Bunny Love performs in EXPOSED, a documentary produced and directed by Beth B
After graduating from the School of Visual Arts in the 1970s, Art Practice faculty member Beth B was active in the New York underground scene as a filmmaker and installation artist. After subsequent years working in television, she’s returned to her roots with her new documentary, EXPOSED, an in-depth look at the lives and work of eight of New York city’s most groundbreaking burlesque performers. Beth B sat down with AP staff member Allison Hewitt Ward to discuss the making of the documentary, and the breaking down of boundaries in both art and culture at large.
On Monday, March 3 Beth B will be joined by the stars of EXPOSED for a screening of the film at the Museum of Modern Art. On March 13, EXPOSED begins a theatrical run at the IFC Center, NYC. Starring Bambi the Mermaid, Bunny Love, Dirty Martini, Julie Atlas Muz, Mat Fraser, Rose Wood, Tigger!, World Famous *BOB* and James Habacker.
AHW: It seems like a lot of your work has dealt with marginal or liminal subjectivities. What drew you to burlesque performers as the subject of your new documentary?
BB: I worked in independent film and in the fine arts for most of my career and at a certain point I had to figure out how to actually survive financially as an artist, so I started to work in television. I kind of took a hiatus from fine arts and independent filmmaking and I worked as a producer and director for cable television for about eight years . It was a whole different world for me, one that I could learn a lot in, but after eight years I felt like my heart was breaking. It was becoming very painful to put so much energy into these documentary programs where artistic compromises had to be made ongoingly. I needed to get back to my roots in filmmaking and art making where I could be in control…ultimately, it’s all about control. I started to go to some clubs with the idea of doing something really different on my own terms without being told to cut this, change the voiceover, re-write this.
When I started to go to some of the burlesque clubs, I was mesmerized by the performers on stage. These were performers who were using the vehicle of burlesque to address certain social, political and gender issues. After filming many hours in the clubs, I started to focus on eight performers who were doing groundbreaking work that harked back to the work of Karen Finley and Robert Mapplethorpe. I hadn’t seen people pushing boundaries in this way for some time—I wanted to make a film that was as uncensored as the performance artists I saw on stage, so it was really giving the performance artists kind of a stage within the film to express themselves without judgment or censorship or manipulation. But of course in film there always is manipulation. When I start editing or what angle I’m filming them at, there’s always manipulation in that regard, but I felt like I was not coming in there with judgment about what they were doing, or endorsing what they were doing, even, but rather, offering it up for thought and query.
James Habacker at Mat Fraser
AHW: You shot much of this film by yourself without a crew. Did that affect what you were able to capture and offer up in the film?
BB: For the first few months I worked with a wonderful cameraman, Dan Karlok, but the performers were really hesitant about letting me film backstage with any kind of crew. I talked to one of the performers and she said, “You know, Beth, I think you need to just do it yourself and get a really small camera—no crew.” That really brought me back to my days of super 8 filmmaking when all I had was a little box camera, and I realized that I had to return full circle to my roots in guerilla filmmaking. I basically did everything myself. It worked like a charm and the performers graciously invited me backstage and into situations where they had previously been reticent to open the door.
We started filming in SD and some of the footage is so pixelated that I cringe when I see it, but in a sense, it’s a historical document. It’s documenting a time and a place in NY. It’s back to guerilla filmmaking as I experienced it when I first made films with super 8 film. Now, in the distribution process, instead of carrying my super 8 projector around, I’m traveling with the film, and often with one of the performers, to do a live presentation. We’re framing it as an event. We’ve done this a lot in Europe where we’ve brought the film to a cinema or to a film festival and had live performance as well as Q&A with the audience. EXPOSED is about inclusivity vs. exclusivity. These performer want to seduce, humor, entertain and then talk about important social, political and gender issues. It’s a transcendent experience. The film is about the interchange between the performers and the audience. In the film you rarely see a reaction shot from the club audience. This is a deliberate choice. I don’t want there to be anyone mediating that direct experience between the performer and the cinema audience.
AHW: So you’re really positioning the audience as the viewers of the performance in the club.
BB: Yes. And so in a way, I’m trying to transport the cinema audience into that framework, into the context of the club, so that we’re getting their reactions as opposed to seeing the reactions of the audience members who were in the club. And even the way I chose to film it, the point of view is very straight on, just inches from the stage, often from one angle, as though you are intimately front and center at the foot of the stage.
AHW: There’s none of those stand-up show cuts to the person laughing in the front row.
BB: Exactly. So that was a very critical choice for me in terms of the shooting of EXPOSED and in the editing. Some people get very disturbed by that. I had one producer who kept saying, “but you need audience shots!” and I said, “No! I don’t want audience shots.” Because it’s a removal. It distances the audience from the experience.
AHW: It makes it all the more mediated.
AHW: Something that Julie Atlas Muz, one of the featured performers, talked about was using burlesque to disrupt the male gaze, an effect you also seem to accomplish in the film. It doesn’t feel voyeuristic to me.
BB: To me, what these performers are doing is not even sexual in a sense.
AHW: It was not titillating.
BB: It’s not about that, just as when Karen Finley performed, she was in the nude, but it wasn’t for the sake of titillating the audience. Burlesque does have this long tradition that has been meant for the male gaze. These performers that I chose are really recasting that point of view. I feel like these performers are looking to blur gender lines, to question our limits of sexuality and sensuality. Whatever the gender of the audience is doesn’t matter, because it’s the performer’s point of view. They’re not doing it to please, or to titillate…
AHW: … to tease
BB: …tease. That’s not the purpose. There’s humor. A lot of it is very comedic. You do not see comedy in traditional strip clubs, you know, you’d get thrown out if you were doing something comic in a strip club, so I think the element of comedy is really important in regards to these performers’ personas. They give a little wink and a nod to the audience. Again, it’s more inclusive than exclusive. The performers want to include the audience, they actually physically go out into the audience, they sometimes spit on the audience, and a lot of that has to do with sort of a desire to have the audience look at their own individual boundaries, like how far is too far? Rose Wood addresses this very specifically in her work and that’s what she’s constantly doing: wanting the audience to question.
AHW: One of the things that I noticed was how much they talked about their work in the context of liberation and freedom. Tigger! talked about how liberating it was to shed certain aspects of ‘male’ normativity.
BB: Right, his reference to “ridicuous-looking genitals.”
AHW: More often when we think about gender norms we think about the constraints that they place on women. But he addressed the liberation of shedding male gender norms in performance.
BB: Many, if not all of the performers are talking about liberation of the mind. So it’s not just the body, it’s how we think about the body, nudity, how comfortable are we with our nakedness and others’ nakedness and that’s why I included footage of Tigger! in the audience with an erection. People may think it was gratuitous for me to put that in, but that was really important, for us to all question why our sexuality is still so taboo, why the orgasm or an erection is still taboo…unless it’s “pornography”. Who has written these rules of appropriateness? I think at one time in history we were so much freer with our bodies.
Julie Atlas Muz
AHW: Julie Atlas Muz, talked about taking people back to the garden of Eden, before the time when Eve ate the apple
BB: Yeah, also in terms of role-playing. And I think that’s a really powerful and liberating thing to see in the film. Some of the characters are inhabiting different gender roles and allowing themselves to be subservient in a way that we are perhaps not used to, others being more dominant. You know, Mat Frazier and Julie, they have a wonderful love story in the film and there’s a truly kind of profound moment in the performance with the ukulele where Mat’s arms are actually Julie’s arms, and his fingers are actually her fingers, and there’s a true sense of vulnerability in that piece. It strips away that hierarchy of the male over the female and he allows himself to be so vulnerable and dependent, letting the female be his voice, because they use their bodies as their voice.
There are moments like that in the film that are genuinely startling and touching and heartbreaking. I find some of the stories in the film to be so honest and brave. These are courageous performers who allow us, even invite us to accept ourselves, warts and all, by revealing their own flaws and vulnerability.
AHW: In your previous work you’ve often defied medium specificity and crossed boundaries between art disciplines: you’ve done multimedia installations, for example, and your screenings of EXPOSED have included live performances. A lot of the performers in EXPOSED are dealing with normativity and disintegrating the boundaries between genders. There seems to be a correlation between the way your work pokes at boundaries between media and these performances that poke at the boundaries delineated by gender.
BB: I think that’s definitely true. My entire career has been about breaking down the boundaries between art disciplines. I guess I am utterly and forever attracted to those people who are breaking down boundaries in whatever world they are operating in, whatever milieu or medium or workplace. I’ve always been attracted to the outsider, those breaking down the hierarchy or the traditional norms and the rules, not just for the sake of going against the rules. I think that true artistic expression is about finding one’s own boundaries and one’s own set of rules and not adhering to the norms. To me that’s been the most important part of my creative process. It’s also been a problem. I have problems with boundaries in many aspects of my life because there’s a part of me that doesn’t feel that we should have boundaries, even though I know that we have to have boundaries, because otherwise we’d all possibly be murdering each other.
I think that there is a correlation between the performers’ limitless proclamation to break our boundaries down and my art practice and my process. I start with the content. What is the content? What is the idea? To me, that’s the most important thing. That then dictates what form it’s going to take. Do I make a film, do I create a multi-media installation, do I make a painting, do I create a sculpture? And what is the context? Do I show it in a gallery, is it for a museum, is it to be shown in a penitentiary, is it up on a screen in a cinema, or is it in a club? So I think that all those considerations definitely define how a piece is seen and you can use those different possibilities to, again, break down peoples’ not just boundaries but perceptions, perspectives and expectations. That’s been one of the problems with EXPOSED, is that people hear burlesque and they have expectations about what burlesque is. And what this film is really doing is breaking down those expectations and boundaries and creating a whole new way of expressing oneself with the body that has long historical connections with performance art, but creates in a sense its own language, a new language.
AHW: Your film highlights a form of performance art that’s not often seen in traditional art world institutions. Do you think that screening it at MoMA in that art world context might serve to bring that type of burlesque performance into traditional institutions? Is that even a desirable thing?
BB: I think that some of the burlesque performers are already performing in that context. I guess that it really has again to do with breaking down these categories. In these aspects of our lives we’re so defined by the categories. I am a painter, I am a sculptor, I am a multimedia artist, I am a filmmaker, I’m a performance artist, I’m a burlesque performer. I consider myself to be a creator first. I think that the more that those delineations can be blurred, if those lines can become more disintegrated, it would create a forum to view art in a much more inclusive and interactive way. In a weird way it harks back to when I just started to become an artist in New York City after I graduated from SVA. I ended up working with a large group of artists who were not just artists. They were filmmakers, actors, painters, sculptors, musicians, you know, a huge scene of disenfranchised misfits. The organization that we started was called Collaborative Projects, Inc. and the whole concept of artmaking was to be all-inclusive and with the focus on content, not structure and form. It wasn’t artists working in one medium, it was about creativity.
That, ultimately, is where my desire resides today in terms of my own art practice. It echoes the desires and attitudes of me in my twenties–not to be defined and not to be categorized because once you’re in that box, it prevents true innovation. The performers in EXPOSED are working to break away from these things that bind us, whether it’s binding our bodies or our minds, the way that we think about gender specification, whether it’s burlesque, whether it’s performance art, whether it’s economics. I think it’s embedded in all of their performances. They’re really questioning the system and conventions that we live with, and it questions what is acceptable within the norms of society. In a sense it’s asking to accept everything and transcend our limitations.
David Ross, chair of the Art Practice department talks with Beth B, Dirty Martini and Dr. Lucky in a post-screening Q&A at the Beacon Film Society.