Wildness – Complexity, Contradiction and Failure
Time is borrowed. It changes everything. Faces. Relationships. Neighbourhoods. There are not many like me left. And I wonder, what will become of me? How can I explain my legacy? (Movie “Wildness” by Wu Tsang, 2012, 00:00:23)
The very first sentences of the movie “Wildness” unfold its thematic territory. The movie addresses questions about inclusiveness, diversity, violence, safe spaces, utopias, heterotopias, immigration and gentrification and their protagonists and processes over time, in a colourful, direct and complicated manner. In this text, I will pick up the various issues raised and link them to the specific context of our screening of the film at Heldenbar.
The Silver Platter
“Wildness” is the first documentary of US-American transfeminine* artist, performer and filmmaker Wu Tsang. She grew up outside of Boston to an Anglo mother and a Chinese immigrant father. She studied Art at the Art Institute of Chicago and meanwhile her work has been exhibited in many museums and won various honours. Tsang is strongly influenced by her involvement in the queer, transgender and immigrant scene of Los Angeles. Her art is questioning gender norms and tracing historical continuities and breaks within the political dimensions of identity.
*Transfeminine is a term used to describe transgender people who were assigned male at birth, but identify as a gender closer to the feminine end of the gender spectrum. Transfeminine people may feel that they are not wholly women, but they consider themselves more feminine than masculine.
In “Wildness” the story of the Silver Platter, a historic bar located in the MacArthur Park area of Los Angeles, and its Latin immigrant and queer community is narrated. The bar, which opened in 1963, is the oldest gay bar in the area and attracted for years “men in Tejano boots and lather jackets” (Movie “Wildness” by Wu Tsang, 2012, 00:12:07). In the 1990s, after the original owner died, it slowly became a place where cross-dressers, mostly transgender Latinas, could meet and have a fun night. It was a dazzling place filled with bursting energy, shiny colours and performances, but also one of the few places, where Latin transgender individuals had the possibilities to build up a community and act freely without fear of discrimination or hatred.
One night Wu and his friends discovered the Silver Platter and decided to start a weekly club night called “Wildness” on Tuesday nights. After a few initial conflicts between the group of artists around Wu and the transgender Latinas, who were frightened of losing their attention and space, they became part of the community and achieved to enrich and not replace each other. But as “Wildness” became a remarkable success and attracted huge crowds of “university students, American, white … a different class of person,” as one Silver Platter regular described them, its status as a safe space was threatened. The Wildness crew wanted to position themselves clearly on the side of the original clientele of the Silver Platter, but their efforts to prevent publicity failed. Through media attention in magazines like the LA Weekly or on TV in the “Daily Freak Show” the bar became a target and began to draw in, in the eyes of Wu, more and more the “wrong people”. In addition, outside of the Silver Platter the tension was intensifying as the hunt and deportation of undocumented immigrants was growing. The Latin immigrants were worrying about keeping their home and surviving in general, while they knew that they had no assistance from any larger authority than their own community and no other haven than the Silver Platter. The “Wildness” group set up a free legal clinic next to the Silver Platter to support the transgender and immigrant community.
After the sudden death of the owner and disputes over his will, everything started to fall apart. “Wildness” had to stop, the legal clinic got closed and the Silver Platter returned to its previous state, before the craziness of wildness happened. Tuesdays were again normal and quiet Tuesdays.
A Silver Bulletproof Vest?
Can the Silver Platter be described as a Safe Space? First of all, the notion of Safe Space was originally closely related to the LGBT community in an educational context. It is a place intended to be free of bias, conflict, criticism, or potentially threatening actions, ideas, or conversations. The term has been extended to refer to an autonomous space for marginalized individuals to gather to verbalize their experiences with marginalization.
As transgender and Latin immigrants, the regulars of the Silver Platter without doubt are considered one of the most marginalized groups. The historical experience of queer populations in physical spaces is one of a struggle for tolerance. They were constrained to peripheral sex districts (Petra L. Doan, Harrison Higgins, 2011, p. 8). The Silver Platter is the only gay bar in the area close the Latino community. Taking space in the middle of their own neighbourhood, close to their homes, is emotionally essential, but also serves as a sign for everyone else. Further the proximity is an important factor, as it is dangerous on the streets and they can easily become a target, be it by discriminating people or by the police. In the interviews, the Silver Platter is described as a living room for the transgender community. They can relax, talk to someone familiar and just be who they are – out of sight of disapproving gazes.
At first glance, it seems that the Silver Platter is such a Safe Space. But to answer this question is not as easy as it might seem. Nightlife in general is a vital space for queer communities, but it raises questions about how the space was created, who belongs there, who is excluded and which economies had shaped it. The concept of a Safe Space implies a certain homogeneity and consensus of its users. Even if we like to classify the regulars in certain labels, the ideologies, desires or fears are still complex and layered. As much they have in common, as different they are. They are still individuals and “not everything is family here, not everything is rosy. It’s like a game of chess…we are all at play here, because we are all a part of it” (Movie “Wildness” by Wu Tsang, 2012, 00:13:36). Therefore, in my opinion the idea of a Safe Space in which there are no conflicts or disagreements is impossible. However, this does not mean that these places have no importance. They offer opportunities to get in touch with people with similar experiences, to get the feeling of being understood, but also to organize themselves to achieve visibility, rights and value.
The issue of homogeneity and inclusiveness also arises in the film as the group around the Wildness Party invades the Silver Platter. Who decides who is allowed in? Does the Wildness crew already threaten the sanctuary? Or not until the party attracted many new people with different origins, gender identities, class and education levels? Who determines this and for how long? There are no easy answers to those questions and the movie of Tsang neither tries to answer them, but on contrary attempts to challenge the popular notions and labels by crashing them with the complexity, contradiction and multidimensionality of human experiences.
The expression of complexity is also reinforced by the narrative style and stylistic methods. The film shows many different scenes and excerpts from interviews with regular visitors of the Silver Platter, each with their own perspective. It is not trying to make a singular statement out of it. Further, unlike already mentioned, it is not really a documentary in the classical sense, but rather best described as a magical-realist documentary. The Silver Platter is personified as a character and guides us through the story with its own thoughts, hopes and fears. Through this shift in narration, the obligation of a documentary to depict the truth was skilfully circumvented. The voice of the bar, mysteriously whispering in Spanish, is a medium to create a mythology, to make clear, that the movie never can be the reality of the women of the bar nor a transgender and/or immigrant experience in general. The narrative structure was also influenced by the question of responsibility, as documentaries are an exploitative medium, because they use and expose people’s life to exist. Therefore Wu Tsang is probably also an active part of the film, to make herself vulnerable as well, to become a target herself.
In summary, it can be said that the Silver Platter possesses certain qualities of a Safe Space, but is far more heterogeneous and contradictory than its theoretical definition. But this is exactly what creates the power to empower and enrich each other, and finally to grow into a single and wild community that is authentic and ready to fail.
In Search of the Spirit
The discussion and especially the criticism of Safe Spaces repeatedly lead to terms such as utopian and unrealistic. But could the concept of heterotopia describe Safe Spaces or the Silver Platter in particular better?
The concept of heterotopia originates from French philosopher Michel Foucault. He distinguished two special arrangements – utopias and heterotopias. Utopias are arrangements, which have no real space and that have a general relationship of direct or inverse analogy with the real space of society. They represent society itself brought to perfection, or its reverse, which would then be called dystopia. But in any case utopias or dystopias are spaces that are fundamentally unreal.
Heterotopias on the other hand, literally “other places”, are spaces that are real and effective, which are outlined in the institution of society, but constitute a sort of counter-arrangement or effectively realized utopia, in which all the real arrangements that can be found within society, are at the same time represented, challenged and overturned. It is a sort of place that lies outside all places and yet is actually localizable. Foucault defined six principles for heterotopias:
- There is not a single culture in the world that is not made up of heterotopias.
- Over the course of its history, a society may take an existing heterotopia and make it function in a very different way (example: cemetery).
- The heterotopia has the power of juxtaposing in a single real place different spaces and locations that are incompatible with each other (example: theatre).
- Heterotopias are linked for the most part to bits and pieces of time (example: museum).
- Heterotopias always presuppose a system of opening and closing that isolates them and makes them penetrable at one and the same time (example: prison).
- Heterotopias have, in relation to the rest of space, a function that takes place between two opposite poles, between the real and the illusory.
The Silver Platter is definitely a place where the real arrangements of society are represented, challenged and overturned. Further, by looking at these principles of heterotopias, it seems to fulfil several of them. The bar regulates its system of opening and closing through an entrance door, as well as through the selection of the bouncer, paying an entry fee and the action of getting a stamp. The stage and performances bring different spaces at the same time into the bar – like the theatre does. Additionally it also functions as a place between the real and the illusory. It creates a space of illusion, which yet exposes all the real spaces as more illusory. The fact that it needs a space where transgender people can express themselves, shows the illusion of the real arrangements of society and turns the bar into a “realer” space. In the “normal” or “everyday” space, the truth must be suppressed and hidden.
But does this heterotopic space change after Wildness takes hold?
Primarily the question is whether a heterotopia arises through its space, the people inhabiting it or both at the same time. First and foremost, it is about spatially defined places, where, however, behaviour is ritualized, which of course does not work without people. Whether space determines behaviour or people acquire space for their behaviour is not clear, but also of secondary significance. In order to determine a heterotopia, we can simply look at whether the behaviour, deviating from the norm, is ritualized in the Silver Platter. Thus although the party changes the users of the space and the theme of the performances to a certain extent, it nevertheless remains a space in which the norms and representations are changed and reinvented. Hence it remains a heterotopia with slightly different characteristics.
After defining the Silver Platter as a heterotopia, literally as an “other place”, we have to consider the limitations of this term. In addition to its homogenizing tendencies of the “other,” it also excludes all non-Western and not white people. But more interesting for us, as Mary McLeod points out in “Everyday and other Places”, is that the traditional areas of women and children are excluded. Women are at best indirectly mentioned as sex object in brothels or motels. Further Foucault also disregards the house, and in general most everyday spaces, as a heterotopia, because it is a “place to rest”. But women and children have found not only oppression but also some degree of comfort, security, autonomy and even freedom in those everyday spaces (Mary McLeod, 1996, p. 10). Opposed to that exists the concept of “everyday life”, which was developed by French philosopher Henri Lefebvre and shortly afterwards by the cultural theorist Michel de Certeau. They not only analysed the power and control mechanisms, but also the freedoms and diversity within everyday life. In this context they see consumption not only as a negative force. Lefebvre argues that consumption is a demon and liberator of women, as it is offering an arena of action that grants entry and power in the public sphere. “Otherness” lays here within everyday life and thus allows to recognize and talk about many more actors and spaces. The emphasis is more populist, less avant-garde than in the concept of heterotopia (Mary McLeod, 1996, p. 14).
Between Champs Élysées and Danger
Another topic, which was already implied in the first sentence, is the transformation of the neighbourhood. The Silver Platter declares that not many like it are left and glances fearfully at the future.
The bar is located in the MacArthur Park area, which in the 1920ies was known as the “Champs Élysées” of Los Angeles. But the economy collapsed through the decades. In the seventies and eighties the landscape transformed again by an influx of Latin American immigrants and political refugees and became a neighbourhood whose name has been synonymous with danger. MacArthur Park is still a large enclave for immigrants and most residents identify as Latino. But in these times the area is undergoing what the city calls “revitalization” to cover up the problematic area with a layer of new wealth. While this transition is happening, the rent stays cheap (Movie “Wildness” by Wu Tsang, 2012, 00:07:09). But the future of spaces like the Silver Platter is threatened.
The transformation of the neighbourhood is a process of gentrification and the consequences of gentrification always hit the already marginalized groups. They are the so-called urban pioneers who, for reasons of money, oppression and/or the urge for self-realization, settle down in decayed and unpopular – hence cheap – areas. The pioneers start to transform the area, so that more and more like-minded people settle there. It forms a kind of community, which is often bubbling over with creativity and turns into an insider tip. This, in turn, attracts other non-marginalized groups who value nonconformity but also change the neighbourhood by their presence. The group around Wildness and the crowd that attracted the party could be considered in this context. As the Silver Platter says: “Wildness felt like opening the doors of my house and having everyone come inside“ (Movie “Wildness” by Wu Tsang, 2012, 00:31:35). The creativity and renovations created by necessity start to be exploited economically through promotion and branding for consumption. The areas will inevitably be integrated and assimilated into the mainstream urban economy. The rents start to rise steeply, the competition for commercial space intensifies and the property values are rising until the character of the neighbourhood gets ultimately destroyed and the urban pioneers are getting suppressed once again.
By concentrating the marginalized groups, in our case immigrants of Central and South America, the whole neighbourhood becomes kind of a Safe Space. They can organize and thus become politically active. The same applies for the Silver Platter, which can also be a place for political organization for the otherwise invisible Latino transgender community. One example of the movie was the establishment of the legal clinic. So the importance of a physical space in which the immigrant and/or transgender community can gather should not be underestimated.
In the Atlanta Casa Study of Petra L. Doan and Harrison Higgins, they show that each planning document discussing areas with significant concentrations of LGBT people, failed to make any reference to the contributions they made to the neighbourhoods. The new zoning and revitalization in Atlanta manifested heteronormative social norms. The LGBT community was repressed and dispersed; they almost had to “recloset” themselves. Many interviewed LGBT individuals would prefer to be concentrated in the same neighbourhood for reasons of safety, comfort, community building and to be part of something bigger.
Architects and city planners must therefore become aware of the consequences of re-zoning and upgrading. They need to recognize the value, even of only a single bar such as the Silver Platter, and keep that in mind in their master plans.
Our seminar “Making Difference – Architectures of Gender” organised a screening of the movie “Wildness” at Heldenbar in Zurich. The Heldenbar is the longest running regular gay event in Zurich and takes place in the space of the Provitreff, which is located in Kreis 5. In 1984, during the rebuilding of the youth house Dynamo, the rooms became a provisional meeting place. Since then, the self-governing, non-subsidized cultural space and meeting place “Provitreff” exists – this name has been maintained until today. The venue offers space and the possibility of expression to a variety of communities, which can organize events there. The non-profit-oriented events in the fields of art, crafts, literature, music, theatre, dance, bodywork, sports and so on promote the exchange and encounter of different cultural workers and groups. The concept of Provitreff lives from the cooperation of active users, gives them responsibility and enables participation. As the association Provitreff is non-profit, the users of the rooms have to transfer 75% of the profits from events to cultural or social project and pay 25% into the solidarity fund.
Between the Heldenbar, respectively the Provitreff, and the Silver Platter are some parallels. On the one hand, it is also located in an area that is undergoing a wave of gentrification. On the other hand, the Heldenbar is an event, which unites queer individuals. Unlike the Silver Platter, the Provitreff is explicitly open to everyone. It simply provides space that can be filled with all sorts of cultures, creativity and ideas. It is a kind of theatre stage, where every day a different world can be created. Thus the Provitreff could be characterized as a heterotopia as well.
And if Wildness has taught us something, then that the complexity and contradiction, the break-up of all categories and labels and the multidimensionality of real life are necessary to keep a place like the Silver Platter or the Provitreff alive, even if or exactly for that reason, the risk of failure arises. Because failure produces possibilities to constantly renegotiate and regenerate the collective identity.
Wu Tsang (dir), Wildness (2012), 74 min.
Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias”,Architecture /Mouvement/ Continuité, no. 5 (October, 1984),trans. by Jay Miskowiec, 46–49, [fi rst: 1967].
Mary McLeod, “Everyday and ‘Other’ Spaces”, in: Debra Coleman, Elizabeth Danze and Carol Henderson (eds), Architecture and Feminism (Yale Publications on Architecture),(New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1996), 1–37.
Petra L. Doan and Harrison Higgins, “The Demise of Queer Space? Resurgent Gentrifi cation and the Assimilation of LGBT Neighborhoods”, Journal of Planning Education and Research, vol. 31, no. 1 (March 2011), 6–25.
Fred Moten, “Some Extrasubtitles for Wildness”, in: Raphael Gygax, Heike Munder, Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst Zürich, et al. (eds), Wu Tsang – not in my language (Köln: König, 2015), 160–162, [exh. cat.].