Forbidden Love

Jess Barbagallo on Sebastián Castro Niculescu's Tired Selena

Sebastián Castro Niculescu, Tired Selena, 2019. Projected photograph, Bureau of General Services—Queer Division, New York, June 26, 2019.

ON THE SECOND FLOOR of the LGBT Center on West Thirteenth Street, at the Bureau of General Services—Queer Division, Sebastián Castro Niculescu stands in teacherly repose next to a large screen. An academic goth of indeterminate age, she begins to introduce her performance, Tired Selena, by gently bemoaning the heat of the room. She gives us permission to do what we must to survive our enclosure and assures the crowd that she herself will only get shinier over the course of the next hour. Appreciative titters travel over the small audience that has gathered here, although I’m doubtful anyone will actually take their shirt off. This is a lecture, after all—one, it is explained to us eventually, only produced after Niculescu’s three avenues of scholarly inquiry failed to culminate in the mythic performance video of the artist’s dreams. The blurb for her projected straight-to-Tumblr instant classic encompasses a nicely alliterative mix of aesthetic goals: “camp, . . . criticality, and . . . quality hip vibrations,” all set to the singer Selena’s 1994 “Amor Prohibido,” an infectiously romantic Romeo and Juliet–styled track about loving across class lines. The “facts” or objects of Niculescu’s case study, which structure the framework for her talk, are helpfully laid out early in the evening for us like a crypto-thesis; I’m able to quote from a sturdy broadside curator Jeanne Vaccaro handed me after the show as we chatted about late-July Fire Island goals:

Sally’s was a trans bar on 43rd St in Midtown New York City from 1986 to 1992.
Selena Quintanilla’s 1995 Houston Astrodome performance was her last.
Ladylike was a transvestite and transsexual magazine circulated on the East Coast from 1987 to 2007.

Imbued with a palpable melancholy, this smart and sad constellation of citations informs Niculescu’s logic of paralysis that yields a failure-to-just-make-one-fucking-piece-of-video-art. This threnody of lost heroes is so familiar, I, too, feel stuck in its repetitive refrain; I walk through the Bureau’s doors already knowing something about the work that has not been made, the reasons why work does not get made, the grief of coming up short in this culture if you are not normatively beautiful, and also the rage that an idiosyncratic beauty can inspire. Considering these landmarks, I find myself excited to learn from Niculescu, even as I resist the subdued coyness of her circular explication. How much exegesis can really be performed on a phantom artwork? A personal problem, perhaps: I’ve been made jaded by the saturation of so many panels and events dipping into the buried archives of forgotten queers. I’m left wanting pedagogy to morph into theatrical ecstasy rather than affirm a sinking feeling that I—locked as I am in the neoliberal order’s vise grip by the pliers of student debt and gig-based freelancing—will never achieve the forthright bravery of those who came before me. No wonder we’re all just scheming about how quickly we can get to Cherry Grove.

But the beach must wait.

Sebastián Castro Niculescu, Tired Selena, 2019. Performance view, Bureau of General Services—Queer Division, New York, June 26, 2019. Photo: Anna Keyes.

Actually, I find it quite pleasant in this little bookstore/community space. We’re under a high ceiling, surrounded by all kinds of heartening and familiar queer ephemera—banners, buttons, flyers, and photographs now synonymous with Gay Liberation. These artifacts are on view in the group show “Y’all Better Quiet Down,” organized by Vaccaro and Nelson Santos. (Niculescu’s performance is a part of the exhibition.) The show’s title is taken from trans activist Sylvia Rivera’s now-famous speech at the 1973 Christopher Street Liberation Day Rally in Washington Square Park, during which she mounted the stage, shouting down hecklers while calling attention to the fissures in her community. Why, she asked her raucous and largely hostile audience, was no one doing “a goddam thing” to help “your gay brothers and your gay sisters in jail”? Rivera’s question remains relevant and indicting to this day: As marginalized subjects gain civil rights, who continues to be left behind? And it’s good to listen to Rivera say it too, the words gay and jail, her naming of heterosexual men—she literally spits the phrase, you can watch this on YouTube—who prey upon homosexuals in shelters. There is an urgency to her plainspeak, alien to the scrubbed language that accompanies much structural analysis and abandoned by an assimilationism less interested in the sloppy wonders of self-determination than in the refinement of its subjects. Bulldagger is never a box I’ve been offered to check at the clinic, while the more readily available trans man (signaling “progress”) often leaves me with the feeling that I am a collection of pixels comprising a body, best left to operate in a simulation of reality sculpted by testo-fantasies. If only I could be such a superhero! Then again, do I prefer the “real” world where my friend and I get called “tacos” while walking home from a dyke party in Bushwick? It’s the eve of Pride, and while tacos bring me pleasure, I cannot say that they, as a moniker, fortify my sense of dignity.

Language can do more than affirm or dismiss subjects. It can also activate potentials that have been culturally jettisoned in the name of legibility, and do the work of resuscitating those delicious personal peccadillos that texture life with compelling imperfection. So, when I attend a performance, I listen intently for word clusters that subvert, rather than reinforce, the paradigms of their context, adding dimension to flattened truisms. An example: Niculescu describing a photograph of herself in a tongue-in-cheek act of self-anthropology. “But also, here, in Selena drag I am. Or, more appropriately, Selena-post-performance-in-bed drag. We could also call this: trans girl as drag queen as J. Lo as Selena,” she says. It’s a very funny image, superimposing the club and the classroom onto a banal night of study: the artist prone in what appears to be an awfully sterile dorm room, blown-up images from Ladylike on the wall. She wears a shiny fuchsia and gray striped sleeveless number, white go-go boots that look as though they’ve never seen a dance floor, and dark lipstick. The picture so brilliantly collapses the competing vectors of her life, it almost doesn’t require a caption. Tired Selena most genuinely soars when Niculescu tests our capacities to read anachronistic snapshots, like this staged selfie. Her self-portrait—and this theatrical essay really is a series of sequentially unveiled self-portraits—references emergent histories of trans women vacillating between pose and repose, while simultaneously shedding light on the contemporary condition of the incrementally more privileged queer, afforded new degrees of visibility yet still perplexingly estranged from domculture. As a transgressive identity becomes a boutique identity, making an intellectual project from this unsettling turn is one way of wrestling with a justifiable confusion: How can I possibly be amazing and abject all at the same time? For me, a generational drama unfolds, as I compare the terms of our respective political and cultural struggles. When Niculescu announces she was born in 1997, my companion audibly gasps, then says to me with a wry shrug, “We got old.”

While Tired Selena is not necessarily in the business of teaching us, the proverbial old dogs, new tricks, it does remind me of the theatrically timeless ones, as when Niculescu invites us to close our eyes, those barometers of beauty and vacuums of judgment, and takes us on a walking tour of our own bodies. She encourages us to feel our toes, our feet on the ground, and then to imagine crawling our way up these maybe-now-just-a-little-perspiring meat shells and into the room where we are sitting. In this mind-expanding exercise, the Bureau accrues heightened significance as one of many rooms comprising a larger architecture that has historically served as an oasis for queer people seeking a break from the heteronormative onslaught. This is the gay sanctuary where I have visited twelve-step programs, and received free therapy, and sat in the garden with a homosexual friend because it didn’t cost anything to do so. Following Niculescu’s instructions, I take that solace back out onto the street and across town along Thirteenth, a walk I go on all the time because I am still in love with Manhattan. Niculescu then invites us to psychically move uptown, all the way to Forty-Third Street, and this is when my visualizations come alive most vividly. Up until three months ago, I was a Broadway actor—a career fluke—and just after 10 PM every night of my eight-show week, I’d unlock my bike from the front of the organic-juice bar across the street from our garish marquee and ride toward Ninth Avenue, never achieving full relief from the flurry of commercial enterprise and clamoring tourists until I hit Bleecker moving east. But, as the artist inadvertently suggests, what if there had been a Sally’s along the way, a glass door with fellow trannies on the other side? This premise gets me hot with possibility, harkening back to Samuel R. Delany’s deceptively gentle memories of now-shuttered porn theaters in his book Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. What if a space of shorthand and code-swapping, of spontaneous camaraderie or sex (I’m sure I flatter myself) were available just doors away from my place of employ? When I open my eyes, Niculescu tells me that I have just experienced something she likes to call “Selena Trance Hypnosis.” It worked.

Sebastián Castro Niculescu, Tired Selena, 2019. Performance view, Bureau of General Services—Queer Division, New York, June 26, 2019. Photo: Anna Keyes.

But perhaps my favorite section of the evening is highlighted by Niculescu’s use of complete silence, as she returns us to the figure of Rivera. She removes the sound from the YouTube clip, creating a loop of the stage-prowling activist in several plastiques of fury and poise—and then just looks at Rivera, wordlessly. She looks at her for a very long time—minutes, actually. At first, I look with her, making note of the things I made note of before when I looked at Rivera in this footage: Isn’t she uncomfortable in that polyester bodysuit? Doesn’t her voice hurt when she screams like that? Does she know she looks like a rock star when she brandishes that mic stand across her body, or is it just a natural extension of her feelings? It took me by surprise, this moment of pure curiosity, which prompts me to ask Rivera a slightly more intimate question, one that I will never have an answer to: Who is your hero? When I’ve exhausted this close watching, my eyes steer me back to Niculescu, impenetrably devotional, then back to Rivera, and I repeat this self-created loop, the relation growing between the two figures in exciting intensity. Niculescu deadpanned at some point in the night that we just wanted her vulnerability, and I have to admit: Yes, it’s true. Yes, I do. Yes. I’ll give you mine, too.