling radical and solidarity politics back into the closed fortress of the gay mainstream.

MW: I love that idea too! It is making me think also about how different forms of activism – cultural and bodies in the street ­­– are related. I know that is a huge topic and you have to run soon, but I just want to say I really appreciate how your practice brings them together.

JG: I think that so much of what we now experience as the ‘street’ – e.g. the exchanges of our neighbors and colleagues and communities – are now mediated by social media – Sure we may still gather for a demo but the crucial and exuberant ‘street culture’ is not on the street but in our computers and on our phones.

MW: Thank you so much for chatting with me today. And for all of the inspiring work you do.

JG: This was fun!